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Food culture

Young, Self-Made and Female Italian Winemakers

A north-to-south wine journey

Wine is a very subjective expression, a language that can be translated in multiple ways, one for each palate. If you are lucky enough to visit Italy with its thriving soils that produce 54,8 million hectoliters of wine annually, you realize that each step implies a new discovery in terms of diversity of terroirs, microclimates and tastes. How many languages and stories are there to uncover behind wine production in Italy?

Historically and culturally, Italian women have been underrepresented in the wine sector, mainly because of the hereditary system linked to land ownership that privileged the masculine line. The wine industry still echoes vestiges of a patriarchal system, where even important female producers carry the name of the male founder.

What is certain is that unity is strength, and the stories of Lara and Luisa from Lalù Wine, the twin sisters of Fonterenza, and Arianna Occhipinti prove it. Three different wineries in three regions share a passion for unconditional love and a delicate dedication to supporting the natural cycles of Italian lands, in order to produce and present the country’s vineyard treasures to the world.

Take Lara Rocchietti and Luisa Sala’s encounter, during their studies at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, in the Langhe region: “Since the very beginning of our studies, we understood that we shared a real passion for wine, I became a sommelier and then went to Argentina and Luisa went to South Africa. When we met again, we cared about investing in our lands, between the Maritime Alps and the Apennines of the Italian Riviera” says Lara, while driving back to the garage-turned-cellar located in Serralunga d’Alba, one of the eleven “communes” situated in the Barolo production area. 

After gaining valuable experience in Langhe at Roncaglie, today Lara and Luisa manage three and a half hectares of vines from the communes of Monforte d’Alba and La Morra, including Monforte Le Coste, La Morra’s Roncaglie and Monforte’s Bussia Bovi, striving for a precise, honest and artisanal production: “We work in a simple and clean way to create delicate and refined wines that represent our personalities and our taste. We avoid over-extraction and selected yeasts to opt for indigenous ones and push a natural fermentation, which is unpredictable, but also very exciting! We also make 220 pounds (100 kg) pied-de-cuve (an initial fermentation with a small batch of grapes). In this way, we can assure a good fermentation and start the vinification to create our 5000 bottles with Barbera, Langhe Nebbiolo and Barolo from Le Coste grapes and define our own style, year after year”.

When I ask Lara about her and Luisa’s harvesting experience in Burgundy, she points out that to this day, the Burgundian school has been the one that has influenced their style and the way they manipulate grapes: the delicate approach, the vinification by separate vineyards and then the blending are all techniques they apply to their winemaking in order to create something that mirrors their style. Langhe Nebbiolo, for instance, is the result of Monforte and La Morra grapes, where the soils’ compositions are completely different: Monforte’s soil is characterized by alternating layers of sand of varying compactness and grey sandstones, whereas La Morra is made up of grey-blue marl, rich in magnesium carbonate and manganese.

The history behind Lalù Wine is filled with an admirable commitment and continuous effort  in order to establish a new vision and gain credibility in the hard-working environment of the Langhe region and its historical producers: “Can you imagine? Two under-30 city girls who want to make wine in one of the most precious wine areas in the world. As outsiders, we had to move on tiptoe and let the hard-working Langhe producers know that we were not kidding. We were lucky enough to find a few precious people who helped us to introduce our vision to others and to gain visibility”.

The effortless work of Lara and Luisa demonstrates that friendship can become a solid professional relationship if there are shared passions and philosophies. Margherita and Francesca from Fonterenza show that sometimes siblings are made to work together: since 1997, the two sisters have helped one another, each woman with her unique characteristics, to complete the puzzle that is today one of the most appreciated vineyards in Montalcino. It has been a natural process, like their wine: “We grew up in Milan, back then our lives were very different, like us. We are twins but our passions are very different”, explains Margherita. “I have always been passionate about botany and in 1997 came to Montalcino on summer break, at our summer-house to use it as a guest house and to take care of it. I never came back to Milan. Francesca joined me a few years later and nowadays I am really understanding that we have complementary personalities, and that even if we have different qualities we complete each other to create the harmony that we breathe here. This place is where we collected our best memories. It’s our own proustian madeleine, our comfortable cradle. Still today I am amazed about the view and the peculiar light of these places; Montalcino and its southwest Amiata”.

Fonterenza sisters’ vineyards are located in Montalcino, near Siena, in Tuscany, a Mediterranean area famous for its breathtaking light and its perfect balance between warm and fresh breezes. An evocative place from a geological point of view the area itself is the perfect stage for organic wines made with good practices: “Twenty years ago, biodynamic preparations such as 500 and 501 were pure utopia. Now we know all the small rituals and practices that stimulate nature and let us have a little help from what surrounds for a better viticulture”. Fonterenza’s sisters compare making wine to delivering a baby: “we just had to do it”. They recall their first months in the countryside, where being alone in places with no contacts was hard: “fortunately, a few people such as Pierluigi Talenti from Il Poggione helped us to understand our terroir and to believe in our new chapter here”.

For Francesca, the transition from a metropolitan area to the Tuscan countryside has not been as easy as it has for Margherita: “I questioned all my friendships, my social life, it was hard at the beginning. It started to click when I met with fellow producers who inspired our role here and made us understand that we were able to make great things in an organic way”. Making wine in a natural way is all about trusting your instinct, and requires a good amount of creativity, especially as self-taught winemakers who produce in Montalcino. This means that they deal with both terroir-wines – classic vintage bottles according to the year’s climate, but also “fantasy” wines which are more experimental ones made with low sulphur dioxide and volatile acidity, in a clean way.

Today, Fonterenza’s core grape is, of course, Sangiovese: “We love this variety that gives us more and more satisfaction, we like to push it to the limit. From one side, this ideas allow us to become more familiar with the grapes, on the other hand we also struggle to stick to the production disciplinary for Brunello: we are trying to take of the woody notes and to give more space and breadth to the fruits, we don’t want to hide them anymore”.

Margherita and Francesca are experimenting with more and more vinification of individual vineyards or even small parts of the same vineyard to find different aromas. For this year’s harvest, they avoided over-ripening and took special care of the peels and the acidity. Their effortless search for freshness and fruity notes is a continuous discovery and interpretation of their grapes and the low yield.

After I interviewed Francesca and Margherita, I went to Sicily with a sommelier friend for a 4-day in-depth Etna wine tour. The very last day of our trip, we decided to take a full-day trip to Arianna Occhipinti’s farm, in Vittoria, located in the heart of the Ragusan area. Sixteen years ago, a 22 year-old Arianna returned to her beloved Sicily after her studies in viticulture and oenology in Milan and started to tell the story of her land through her wines: from Monti Iblei in her Grotte Alte, to Siccagno’s wild nature with its 100% Nero d’Avola grapes. From the iconic Frappato, with its deep minerality and herbal flavors, to the young and fresh notes of SP68, today Arianna Occhipinti’s wines represent the highest expressiveness and diversity of Sicilian wines.

One of Arianna’s key moments as a winemaker happened when she turned 30 years old: “I was coming from years of explorations of practices, experiments, and I felt I was headed to a consolidation moment. Having found Bombolieri, the place where I live now, with the vineyards and the cellar around it, led me to build my own present life and the wines I make today”. Still today, her greatest satisfaction is following the rhythm of nature and contributing to the realization of its fruits: “Through wine, we experience landscapes and places that otherwise we would not be able to experience and we meet wonderful people and their stories that otherwise we wouldn’t know”.

The vineyards are 12 miles (approximately 20 km) from the sea; the wet sirocco winds wipe out heavy clouds up to Monti Iblei, creating a wall that prevents the northern weather from moving to the southern area around Vittoria. On the other side stands Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, which acts as a shield from bad weather. Arianna’s vines are set in a protected area with specific micro-climates and soil diversity, from sand to limestone.

Today, Arianna is one of the most prominent voices of southern natural Italian wines in the world. A few years ago, the New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov defined Arianna as “a darling of the natural wine world (…), an anti-establishment figure working counterintuitively with the established wine authorities”. Still today, she insists on the importance of being tenacious and avoiding different models in order to create a unique vision: “Today’s Sicily has several producers who have chosen to make wines deeply connected to their territory and increasingly sustainable both in the cellar and in the vineyard. It is a life choice before being a way-of-producing choice. Fortunately, today there is a close group of active producers who share their different experiences and strong vision that luckily brought to attention areas previously forgotten or overshadowed”.

Thanks to sustainable practices, Occhipinti’s vineyards are oriented towards the future of winemaking.

Just like our palates, land has a good memory and recognises the power of treating resources in a responsible way and with an elevated taste. The pleasure of the table starts when we can trace and worship producers’ efforts and acknowledge the value that comes from them. As Italians, we are fortunate that Italian lands, from Piedmont to Tuscany to Sicily, are celebrated, challenged and glorified by these strong women, who know each hectare like the palms of their hands; maps of hardworking, tireless and creative ideas.