"Now they're known as natural wines, but for us this is just wine. And there isn’t another method to make our wine."
Do you ever listen to someone speak and find yourself nodding constantly? Unable to stop, like a bobble-head dog, nodding away on the backseat of a car.
Listening to Elena Pantaleoni speak feels like soaking in sunlight—you want to absorb as much as physiologically possible, but the reality is that the feeling is fleeting. You can’t bottle warmth, but we can try to get it down on paper.
Elena operates beyond the realm of, quote, unquote, natural wine – it’s an expression that she doesn’t use since, well, wine to her has always been natural. Driven by the importance (and beauty) of locality, Elena’s approach to winemaking considers the land and what it represents, above all else. Wine is born in the vineyard, she tells us, and so the driving force behind La Stoppa has always been preservation.
As we sit with Elena, we’re also joined by Nico Sciackitano, who has worked alongside the La Stoppa team since 2017. Nico, once Head Sommelier at London’s Noble Rot (amongst other places) settled down in Emilia-Romagna with his husband after a short stint with Elena back in 2007. It’s bliss, he tells us — there’s an emphasis on the more important things in life: time, space and sound. And of course, nature.
Meet Elena Pantaleoni
Elena Pantaleoni joined La Stoppa in 1991. The estate itself was established at the end of the 19th Century, by a lawyer named Ageno (the name of one of their cuvées – a nod to his legacy). Ageno was forward-thinking for his time, Elena tells us.
“He planted many international varieties, and he experimented a lot. He was less focused on the more traditional wines of the area – which are mostly sparkling – and more so with the soil and climate here which were, at that time, recognised as more suitable for making long-ageing wines.”
Since his approach was considered somewhat radical, when he passed in 1947 the estate was left unmanned. Elena’s father, Raffaele, a printer from Piacenza, had always said that his one dream was to own a winery. Being from the area, he had known La Stoppa his entire life and his dream was to own the farm. Fortuitously, he was able to buy the estate – saving years of work from extinction.
“Immediately, he and my mother started to decipher where they were and what they wanted to do. The estate was much bigger then. I joined in 1991, and in 1999 we divided the land up with my brother.”
What strikes us most when Elena recounts the history of the estate, is the time that her parents took to truly understand the land. Elena mentions that her desire to create wine does not come hand in hand with a desire to make money – instead, it’s an innate need to candidly understand the land and enable it to thrive. Much like her parents, Elena’s work concerns itself with working with the land—for the land—and not with taking from it what might serve her.
As such, when Elena joined the estate 30 years ago, she began to remove the international varieties planted by Ageno, and instead replaced them with local varieties – those which have diversified and grown to thrive on the land of Emilia-Romagna. Although this might feel like going back in time, it's the right kind of time travel: preserving history and culture. As Nico says;
“Where there is terroir and tradition, you can find great wines. Why mimic other wines when it makes more sense to produce wines which are suited to this very place – instead of forcing them to act like another place?”
“In these past thirty years, it has become more and more of a conscious decision to consider our bottles as a medium to talk about a way of life. This is no longer a family estate, it’s just me and a team of 17 people working here all year long. It’s always a team job, and it shows that there’s another way of managing an estate.”
A bottle of La Stoppa tells the story of the soil, the people and the history of the estate. All at once.
“You can be ethical and profitable at the same time, but first of all, you have to have ethics. Ethics towards the place that you’re in, the people you work with, and of course the wine.”
“If I have the money to pay to keep the bees, and to invest in the property… that’s fine. I didn’t start this job to be rich or become rich. Or to invest this money to do something else.”
It’s about the beauty and power of nature and celebrating what it can give to us. That’s Elena’s narrative.
“I didn’t mention it before, but I’m a very lucky person. One of the lucky things to have happened to me was to have had Giulio (Armani) working with my parents. He started in 1980, and he truly has taught me a lot of things. We started in the 80s — my father bought the estate in 1973 — but from ‘73 to ‘80 they solely spent time trying to understand the area.”
And so from 1980, the focus was on starting to produce wines while armed with a deep understanding of the place and soil they were working with. During these years, Elena explains, there was no real differentiation between conventional or natural wines.
“All of the wines, or at least here in this area, were made exactly how we’re making them now. They were all natural. You could just add some sulfites, and that was it. There were some instances of using commercial yeasts, of course — there were some areas where winemaking was more modern — but not here. Giulio once said to me: ‘why should I buy commercial yeasts when the juice is always fermenting itself, anyway?”
For Elena and Giulio, there were no ideological feelings or meanings, it was just common sense.
“Now we name them natural wines, but for us this is wine. And there isn’t another method to make wine.”
Today, Elena farms 58 hectares in total – 30 hectares of vines, and the rest is woods, forests and some fields.
“In the last few years, we have started to develop other agricultural elements. We have a big, semi-professional vegetable garden where we also have some chickens.”
With vineyards stretching along the Trebbiolo Valley, in the Piacenza province, when it comes to wine La Stoppa is technically closer to other regions than it is to Emilia-Romagna. This means that there are various regulations stopping them from planting Lambrusco varieties (the main varieties for Emilia) and instead – somewhat favourably for them – they’re able to focus on local, lesser-known varieties. Lesser-known to a global audience, that is.
“When I joined the estate, we started to re-plant and take out mainly the international varieties. From 1996 we started to take out the early-ripening varieties like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon. Now we have around 20 hectares planted to Barbera and Bonarda, five hectares of Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, and five hectares of some very old vines: Semillon, Grenache, Syrah, Morvedre, Merlot and Trebbiano.”
After dedicating time to re-introducing native, local varieties, Elena decided to certify as organic – it wasn’t a necessity, she tells us — but a decision made to show their dedication to the land.
“We only certified organic in 2008. For me, it’s a starting point. It’s not a goal, and I don’t put organic on my labels. But it is a prerequisite—it has to be.”
“What we’re looking for – our actual goal – is to really understand where we are, and try to express through our bottles first and foremost a sense of place, and then the vintage, and the grape variety.”
Biodiversity plays a crucial role at La Stoppa. Both Elena and Nico nod in agreement as we touch on the importance of balance, and the necessity to avoid monoculture.
“We preserve this place with forests, bees… It’s part of the balance between us and the Earth. We should be cautious knowing that we’re only guests here, and consequently we have to behave accordingly – not as if we’re the owners of this planet.”
Everything is done by hand – pruning, harvesting, and all cellar work. Treatments are made by tractor and, as of last year, they work the soils with the help of a (friendly) machine which doesn't till deeply.
“We bought a machine that works the soil very superficially. It was a practical decision. It works the soil and breaks up the grass and just kind of tills it into itself. In a way, it mulches everything down.”
As Ageno had realised, the soil types at La Stoppa lend themselves best to long-ageing red wines. Though much has changed since his time, Elena and Giulio still pride themselves on this special facet of La Stoppa’s identity.
“These days, we also make one young red, called Trebbiolo, which comes from our youngest (and lowest) vineyards. There’s a balance between skin and juice. The rest of our reds are all long-ageing. From 2002, we’ve made one dry white called Ageno (named after the winery’s founder) and finally a sweet wine.”
Until ‘95, Elena was making dry white wine by direct pressing, using Sauvignon as the primary variety. But they weren’t particularly happy with the result, she tells us.
“The wine was good, but it didn’t have a lot of the personality of the place, and so we stopped. Instead, we started to make a Passito: Vino del Volta. We asked ourselves; ‘how can we take advantage of the sun that we have, which is clearly not suitable for Sauvignon?"
And so in order to take full advantage of the sun, Vino del Volta was born.
“At that time, we really started to think more of the place; about what was truly related to the terroir.”
“We then didn’t make any dry white wine for seven years. We took our time — we took a lot of time — to think, and decide what we were doing and whether it was right or not. And then we decided that if we wanted to make wines from the terroir, giving more value and importance to the terroir, why would we vinify in a different way according to the colour of the grapes? If you’re in a place where there’s sun — where the grapes ripen well — and can withstand very long ageing, why behave in a different way just because the grapes are white?”
With that in mind, they started to reflect on the idea of macerating white grapes.
“You have to also consider that here in this area, for all the farmers who make wines for themselves – in fact not just here, but in all areas in Spain, Italy and Greece – there is no difference between red and white grapes, they’re all macerated.”
It's a deep-rooted tradition of the Mediterranean climate and a testament to the culture of wine in many areas of Southern Europe.
“So, with these traditions in mind, we started to experiment in 2001 and again in 2002, which was a very bad vintage. We said... OK, we can take out some grapes from the Passito and try to make a dry white wine with long skin contact maceration. And so, we started. We just made a few bottles, and our local clients looked at us like we were completely crazy.”
And that brings us to the winedrinkers. It’s a conversation we often have with winemakers: what happens when you change your offering? How do you begin to navigate an inevitable change in audience? But Elena reassures us that, actually, it was a pretty smooth transition.
“The first people who really enjoyed the wine and supported us, right at the beginning, were some clients from New York, and also Norway. And then there were people coming here who would see the wines and say: OK, they’re strange… but they’re good.”
And so they continued. Not that a change of clientele would have necessarily swayed them from their mission:
“Giving identity and character to the Estate… the whole estate. No compromise.”
In terms of terroir, La Stoppa boasts mainly red clay (very, very ancient red soils) which is very poor in nitrogen but rich in iron. Leading, at times, to a higher fermentation rate in the wines.
“But of course, talking of climate, now it’s a little more complicated. For example with the last vintages, 2018, 2019 and 2020, we saw that we had fresher vintages, more productive… so the wines, such as Ageno '16 and ‘19 that were released together, actually have very different profiles, despite using the same process in the cellar.”
In terms of process, they use some pumpovers but no punchdowns, to ensure gentle maceration. As Elena explains, their wines have a lot of structure and tannins naturally, and so there’s no need to work to increase either of these factors.
“Our wines sit for around one month on skins (Trebbiolo is just two 2 weeks) but often the fermentation stops without us needing to do anything. This is because of the low nitrogen and richness of sugar from the fruit.”
The wines then stay in wood in the cellar for a long period of time.
“During springtime, they usually start to ferment again. In the end, our best friend is time. With time, we can reach balance and elegance. You can feel the volatile acidity, but barely, and actually it helps to give drinkability to the wines—even if they’re high in alcohol.”
“We’re really lucky to have the chance to work with Barbera. It’s a very high-acid variety with low tannin. This high acid is important for such big, structured wines. Of course, despite everything we do, soil and climate have the biggest effect on our wines – on both the profile and the style.”
But, Elena is lucky. In many ways, but most of all in her innate ability to understand that working in symbiosis with her land gives her a vast amount more freedom than if she tried to work against it.
“I know I'm in a place suitable for making wine, but not for all types of wine. I inherited the estate and quickly understood that the vines can and will outlive me and the fact that today I am responsible for them is limited in time; being a custodian to the land and preserving the environment rather than imposing myself on nature was a spontaneous choice.”
As we wrap up, we nip back to the topic of ‘natural wine’.
“Of course we now know,” Elena pauses, “that wine can be made with a lot of additions, but the big difference is: if you are an artisan, you take your time to understand where you are and try to highlight the best of your place. So in this sense, you put yourself at the service of this place. You use your sensitivity and your experience to interact with it.”
“The opposing approach is industrial—to have an idea of wine in your mind, and whatever the conditions, you make this wine. Essentially, yes, you can make any kind of wine in almost any place. But what’s the meaning of that? What’s the point? Sure, you can entirely change your wine to follow an idea. But for me, it’s always: ‘let’s see where I am and I’ll try to do my best."
Elena has succeeded (along with the help of Giulio, Nico, and her 17-strong team) in becoming a keeper of the land, and translater of her place. Her ability to preserve and prioritise nature over ego is incomparable, and listening to Elena speak of La Stoppa feels, at times, like listening to poetry. These are beautiful wines – impossible to dislike – but most importantly? They’re a consistent (and constant) reminder of the importance of allowing a place to tell its own story, with a little human help.