Where to start with the late Stefano Bellotti and Cascina degli Ulivi? Largely responsible for the legitimization of biodynamic viticulture along with eschewing modern oenology through the 90's, his vision has inspired a generation of younger vignaioli. In a world determined to categorize and explain everything with science, Stefano preached holism. Even more impressive, he showed us how to buck the system, to voice dissent and fight back against the commodification of nature and agriculture. In so many ways, Stefano has played a key role in our evolution and approach to the wines we import. But let's rewind and start from the beginning.
Gavi, one of the foremost denominations of white wine in Italy and one of the first white wines to be granted the DOCG status, is produced entirely from the Cortese grape, an indigenous variety to the southern Piemonte province of Alessandria where it also shows its finest expression. After the phylloxera epidemic of the early 1900’s exterminated the more widely planted red Dolcetto vines in the rolling hillsides of the towns surrounding the town of Gavi, the majority of replanting was made with the white Cortese in order to satisfy demand from nearby Genoa and the Ligurian province that lies directly south over the coastal mountains. During the 1960’s, Gavi enjoyed tremendous success on the domestic and international markets thanks to some fine producers in the region. Over the next twenty years, however, competition from other white wine producing regions of Italy, higher yield allowances by the DOC and less scrutinous winemaking led to a glut of commercial and uninspired Gavi.
In 2001, Kevin's recollections of Gavis he'd recently tasted were not memorable. Joe and Denyse were neither familiar with the region nor the grape. Stefano Bellotti was a good friend of the Bera family and they recommended him to us. We met with him to taste his wines and immediately were pleased. On first taste, we knew that this was the type of estate we were seeking and that these wines were wines of terroir. They evoked the soil, climate and grape from which they came.
Cascina degli Ulivi produces wines from around 24 hectares of vines that have been worked using biodynamic methods since 1985. The estate has been in the Bellotti family since the 1930’s but Stefano was the one who transformed it into what it is today. Before he took it over, the farm was more or less abandoned; Stefano, a city boy with no agricultural training, effectively started with a blank canvas. Through his own empirical observations, he progressively came to eschew chemicals in his vineyards, eventually leading him to the philosophies of Rudolph Steiner.
The whole farm is truly polycultural and committed to the fundamental beliefs of biodynamism. Vines are the main focus of the azienda but vegetables, livestock, milk and cereals are all grown and cultivated. An agriturismo is attached to the farm, and practically everything served is raised on the farm.
“We consider that the soil is a ‘companion organism’ for everything that lives. In working our vines, we foster the potential harmony of all those forces that contribute to the flow of vitality (of the vine)” according to Stefano. The hard work and dedication is immediately evident in the vineyards where Stefano’s parcels are adjacent to other producers of the area. The health of the vines is immediately apparent to the eye.
The estate hand harvests in small boxes and uses only the indigenous yeasts to ferment the wines. Use of oak is limited to large, successively-used barrels of traditional provenance. Some are humongous, as large as 4000 liters! While the white wines were at one time lightly filtered and sulfured, these two interventions have been completely omitted since the 2003 vintage in order to produce the purest expression of the land.
A true believer in his terroirs, for many years Stefano fought to keep his wines within the Gavi DOCG. The first victim to the bureaucracy of the appellation was the Filagnotti, a single vineyard bottling from the estate's best grapes planted on red clay and limestone. in 2008, Stefano had decided to plant fruit trees amongst the vines. This was decreed as violating protocol: because there were now fruit trees amongst the vines, it could not officially be considered a vineyard by law! Undeterred by this reality or that he would be denied subsidies for this land by the EU, Stefano stuck to his convictions and declassified Filagnotti as a Vino di Tavola.
In 2015, the estate's base Gavi (composed of grapes that don't make the single vineyard bottlings along with other vineyard selections) was refused the appellation due to its color; a direct result of making an un-filtered, unadulterated product (most Gavis are usually heavily filtered, completely transparent and a pale straw color.) With no other choice, the wine was forced into declassification and renamed as Ivag (get it?) Much to his regret, this forced Stefano's decision to give up asking for the appellation for any of his wines. Fortunately, by this point his reputation was cemented and his customers could sell the wine off its own merit.
Stefano left us in 2018, right in the middle of that year's harvest. He was a true visionary and pioneer. In our opinion, he managed to create the most symbiotic natural environment we have yet to encounter: a place where man, beast and plant co-exist in mutual respect and harmony. More than anything, he's left us with an indescribable energy we've felt on every visit and with every sip. While there is much to figure out in the wake of his death, recent visits have confirmed this energy is still there. And with his daughter Ilaria continuing her father's work, we look forward to what the future holds.
This interview with Stefano Bellotti took place at the Vini di Vigniaoli fair in Fornovo, Italy in October, 2011.
Can you tell us Cascina Degli Ulivi's history?
In my late teens, I was living in Genoa. The city was never my thing, and I was drawn to a rural life in agriculture for as long as I can remember. In the city I felt trapped in a prison.
My family had a small farm they'd purchased after the war, which was more or less abandoned. I decided I wanted to do something with it; I was trying my hardest to be a peasant! At the beginning, I was cultivating a large amount of agricultural products: cereals, vegetables and of course the vines.
We don't have the best conditions for agriculture here, and I quickly realized that the only things truly thriving were the vines. My work with wine did not start out of passion: I was simply considering what worked best for my land and if could make a living as a peasant.
This was the end of the 1970's, and the systems of agriculture Italy began using marked the end of peasant agriculture and the beginning of chemical, industrial agriculture. I understood almost right away that this was a trick, a way to tie down the peasant to industry, to imprison him.
This was before anyone was talking about organic agriculture, though people were nonetheless moving towards it. When I heard about it, I told myself that this would have to be the agriculture of the future, that we couldn't continue in an industrial model.
Did you ever try these chemical products on your land?
There was so little information at the time, and yes the first few years I did use some chemical fertilizers. This was my only offense; I've never used herbicides or anything other than copper and sulfur.
But I quickly realized that my grapes were rotting from the stuff. So I stopped immediately!
What about in the cellar?
I've always been weary of modern oenology. For a long time, hyper technological wine was in style. Doing the opposite hasn't always been easy, and it's not always obvious what to do in that type of situation.
There was a time were I had to make compromises. For example, to sell wine to Germany in the late 80's/early 90's, my clients asked me to the wine to be as "standard" as possible. They wanted it to be organic, but to taste conventional. This is how Germany works with their own wines, and it's also why organic wine there isn't natural: it's an industrialized product made with organic grapes.
So for my German clients I would yeast my base wines. I was doing what people asked of me so I could make a living, so I could continue making all the other cuvées with native yeasts and not go out of business.
Can you describe the climate of organic/biodynamic agriculture in the early 80's?
I was working completely organic by 81; back then I wasn't aware it was an actual thing (it hadn't reached Italy yet), but I knew I wanted to work this way.
In the early 80's, there was already a movement happening, but if you worked organically, sometimes you felt a little isolated, different, or not productive enough… This was a time of "production for production's sake", so it left us wondering if we really were making the right decision... This was obviously nonsense on our part!
In 1984, I met an farmer who was working biodynamically. I instantly saw an agriculture that was working better. As a kid who grew up in the materialistic 70's, I didn't quite trust the whole biodynamic vision, but I saw the results and knew something about it was working. So I started, and I am very happy. It has opened up the world for me, made it more complex and interesting.
A lot of people think biodynamic agriculture is some sort of religion. It's not. When you see the results, you can see that it's an agricultural model that works. And if one day a better model comes along (or contributes to biodynamics), I'll be very happy!
Can biodynamic agriculture work anywhere?
The preparations created by Rudolph Steiner have incredible power. They are very simple, inexpensive (free in fact!), and they act towards optimizing agricultural conditions. The proof is all around the world: it works well in Brazil, in Australia, in Egypt… These are obviously places with completely different agricultural conditions.
The point that most people miss? For these preparations to work in the first place, your land needs to be alive. If you put on a biodynamic preparation on a soil that's dead, it stays dead. It's not a miracle! It's just a model of common sense that takes conscience of the earth and the plant. Whether it's perma-culture, synergy or whatever you want to call it, the soil and the plant need to be alive in order to grow and thrive.
Most of the growers I've interviewed who work biodynamically seem to share your pragmatic approach. In your opinion, why is that many people still have this notion that biodynamic agriculture as some sort of goofy, hippie cult shrouded in mysticism?
That's a a very complex answer, and we'd need to be here all day for me to give you a complete idea of why people have this impression.
Biodynamic agriculture was born in the 1920's. It spread quickly through Germanic speaking countries, but was heavily persecuted by the Nazis. This is how it spread internationally: people went elsewhere. Then we had World War 2, then we had the aftermath. The post war economic model became completely linked to industrialization, to productivity and materialism, and everyone kind of forgot about biodynamic agriculture.
It was a time where people were being too Cartesian, and biodynamic agriculture lent itself to a vision of a world that couldn't be controlled by science; it was too much of a free spirit to work in a model based on uniformity and productivity.
So biodynamic farmers became the minority of the minority. And because these farmers were going out of their way to pursue this style of agriculture, they were billed as esoteric, as sorcerers, as part of a sect.
We now live in better climate for biodynamic agriculture, but it took a lot of work from guys like Nicolas Joly to speak of a new kind of biodynamic model, to speak up and let people get a better idea of what we do. So I think we're growing out of this image. There are still people that aren't convinced, and that's fine.
Some criticize that what we do is too esoteric. Well yes, biodynamic preparations are esoteric! Almost everything we do is partly esoteric, because science can't explain everything. If I look at you from across the street and at that exact moment, you happen to turn your head towards me and we make eye contact, that's not something you can calculate, plan, measure or explain. To understand this is simply to acknowledge being part of a larger whole.
Can you tell me tell me about the very special kind of Dolcetto you work with?
In our area we grow a very special variety of Dolcetto, which is essentially the father of all the Dolcetto you see today. In the local dialect we call it Nibio. We're not sure where the etymology of this name comes from; the answer is lost somewhere in the last 1000 years. There are written accounts of it by the Republic of Genoa before the year 1000!
Nibio is characterized by very small berries and red stems. It therefore doesn't produce very high yields. But it's an extremely interesting grape, because it's one of the most tannic you'll find find anywhere, yet these tannins are light and don't rip the inside of your cheeks off. It makes a special wine: it's a bit of a wild child when it's young, but it can be aged for an extremely long time. After 10 years, the wild child becomes a very elegant gentleman!
What's the work in the vines and in the cellar?
The main role of anyone who works in agriculture is to make sure their soil has good microbiological structure. This is the "factory of life".
Vineyards are a monoculture, so what you need to do in that case is bring as much biodiversity as you can to your land in order to promote a healthy soil. We have a system where every year certain rows are left untouched all year. We won't even step on them! This gives the soil the opportunity to regenerate and revitalize itself. And the next year, we leave the one next to it alone. In such every row gets "a year off". The grasses that grow are all different types, and most are wild. We then use the biodynamic preparations during spring and summer.
In the cellar, and I jokingly say this as a provocation, but I do almost nothing. I hate the term "wine maker". It's cacophonous! Wine makes itself, it just needs a little help from the human touch. We're there to guide and accompany the wine as it becomes wine, and that's it. Humans don't make wines: microorganisms do. This is a sacred world we don't understand anything about! Even if you use preselected yeasts, you can't intervene further than choosing the direction the wine will take.
For someone who's been making wine this way since the early 80's, how do you feel in the current context and popularity of natural wine?
I've always said that our force is the truth. When you start drinking natural wine, or eating natural cheese, natural bread, natural food… When you start eating REAL food, products from the earth that have a true link to their terroir, you don't go back.
Right now we are at an event (Vini di Vigniaoli) where 99.9% of the people here are real. And when you're constantly surrounded by people who respect nature and agriculture, you almost forget that most others don't. Everyone imagines it's this huge movement because it's all you read and hear about when it comes to agriculture these days. But we represent 0.0001 % of the global production of wine. We represent nothing! In all of Europe, we are maybe 500! And usually these are always small producers.
Their are wine factories in the area that make more wine every year than all the natural winemakers put together! Some produce up to 10 million bottles of wine a year. People don't necessarily realize this because they are sold in China, India, Brazil and everywhere except Italy. You can be in Brazil right now drinking a local wine I've never heard of!
From a media standpoint you're hearing a ton about natural wine, but in reality we are a small group of people. There are benefits to this though; 20 years ago if you worked naturally you were considered the devil, and I even had to hide that I was making biodynamic wine to certain customers. Things have changed, and this is a good thing.
Can you tell me about the new Semplicemente wines?
The vocation of my vines has always been, in my mind, to make wines that can be aged for a long time. Serious wine. The trouble is that if you're looking to buy wine to cellar, in Piedmont people tend to lean towards Barolo, or Montalcino or Tuscany.
So I decided, instead of making serious wine, I just wanted to make wine. Wine to drink. I make a red and a white. It worked out really well because instead of making wines that you have to intellectualize, I've also produced ones that just win you over, a wine you don't think about, that you take great pleasure in drinking. You don't need to worry what about the region or the varietal or the nose or whatever. When you do this you are intellectualizing wine, and wine doesn't give a shit about being intellectual. So it's "Simply" red or white: you bring them to the table and you don't think about it, you just drink it. That's it.
Anything to add?
Everyone's talking about natural agriculture and natural wine these days. This is important, but what's more important is that we all have to realize that agriculture almost doesn't exist anymore. Here we are in Italy, the country with the best terroirs in the world, and our rural areas are deserted. No one wants to live there anymore. If you have a kid and live in the country, their future is jeopardized!
There is so much we can produce from this land. We need to all work together, and people need to come back to peasantry. If we want to see another evolution in humanity, it has to go through agriculture. In the last two generations, we've seen an 80% drop in rural population. We've also gone from 60% of our land being used for agriculture to 3%.
Urbanization has caused serious social problems, and we need agriculture to bring us out of this hole. Especially in a country like Italy. We may be the number one gastronomical country in the world, but gastronomy isn't about chefs. It's about agriculture. You can't be making food with pigs raised in China; you need to use the local black hogs that live in the woods.
This visit to Cascinia degli Ulivi took place in May, 2014.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Josefa Concannon, Jill Berheimer and David Norris.
Cascina Degli Ulivi will always hold a special place in my heart. You see, when I was 19 years old, I felt a need to distance myself from my social scene (Montreal), and after an initial plan to "move to Vancouver", Joe proposed I go work in vineyards somewhere. I'd never been to Italy, and Joe, knowing that Stefano Bellotti runs a poly-cultural farm and there would be plenty for me to do there, proposed Ulivi. After a quick chat with Stefano, it was agreed I would get room at board at the Cascina in exchange for manual labor. I could (and probably should) write an entire entry on the 5 months I lived and worked there, but this is neither the time nor place. Suffice to say, my time there was -whether I was aware of it or not at the time- the catalyst in finding a personal connection with the traditions of peasantry and wine. Also, working in the fields gave em the only legit tan I've ever had in my life. But I digress...
After landing in Milan, we drove straight to the town of Novi Ligure, where Ulivi is located.
Though Novi Ligure is actually a modestly sized town (28,500) with a bustling urban core, the Ulivi farm is about ten minutes out, completely surrounded by woods and only accessible via a small road. Chickens, ducks and geese are just hanging around everywhere.
Love was definitely in the air.
Because of all the animal fornication going on around us, we assumed it was mating season. Later, Stefano confirmed we were wrong:
"It's like this all the time. They never stop."
As I mentioned earlier, the farm is completely self-sufficient. For example: 23 cows!
These are almost exclusively used for dairy: fresh milk, delicious homemade cheeses, and yogurts/panna cotta,etc... On average, only 2 male cows are slaughtered a year for meat, which is served exclusively at the restaurant/agriturismo within the farm grounds. That's right people: two cows last an entire year!
A lot of fresh fruits and vegetables are also planted throughout.
Look, a goat family!
As you can see, there are all types of animals at Cascina degli Ulivi! But Stefano's favorite, of course, is his Maremma sheepdog Guantanamobai.
You may recognize this big guy from the Filagnotti labels:
Well, that's not actually the same dog; Stefano has loved this breed for as long as he can remember, and owned many since his early 20's.
But beyond farming, restaurants and animals, the real bread and butter of Cascina Degli Ulivi is, you guessed it, WINE!
We started our tour by checking out Stefano's brand new experimental vineyard.
Planted last June, these 3 hectares are all planted in franc de pied aka un-grafted roots. Stefano explained that these 4 varieties were historically considered "shit", but that have also been historically proven to resist mildew and odium over the long term.
Stefano's discovery of these "shit" varieties stems from research dating back to 1910. A pépinièriste (whose job involves growing young vines in a nursery for future use) in Südtirol based his life work on this, and was able to find 25 hybrid grapes that resist the two of the most damaging fungal illnesses in viticulture. Stefano picked the ones that made the most sense for his soils and micro-climates, but also the flavors he liked.
"I didn't want anything aromatic."
Interestingly the soils here are not sand (where the phylloxera bug cannot survive) but heavy clay.
"They are already very alive."
Next, we headed over to the beautiful Filagnotti vineyard, which produces the aforementioned bottling of the same name.
The village you can spot in the background is Tassarolo.
In this vineyard, Cortese is planted on very acidic red clay that is rich in iron. Stefano has been working this vineyard since 1984, which coincides with his first year practicing biodynamics.
Looking in the distance, then back at the budding vines, Stefano proclaimed:
"This is my favorite time of the year. I love looking at individual buds and thinking: This will soon be a glass of wine!"
As with most of Piemonte, a lot of Stefano's vines have been dying for from Flavescence Dorée (read more about this lesser known disease here).
"The best way to fight this is franc de pied, but this directly confronts you with the problem of phylloxera. Still, I believe fighting a bug is easier than fighting a disease."
"The problem is that all funded research is geared towards "fixing" these problems through chemical treatments. Any alternative means always falls on our backs, through our own independent experiments. In the end, their is not one magic solution. It will be a combination of many factors that will lead us to an answer."
Speaking of individual experimentation, Stefano has planted an entire portion of Filagnotti in Franc de Pied.
He feels that these much younger vines already have much more vigor and life than their grafted siblings.
Last but not least, we visited Cascina degli Ulivi's most prized vineyard, Montemarino.
Holy shit that's beautiful!
The soils here are clay and limestone. Standing in Montemarino, the difference in micro-climate between Filagnotti was clear: a constant wind sweeping through the vineyards (as opposed to Filagnotti's much dryer nature) creates a cooler, more elegant wine.
Though the vast majority of Montemarino is planted in Cortese, the oldest vines in the estate are planted here (94 years old, planted in 1920), and consist of Nibio, the local name for the region's indigenous strand of Dolcetto.
Stefano acquired the vast majority of this lieu-dit, which consists of 6 hectares, in 2000. To do so, he had to purchase individual plots from 39 different owners!!! Montemarino is exposed full South, at 310 meters of elevation.
After walking through the vines, it was time for Stefano's self-admitted "schtick I do every time": The Shovel Experiment™
"Of all my vineyards, Montemarino is the only one were I have a neighbor. And of course, he works more chemically than anyone I know!"
The Shovel Experiment™ consists of shoveling a hunk of land from Montemarino as well as his neighbor's to compare and contrast the amount of life in both. Here's a side by side pick to give you an idea of what a vineyard heavily treated with herbicide where one doesn't work the soils looks like versus that of a biodynamic pioneer.
Keep in mind those are less than 50 meters apart!
At the top of Montemarino, Stefano's vinification cellar hosts all his future releases. He works almost exclusively with large wood vessels.
"I like using wood because it keeps the wine alive. This is because it is constantly dancing with oxygen. But it not's oxygenation I look for; it's so that the wine is in constant contact with something alive (air)."
We tasted through a range of 2013 wines, which were a solid vintage for Ulivi. By the time we were done tasting through the current releases, jet lag had started seriously kicking in so we sat down for an early dinner at the agriturismo which naturally consisted of all the meats, vegetables, dairy and fruit of the farm.
It was good to know that 8 years after my time there, Cascina degli Ulivi is still as magical as ever.
VdT "Semplicemente Vino" Bianco
Soil: Red Clay
Vinification: Fermented 50% in 11 ton oak vat, 50% in stainless steel. Aged 3-6 months in 11 ton oak vat.
Grapes: 80% Barbera, 20% Dolcetto
Vinification: Fermented in oak barrels. 3 weeks of skin maceration. Aged in 2.5/3 ton oak barrels for 3-6 months.
Soil: Red clay
Vines: Full south exposure.
Vinification: fermentation and ageing in big wooden vats until May, then bottle fining.
Soil: Red clay
Vines: vineyards in the Tassarolo village, with full south-western exposure
Vinification: fermentation and ageing in 25,000 litre wooden vats “sur lies” for 11 months.
Vines: one of the highest hills of Gavi region, in the village of Tassarolo. At the top of the hill, with southern exposure.
Vinification: grapes are harvested when well ripe, macerated for 3 days and fermented then aged in 1500 l. wooden vats “sur lies”for 11 months, or until the next harvest.
Grapes: 50% Sauvignon Blanc; 50% Aromatic Traminer
Vinification: fermentation and ageing in 500 L French oak barrels.
Grapes: Riesling, Verdea, Bosco, Timorassa, Moscatella
Vines: 100-year old vines that are part of the Filagnotti vineyard in Tassarolo, nearby Gavi.
Vinification: Fermentationin oak vats with submerged skins for about a month. After that, the must is separated and is put back in its vats, where it will rest on the lees for the rest of the year. No sulphites are added at any point of the vinification or at bottling.
Soil: gravelly limestone and clay
Grape: red stemmed Dolcetto, which in the local dialect is called Nibiô. This particular variety has been grown here for more than 1000 years and it is even mentioned in the annals of the Republic of Genoa.
Vinification: fermentation then 12 months in big wooden vats. 40 days of maceration on the skins.
Vinification: fermentation in big wooden vats; ageing 7/8 months in big vats, and another 7/8 months in 500 L barrels. 35 days of skin maceration.