Interviews

Carlo De Biasi: Leading Innovation in Sustainable Winemaking

Photo for: Carlo De Biasi: Leading Innovation in Sustainable Winemaking

08/04/2024 Exploring the Intersection of Tradition and Innovation at San Felice

Carlo De Biasi, a seasoned professional with over 25 years of experience in the international wine sector, currently serves as the Direttore Generale at San Felice and as the Vice Président of Association Lien de la Vigne - Vinelink délégué à OIV. His journey in the world of wine began at the prestigious Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige, where he studied viticulture and enology. Over the years, he has honed his skills and expertise, working with renowned experts and institutions worldwide. Carlo's commitment to sustainable wine models has earned him accolades, including the "Green Personality of the Year" award by The Drinks Business in 2013. Since assuming his role at San Felice in October 2022, Carlo has been at the forefront of innovation, leading the company's efforts in sustainable viticulture and regenerative agriculture.

Presentation San Felice

Image: San Felice_Vigneti e vista su SIena

San Felice is a medieval Tuscan hamlet nestled among the hillsides of Chianti Classico near Siena and Montalcino. The surrounding woods, olive groves, and vineyards have been cultivated for centuries. The San Felice Estate, owned by the Grisaldi del Taja family from 1700 until 1968, is today a prestigious winery led by creative, innovative talents who have made great wines since the beginning, including the first Super Tuscan ever made in Chianti Classico, Vigorello.

Image: Panoramica dall'alto piazza Borgo

85% of San Felice’s 140 hectares are planted to Sangiovese, a fact that confirms the estate’s propensity for producing a Chianti Classico truly representative of the local terroir, including Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione and Poggio Rosso. Research and experimentation are in San Felice’s DNA, and throughout the years the team has carried out projects with the Universities of Florence and Pisa that have led to an important experiment with indigenous Tuscan varieties: among them Pugnitello, an ancient and prestigious variety, which has become one of the estate’s iconic wines

Inspired by the many accolades received over time, San Felice decided to venture into other production zones: the estate acquired Tenuta Campogiovanni in Montalcino in 1981, and within just a few years their Brunello was named among Wine Spectator’s “Top 100” in 1990, 2006, and 2012.

More recently, in 2016, San Felice acquired 16 hectares in Bolgheri, establishing the Bell’Aja estate. With its presence in the most prestigious areas in Tuscany, San Felice has solidified its standing as an important point of reference in the worlds of both Italian and international wine.

The historic medieval hamlet surrounded by vineyards was ultimately transformed into a 5-star hotel that has been the only Relais & Châteaux resort in Chianti Classico since 1992.

As the Direttore Generale of San Felice, you oversee one of Tuscany's most renowned wine estates. Can you share some of the key philosophies or approaches that guide San Felice's winemaking and vineyard management practices?

The values that guide San Felice are first and foremost sought-after authenticity, we respect our land and its culture, its traditions and we celebrate the best of it by giving life to special moments and wines with an identity and refined quality. Empathy and dedication guide us to spontaneously connect with our guests, with the community around us, with our collaborators, and with our customers; we do not lack the concrete ambition to constantly improve ourselves, always aspire to the best, driven by an instinctive search for excellence and the desire to raise the level while remaining genuine at the same time. To do this, attention to detail becomes a daily practice, we know that a perfect experience arises from attention to detail, even seemingly irrelevant ones. San Felice is an attentive winemaker, respectful of his territory, its history, and its culture. For this reason, the daily commitment is to produce identifying wines. Identity is a concept that embodies authenticity, elegance, the expression of the territory, and the centuries-old wine culture. Identity means representing the original vines in the wines and at the same time the interpretation of the vintage, without filters, in an authentic and therefore recognizable way.

San Felice is known for its commitment to sustainability and innovation in winemaking. Could you highlight some of the sustainable practices employed at San Felice and how they contribute to the quality and character of your wines?

San Felice was one of the first Italian wine companies to develop and adopt sustainable vineyards and then cellar management practices at the beginning of the year 2000. Much has been done over the years and today San Felice is an Equalitas certified company. Born from an initiative by Federdoc and Unione Italiana Vini, with the collaboration of CSQA Certifications Srl, Valoritalia, 3Avino, and Gambero Rosso, Equalitas Srl promotes sustainability within the wine agri-food chain, through an approach that brings together the best consolidated and innovative best practice initiatives, creating an Italian model of sustainable quality recognized worldwide, based on three fundamental pillars: environmental, social and economic.

We wanted to get certified because it is essential that a third-party validates our improvement path in the field of sustainability. We chose the Equalitas certification for its distinctive features, first of all, the technical area: good practices and economic, environmental, and social indicators integrated and each developed based on the most advanced experiences available.

After all, sustainability is a founding value of San Felice's philosophy in the environmental, economic, and social fields. In addition to the approach in the vineyard, for us being sustainable means being energy self-sufficient thanks to a system of photovoltaic panels and a wood chip thermal power plant with which to heat the various environments. Water is a precious commodity so after having purified it, the cellar water is reused for irrigation purposes. On a social level, we like to remember the Pruning School created to train vineyard operators, to give them a recognized level of professionalism resulting from study and field experiences. The Orto Felice is the social project born and promoted in 2012 by the Allianz UMANAMENTE Foundation, in collaboration with San Felice, the Tuscany Region, the Municipality of Castelnuovo Berardenga and the Committee of the Third Age. A philanthropic initiative aimed at improving the quality of life of young people with disabilities, promoting integration through horticultural and livestock activities.

Image: Bolgheri tramonto

San Felice is also dedicated to preserving natural environments. On the Tuscan coast, there is the WWF Affiliated Oasis of San Felice which is made up of various environments, partly natural, partly transformed by human work, starting from the large reclamations begun in the 19th century and integrates the already numerous series of areas protected in the Maremma territory. We can distinguish four habitats: the pine forest, the undergrowth, the dune, and the interdune, the brackish waters. The pine forest, planted almost two centuries ago for anti-malarial purposes by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, is the main habitat, composed of a first coastal strip of maritime pine, placed to protect the domestic pine or pine nut plant, of high commercial value. Protected by tall trees, the undergrowth is a lush environment characterized by the main Mediterranean essences and the presence of the typical passerines of the scrub. The dune environment, with its typical pioneer vegetation of grasses and bushes, protects the interior from salty winds and guarantees the stability of the dune. Finally, the Fiumara, also the work of human work, constitutes a lake environment very favorable to fish species and aquatic birds.

There are many animal and plant species present in the oasis. The European roller, the symbol of the Oasis, nests with some pairs also thanks to the nest boxes placed by WWF volunteers.

At a production level, climate change is now a fact of which the wine world is aware. In my opinion, we are in a moment of strong change in viticulture and in the viticultural models traditionally adopted in many territories. At San Felice, we believe that regenerative viticulture is the viticultural management model that we believe is suitable to face this challenge, a model based on the carbon cycle, which regenerates soils, blocks erosion, promotes biodiversity, and mitigates the effects of climate change. In detail, regenerative viticulture is focused on the recovery of the natural fertility of the soil, on the microbial activity of the soil, on the increase of organic matter, the improvement of the water cycle, and on carbon sequestration. The goal is to find a correct balance between organic matter, minerals, and microorganisms in the soil. Since the presence of flora and fauna is the indicator of the health of the vineyard, regenerative viticulture is committed to improving biodiversity and respecting the so-called "guests" of the vineyard. Regenerative viticulture is a new frontier because the starting assumption changes: to regenerate. Soil is the key to regenerative viticulture, but many aspects will need to be further explored to understand the soil system. The transition to regenerative viticulture inevitably takes time to get to the point where the ecosystem is stable. But the result is a resilient vineyard.

San Felice has a strong focus on indigenous grape varieties such as Sangiovese. How do you think these local varieties contribute to the uniqueness and identity of Italian wines on the international stage?

Sangiovese is the main grape variety of Tuscan wine production and also in San Felice it is the most cultivated grape variety. For this reason, San Felice has collaborated for years in the identification of new, more qualitative biotypes of Sangiovese which it subsequently used in the new plants.

The philosophy of San Felice is excellently represented by the creation of the Vitiarium, a collection of ancient native vines that aimed to curb the genetic erosion that was being witnessed in the eighties. In fact, in 1986, with this aim, an experimental vineyard of 2.5 hectares was created in the Vitiarium, a collection of 270 "minor" vines of which 161 were red grapes, defined as "Viziati". A term, this, which for many recalls the Latin word Vitis or which, according to a more romantic vision, has to do with the fact of being rare varieties jealously guarded by winemakers or making the wine a "Vizio" by giving it unique aromas.

Image: Panoramica vigna dai piani 

Today the collection represents a basin of vital viticultural biodiversity to face future challenges in the context of climate change, where ancient vines can express the ability to adapt to the new climatic context, making their contribution so that the wines of San Felice continue to maintain their identity.

Local varieties are an essential element in the expression of the identity of a wine, as are the territory and the vintage. These elements make a wine unique, never the same, and above all different from others, never banal and never standardized, never repeatable, faithful testimony of a territory, of a grape variety, of vintage, and of the savoir-faire of those who manage the vineyard and of those who expertly vinify the grapes. Wine that presents itself like this to the world.

With Italy's rich heritage of indigenous grape varieties such as Aglianico, and Vermentino, which of these varieties are you particularly enthusiastic about for their potential to create exceptional wines? Furthermore, how is San Felice actively engaging with these varieties to unlock their full potential and deliver outstanding expressions in your wines?"

In Italy, there are many local vines cultivated, more than 600. In recent years many producers have tried to rediscover even the almost lost varieties to keep this basin of biodiversity alive. In San Felice, the Vitiarium project was born with the aim of recovering ancient vines and understanding which ones were best suited to the Chianti area to produce quality wines. Subsequent phenotypic and genotypic analyses led to the selection of 30 varieties subjected to a second phase of testing, aimed at identifying their morphological stability during subsequent harvests and the best analytical and organoleptic profiles when vinified on a small scale. Abrusco, Ciliegiolo, Mazzese, and Malvasia Nera were of greater interest and today, blended with Sangiovese, express the power of their autochthony in San Felice wines. Pugnitello, on the other hand, immediately demonstrated that it had promising agronomic and qualitative traits, which is why it was vinified in purity. So in 1992, on a small farm not far from the Poggio Rosso vineyards, 1,000 cuttings of this vine were planted from which, in 2003, Pugnitello Toscana IGT was obtained, the company's iconic label and an ancient vine of great value. Today there are 12 hectares of Pugnitello cultivated in San Felice.

Image: (L-R) CAMPOGIOVANNI BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO, IL GRIGIO RISERVA and 
IL POGGIO ROSSO

Aside from well-known regions like Tuscany and Piedmont, Italy is home to several emerging wine regions like Campania and Puglia, and lesser-known grape varieties. Could you share your insights on any up-and-coming Italian regions or grape varieties that you believe have the potential to make a significant impact on the Italian wine industry in the coming years?

In recent years, the greatest impact on Italian wine production in terms of volumes has been had by Prosecco in Veneto, a continuously growing phenomenon with a total surface area of approximately 38.000 ha of vineyards out of the 650.000 ha in Italy. It is unlikely that a new phenomenon of this type will be repeated.

About smaller quality productions, Tuscany and Piedmont continue their path of producing high-quality, distinctive wines. In Tuscany in recent years, in addition to Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, the Bolgheri denomination has grown a lot in terms of the quality of its wines and is presenting itself well on international markets despite still being a small and contained denomination (approximately 1190 ha of vineyard).

Image: Montalcino - Campogiovanni - focus quercia

Looking at sparkling wines, I believe that Trentino can reach even higher quality levels than the current ones and can fully be the Italian territory of excellence for this type of wine.

The best expressions of white wines can be found in Alto Adige, where manual viticulture in the high hills allows for highly expressive wines to be obtained. The white wines of central and southern Italy are also interesting, from Verdicchio from the Marche to Fiano from Avellino and Falanghina.

Association Lien de la Vigne - Vinelink is committed to promoting the cultural heritage of wine. How does the association work to preserve and promote this heritage, both in France and internationally?

Lien de la Vigne – Vinelink International is an independent association that brings together public and private research centers, producers, and interprofessional structures, dedicated to collaboration, exchange, and transfer of technological innovation for the wine sector. Conferences, surveys, development of research partnerships, and international collaborations between all the figures in the supply chain are the tools used by the Association, founded in 1992 and based in Paris, to promote the development and diffusion of innovation in the wine sector. Exactly in the year of its 30th anniversary since its foundation, during the General Assembly of the Oiv, held in Dijon on 25 October 2021, the Lien de la Vigne Vinelink International Association was recognized in Observer status.

Each year, the Lien de la Vigne Association deals with a major study topic that calls on experts from all trades in the sector (public and private research) and professionals.

Image: The meeting of the Italian members of Association Lien de la Vigne - Vinelink took place at the Braccesca estate in Montepulciano

Their opinions are collected and synthesized during meetings of the Executive Board in which certain members of the board and private and scientific members participate (the board is made up of 10/12 members who may vary each year depending on the skills of the subjects dealt with).

During a specialized workshop (Autumn Workshop) in which the entire Bureau and the specialists are called upon to report - 25 to 30 people - participate, the report proposals are presented and the annual survey is reviewed.

During the following spring, the results are presented at the General Assembly which is attended by private and scientific members, as well as by prestigious guests.

As someone with extensive experience in the wine industry, what advice would you give to young professionals looking to pursue a career in wine, especially in the areas of sustainability and innovation?

The advice I would like to give to young people is first of all to study and then to open their minds by having experiences in different territories, tackling different ways of cultivating the vineyard, making wine, in different climates and soils, creating a dense network of contacts to be always updated and sharing experiences.

In recent days I met a young producer from the Alentejo region in Portugal. Anna Kristina Jorgensen is a girl of Danish origin, who studied in Australia and worked in California (US), Burgundy and Cote Rotie (F), New Zealand, and South Australia. Having returned to Portugal, she took over the family business, transforming it according to concepts of viticultural vocation, the study of soils, regenerative agriculture, sustainability, innovation, identity, and value of wine. She is an example for many young people.

Association Lien de la Vigne - Vinelink is dedicated to promoting sustainable and responsible wine production. What are some of the key initiatives or projects that the association is currently working on, and how do they benefit the wine industry as a whole?

In recent years the association has focused on a couple of fundamental issues for the sector. The first concerns the adaptation of viticulture and enology to ongoing climate change and the second is the forecasts of wine consumption in the world for the 2040 horizon taking into account the expected demographic change. These two themes were deeply analyzed and gave valuable indications for members on how to face the challenges of the future.

The association is the place where international wine companies and research centers meet to give life to innovative projects in the different areas of wine production.

An example concerns the Viti Life Case project born with the support of the Association and to which some members including San Felice have joined, which the European Commission has deemed adequate and relevant to contribute to the European Green Deal and the specific objectives of the Life program and the sub-program for mitigation and adaptation to climate change (CCMA), aims to develop and disseminate innovative techniques to achieve the objectives of EU legislation and policy on climate action, contributing to the knowledge base and the application of best practices, in line with the European Soil Strategy, adopting cutting-edge Carbon Farming methods.

As a delegate to the OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine), you are involved in shaping international standards and regulations for the wine sector. What are some of the current priorities or areas of focus for the OIV, and how do they impact wine producers around the world?

The 2020-2024 OIV Strategic Plan and its key objectives are guided by the various challenges the international vitivinicultural sector is facing, but also by a desire to integrate the 2030 perspectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), elaborated under the aegis of the United Nations, into the Organisation's work. 

- Promote environmentally friendly vitiviniculture.

- Promote economic activity according to principles of sustainable development of market growth and globalization.

- Contribute to social development through viti viniculture.

- Pursue the development of a harmonized regulatory environment.

- Facilitate the digital transition of the sector.

As a Representative of the Lien de la Vigne Observer at the OIV, I participate in some of the working groups that operate on topics of greatest interest.

Image: The meeting on sustainability in the wine sector organized by OIV - International Organisation of Vine and Wine in Paris.

The Group of Experts on Sustainable Development and Climate Change works to define resolutions on extremely important topics, from the sector's adaptation strategy to climate change to agroecology, to cultivation in arid areas, to the conservation of nature and biodiversity, to microbial biodiversity of the soils up to the ecological design of the cellars.

In the context of an interconnected world, the wine sector is constantly evolving these expectations and demands, which are increasingly linked to environmental, social, and cultural values. However, the technical-scientific, political, and economic cooperation of countries and different actors is not sufficient to guarantee the conservation and sustainability of the world's wine heritage. The OIV, committed to technical-scientific aspects, must also be open to cultural, traditional, and heritage aspects. Three key objectives could therefore guide this renewal:

- The recognition of the historical, cultural, landscape, and social heritage of the global wine industry by establishing a universal definition.

- The preservation and diffusion of ancestral techniques and traditions linked to the cultivation of grapes and their transformation.

- The development of research and socio-cultural reflections on vines and wine in the world.

In this sense, the different actions and/or programs on which the OIV works in technical and scientific matters must become platforms for cultural exchange and cooperation between countries, scientific experts, and the general public. A clear roadmap guides this project, inspired by the fundamental principles of sustainability.

In your role as Vice Président of Association Lien de la Vigne - Vinelink délégué à OIV, you play a significant role in international wine organizations. How do you see the global wine industry evolving in the next five years, and what challenges and opportunities do you anticipate?

The most important challenges we face at a technical production level mainly concern two factors. The ongoing climate change is forcing wine producers to adapt their savoir-faire to the changed conditions, also taking into account the role that winemakers have in terms of safeguarding the territories and the environment. A certainly very complex challenge where the concepts of sustainability and regenerative viticulture can help in determining the guidelines. At the international wine market level, we are emerging from a post-pandemic period which initially recorded a strong increase in sales at a global level but is now seeing a general readjustment. This complex and uncertain scenario is part of a context of a strong change in wine consumption habits also linked to the demographic change underway. Wine consumption sees a continuous decline in traditionally producing countries which, due to the decline in the domestic market, are forced to invest in exports to consolidated and new markets, markets which will be subject to further changes following the expected demographic changes and a young population that will not follow the consumption trends of their parents.

It must be said that the approach to wine consumption of today's young people is in many ways similar to that of young people of past years. If today those under 25 consume wine occasionally and on convivial occasions, it is certainly nothing new, just as on these occasions the consumption of cocktails is favored rather than wine. This is to say that certain values - such as origin and territory - become important as a factor of choice with the cognitive "maturity" of the consumer. What is instead a product of our times and which is found in the value system of today's young people (and which was not present in that of the under-25s of yesterday) is the theme of health, sustainability, and climate change. In short, the world that consumes wine will no longer build its growth on volume, but on the evocative value expressed by the bottles: from taste, to experience, from the concept of sustainability, to lifestyle.

In this context, the wine supply chain will have to increase the premium tendency of its proposals, but also renew and rationalize an offer that today in several cases is out of focus compared to a rapidly changing demand, young people first.

[[relatedPurchasesItems-61]]

Conclusion:

As the wine industry continues to evolve, Carlo De Biasi remains a beacon of inspiration and innovation. His dedication to sustainability, coupled with his vast experience and profound understanding of viticulture, is shaping the future of winemaking at San Felice, in Italy, the European and global viticulture. Through his leadership at San Felice and his role at Association Lien de la Vigne - Vinelink délégué à OIV, Carlo is paving the way for a more sustainable and vibrant wine industry.

In conversation with Malvika Patel, Editor and VP, Beverage Trade Network

The 2024 Sommeliers Choice Awards results are out! View the results here.