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La Ricolla, Liguria. "You're all witches"

Thus spoke, completely without humor, one of Italy’s unelected lifetime appointees to the Senate about Daniele Parma and his ilk who choose to make wine biodynamically. Putting aside the fact that speaking ill of one of your hard working citizens in this way is bad form for someone with such a cushy job in Rome, it is also a fairly typical attitude towards those making biodynamic wines.


Preparation 500 is one of the stranger aspects of biodynamics but after being buried for 6 months it no longer smells, feels or looks like manure

The legislator went on to characterize Davide's dawn to dusk care for his steep Ligurian hillsides as an abnormality with no grounding in science. She ridiculed his philosophy and even poured scorn on Demeter, the organization that monitors and certifies biodynamic farmers, presumably because it is a private company and not subject to the beck and call of the European Union.

Her comments were made during the legislative process on incentives for agriculture while explaining her no vote for biodynamic farmers and were based on complete ignorance of course, but where's the surprise in that? Lifetime appointees to positions of power rarely put in a full day's work and Italy is far from alone in that regard.

In Daniele’s case it was doubly unfair because whatever opinion you hold of the biodynamic or the ‘natural’ approach to winemaking, before he even got to press his first biodynamically farmed grapes he had to rescue abandoned vineyards and replenish and re-nourish them or sometimes even entirely replant them. That alone should endear him to both Italians and wine lovers everywhere because every patch of land he saves represents Ligurian heritage protected and an indigenous grape variety nurtured for future generations.


The view of the mountains from Vezzano Ligure in mid-December
Southern Liguria in mid-December on the way back from La Ricolla

As this is now our second article about biodynamic winemakers, a brief explanation of the concept is in order. Most people are familiar with the notion of organic produce but biodynamic farming goes beyond the elimination of chemicals and synthetic fertilizers and views the farm or vineyard as a single living closed ecosystem that should be largely self-sustaining. The philosophy starts out a bit like the Hippocratic oath for doctors, 'first do no harm', and then moves from an organic and holistic approach to the soil as a living organism to a work flow in the vineyard and cellar based on the influences of the lunar calendar and astrology.

Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s developed the early principles of biodynamic farming and there is some overlap with the homeopathic remedies of Edward Bach around the same time.


L'Esedra di Santo Stefano vineyard in Sestri Levante planted to Granaccia
L'Esedra di Santo Stefano vineyard in Sestri Levante planted to Granaccia

Biodynamic farming requires as many as 9 different natural treatments and fertilizers from plants or animal compost matured over time, including potions like stinging nettle tea and fermented flower heads of dandelion. The strangest one, shown in the photograph at the top of this article, is manure from a healthy, lactating, female bovine placed in a female’s horn and buried in the earth for the duration of a winter. When subsequently unearthed a sweet smelling humus remains in the horn, best viewed as homeopathic medicine for the earth.

Despite its completely benign appearance it must have a very potent impact in the vineyard because just 60 grams diluted in 34 liters of water are sufficient for treating one hectare (2.47 acres) of vineyard soil.


Is biodynamics metaphysical, involving a realm outside the scope of scientific physical measurement?

The above was an interview question posed to the British wine journalist Monty Waldin who has authored books on biodynamic wine and biodynamic gardening as well as also making biodynamic wine himself in Languedoc.


Daniele's Vermentino vineyard below the Basilica dei Fieschi in Cogorno (he finds many abandoned vineyards near churches, abbeys and cemeteries)
Daniele's Vermentino vineyard below the Basilica dei Fieschi in Cogorno (he finds many abandoned vineyards near churches, abbeys and cemeteries)

This was his response: "France’s most famous soil micro-biologist Claude Bourguignon always says that he can measure the effect biodynamics has on soil (ie increased populations of beneficial soil organisms, deeper and thicker vine roots) but he can’t measure exactly how biodynamics achieves this. In other words he is not sure the beneficial “forces” which the biodynamic preparations are said to bring are measurable, but he can’t explain why biodynamic soil contains so much more life than organic soils.

If you take some manure from a female cow and fill either your shoe, or an old soft drink’s can, earthenware pot, large glass jar etc and bury it for six months what you’ll dig up will be green and horribly stinky. The manure will have gone back to being the grass the cow ate.

If, on the other hand, you do what biodynamic farmers have been doing since 1924 and bury the manure in the horn from a female cow underground for six months between autumn and spring the manure will have turned into something like the essence of soil (humus). The manure will have gone back to the earth that produced the grass that the cow ate. This is biodynamic horn manure. It is diluted in water and sprayed on the soil to encourage worms etc.

I mentioned above how important the cow’s horns are to her. I also mentioned above how cow manure is incredibly fertile. When a cow digests her food forces are released in her digestion but because she has horns (and hooves) these forces stay in the cow (they rebound off them you could say) and imbue her manure with this incredible power. If you bury this already powerful manure in the horn and bury it when the earth is most alive (which it is in autumn to spring) what you dig up is this incredible ‘horn manure’ which has the power to encourage soil micro-organisms (the soil food web) to reproduce in your soil. And when scientists like Claude Bourguignon come along they’ll notice abnormally high populations of soil fauna, will know that you have been using horn manure – but won’t for the life of him be able to scientifically tell you just why the manure in the horn is such a potent combination".


A near vertical abandoned vineyard of Bianchetta Genovese rescued by Daniele. After a couple of days working here you'd gladly abandon it again.
A near vertical abandoned vineyard of Bianchetta Genovese rescued by Daniele. After a couple of days working here you'd gladly abandon it again.

For Michel Chapoutier biodynamics is also about the natural rhythms of the planet. From the Chapoutier website: “It is frequent to see Michel Chapoutier scrutinize the sky. Biodynamics is also about understanding the cycles of the Earth, the sun and the moon. From these observations we take crucial decisions: when to prune, when to harvest. Yields are respected and each terroir offers what its purest essence: its truth”.

Call Chapoutier a witch if you want but he is a very successful businessman who took his winery from half a million bottles a year to well over seven million and by any objective measure the quality of Chapoutier’s wines are indisputable.

If your yardstick is 100 point scores, he has more of those than any other winery in history or if you prefer the market price of his wine as a better gauge of quality then be comforted by the fact that it will cost you 600 euros to try just one bottle of his L’Ermite, a 100% Syrah from the top of the Hermitage hill where he has practiced biodynamic agriculture for 30 years.


The snow covered Alpi Marittime from Sestri Levante
Coffee break by the sea in Sestri Levante with the Alpi Marittime a long way in the distance

More recently, Chateau Latour in Bordeaux was certified organic in 2015 and now farms 50% biodynamically. Likewise Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace have both converted to biodynamics so with some of the best wines in the world now on board, it has become an unstoppable trend with much less excuse for others not to follow.

However, there can be a significant difference between biodynamic wine and so-called ‘natural wine’ though unfortunately there is no hard and fast definition of the latter and no governing body; also it is the natural wine movement more than simply biodynamic practices that have elicited the most criticism because some of the cellar practices under the banner of natural wine are seen to be extreme, unnecessary and overly dogmatic, often resulting in funky tasting wines. At the center of much of this criticism is the always controversial subject of sulfites in wine.


Daniele Parma of La Ricolla winery in Liguria
From the expressions on both of their faces (and the secret hand signal) my guess is that Daniele just cracked a joke at my expense

Several years ago in an interview Michel Chapoutier gave his view of the sulfites debate and again I use him as an example because he is not exactly an enemy of minimal intervention in the cellar: “When you say we have to try to work with lower levels of sulfite, that makes sense, and everybody is working on this…For me the first question is why do people exaggerate so much against sulfites? There is too often too much sulfite, but sulfites are necessary to make wine. Then for the natural wines we can play at trying to make wine with no sulfites. The problem is that I would say nine times out of ten you have some deficiency like oxidation, volatile acidity.

A winemaker who makes a natural wine would be honest if he would have the courage to destroy the wines with defects. What I have a problem with is that the people who make the nine wines out of ten that have defects, they don’t destroy them. They put them in the market."


Glass lined concrete fermentation vessels that are replacing the stainless steel containers

So what does all this have to do with Daniele Parma at La Ricolla?

He is the first winemaker we have come across who follows biodynamic practices at the same time as, very recently, completely eschewing sulfites. We have come across variations before like Ca’ del Bric, which is organic and also avoids sulfites but compensates for the extra risk by doing various other things that would disqualify it from biodynamic certification, and Rocco di Carpeneto, which is closer to the Chapoutier philosophy and has extraordinarily low sulfite levels below 10 mg/L and Terraviva in Abruzzo which is also in the Chapoutier camp but stopped just short of biodynamic certification and has sulfite levels of between 35 and 45 mg/L, still much lower than legal levels around 150 mg/L.

Rocco di Carpeneto and Terraviva are both members of the Raw Wine organization so are as close to natural wine as you can get without dancing with the devil when it comes to sulfites. Interestingly, their wines are also completely clear so to qualify as natural wine does not seem to completely rule out some form of fining to avoid having cloudy wine.


Gianluca Bergianti’s Lambrusco is certified biodynamic but he too does not forgo sulfites entirely, nor does Fabbrica di San Martino, a biodynamic winery only a stone’s throw from our front door in Lucca which we hope to write about soon.

I find it interesting also that biodynamic certification permits the copper sulfate and lime spray, traditionally known as Bordeaux mixture, that has been used annually in vineyards to combat mildew and other fungal infections since the 1880s. Organic and biodynamic wineries have little alternative to this treatment because of their inability to use synthetic chemical applications. However, the EU recently took action to reduce the permitted amounts because there has been a noticeable build up in copper toxicity in some Italian and French vineyards after 150 years of continuous use.

Daniele's preferred terracotta aging vessels which are replacing all the stainless steel

Daniele Parma’s wines have a lot to prove therefore because he has taken his winemaking to a place where some very intelligent and experienced winemakers are not prepared to go. However this is quite a recent development for Daniele because only 2 years ago he was also using 30 mg/L of sulfites at the bottling stage.

What changed to give him the confidence to dispense with sulfites entirely?

Terracotta 'breathing', evidenced by a droplet of wine emerging on the outside

1. He felt that his vineyards were finally ready and producing perfect fruit.

2. He started using terracotta for aging his wines before bottling. This is the oldest and most traditional container and his explanation is that because it breathes, the wine has a chance to acclimatize to small amounts of oxygen so the bottling process represents less of an 'oxygen shock'.


These anfore toscane are the final piece in the puzzle for Daniele, representing the last step in his 35 year journey. Terracotta containers have their own links to history, being the same type of container used to make wine in ancient times, and the ones used by Daniele being made by craftsmen in Impruneta from the same source material that Brunelleschi's famous dome was constructed.


Before we get to his wines, more of Daniele’s story. He was at the start just a winemaker and a conventional one at that, so biodynamics was something he converted to well into his wine journey. While still a teenager he was making wine with his brother and father from the grapes of local farmers, a type of small scale Cantina Sociale that his family founded in 1986.

They were winemakers but had no vineyards themselves and no real connection to the land. Furthermore they were paying all sorts of local people to bring them grapes (in trucks, cars and sometimes even on motorbikes) with no real knowledge of the conditions under which those grapes were grown and no effective control over quality. Daniele grew increasingly unhappy about this so in the mid 1990s he planted his first tiny vineyard of no more than 5 acres, a project that earned him the coveted Cangrande della Scala medal at Vinitaly in 2000, one of only three recipients across all of Italy.


Daniele's brother and his co-conspirators caught in the act of making 58% proof 'moonshine' early on a Saturday morning and they all have a suitably guilty look about them!

Over the next few years it became clear that his future direction and goals were incompatible and irreconcilable with those of his brother and father so he struck out on his own and established La Ricolla with just this first small vineyard. Without money to buy more acreage he started to look for abandoned vineyards where it wouldn’t take much to persuade their owners to let him bring them back to life with not much more than the sweat of his brow.

Daniele jokes about his subsequent journey to 'the dark side' but in fact biodynamic agriculture is as much as anything a return to how farming was conducted in previous centuries and he quotes his grandfather’s simple observation from 30 years ago asking Daniele why he needed so much machinery in the vineyard. In the quote below he also makes it clear that there is no going back once you've embraced the biodynamic approach and this is from someone who has been on both sides of the debate in his winemaking lifetime. After 20 years of trying to dominate nature and having her rebel, he now just observes nature and acquiesces.

"Quando entri in questo mondo, non puoi più tornare indietro. Io sono stato sia di qua che di là, venti anni a cercare di dominare la natura, ma poi si ribella. Ora la osservo e la assecondo"

There may be disagreement about the lengths to which some people go in the cellar but I think there is now universal admiration for biodynamic farming practices (apart from lifetime appointees to the Italian Senate perhaps) and a consistent theme across many of the vineyards we have visited is an acknowledgment of the damage that heavy machinery does to the soil around the vines.

People like Daniele, but also Fabio di Donato at Cingilia as well as all the others mentioned above, who are mostly organic rather than biodynamic, do almost everything in their vineyards on foot and by hand and as a result the roots of their vines are never compacted, their soils breathe and their vineyards are never waterlogged.


Daniele's cellar operations are in Ne, Liguria, not far from the wonderful restaurant La Brinca

In 2010 Daniele started to farm his vineyards organically and after a few years a friend who owned a local enoteca questioned the sense of being organic in the vineyard but not in the cellar. This conversation led to a meeting with the acknowledged leader of Italian biodynamic winemaking, the late Stefano Bellotti of Cascina degli Ulivi, someone who Gianluca Bergianti also mentioned as his inspiration. After a period of advice and help Stefano sensed that Daniele was ready to take the plunge into full-on biodynamic winemaking but was nervous about the whole thing. “Grow a pair!!” was Stefano’s compelling final encouragement and it definitely did the trick because Daniele grew a giant pair, especially when it comes to sulfites.


Today Daniele farms 6 or 7 vineyards around the Sestri Levante area, mostly restored by him after years of abandonment, from which he produces 30,000 bottles of biodynamic, sulfite-free wine from indigenous grape varieties. He also has several acres of olive trees and produces a DOP monocultivar Lavagnina oil.


The only test that matters. Everything else is just words, theories and good intentions

After spending several hours in the company of Daniele it is apparent that he has enormous belief and confidence in his vineyards and the quality and health of the fruit that he harvests. His vineyards are like his children in the sense that he spends so much of his time caring for them in the belief that as long as he respects the process in the cellar, his fruit can turn into great wine without the addition of any sulfites.

We only have only profiled two biodynamic winemakers so far but I will add one comment here about Daniele the person. Like Gianluca Bergianti, Daniele is one of the most informed, dedicated and interesting people you could wish to meet in the wine world. Biodynamic farming and winemaking is a vocation rather than a job. You never clock off and I doubt there are many vacations, nor do the financial rewards in any way compensate for the extra time and effort put into the entire process. These are both people completely at ease with the world and their place in it as they seek to improve the planet one field at a time.


The 2020 La Ricolla wine bottles
Don't be put off by the visible cloudiness in Daniele's bottles

Tasting Notes: All of the wines benefit from spontaneous fermentation, none of them are filtered or have any added sulfites when aged in terracotta.


Whites:

Ninte de Ninte 2020 - Colline del Genovesato IGT (12.5% alcohol)

Bianchetta Genovese grape from a 40 year old vineyard, fermented with the grape skins for 4-5 days in terracotta anfora, then aged in the same container for 6 months.

This wine has every right to be cloudy because the freshness and fruit are actually a little shocking in that they are so pronounced. We've had Gulf of Tigullio wines from this grape before, made conventionally, and we enjoyed them but they really don't seem like the same grape. This wine really is quite sensational but it takes a bit of getting used to. The only comparison that easily comes to mind is when you buy some very fresh very cloudy fruit juice at a farmer's market and are amazed by how concentrated the flavor is and how much better it is than the highly filtered over-processed version from a supermarket.

As Kermit used to say, "it's not easy being green" and this wine is as 'green' as wine can be. As the name Ninte de Ninte suggests, nothing is added and nothing is taken away, so 26 euros is a fair price for all the work that goes into producing it.


Berette 2.0 2020 - Colline del Genovesato IGT (13% alcohol)

Vermentino grape from vineyards that are over 50 years old (55%) and about 10 years old (45%). Fermented with extended maceration on the grape skins for 14 days in stainless steel followed by 6 months of aging in terracotta anfora.

Another white wine with knock-your-socks-off freshness and vitality but this wine is much richer. We put this wine though its paces by (1) drinking it with an artichoke risotto because artichokes are notorious for playing havoc with most wines and (2) leaving half of it in the bottle, opened for 24 hours because Daniele said that after his wine "makes friends" with oxygen in the terracotta, it acquires some immunity to oxidation in the bottle. The wine passed both tests with flying colors and it is also unlike every other Vermentino we've had, but both of these white wines would be difficult to drink every week, at least until you're acclimatized to just how different they are to regular wine. There's nothing restrained about either of them.

Fabulous wine to try and everyone with an interest in wine should track them down. Again, 23 euros is a very fair price.


Reds:

The next two wines are from the first harvest of his 4 year old Grenache vineyard in L'Esedra di Santo Stefano. This was a new grape for Daniele to make wine from, but it's a traditional Ligurian grape perfectly suited to this area.


Orcio Più 2020 - Colline de Genovesato IGT (14% alcohol)

100% Granaccia. Macerated on skins for 42 days in terracotta anfora followed by several months of aging in the same containers. 1,800 bottles produced.

This is a wine with all of the characteristics of the Grenache grape on full display. Sweet spices and cinnamon on the nose with pure fruit flavors of black cherry and very restrained acidity. A real pleasure to drink and the second evening it was unchanged or perhaps even a little better. It's certainly not cheap at 29 euros in the very competitive landscape of Italian red wines but it is without doubt the most authentic version of Italian Grenache that we've ever had.


Grana(n)cia Meccanica 2020 - Colline Genovesato IGT (14% alcohol)

100 % Granaccia. Maceration on skins for 14 days in stainless steel followed by aging for several months in terracotta anfora. This wine is part of an experiment where he conducts a mechanical de-stemming for this wine and manually for the Orcio Più above. It's also a play on the Italian name, 'Arancia Meccanica' for the 1970s Stanley Kubrick film 'A Clockwork Orange'. 4,000 bottles produced.

The cloudiness is not as immediately obvious with red wine as it is for white, but expect cloudiness here too. Amazingly for a one year old wine there are already tertiary notes on the nose of tobacco and mature fruit which must be due to the terracotta aging. Opens up in the glass after 20 minutes to reveal a very balanced smooth wine with a much more recognizable Grenache flavor than other Italian examples of this grape like Cannonau for example. This is a rich, quite concentrated wine with pure fruit, no tannins to speak of and a long savory finish. 24 euros


Kin(g) Tanino 2020 - Colline Genovesato IGT (12.5% alcohol)

A blend of Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo and Grenache from 15 year old vineyards. maceration on skins for the entire fermentation period in stainless steel and aging in stainless steel. With no terracotta involved in this wine a small amount of sulfites were added but the final level is less than 30 mg/L. 3,300 bottles produced.

By this stage I was so impressed with the above two terracotta aged Grenache wines that this wine seemed ordinary by comparison. That's perhaps unfair because it's actually a very enjoyable wine that we're guessing has a lot of Grenache and very little Sangiovese so the blend works quite well. It's definitely a lighter wine both in flavor and in alcohol and is ready to be enjoyed immediately. 16.60 euros.


Daniele's red wines are much more restrained and less exuberant that his white wines and that's no bad thing perhaps given how overwhelming the whites are. It should also be underlined that we detected no funky or 'off ' aromas or flavors in any of his wines.


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