FOOD: A DARING WINE CHALLENGE IN TUSCANY
The world's first all-female winery is winning awards in a male-dominated industry, while Old World producers struggle to reinvent themselves.
The world’s first all-female winery is making waves while Old World producers struggle to reinvent themselves
T uscany is known primarily for things that don’t change: sweeping amber hills, charming medieval villages and the rustic flavours of sangiovese grapes. But despite its picturesque scenery and cultural heritage, including a tradition of arts patronage that stretches back to the Italian Renaissance, the region isn’t resting on its laurels, especially when it comes to winemaking. Grape growers from Chianti to Montalcino continue to innovate and challenge industry standards.
Marchesi Antinori, Italy’s largest wine producer, redefined the scale and function of the modern wine cellar when the company built a museum-like headquarters in 2013. The sculptural, corten-steel
building, located just south of Florence, houses offices and wine-production facilities as well as a 200-seat auditorium, a rooftop garden and an arts programme. In the medieval town of Castello di Ama, one of Chianti’s top-rated wineries features site-specific art works from contemporary masters like Lee Ufan, Louise Bourgois and Anish Kapoor scattered throughout the historic stone buildings, oak barrels and blooming gardens.
Winemakers in the region are also thinking about sustainability. Salcheto Winery, which overlooks the picturesque town of Montelpulciano, is Europe’s first off-the-grid vineyard and serves as a compelling example of how future vineyards might operate.
Then, there is the gender challenge. Donatella Cinelli Colombini, who is based in Montalcino, became something of a vineyard revolutionary when she opened Il Casato Prime Donne – Italy’s first winery run solely by women. “I was brought up among vines and barrels in my parent’s winery and I always dreamed of making great wine,” says Cinelli Colombini, who sports a silver bob, stylish spectacles and a no-nonsense attitude. In 1998, she started out on her own.
Cinelli Colombini’s ancestors have owned land in the Montalcino area since the 16th century and her family was one of the first to cultivate and sell Brunello di Montalcino, the prized local wine known for its rich red color and tones of tobacco and underbrush. In the late 1990s, when her parents retired from managing the sprawling country estate, they gave the bulk of the land to her brother. However, 16 hectares – wild and unplanted, with the ruins of a 15th century structure and a few barrels of Brunello – went to Cinelli Colombini.
Brunello requires constant attention, Cinelli Colombini says, so the first thing she needed was to hire a cellar master. For this she contacted Siena’s oenology school, but she was told that no cellar masters were currently available. “The answer I got was: You must book cellar masters years before,” she recalls. She was surprised – and worried. The Brunello was important and she couldn’t move forward without a cellar master. So she called back a few days later, this time reformulating her question. “I called back saying, ‘But have you got a good female cellar master?’ This time the answer was yes.”
Plenty of skilled women were available, the school explained, because leading wineries didn’t want to hire them. “I discovered discrimination that was so old and widespread that it had become normal and invisible,” Cinelli Colombini says.
Winemaking has been a traditionally male occupation throughout its 8,000-year history (Just read the Bible and you’ll find sufficient evidence, says Cinelli Colombini). In Italy today, women who work in grape growing or winemaking comprise about 28 per cent
“I WAS BROUGHT UP AMONG VINES AND BARRELS IN MY PARENT’S WINERY AND I ALWAYS DREAMED OF MAKING GREAT WINE”
of total employees, but very few succeed in reaching leadership positions.
There are exceptions of course, primarily at large family-run wineries. Alessia Antinori along with her sisters, Albiera and Allegra, for example, are the heirs to Marchesi Antinori and currently comprise its first female management team. For the last 25 generations, since its founding in 1385, the ownership of the Tuscan winery has passed smoothly from father to son.
But it would be a stretch to characterise the appointment as reflective of a fundamental shift in attitude about women and winemaking. Piero Antinori was confronted with a challenge his ancestors never faced: there were no sons to carry on the family business.
Women’s professional advances have been slower in Italy and other southern European countries compared with places like the UK or the US, but Cinelli Colombini believes the gender imbalance continues to cut across national borders. “It’s not just Italy,” she says. “This is what it’s like all over the world.”
Following her call to the oenology school, Cinelli Colombini was determined to do something to demonstrate that the production of great wines “has no gender”. She started by ripping up the weeds and wild growth and planting vines herself – mostly sangiovese, but also the long-forgotten Sienese varietal foglia tonda. Then she hired a female winemaker. At first people were shocked. “And then we started winning award after award,” she says.
Casato Prime Donne is located about 25 miles south of Siena and today has 18 hectares of Sangiovese vineyards producing rosso and Brunello di Montalcino wines. The vineyard rolls along the surrounding hills, while tastings take place in a building surrounded by tanks of fermenting grapes. In the upstairs room, visitors can sit and take in the Tuscan countryside.
The winery is one of 210 producers in the Consortium of the Brunello of Montalcino and adheres to strict controls, which afford them the quality DOC and DOCG labels. Critics consistently rate the wines favourably. Wine Spectator gave the Brunello Prime Donne 2010 vintage a score of 96, noting aromas and flavours of cherry, raspberry and plum accented by liquorice and tobacco with a balanced finish.
Fattoria del Colle, Cinelli Colombini’s second vineyard, is located between Chianti and the Orcia DOC and includes 17 hectares of vineyard and six olive groves. Among the varieties grown here are the revived foglia tonda as well as Chianti and dessert wines made with traminer grapes.
Cinelli Colombini’s all-female staff cultivates wine largely by hand, and by using an organic and biodynamic regime that is becoming increasingly popular among Tuscan grape growers. Some producers claim biodynamic wines have better expressions of terroir. For Cinelli Colombini the reasoning is simple: you get better grapes. “I believe in respecting nature,” she says. “The wine producer must listen to the vineyard and understand its necessities ... fine wines are born from the vineyard, it is nature that makes them.”
Recently Cinelli Colombini has also taken the all-female concept a step further, producing the Prime Donne selection, which is chosen each year by a tasting panel of four women. She has also established an annual prize recognising female achievement – the “Casato Prime Donne” International Award.
But supporting the role of women in winemaking is only one of many challenges Cinelli Colombini faces running her vineyards. These days, climate realities are adding further layers of complexity.
A year of low fruit production due to weather or disease of the vine may result in having to replace some or all of the vines, and the bad years are becoming more frequent. According to a report from
Decanter magazine, wine growers used to write off one year in ten to bad weather such as frost, hail or drought. Today, growers must budget for two or even three years a decade to be lean.
When I visited Tuscany in July, it hadn’t rained in over two months and the earth was so dry it was cracking open. Heat waves continued through the summer and the Tuscan sun was so hot that it burned the oak leaves. “We hope the rain comes,” Cinelli Colombini told me at the end of August. “Part of the grapes have been ruined by the sun. It is going to be a scarce and early harvest.”
On the one hand, Cinelli Colombini says the increase in temperature has allowed wineries like hers to grow perfectly ripe grapes every year – this was not the case 30 years ago. But an increase in droughts and violent storms is wreaking havoc on the volume and quality of wines produced. Wine production in 2016 slumped to its lowest level in two decades, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. Some winemakers find that warmer temperatures are causing grapes to ripen earlier, which changes their sugar and acid levels, leading to lower-quality wines with higher alcohol content.
But Cinelli Colombini continues to take changing headwinds in stride. In addition to making wine, she has tapped into the growth of agritourism – a trend in which people stay in farmhouses and ranches – by opening up the stone farmhouses to tourists eager to experience the vineyard lifestyle first hand. Fattoria del Colle now has a restaurant, a cooking school and a wellness area offering vinotherapy treatments. There are also swimming pools, tennis courts and nearby hiking trails.
Running a winery is stressful, Donatella says, but also inspiring, and she encourages young women interested in wine-making to be industrious, to observe their colleagues and above all, to listen. “This is why it is so important to surround yourself with smart people who are not afraid to tell their opinion,” she says. “The ‘yes man’ leads to disaster.”
“I DISCOVERED DISCRIMINATION THAT WAS SO OLD AND WIDESPREAD THAT IT HAD BECOME NORMAL AND INVISIBLE”