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Experimental vineyard: stressed vines and no mechanical interventions

Jacopo Vagaggini: in his experimental vineyard, grapes are fermented with the least possible chemical intervention, in order to preserve their aromas and deliver a more authentic wine

Jacopo Vagaggini’s experimental vineyard

«Enology is an applied science. An enologist is somebody who has a knowledge of science, from chemistry to biology all the way through agronomy», Jacopo Vagaggini explains. His work requires a deal of creativity and curiosity. His grandfather paved the way for enology to become a structured discipline in Italy. He was a pioneer in the field of Italian agronomy as he founded one of the first laboratories for chemical analyses on wine in the center of Siena. Vagaggini devoted himself to keeping his family’s tradition alive, incorporating technology into tradition thanks to his tireless experimentation of innovative techniques, in order to fully exploit the benefits of the terroir. Yet, «innovation doesn’t mean creation», he points out. The word innovation originates from the Latin ‘in’ (into) and ‘novare’, which means ‘to make new’, ‘to renew’, not ‘to create’. It doesn’t entail a rejection of the past. «In order to innovate, you must learn from the past, which is synonymous with tradition; you cannot innovate without a strong connection to the basics». Tapping into tradition, he found the key ingredients to experiment with in his six-hectare experimental vineyard – a high-density planted vineyard with 20,000 vines per hectare, about four times thicker than a traditional vineyard. Traditional pruning methods have proven to be effective and compatible with the current environmental changes that have led to increasingly warmer temperatures. The Alberello pruning method, a technique that dates back to three thousand years ago, is deemed to be efficient as the plants appear to be more resistant to stress conditions like warm temperatures. 

Jacopo Vagaggini’s vineyard training methods

The high density of the vineyard forces the vines to compete with each other for nutrients and water in the soil. The vines yield smaller bunches and smaller grapes, which results in a higher-quality harvest. Since the plants lack lush vegetation, the risk of being attacked by pesticides (fungi, bacteria, insects, etc.) is abated. The reason this method is suitable for a sunny and dry climate is found in the roots that can drill up to twenty meters deep into the ground, looking for water, ultimately delivering more complex elements of the terroir to the grapes. The foliage allows the grapes to grow in the shade and the filtered sunlight promotes an even ripening. The vines are planted at a distance of 70 cm from each other and don’t require any processing except the pruning of the shoots in winter and their binding in spring. Another traditional training method Vagaggini is fine-tuning in his vineyards is archetto toscano. The branches of the vine are curved and unified so as to create a little arch (archetto). This methodology was adopted during ancient times to yield massive amounts of grapes. Yielding more grapes results in a reduction of the sugar percentage in each grape, which corresponds to less alcohol. Since warmer temperatures have led to increasing alcoholic percentages in wines, winegrowers engaged in seeking a solution to lower down the alcoholic content of their wines. Archetto toscano technique could soften the impact of climate change on the increasing alcoholic content in wine. Restoring traditional methods turns out to be a way to guide the grapes towards a new balance. Vagaggini’s renovation of traditional techniques is so deep-rooted that it goes all the way back to the Ancient Romans. He is currently experimenting with cocciopesto (opus signinum) – a mixture of tiles, broken up into small pieces, and mortar, that are beaten down with a rammer. In ancient Rome, this material was employed to build aqueducts. Vagaggini’s aim is to make use of this uncommon material to build containers for his wine, breathing new life into this ancient construction material that could prove key in the creation of an innovative and sustainable procedure.

VAGAGGINI 12
Barrels Cantina Amantis

Mixed cropping to enhance biodiversity

Vagaggini’s reconnection to tradition originates in the land. The soil, in viticulture, is defined as terroir, the primary source of the vine’s vigor. The community of microorganisms living in soil, called the biome, plays a role in both vine health and wine quality. An agricultural method employed by Vagaggini to increase the biodiversity of the terroir is mixed cropping. It combines the cultivation of ligneous plants with herbaceous plants in the same parcel, providing a wealth of environmental benefits including maintaining a balance of input and outgo of soil nutrients and increasing biomass richness over time. A great wine relies on the characteristics of the environment in which it is produced, a balanced blend of terroir, topography and climate. Amantis family winery finds its roots in a fertile land that provides the ideal living conditions for the vines: a soft and gentle breeze caresses them and prevents the grapes from becoming moldy; the strong thermal shock between day and night ensures the health of the grapes, whose bunches preserve color and intense aromas. 

Vagaggini’s natural winemaking process

The favorable climate conditions provide a solid foundation for yielding top-quality grapes and delivering award-winning wines. As a result, the terroir doesn’t require major interventions; irrigation is reduced and chemicals are eliminated. Vagaggini is a low interventionist – he respects the vineyard’s natural cycle. Modern viticulture often suppresses and weakens the natural structure of the vine. Whereas, if the vines aren’t smothered, they are capable of expressing their innate potential without either mechanical interventions nor chemical treatments. The same principles established in the vineyards are applied to the production and refinement processes. The grapes are handpicked and processed with the least possible intervention, both chemical and mechanical. The grapes of each parcel are fermented and aged separately, in order to preserve the essence of each grape variety. Vinification is carried out in truncated cone-shape oak vats, so as to guarantee the natural oxygenation of the wine and a homogenous extraction of the aromas. Vagaggini defines himself as a «biologist in pectore», which denotes he adds the least amount of chemicals to his wines; everything is measured sparingly in the needed quantity at the needed time. He avoids adding chemicals until the very last process of wine refinement. «The sustainable way is trying to keep winemaking as simple as possible and make adjustments only if it’s strictly necessary», he explains. His philosophy consists in giving free rein to the natural development of the winemaking process, meanwhile watchfully supervising the whole procedure.

Vagaggini’ experimentation with new materials

Despite casting aside chemical ingredients of the winemaking process, the young Sienese enologist doesn’t feel ‘natural wines’ is an appropriate definition to associate to his wines. «‘Natural wine’ is an oxymoron, it could be merely defined as fermented grape juice, which is not wine» he claims. He committed himself to keeping his craftsmanship as natural as possible. This commitment originates in the vineyard, where there’s no trace of agricultural machinery and, as a consequence, the soil isn’t pressed and naturally absorbs the rainwater. There’s no need to use chemical treatments, as the carefully planned layout of the vineyard leads to the creation of air currents on every corner of the vine, keeping the grapes dry and healthy. During vinification, he diminishes the quantities of tannins, sulfur and mannoproteins, meanwhile keeping a harmonious balance between sugar and acidity. While complying with a basic procedure, Vagaggini is constantly experimenting with new materials to make wine containers, materials that maintain quality and are less harmful to the environment. The aging process is carried out in containers of various capacities and materials – barrels, tonneaux, oak casks and untreated cement tanks. His ultimate and forward-thinking experimentation is cocciopesto, a resistant material that could endure the test of time and preserve the wine’s quality in a sustainable manner. 

Amantis winery’s spontaneous upcycling system

Since the production process doesn’t require neither additives nor chemicals and the exact quantities of product are balanced in a meticulous way, the waste produced during winemaking is minimized, if not erased. Amantis winery embodies the characteristics of a spontaneous upcycling system. The winemaking process results in three kinds of waste that are upcycled right away for other purposes. Once the juice has been extracted by press for wine making and fermentation is completed, the skins of the grapes are transferred to the distillery and employed to make either grappa or alcohol, which in turn has additional applications. The sediments of the wine undergo an equivalent upcycling process and are sent to the distillery for alcohol production. In the end, the stems of the grapes turn into a compost that is added to the soil to increase its fertility and add nutrition. Raw materials are given a second life as in a veritable circular economy system. These procedures leave no space for waste.

IMAGE GALLERY

Jacopo Vagaggini

is a young third-generation enologist from Siena, Tuscany. He studied biology in Oxford and enology in Bordeaux and soon thereafter began to apprentice in the Châteaux of Bordeaux and traveled to Argentina to discover the secrets of Malbec. After gaining a wealth of knowledge in all aspects of winemaking, he returned to his homeland, in the family business Amantis, nestled between Val d’Orcia and Maremma, on the slopes of the extinct volcano of Monte Amiata.

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