Vine design: bonsai trees in Montalcino, an idea by Francesco Illy

In Montalcino (Siena), in the heart of Tuscany and in one of the world’s most prized wine areas, Bonsai was born, a time-defying Sangiovese that ties its roots to this region in an peculiar way.
The first records related to wine production in Montalcino date back to the 1843 vintage through a report of the ampelographic commission. As early as 1865, this important wine-growing area was recognized internationally, beating France in Paris and Bordeaux. Since then, the denomination has grown to firmly establish itself as one of the most globally significant production sites. The merit also goes to the producers who have been enhancing and interpreting the noble soils of Montalcino over the years. Francesco Illy is also part of this history, as in 1984 he bought the estate from a Sardinian shepherd and founded Podere Le Ripi. He made his winemaking dreams come true in the mid-1990s, but in 2007 he gave birth to the first Bonsai vintage.

Sangiovese Bonsai
One of the steps in the winemaking process

The idea behind the project

We asked him what took him to undertake this new challenge on the soils of Montalcino. “A vineyard can only produce the best grapes after 35 year”, an old winemaker in Burgundy once told me. A few minutes later, I could only wonder if I would have waited until I was ninety years old to see what our vineyards, newly planted in Montalcino, would be able to produce. The answer was simple, so I decided to try something new and innovative: to push the density of the vineyard to an extreme level, that is 62.500 vines per hectare (on average, new plantings range from 5000 to 8000 vines per hectare), to force the roots to go through many different geological layers in a shorter period of time and use the root competition to have deeper roots”.

“At that time, everyone told me I was crazy and that the plants would simply die. The first few years were challenging, we spent a lot of time on the small vines keeping the soil in good condition. The Bonsai mortality rate stopped at 8 percent. We placed an acacia brace beside each plant, set up pruning as one would do for a sapling. Two and a half years later, in 2007, with the third bud, we were able to vinify the first Bonsai Sangiovese. I couldn’t believe it: we will finally have a wine to taste produced from this crazy vineyard”.
“I have thought about it for a long time,” Illy continues, “about that quote from the Burgundian winemaker. I believe that in the end nature repeats itself with the same mechanisms in all living things. A plant that is overly cared for and facilitated will get lazy, as opposed to a vine that has no time to waste in order to survive. Against laziness, nothing is more important than hunger”.

Bonsai Sangiovese
Vineyards of the Tuscan winery

The winning idea

However, if we utter the word bonsai we cannot help but think of the very famous little trees, intentionally kept dwarfed, even for many years, by root reduction. Growing bonsai trees is a true art, as it is an activity that involves a variety of knowledge both in the general field of botany and in the particular field of bonsai techniques to cultivate a plant that meets certain aesthetic standards. In order to make the tree overall stronger and more suitable for surviving in confined spaces, we have the pruning of the roots (those penetrating deep into the soil), the periodic repotting and the pruning of branches. Was it easy to apply these concepts to the vine plant?

“Over time, we have developed specific systems for this very special vineyard. Following the example of those vines able to adapt to unique conditions, we had to do the same to help the plants survive. We employed entirely peculiar practices for the purpose. Talking about pruning, we realized that it was useless to expect production, in terms of grape quantity, as in a standard situation”.
The effort made by the plant was so onerous tha we identified a reduced bud load, setting a sapling 40-50 centimeters above the ground and a single spur with 2/3 productive buds. Production varies from year to year. Some plants do not produce clusters due to unfavorable seasonal trends, but we usually harvest one or two small clusters per specimen”.

Podere Le Ripi
The pruning stage

Why is the health of the soils so important

“The health of the soils has been the greatest obstacle from the start. Our soils mainly consist of clay and silt, so they compact easily and structure with difficulty. Such an intensive vineyard requires organic matter replenishment every year through hand-distributed manure and decompaction for at least the first thirty centimeters. After that, we contribute a substantial straw bed to practice mulching to support the water resource and to reduce compaction, without forgetting biodynamic preparations”.

We can count 1.4 hectares of Bonsai Sangiovese, with adult plants producing about 200 grams of grapes each. A lot has changed from the first harvest to now and it is exciting to think that the already famous and unique Montalcino area has given us another gem in the world  of viticulture.
“According to us, it is also a study project. We have examined the soil profile several time to understand the behavior of the root system. The roots reach three meters deep, about twice as deep as regularly planted vineyards, and this is definitely an encouraging sign”, Illy says.

Podere Le Ripi vini

Difficulty and success

Bonsai sangiovese vines live in a state of high competition, they are not particularly “lively” and this makes them very sentitive to the main fungal diseases and the arid climate can put them in serious trouble. This made Podere Le Ripi think about how to adapt to this phenomenon in the best possible way.
The most important challenge is overcoming the climatic difficulties, not only in the vineyard, but also in the interpretation of winemaking process. Therefore, in the last two vintages, the grapes in the vineyard were vinified with their own whole bunch stems, so as to push the wine towards more fresh and tense sensations.

It is nice to think that this curious, intelligent and innovative way of experiencing production, inside and outside of the vineyards, can be experimented and applied in other wine territories over time and, why not, it is yet another Made in Italy excellence that is known all over the world.
Bonsai is a wine that is defined by its complex and elegant bouquet, striking for its aromas. It is fine and subtle in your mouth, as the aftertaste recalls fragrances of fruity notes with hints of spice, tobacco and violet. The last sip cheers the palate with sweetness and intensity.

Opening image: view of Podere Le Ripi, in Montalcino


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