How Climate Change Is Transforming Wine: An Interview with San Felice’s Carlo De Biasi

How Climate Change Is Transforming Wine: An Interview with San Felice’s Carlo De Biasi

San Felice Wines

A hotter climate will impact every branch of the beverage world, but nowhere is the change being felt more quickly than wine. Warming temperatures, new pests, and extreme weather events have already pushed winemakers to rethink how they approach everything from  vine cultivation to blending. That’s especially challenging for heritage winemakers at scale, as they have to account for such shifts while maintaining consistency between vintages in a rapidly changing environment.

So when San Felice hired a new GM in October 2022, their pick made sense: Carlo De Biasi, a longtime advocate for sustainable viticulture who began studying his craft at age 14. In 2013, De Biasi was named “Green Personality of the Year” by The Drinks Business Green Awards — almost a decade before many winemakers would even start sustainability programs.

Located in Italy’s Chianti Classico region, roughly 30 minutes from Siena, San Felice’s estate totals 685 hectares, including the experimental “Vitiarium” that’s been in operation since 1986. Since taking over the GM role, De Biasi and his team have leaned into experimentation and work with other winemakers; in his mind, the very future of the industry rests on collaboration, not competition. (We reviewed their 2022 red wine releases last year.)

We caught up with De Biasi to talk about his background, the first few months in his new role, and how wine must adapt to survive the coming decades of climate shift.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Drinkhacker: Tell me about your personal history with wine.

Carlo De Biasi: My history with wine began in secondary school. At the end of my middle school years, like all 14-year-olds, I was faced with the choice of what to study in senior school. Living in Trento, there was a wide range of choices. Convinced by some classmates, I enrolled on the six-year wine-making technician course at the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige — the oldest Italian wine school, founded in 1874 at the behest of the Tyrolean ‘Dieta’, or regional parliament.

I spent my six years at the Istituto immersed in studying viticulture and oenology, my passion for which increased daily. After finishing these higher studies, my desire to specialize further led me to enroll in the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at Milan University, where five years later I obtained my master’s degree with a research thesis in the field of viticultural zoning, which refers to the study of a territory’s suitability for wine-making and analysis of the interaction between soil, vine and vintage.

I then rounded off my studies by attending courses in oenology and viticulture at the Faculty of Oenology at the Université Victor Segalen Bordeaux 2. This specialization led me to collaborate initially with the same institute I had graduated from some years previously, before going to work for a leading Veneto winery in the area where Soave and Valpolicella wines are produced.

At the beginning of the 2000s, I arrived at Casa Vinicola Zonin in the role of Director of Agriculture of the Zonin Family Estates, comprising 10 wineries located in seven Italian regions and in the United States. In this role, I oversaw more than 2000 hectares of vineyards and over 50 varieties of vines, cultivated across a wide range of climates, soils, denominations, and oenological cultures. During that time, I had the opportunity to develop my agronomic, oenological and business management skills. I also had the privilege of visiting most of the main international wine regions and collaborating with national and international research institutes, working with the best experts in the sector: in particular, I am honored to have spent 16 years alongside the late Prof. Denis Dubourdieu and Prof. Attilio Scienza.

View of vineyard from top 3

My commitment to the wine sector over those years led to me being appointed first a member of the Italian Vine and Wine Academy and subsequently Vice President of the International Association Lien de la Vigne in Paris. Since November 2021, I have represented the Association at the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV). My commitment to the development and adoption of sustainable wine models led to me being nominated Green Personality of the Year at The Drinks Business Green Awards in London in 2013.

During my six years at the helm of Cantina Toblino, I significantly promoted the spread of organic viticulture, establishing a project with important implications for the protection of biodiversity and the dissemination of the principles of regenerative viticulture, and launching the Climate Impetus project. This EU program involves carrying out analyses in the seven regions selected in order to propose adaptable methodologies and techniques to mitigate the effects of climate change. After participating as a keynote speaker at the world’s largest sustainability conference “Green Wine Future 2022,” I arrived here at San Felice last October.

Drinkhacker: As GM for the San Felice estate, take us through a typical week in your work life.

Carlo De Biasi: It is hard for me to speak of a typical week at this point, as each week is different from the one before. In general, I try to ensure I am physically present at San Felice on Mondays, the day on which analysis, programming, and review meetings with the technical, administrative, commercial, marketing, and communication departments are generally scheduled.

On Monday afternoons, I have a regular update meeting with San Felice President, Mario Cuccia. During the week the agenda is always full of commitments: you can easily go from meetings with Protection Consortia, rather than at the Institutions, to national and international trips to meet agents, importers, distributors, and customers, rather than participating in tastings, fairs, and industry conferences. On the other hand, the task assigned to me is clear: to draw on my extensive experience in order to optimize the qualities of the three wineries (San Felice, Bell’Aja, and Campogiovanni) and further improve their standing on the international wine scene.

In any case, my schedule needs to leave room for visits to the vines and vineyards, so I can be present at critical moments such as the planting of a new vineyard and pruning and manual management of the vines, and also to taste the wines as they mature and age.

Wine Cellar

Drinkhacker: How is climate change impacting winemakers?

Carlo De Biasi: Climate change is now a fact of which the wine world is absolutely aware. I believe this is a time of great change in viticulture and for the viticultural models traditionally adopted in many territories. In general, we are seeing how growers are seeking to move to higher altitudes and also, where this is not possible, exploring new potentially viable areas (UK, Normandy, Brittany, Belgium, Holland, etc.).

Climate change is changing the vine’s traditional production cycle by bringing forward harvest dates. In some cases where the fruit tends to mature relatively late this can actually have a positive effect, but for others it has a negative impact on the concentration of the grapes, as it cuts short phenolic maturation.

Associated with this change, we are also seeing increased damage due to extreme weather events: For example, in 2017, a spring frost compromised a good portion of European production, not to mention the effects of violent thunderstorms and prolonged droughts.

Winegrowers are thus faced with the need to consider cultivating new vines, vines which are better suited to changing climatic conditions and the model of the future. At San Felice, we believe that regenerative viticulture is the viticultural management model best suited to facing this challenge. Regenerative viticulture represents a model based on the carbon cycle and which regenerates the soil, countering erosion, promoting biodiversity, and mitigating the effects of climate change.

More specifically, regenerative viticulture focuses on restoring a soil’s natural fertility, microbic soil activity, increasing organic matter, improving the water cycle, and carbon capture. The goal is to find a proper balance between organic matter, minerals and microorganisms in the soil. Since the presence of flora and fauna is indicative of the health of the vineyard, regenerative viticulture is committed to improving biodiversity and respecting the so-called “guests” of the vineyard.

San Felice Estate

Regenerative viticulture represents a new frontier in that the point of departure itself changes: regeneration. Soil is the key to regenerative viticulture, but there are many aspects that will require further exploration if we are to understand the soil system. The transition to regenerative viticulture inevitably takes time, as stabilizing the ecosystem is a lengthy process. But the end result is a resilient vineyard.

San Felice, as part of this journey, has recently launched a company-wide study of the Soil Microbiome. Many of the living organisms present in the soil perform functions that are essential for man, ecosystems and life itself, contributing substantially to soil fertility. The more biologically active the soil, the more fertile it will be. Management of a soil’s fertility must therefore take into account not only its chemical-physical composition, but also its microbiological composition, often referred to as the microbiome.

Drinkhacker: What can winemakers do to prioritize sustainability?

Carlo De Biasi: The issue of sustainability in the wine sector has been around for many years now. We have been talking about sustainability for over 20 years, since back when the Winegrowers of California presented the first model of analysis, measurement and self-assessment of improvements in the realm of sustainability. For me, that’s where it all started. Many projects followed in Italy, Spain, Chile, New Zealand, and France, involving companies and winegrowers.

The first concepts to gain universal diffusion pertained to vineyard agronomy, from the introduction of best practices to the monitoring of improvement. At the time, the focus was on environmental sustainability. The intervening years have seen great progress however, with the concept of sustainability expanding to include economic and social concerns, and many associations of producers, consortia and territories establishing similar sustainability projects and measures to mitigate the effects of climate change. Today, all winegrowers worldwide are informed about sustainability issues and have the tools to improve their performance in this regard.

Drinkhacker: How do you and your team build consistency across vintages and years?

Carlo De Biasi: San Felice is an attentive winemaker, respectful of the territory in which it operates, its history and its culture. For this reason, our daily commitment is to producing wines with identity. Identity is a concept encompassing authenticity, elegance, and the expression of territory and secular wine culture. Identity means portraying the grapes of origin in the wines, while simultaneously interpreting the vintage, with no filters, in an authentic and recognizable manner.

We try to manage cultivation of the vineyard in accordance with climatic trends, carefully targeting the harvest according to the ripening of the grapes which varies across different soils, and taking into account variability in the vigor and development of the vine within any given vineyard itself. The same principle is followed in the cellar, with the different batches identified in the vineyard kept separate prior to blending — a delicate phase that can only be successfully executed by an attentive and refined palate. Barrel aging of red wines follows the same principle, with regular tasting to determine the duration of this stage. These measures enable us to ensure continuity in terms of style, although of course each vintage has its own particular characteristics, testimony to the wine’s authenticity.

Drinkhacker: Tell me about Vitiarium, your experimental vineyard. How did that come about? How long has it been operational? What are you currently testing, and what do you hope to test down the line?

Carlo De Biasi: It all began back when San Felice decided to do something about the disappearance of ancient vines in Tuscany in the early eighties. This provided the catalyst for Vitiarium in 1986 — an experimental vineyard of 2.5 hectares that brought together 270 “minor” vines, 161 of which were red grape varieties, called “Viziati.” This term evokes the Latin word “Vitis” or, more romantically, points to the fact that these are rare varieties, jealously guarded by winemakers and capable of turning a wine into a “vice,” with unique aromas.

Thirty varieties were then selected via phenotypic and genotypic analyses and subsequently subjected to a second phase of experimentation, aimed at studying their morphological stability during subsequent harvests and identifying those with the best analytical and organoleptic profiles when vinified on a small scale. Results showed the Abrusco, Ciliegiolo, Mazzese, and Malvasia Nera varieties to be of most interest and today, in blends with Sangiovese, these grapes express the power of their local roots in San Felice wines. The Pugnitello variety, on the other hand, immediately showed promising agronomic and qualitative traits, and was thus vinified to produce a monovarietal wine.

Indeed, in 1992 one thousand shoots of this vine were planted on a small estate not far from the Poggio Rosso vineyards, giving rise to the Pugnitello Toscana IGT in 2003: an iconic wine for the company, fruit of an ancient vine of great merit.

Today the collection represents a significant resource in terms of viticultural biodiversity that will prove fundamental to our ability to face future challenges related to climate change. Here, ancient vines demonstrate their ability to adapt to our new climatic context, with their contribution ensuring that San Felice wines continue to maintain their exclusive identity.

Drinkhacker: How will winemaking evolve in the next 10, 20, and 50 years? I’d love to hear your perspective on both Italian and international winemaking.

Carlo De Biasi: In my opinion, winemaking techniques will continue to evolve over the years. Climate change is resulting in wines that are more structured and with a higher alcohol content. We will have to work to preserve the elegance, finesse, fruitiness and drinkability of the wines. A much-debated issue today concerns the partial dealcoholization of wines, in order to allow full ripening of the grapes while avoiding an excessive alcohol content in the resulting wines. But the greatest revolution will take place in the countryside, with vineyards introducing new rootstocks able to adapt to the changing climatic conditions and the ever-diminishing availability of water resources.

Traditional varieties will be cultivated alongside rediscovered ancient vines, or new varieties which have been developed to be resistant to disease or abiotic stresses. Will we see a shift in viticulture to new territories? I think so, it’s already happening. Will it be a new revolution, following that of the beginning of the last century? Probably, yes; the important thing is that this process is guided by knowledge, research and comparison within the wine-producing industry.

At San Felice we are doing our bit to make a contribution and share our vision by collaborating with international associations that aim to promote communication both between wine-growers themselves and with institutions in the world of research and experimentation.

We must address the environmental challenge together: Companies cannot compete between themselves on environmental issues but rather must share strategies and experiences to make swift progress in the environmental transition.

David Tao is a writer for Drinkhacker.

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