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Biodynamic Winery in Montalcino

Where?

Biodynamic Winery in Montalcino

Podere Le Ripi: the place of my life.
133 acres of forest, vineyards and olive trees
inhabited by a shepherd and his sheep until 1998.
Uncontaminated soil with marvelous vegetal diversity
surrounded by breathtaking views and pure air.
At that time, I wasn’t a winemaker,
but a nature photographer
and I inevitably fell in love with this place.

A while ago, in 1984, I fell in love with Montalcino. I am a nature photographer and these landscapes – as our poet Ungaretti would say – “flooded me with the light of the immense” and simply stole my soul: I needed to have a house there.

So, in 1987 I began searching for my Tuscan “mansion” without even thinking about producing wine: I was a wine lover who thought he was too old to enter this world made of incredibly long waiting periods.

Every estate proposal was either too big, too expensive or not suitable… so it took ten years before my friend Carlo Vittori called me and said: “I found the place, hurry up here and take a look, before the housing prices in Montalcino explode!” And, recalling his words now…how right he was!

So, I made it back to Tuscany driving from Switzerland (I used to live there) and after a six hours drive I met a shepherd who was taking his afternoon nap under a centenary Oak. His sheep were bleating and ruminating around him and the big white Maremmano Shepherd dogs were running in circle to keep the herd in place. Two of these dogs, mother and daughter, were so wild that they would’ve been eventually left behind, ending up staying with me: the shepherd wasn’t able to load them on to his truck the day he left for good. And when a few months later I asked him what to do with them, he candidly told me with his strong Sardinian accent to shoot them, which I obviously never did.

I immediately understood that this was my place. The place of my life.

The beauty, the distance from what we would call “civilization”, the absolute absence of the horrible architectural slaughter of the last century that has destroyed so many Italian landscapes. That’s where we are: a land in the middle of the UNESCO World Heritage site Orcia Valley, with the perfumes that pervade all year long around these hills, the deep view to the east on Monticchiello and Montepulciano, the prehistoric volcano Monte Amiata to the south, the near amphitheatrical hills protecting Le Ripi to the west and north sides... all of this was so spectacular...

The estate was also so uncontaminated. Unpopulated for thousands of years with a poor and dry soil that gives very poor crops, it reaches over 40°C in summer and has frozen lakes during winter, with 400-year-old olive trees, forests of incredibly many different trees and shrubs, and flowers - flowers, flowers everywhere - all year round. Not to mention wild asparagus, Porcini mushrooms, blackberries, the white and black truffles that only my friend Francesco’s dog was able to unearth, the wonderful red “corbezzolo” (arbutus), as well as wildlife, with rabbits and deer, boars and porcupines, wolves and yews, badgers and foxes, eagles from the Amiata Mountain and herons, buzzards, hawks, and the storks passing by the Orcia river twice a year, or all kinds of ducks that come into my lakes.

This is my dream come true: Podere Le Ripi
Francesco Illy, winemaker in Montalcino

Who?

My name is Francesco Illy.
I come from an Espresso Coffee makers family.
A family well-known for quality.

I love quality, pardon, excellence*:
I believe excellence gives emotions.
And emotions give joy.
But emotions also help our brain to remember,
and this produces culture.
And culture has always produced a better life.
Sometimes we forget it and we put something at risk:
our future,
which is based on the evolution of our culture.

*Definition of excellence:
From the Latin ex (out) and cellere (to move, to push): excellence defines the highest level of quality.

Winemakers in Montalcino in the vineyard

Our Team

A Team of Friends

We might sound strange, but we believe that products express the love people have been investing in them. That’s why we invest a lot in our people. We are involved both economically and emotionally with them: we are a team of friends. Most of them have been working here for years, and they are very proud of the wines we make here. Particularly Sebastian (our chief-oenologist) and Alessandro (our chief-agronomist): we love to have lunches and dinners together discussing our wines and comparing them with others.

Excellence in food & wine: Who defines the highest levels of quality? Many producers are in the “pursuit of excellence” even if today “becoming the best” is getting harder. The outcome of such competition results in a variety of “interpretations of excellence” that allow us to enjoy the many faces of perfection.

*We accept the notion that our excellence is the product of winemaking practices that we conceive as the best possible. It means that we accept the limits that our sensibility has in defining those practices, and we go through experience and confrontation with any kind of criticism so that we can constantly increase such sensibility.

Montalcino vineyards

What?

The adventure of wine making.

It’s been like a fantastic vortex: beginning with the idea of a house in the middle of this untouched beauty, thinking I’ll never become a winemaker, falling in love with these vines that grow so wonderfully... and then harvesting them and producing my own wine.

A dream that, between the dreaming and the realization, has been lasting for 20 years. As I always say, this is ‘the most beautiful adventure of my life’, which is still going on.

That’s because I’m still dreaming about it, still deciding what could be giving a better wine, still waiting to see how years-long dreams may become true. Dreams like my non-concrete and not-armed cellar, dreams like the Bonsai vineyard I planted last year. And I still have this fear that something could go wrong. I still have this tension of avoiding any possible error.

And that’s how, in 2003, during such a hot and dry year, I decided to make my first vineyard.

We had started by hand-sorting the grapes: the year was so hot and the vines so young that every bunch of grapes was dry on the sunny side and ripe on the shady side of the hill. After discarding all the overripe and dry berries, we got a rich and full-bodied Brunello, fermented by his own indigenous yeast. I had a new 20 hectoliters Vosges Oak conical vat to start with: fermentation in new Oak had to become one of the basic characteristics of my wines.

And don’t even think for a second that we didn’t make wine out of the discarded dried grapes. These same grapes turned into an incredible sweet dessert wine, with 260 grams residual sugar per litre. There is still some in the cellar and we occasionally drink a bit of it: it knocks out even black chocolate!

I will never forget, it was 2009: this dessert wine had been fermenting for a month or so. Then someone in the cellar decided that it was ready and closed the small barrel with a rubber plug. A few days later I uncorked and tasted the wine... and a geyser of wine hit the roof! I could have tried to replug it, but I was so shocked that I was not able to do anything but watching my sweet wine (in every sense) escaping the barrel... to be lost forever on the cellar floor.

Since then, I’ve been trying to reproduce it every single year, but I’ve never managed to reach such a powerful sugar concentration again. Yet, maybe one day, who knows?

I called this wine “fuori legge” (the outlaw) because we thought that the rules in Montalcino would’ve certainly prohibited the production of this kind of dessert wine. But I was wrong: we can make a kind of sweet wine called “Occhio di Pernice” (partridge’s eye) and when it will be ready, maybe in seven or ten years of keg (small barrel of 30 to 70 litres), I will bottle it and propose it on the market.

When?

The very beginning.

I was so touched by the beauty of this soil and its flowers, that I decided not to lose all of that by doing soil tillage, like the others do: I chose the ripper of my bulldozer. Two 70 centimeters long rippers that move the soil without turning it upside down.

This allowed us to keep the integrity of the flora: the fields keep the shape they had with curves and slopes that you do not see in other vineyards.

When we began planting, we started with Sangiovese grapes in 2000, we planted it with a density of 5.000 roots per hectare. But in 2002 I asked myself whether a higher density would make less bunches of grapes per plant and, therefore, higher quality. So, I reduced the distance between the rows from 2.5 to 2 meters and reached a density of 6.666 plants per hectare. But then, in 2003, I decided to go even denser: five rows at 1 meter and one at two meters to allow the tractor to go through: 11.111 plants per hectare.

And in 2005 I decided to test the densest possible setting of the plants at 40 centimeters one from the other: 62.500 p/H, the densest vineyard in the world!

I chose to plant it in squares of 4 x 4 meter with 121 plants per square which left my agronomist and winemaker completely baffled: I must have looked so stupid to them.

“It’s just a tenth of a hectare”, I said, “let me test my stupidity out”.

My vision was the following: if in Burgundy they say that a good wine only comes from 35 year-old vineyards and we know that over there roots grow very, very deep, it means that quality has a strong relationship with the way roots go through different geological layers, absorbing different kinds of minerals, which will then be translated into the wine. If I make my plants grow deep with such a dense planting, maybe I will get a better wine, and eventually...

... Eureka! It worked!

Podere Le Ripi grapevines

Why?

Because harmony has always been my dream.

I know I’ll never reach perfection;
still this remains the perfect place to try.
Since I was a child, I thought beauty was the only answer;
that was my dream,
and this is the place in which I made it come true.
Beauty is perceived by all our senses.
From music to images, from food to caresses,
beauty produces harmony,
and harmony brings quality of life to everyone.
Here I can search beauty and harmony.
And those who work here can also touch it.

Biodynamic grapes

How?

By respecting the beauty we found here.

The best we can do is not consistent with ruining
the wonders this land is giving to us.
Humility is the best way to get to understand;
after all, such a land produces wonders even just by its mere existence.
If we transform these wonders,
we need to keep their essence and their strength untouched,
trying to understand what keeps its character that way.
If we change it, we destroy it...
... and we will never understand it.
This is why we do not intervene.

Our belief about humility

If we want to keep all learning processes alive, the main attitude is that of humility. “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do”. (David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett Packard)
I believe that an open mind is able to increase sensitivity and that it is only possible if somebody is able of a very high level of self-criticism: sensitivity is “conditio sine qua non” in the production of excellence and the humble attitude of openness towards criticism and learning is the best way to increase it.

Respect First of all, our wines must be healthy. We believe that any chemical added to the soil will ultimately end up - even if in tiny quantities - inside our wines.

We have witnessed that science hasn’t been capable of detecting certain molecules that have been later considered dangerous for our health. Therefore, we decided to avoid any non-natural molecule in our vineyards: by doing so, we don’t run the risk of discovering later that something we had first considered as harmless was, in fact, harmful.

As everybody knows, wine contains high contents of antioxidants, such as resveratrol and many others, that are known for their positive effect on health, so we can agree that a good glass of wine is a joy that enhances our well-being, as long as we do not exaggerate.
Biodynamic Winery in Montalcino

With which techniques?

Biodynamics.

To me, Biodynamics
reflects the old-fashioned way
our ancestors used to grow plants and
make wines for thousands of years,
before the modern methods took place.

For this reason, a soil which is treated biodynamically is very similar to the soil of a woodland and very different from the soil of a conventional farm winery. Our soil is less compact and contains a great amount of humus, showing an incredibly strong and complex inner life, from worms to bacteria as well as many other vegetal and animal biological activities.

Biodynamic farming is, by definition, a philosophy that allows a farm to become a living entity inscribed in the larger context of the whole universe. That’s why in Biodynamics a calendar of the planetary events is very important. The moon phases determine the days in which certain activities must be done, from bottling or planting to preparing and spraying the 500 and 501 mixtures and the herbal preparations.

At Podere Le Ripi we started with biodynamic farming in 2010.

When I look at a wild forest, I can feel its incredible healthiness, I can smell marvelous aromas, I can walk on its soft soil; I realize that the absence of human intervention is the best way for these plants to express their own character. Biodynamics brings this wildlife power to our vines, a healthy strength.

What is wonderful about Biodynamics is that the studies made with these techniques have developed procedures, like the 500 or 501 preparations and the use of specific insects or hormones, that allow us to control diseases and parasites, quickly ameliorating the health of soil and plants.

Here’s something worth mentioning especially during these times of global warming: the biodynamic practices fix up to 4 tons CO2 into the soil every year, and when compared to conventional practices, it is by far much better: those free up to 4 tons of CO2 per year! Look at thecarbonunderground.org to understand how regenerative agriculture will decrease the CO2 concentration in the air and how this will stop climate change.

Terroir

We chase the essential expression of our vineyards in this unique soil. The biodynamic approach, in absence of chemical interventions, allows our plants to grow in the most natural way possible. This way they can express the authenticity of the soil, the microclimate, and the grape varieties of Podere Le Ripi.

Our wines, regardless of the grape variety, are recognisable even in different vintages because they develop peculiar notes – both in aroma and structure – which are strictly connected to this terroir. I advocate that this is related to the fact that our plants grow in a natural environment and therefore they can express the geological and chemical structure of the soil.

For instance, since the very beginning, I truly wanted to preserve the original flora: flowers, herbs, the micro-flora and the mycorrhiza developed in the centuries before. To maintain this biodiversity, we did not plough the land by turning it upside down, but we simply moved the compacted land to permit oxygenation.

Alright, we all know this quote. But what does it actually mean? There are two different approaches to vinification:

  • Interventionist Approach
  • Non-interventionist Approach
Podere Le Ripi strongly believes and belongs to the second group: we do not intervene. This does not mean that we do not take actions to grow the best grapes possible. Of course, we do. We are biodynamic, for instance: we pull out weeds either by machine or by hand, and we use the best Vosgi oak to ferment and refine our wines. We DO NOT add anything to our soil, meaning absolutely nothing coming from chemical industry. This way we don't run the risk of adding any product to our wines, exception made for copper and sulfur, that have been used in viticulture for centuries.

Biodynamic Wines Terroir

The soil's composition

"The terroir’s element that marks a wine the most is, in my opinion, the composition of the soil". Our soil is composed by:

  • Clay, which is usually mixed with sodium that often makes it salty;
  • Tuff and siliceous sand compressed by geological pressures;
  • Limestone boulders rounded down by centuries of contact with seas and river waters;
  • Beige sandstone that sometimes is also bluish (when younger).
So, we have all kinds of possible minerals contained in the soil, and if we think that the Monte Amiata, which is as near as 7 nautical miles, is an ancient volcano, we suppose that sediments of volcanic debris must be in the soil too.

Harvest in Montalcino

The Harvest

We harvest the grapes by hand, then we put them in baskets in the early morning to bring them fresh to the cellar.
Sometimes the fog forces us to wait because of too much dew moistening the grapes. We halt until its evaporation and then we harvest as fast as possible: we do not want our grapes to warm up under the sun. We try to pick them in two different stages: first we choose the ripe grapes and, a few days later, those which are not ripe yet. Nevertheless, the yield is very poor, 3.000 kilograms per hectare, and the maturation is almost equal throughout the plantation.
If some grapes are slightly ahead in the maturation process, they will bring the highest amount of sugars and tannins, whereas the slightly less ripe ones will balance out with great acidity and big aromas.
We must be very careful about the completely unripe grapes, which give the wine bitter tannins also called "green tannins", releasing a rougher and greenish sensation into the wine. For this reason, I always fight against the weather: we need to be brave and wait. In September and October, it is common to see the weather getting worse and we are often forced to wait until the plants have fully absorbed the rain. But we know very well that if the grapes are not perfectly ripe we will make defective wines, and that’s how we find the patience!

Vinification

The refinement can last over 3 years.

The French often criticize other wine-producing countries with their famous saying: “Nous faisons de l’affinage, vous faites du stockage”, meaning that they refine the wine, while the others are only able to store it.
Maybe somebody does it, but we definitely do not. Yet they are right, saying that this is a particularly delicate phase of the wine production: all the barrels have to be tested more than once a week and many kinds of analysis sustain this process.
Wines slow their processes down and sometimes they produce a smell of rotten eggs: here we must be careful because this smell must be restrained. Sometimes it is the wine itself that changes, sometimes we just need to oxygenate it, simply moving it from one cask to another.

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