San Polino – A Presentation of the Winery and our Challenges for Climate Action
With this presentation we briefly introduce our winery with a short description of our work and ideas. At the end we ask four questions which reflect some of the greatest challenges we face as a small winery aiming for farming practices which can balance a profitable business against environmental degeneration.
We realize this is no easy task, given that modern farming methods developed hand in hand with capitalist business models, but we are optimistic and believe that working in cooperation with like-minded, fellow viticulturalists and researchers will hopefully bring us many solutions. The world of science and innovation moves on as I write these words.
About San Polino:
San Polino is a small, family-run wine estate in Montalcino, Tuscany, an area famous for its Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino wine made 100% from the Sangiovese grape. In any year we produce a maximum 35000 bottles from 10 hectares of Sangiovese vineyard. Our vineyards are surrounded by 20 hectares of dense and ancient woodland, teeming with wildlife (boar, deer, porcupines, foxes, hedgehogs, hare, wolves, snakes, lizards and insects of all types). We also have ample areas of open shrubland where birds, insects and reptiles nest.
Southern Tuscany is mainly arid during the summer and nowadays temperatures can hover around 37°C, often soaring to over 40°C. While in the past we expected rain in November and March with dry and sunny summers now the seasons have become quite chaotic. For example, in 2023 it rained both heavily and lightly through May and June, with uncharacteristic humidity in July and August necessitating more passages for spraying by tractor in the vineyard to ward of problems of mildew.
While aerial photographs of the estate show what appear to be 5 or 6 different vineyards, we see these as comprising only ONE vineyard crisscrossed by intentionally left wildlife corridors. This is an important act of perception as we consider the vineyard ecosystem to be more than the sum of its actual vines; rather it includes the bordering areas, be they open field, forest or shrubland.
We have been certified organic since 1994 and biodynamic since 2006 and have always aimed for a permaculture of biodiversity in order to enhance the health of the vineyards, the larger environment (and even ourselves.)
We get all our energy from a company working only with renewable energy sources. So, while we do not have solar panels (as part of a UNESCO heritage site we are not permitted to put solar panels on our rooves) we feel we are doing our best for the time being.
OUR VITICULTURAL PRACTICES
Right from the start we wanted to engage with vineyard pathogens in a holistic way: we used fungal agents to fight problems of mildew and other bacteria or microorganic sprays to fill in functionally empty niches in the vines’ ecosystems while keeping to as low as possible dosages of sulfur and copper, most years well below the amounts permitted in organic agriculture.
We have never irrigated our vines, in any case this is not allowed by Brunello regulations.
We do, however, till the soil twice a year, in the autumn to a depth of 30-50 cm to aerate the soil and facilitate the soil absorption of winter rainfall and in the spring to a depth of 15 cm as we cover the compost which we apply to the vineyard soils.
We make our own composts, piles of them from all the harvest debris: grape skins, skins, stalks and all the green cuttings from the farm. In the spring we put these composts back into the vineyards to help the vines establish intact and balanced nutrient cycles.
We aim to mitigate our soil tilling by planting regenerating cover crops between the rows. The web-like structures of the cereals and grass roots to dissuade erosion, legumes for nitrogen and wildflowers as pollinators and insect attractors.
We have planted fruit trees around the vineyards, because whilst surrounded by forest we are well aware that the fungal networks connecting the forest trees are ectomycorrhizal, while those that connect most fruiting trees (including vines, olives, linden, maple, peach, cherry etc.) are endomycorrhizal. Thus, we hope for better vine to vine communication and mutual assistance below soil.
Last year we replanted a vineyard, 1 hectare with 4200 vines. We inoculated the roots of the vine saplings with fungal spores and as a formal experiment in viti-forestry we planted indigenous Italian field maples at 15 m distances in the rows. We know that maple roots and vine roots work with the same subsoil fungal networks. We know that maples create nesting grounds for insects and reptiles, that their blossom functions as insect attractors and we wonder what effect the shade from their foliage will have on the vines during the hot summer months. Of course, we have no control group, but as often the case, it appears that viticultural experiment consists of observation with timely dot-joining in intelligent supposition. We’ll see what happens and report back in the future.
We ferment our grapes using “indigenous” yeasts, which may be more indigenous than previously supposed! It appears that humans domesticated the saccharomyces cerevisiae at the latest around 13000 years ago with the advent of settled communities as a way of conserving food, and, as new thought would have it, perhaps as long ago as around 60000 years ago. The smaller gut of the Neanderthals indicate that much of their foods had been fermented before ingestion.
We do know now that as modern humans we carry saccharomyces cerevisiae in our guts and mouths, in significant quantities.
So perhaps the very yeast that ferments our wines actually dropped off us while we were so diligently tending the vines over the summer months! Entangled wines galore!!
If we were to be involved in any research project it would probably be based upon levels of biodiversity, comparing the differences found in the vineyard, the surrounding shrubland and forests. This in itself would give us a good indication as to where we stand in our positioning as a “green” artisan-industry.
At San Polino we offer wine tours by appointment. The tours take around 2 hours. We take time to tour the vineyards and explain our practices, our concerns and our messages. We hope to inspire our visitors, offer them a new way of seeing and help them understand how, as mindful and conscientious consumers, they have a role to play in changing the way that viticulture is done.
As such is change created from the ground up, and we all play whatever part we can.
PHILOSPHICAL THOUGHTS, why we were attracted to Porto Protocol and what we would hope from it:
We are attracted to the Porto Protocol because of its emphasis on sharing knowledge for finding solutions to issues pertaining to viticulture and climate change.
Luckily, and in general, people are interested in wine, and, as such, researchers from scientific institutes too. So, as part of the agricultural community winemakers are gifted with a disproportionately large platform for which to talk about issues related to modern agricultural practices and the environment– a great and difficult equation to balance. And the best thing about this is that any solutions in viticulture can then be shared with the larger agricultural community – ultimately to enable the emergence of friendlier, more equitable and environmentally healthy working agricultural models. That’s my dream. But it’s a good one.
SAN POLINO: OUR CHALLENGES AND DIFFICULT QUESTIONS: where we lay out just 4 of the greatest challenges we face at San Polino:
CHALLENGE 1: EARTH COMPACTION: As radically minded organic viticulturalists we know that we should not use copper and sulfur on the vines. This implies greater spraying of alternative products – yet we know that tractor use compacts the soils in the vineyard.
The Problem: How can we protect the vines from pathogens if we don’t spray them often with our micro-organic sprays? Which is good for the plant ecology but wreaks havoc on the soil as our spraying involves the tractor and pump and leads to soil compaction.
Which means we find we need to:
CHALLENGE 2: TILL THE FIELDS in the autumn, to break up and aerate the soil and facilitate water absorption from winter rains.
The Problem: How can we apply our wonderful sprays to the vineyard and obtain a light, spongy soil without tillage, however light? Cover cropping is not sufficient as the seeds do not germinate if the soil is compacted.
CHALLENGE 3: DEISEL: We all know how polluting it is to turn on the tractor. On our environmental equation we must balance the benefits of making our green composts against the CO2 we create by using a shredding machine attached to the tractor. Or of turning the compost over for fermentation with a diesel-powered digger. Are we damaging rather than regenerating our environment?
CHALLENGE 4: WATER MANAGEMENT IN AN ARID CLIMATE: This last question ties into the first two. How can we encourage water absorption to its best potential in our soils? And how can we best prevent erosion?
We would welcome any feedback from Porto Protocol members or readers who have any ideas or experience on the matter.
In reality, as a small winery we are facing a long list of challenges. One of the greatest issues for us is how to prioritize solution-searching for their resolution while at the same time maintaining the profitability of the winery. Some issues we have studied with greater care and others with less, not for lack of interest but for lack of resources, mostly time and person-power. It is for this reason that we would be grateful for any conversation regarding issues related to, and not necessarily in this order: packaging, travel for PR purposes, diesel use, CO2 monitoring and biodiversity nesting areas in the vineyard and adjacent areas – just to name a few.