A Local’s Guide To Sustainable Wine In Italy

Do you know the difference between natural, biodynamic and low-intervention wine?

A fixture at every dining table in Italy, wine is as ubiquitous as espresso and homemade pasta. Italy has produced wine for millennia and the country boasts 350 indigenous grape varietals from north to south. Unfortunately, climate change is negatively impacting production due to increasing temperatures, intense rainfall, and soil degradation. Thus, producers and consumers are demanding more sustainable wine choices to safeguard this important part of Italian heritage and economy. These include natural, biodynamic, organic, and biological wines.

But what exactly do these terms mean? How do you know if something is truly “sustainable” or not? And is natural wine actually a better choice? Let’s explore what we mean by “sustainable wine” and where to find it in Italy.

How Do We Define “Sustainability”?

Before exploring sustainable wine practices in Italy, it’s crucial to understand the terminology used in the broader context of sustainable viticulture.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, sustainability is understood as “a form of intergenerational ethics in which the environmental and economic actions taken by present persons do not diminish the opportunities of future persons to enjoy similar levels of wealth, utility, or welfare.” Sustainability is an important (but often vaguely defined) ideal that has become a marketing buzzword. This makes it susceptible to greenwashing.

For the purpose of this guide, let’s cover the basics that we do know. Sustainability can be divided into three broad categories: environmental, economic, and social.

I consider sustainable wine to be produced with an emphasis on environmental protection while respecting economic viability and social responsibility.

  • For instance, organic and biodynamic farming practices can be considered environmentally sustainable.
  • Wineries that distribute wine to local shops and restaurants can also be considered environmentally sustainable. This is because they are supporting short food supply chains and relying on less carbon emission through short-distance transportation.
  • Social sustainability can be attributed to the company and the people they employ, and how those employees are treated.
Yellow and red crates full of purple  grapes in the vineyard on a sunny day.
©Ronco Calino Franciacorta

Natural Wine Terms

So what about natural wine? Natural wine and sustainable wine are not the same thing. However, I consider wines made naturally to be more environmentally sustainable than mass-produced wines that don’t follow natural wine principles. Here are some more buzzwords you’ll come across in your sustainable wine research.

  • Organic wine: The grapes are grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals applied in the vineyard.
  • Biodynamic wine: A holistic view of agriculture that applies to the farming practices in the vineyard. There’s an emphasis on natural regeneration without chemical fertilizers and on strengthening fertility in the soil with natural ingredients.
  • Regenerative agriculture: Protecting the earth’s natural resources by rebuilding healthy, organic soil. This helps sequester carbon and supports microorganisms in the soil.
  • Circular economy: The production and waste cycles are interconnected to minimize a winery’s environmental impact. The idea is to reuse, refurbish, and recycle materials within a circular model. Examples include composting grape skins, prioritizing renewable energy, and reusing wine bottles or barrels year after year.
  • Natural wine: This is the most complicated definition yet! The ethos behind “natural” wine is to create a product that is as unadulterated and pure as possible, reflecting the raw essence of the grape and its origin. Natural farming techniques emphasize minimal intervention from the winemaker, allowing the natural environment to drive the cultivation and fermentation processes. This means no additives, processing aids, or commercial yeasts are added — often resulting in “funky” flavors.
  • Low-intervention wine: These wines aim to maintain a balance between preserving the wine’s natural character without fully committing to the stringent criteria that define natural wines. Some additives may be used, but this will vary on a case-by-case basis.

Wine can be made using just one of these practices, or all of them! Some producers go all in or select which farming and production methods work best for their business (i.e. whichever is economically sustainable for them).

©I Fabbri Chianti Classico

5 Sustainable Wineries In Italy You Should Visit

Italy has no shortage of wineries but finding sustainable wineries can be difficult. There’s no one-size-fits-all definition for what constitutes “sustainable” wine. However, the major takeaway is respect for the land. Whether that is through organic farming, small production, or using grape varietals that are indigenous to the region.

These small businesses, families, and individual winemakers exemplify many of the aspects of sustainability I’ve mentioned above. They are also involved in many operations at once: they are winemakers, vineyard managers, land stewards, farmers, mothers, fathers, educators, and gracious hosts.

I Fabbri: Tuscany

Owned and run by Susanna Grassi, I Fabbri is located in Lamole, a small hamlet in the hills of Chianti. The Chianti region is host to many large-scale wineries that cater to tourists non-stop, serving wine made for the masses and grocery store shelves. But I Fabbri is the exact opposite! Susanna and her small team make wine that respects the cultural heritage of the region while practicing organic farming methods. Not to mention hosting small intimate tastings at the Castello. Many of the vineyards sit atop ancient terraces that help protect the soil from erosion caused by strong wind and rain. There is a deep respect for the land here, and some of the vineyards are up to 60 years old.

Tenuta San Marcello: Le Marche

Tenuta San Marcello is a winery and agritourism tucked away in the small village of San Marcello in Jesi, Le Marche. Owned by a husband-and-wife duo, the vineyards surround the property which includes their restaurant and guest rooms, pool, and, of course, the winery. Tenuta San Marcello produces classic wines of the area under the DOC and DOCG labels. This also includes a line of natural wines, one of them aptly named Indisciplinato. A few of the wines go through an aging process in amphorae; large clay pots buried underground! When stored underground, the vessels remain at a stable, chilled temperature. This allows the wine to age slowly and smoothly without any additional artificial cooling system.

Corte Bravi: Veneto

Corte Bravi is a family-run winery in Valpolicella, a stone’s throw from Verona. Their wines range from regional classics that maintain DOCG and DOC seals, to other styles. This includes a Pétillant Naturel (pet-net for short), and a liter bottle of vino rosso made from the same grapes. Corte Bravi’s sustainable practices include organic viticulture and practicing short food supply chains by selling wines to local shops and restaurants. Additionally, they actively host and teach young people about natural wine production. The vineyards are located in the winemaker’s backyard, and their neighborhoods have recently opened a B&B next door. Perfect for an overnight or weekend stay!

©Cantina A. Martinelli

Cantina A. Martinelli: Trentino-Alto Adige

Founded in the 1860s, Cantina A. Martinelli in Trentino is a winery with a long history. Revived by brothers Andrea and Giulio in 2010, the historic farmhouse, cantina, and vineyards are now back in full swing. The cantina produces a variety of wines with the Teroldego grape, a classic varietal of the region, along with a new line of natural wines. Giulio and Victoria (husband and wife) are heavily involved with the winery’s future. Cantina A. Martinelli is a member of the Italian Federation of International Winegrowers (FIVI) and Il Consorzio Vignaioli del Trentino. Victoria also started her own import company, Gamma Import & Co during the pandemic. It now sources and distributes high-quality olive oils from Puglia and Tuscany, as well as other specialty Italian products.

Azienda Agricola Corvagialla: Lazio

Azienda Agricola Corvagialla is a winery in the town of Lubriano, just two hours north of Rome. Beatrice purchased the land to live closer to nature, and her son Niccolò is now the winemaker. Corvagialla is a great example of how the new generation of Italian winemakers is producing incredible wines while respecting traditional methods. Here, a dark ruby pet-nat is made with Sangiovese and Montepulciano grapes. The local white and red wines are aged in chestnut barrels — a customary approach to aging wine within the region. The winery farms organically and utilizes animals in the vineyard, including geese. Not only do the birds eat bugs in the vineyard…their talons gently sift the soil!

Shopping For Sustainable Wine In Italy

Shopping for any kind of wine can be daunting, especially in a foreign country and in another language. If you’re seeking out sustainable wine in particular, a good rule of thumb is to check out artisan shops, restaurants, and bars that sell local products and support small producers. This way you can ask for assistance, and rest assured that no matter what you choose, the wines have already been selected with certain criteria in mind.

Some good artisan shops in Italy include Les Vignerons and Solovino in Rome, Vino Vero in Venice, Nuova Drogheria in Modena, and Vino al Vino in Florence. If you live in Italy, Rolling Wine is an online marketplace for natural wines that ships throughout the country.

If you are shopping for wine on your own, there are a few things on the label that can help. The organic label (a green or white leaf) means that the grapes are grown using organic viticultural practices outlined by the EU Commission. Another label to look for is the FIVI label. FIVI stands for Federazione Italiana Vignaioli Indipendenti, Federation of Independent Winegrowers. Being a member of FIVI means that the winemaker 1) grows their own grapes, 2) produces their own wine without the aid of larger companies, and 3) sells their own products.

Guidebooks & Apps

The Slow Wine Guide is a comprehensive guidebook featuring Italian estates that produce “good, clean, and fair wines” according to their manifesto. While the guide is published in Italian and too heavy for travel, the Instagram account @slow_wine_slowfood is constantly spotlighting wineries and wines featured in the guide.

The Raisin Wine app is a great application to download before a trip to Italy. Their digital map allows you to find artisan producers, shops, and restaurants that serve and support natural wines near you.

Founded in Italy in 2006, the VinNatur Association has over 250 members from 12 countries around the world. It organizes natural wine fairs each year to promote sustainable wine production and help visitors meet new wine producers. This year, VinNatur Tasting will take place near Verona from April 13-15, 2024.

For more information about sustainable wineries in Italy, check out author Tana’s travel guides curated for natural wine enthusiasts who are not afraid of taking a bus or two.

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