This article was originally published in Issue 22 of Root + Bone magazine in January 2020.
Technology in wine? Now that’s a tough brief. Many winemakers avoid technology at all costs. In the age of minimal intervention, technology’s impact on wine is a thorny topic. But as with most things, there are degrees of acceptance. More interested in passing the winemaking methods of their forefathers on to their children than benefitting themselves from modern technology, many winemakers are actively working against the wine industry’s establishment to prevent technology from changing the way their wines are made.
On the banks of Mount Etna in Sicily, one such winemaker is Salvo Foti, owner of the I Vigneri winery in Milo. He is passionate about retaining the winemaking traditions of the Etna region. He and his sons Andrea and Simone work the vineyards in the same way as others have done on Etna for 2000 years. Even the local D.O.C. has moved on and doesn’t recognise a number of these traditions, like the old limestone palmento used to vinify their humble “vino rosso”. The wine can only be labelled as vino rosso because the D.O.C. forbids the use of the porous rock to vinify wines, even though they have been used for centuries on Etna.
Further north in the famous winemaking region of Barolo a young winemaker called Pietro Oddero of the historic Oddero winery takes a more pragmatic approach, “we have what I call a neo-classical style; we take influence from the past but with an eye on details where we can improve the wine”. One of the areas they have experimented with is the oak ageing. They have explored the use of small French barriques to age some of their cuvees in place of the more traditional large oak buttes typically used in Barolo, in an effort to make the at times austere, angular Nebbiolo more rounded and approachable.
Even further north still, in the Alto Adige region in the Dolomites mountains of Northern Italy, close to the border of Germany, a young winemaker called Thomas Niedermayr has taken a different approach to technology altogether, by fully embracing it. Growing grapes at an altitude of more than 500 metres in an alpine climate is difficult enough, so when technology offers disease free grape varieties, it must be worth exploring. Thomas’s father Rudolf saw the potential for PIWI varieties in the 1980s and has focused on these varieties ever since.
PIWIs (short for the German word pilzwiderstandsfähig, which means fungus-resistant) are hybrid varietals which have been created by crossing different varieties to create new “super grapes” to find the perfect DNA mix for avoiding disease and fungus. This allows winemakers like Thomas to grow grapes in vineyards which would otherwise be at risk of disease without the use of any fertilisers. These hybrid grape varieties are grown all over the wine world, but generally go under the radar. The white grape varieties Thomas grows are Solaris, Bronner, Sovignier gris and Muscaris, with Cabernet Cantor and Cabernet Cortis being the main reds. Hands up if you’ve heard of any of these before…
So the impact of technology on wine is a difficult one to put your finger on, but that’s the great thing about wine. That fact it’s all so different is what makes great wine such a wonderful thing, no matter how it’s made or who made it. Just like John Peel said about The Fall, “always different, always the same”.
Here are three great wines made using technology in completely different ways. Give them a try;
I Vigneri, Vino Rosso, 2018 – 90% Nerello Mascalese/10% Nerello Cappuccio grown at 550m on NW Etna, vinified using an old limestone palmento, which is forbidden by the DOC, hence the humble name. Pinot-like, kirsch cherry nose, with violets and cinnamon to boot. Delicious cherry and spice flavours which intensify on the finish.
Oderro, Barolo, Bussia Vigna Mondoca, 2010 – 100% Nebbiolo, but this has a wild, herbal, Grenache-like nose. Lovely balance on the palate with delicious sweet, floral fruit and finishing fresh and long.
Thomas Niedermayr, Sovignier Gris 2017 – a PIWI variety which is a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Bronner. Lovely mountainous aromas of white flowers and herbs leads to a flavour of peach and minerals. A clean, pure wine.