The concept of Bonsai

The densest vineyard in the world.

Vines are planted only 40 centimeters apart, resulting in a density of 62.500 plants per hectare.

“A vineyard can produce good grapes only after 35 years”. That’s what an old winegrower in Burgundy once told me. I wondered: “Should I wait until I turn ninety to start producing a great wine?” Therefore, I decided to try something new and innovative: I forced my plants to go through many different geological layers in a shorter time span, by planting them with a very high-density system. This gave the plants but one choice: digging deeper with their roots in order to survive.

All my consultants told me I was crazy and that the plants would have simply died.

Actually, the exact opposite did happen: the mortality rate of the Bonsai stopped at 8%, while the other vineyards had an average of 30%! We provided every plant with a tiny supporting acacia stick, and we let them grow using the goblet vine training method. We call such method in Italian “alberello”, meaning literally “small tree”. Two and a half years later, with their third bud, they made the very first barrique of the Bonsai Sangiovese 2007. I couldn’t believe it: till then, none of the vineyards I had planted had ever shown a grape before the fourth bud!

The Bonsai experiment started in 2005. Even though it was just a tenth of an hectare back then, the production was already roughly 3.300 kg per hectare. And that was just the beginning.

The Bonsai wine

When we harvested the Bonsai, we all were excited: we could not believe that this crazy experiment had worked.

So, we took a 500-liter new oak tonneau and left the grapes there to ferment. After a few weeks we moved the wine into a new barrique and… surprise! The wine had an extremely weak colour: it almost looked like a dark rosé. I was disappointed; yet the wine was very good, thin but incredibly elegant and with marvelous floral aromas.

About a month later I tasted the wine again and to my surprise it had developed a colour which was as intense as that of any other Sangiovese: the contact with the Vosges Oak in the barrel had produced its wonders. Since that day, we have been producing nine vintages of Bonsai, with an average of 600 bottles per year.

My first Bonsai production

First Bonsai wine production

This was the most difficult part. I felt like the painter who’s terribly struggling with choosing the precise moment in which he can consider his painting done.

I tasted and tasted and tasted for infinite months and the question was still the same: “When should it be ready for bottling?”. In August 2010 it finally was. Harvested in September 2007, it had refined for 35 months in a new oak barrel. Later, I gave my wine to the most important experts of France for them to taste it. I heard in unison, and still hear today, this same remark: “I cannot believe that such a wine comes from vineyards which are so young!”. So, is quality truly a matter of age of the plant or is it more about the depth that roots can reach? The answer seems to be the latter.

Bonsai vineyards make better wine

Bonsai wine grapes

Why do we produce a better wine from the Bonsai vineyards? Because the roots can reach a depth of more than three meters in just a few years growth.

I reflected for a long time about that Burgundian quote. For sure, there’s no rush for the vine to push its roots deep in the soil, especially in Burgundy, where it has more than a square meter at its disposal. However, the soil is friable and still makes the roots dig into it, but this happens with no haste: it takes years before they can reach the needed depth. The root competition of the Bonsai implants is created in such a way that they force the roots to reach deeper in a faster lapse of time, due to the lack of nutrients created by such a throng of roots. Against laziness, nothing is more incisive than hunger.

Deep roots mean...

When we harvested the Bonsai, we all were excited: we could not believe that this crazy experiment had worked.

Here at Le Ripi diversified geological stratifications have sedimented during different geological eras; as a result, minerals change their composition in every single layer. A great complexity and a diverse feeding of the vines show their characteristics in the grapes and consequently into the wine body. The range of minerals synthesized from the soil is represented by a wide range of smells. Furthermore, we need to consider that humidity is always present at three meters depth: vines are always moist, being therefore hydrated and suffering less water stress.

Bonsai vineyard in Montalcino

What about water stress?

Bonsai never suffers it.

The plant grows thanks to the osmotic pressure: leaves make water evaporate and the concentration of nutrients and minerals contained in the leaf itself increases. This process creates the osmotic pressure, moving liquids to other parts with less concentration. These liquids usually come from the roots and they contain the nutrients necessary for the plant’s growth.

When drought comes, the osmotic pressure continues to work. But when there is no more water to find in the roots, the plant begins transporting liquids from the only place in which it can find it: the grape! The grape gives parts of its liquids, containing minerals and organic compounds synthesized during the previous months, to the plant. Once these compounds are transferred from the grape into the leaves they cannot come back to the grape. That’s because the osmotic pressure does not work in reverse, leading to the lack of such compounds in the structure of the grape and creating a nonconformity that is typical of the wines that have been made by grapes which suffered from water stress.

Bonsai Wine Vinification

A complex vinification

Bonsai wine cellar journey

After several harvests, we finally understood how to respect the personality of the grapes coming from the Bonsai vineyard. In short: the wine is fermented in open tonneaux, vertically placed for about 15 days. During that time the fermentation happens thanks to the indigenous yeast coupled with manual punch downs.

During the racking, the wine is moved to half a new tonneaux, and since the quantities are always very little we cannot use bigger oak barrels. Inside smaller barrels, the wine will age for about 18 months, during which will be racked only once. The bottling is always manual and further aging of 18 months will follow inside the bottle.

Bonsai’s future

Today, at the end of the 2018 harvest, we can state that Bonsai is our best vineyard.

In the meanwhile, we have planted 900 m² more of Bonsai Sangiovese and one hectare more in a new field. In total, we have almost 1,4 hectares of Bonsai Sangiovese. After our twelfth harvest, we can assert that our best wine comes from the Bonsai vineyard.

In 2008, I noticed – completely by chance – that the roots were growing very deep. While I was taking a walk, I suddenly noticed that a Bonsai square of the first vineyard experiment was suffering way more than the others. In my humble opinion, the reason was linked to the roots of nearby holm oak, that was sucking away all the nutrients out of the Bonsai. Then, I took the excavator and dug a 3.5 meters deep pit. Once inside, I could finally see the Bonsai roots. They were three meters deep! Two years later I dug the same furrow and the roots were still there.

Now the plants are grown-up and produce about 200 grams of grapes per plant. Of course, some plants have died, some do not produce at all, while some others can occasionally produce more than five bunches each; when this occurs, we cut out some bunches one month prior to the harvest, in order to have a maximum of three ripe bunches per plant. The work in the Bonsai vineyard is huge, from pruning to mulching with organic straw and eventually carrying the harvest out with buckets. The results are simply unbelievable.

We still want to create a winery with a very harmonious environment: between coworkers and clients, as well as between animals and plants. If this means hiring more workers and coming to this amazing place with a fantastic group of people… here we are! This is exactly the business model I wanted to create in the very first place.

Toscana Rosso Wine Bonsai