Three secrets of a great wine: an interview with Federico Giotto

Hurdles, knowledge, thought. These sound like parts of a philosophical theory, or features of a poem. Yet Federico Giotto is not a poet or philosopher…or should I say he is? You decide, after reading this interview. To begin, I will only say that Federico is a young, renowned Italian winemaker and consultant. And he believes that “hurdles, knowledge and thought” are the three secrets of a great wine. And yes, he is also a romantic guy. Definitely.

Tell me something about your early career in the wine world: is winemaking your family tradition?

“Not at all. My mother was a bank teller and my father owned a small grocery store.  When I was just four years old, my father was killed in a tragic car accident. Some time afterward, my mother bought a piece of land and told my sister and me: “If I were to die as well, at least you have land to cultivate and food to eat.”

And could you do this?

“Unfortunately, this land turned out to be more difficult than expected. The soil had so much clay that ploughing was extremely difficult. It was a real problem at that time as corn production was profitable, while grapes would not always pay the bills. Yet the grapes from this area had a unique flavor, they were somehow different. It was this diversity that made me fall in love with this humble plant and so I chose to study oenology.

Today, after visiting dozens of different countries and thousands of hectares of vineyards, I can say that the vine, like us, gives the best of itself when it has to fight against hostility. Only under this condition can the plant generate truly great grapes, and yield wines that are unique and consistent.”

You claim that another important ingredient of a great wine is knowledge: do you mean this in a scientific or academic sense?

“Not exactly. I’ll tell you about a small incident in my life. One day when I was in the South of France, I met an elderly farmer, Antoine, the owner of a small estate of just 5 hectares [12 acres] of vineyards. When I visited for the first time, I immediately realized that his vines were ill: the leaves were yellow and necrotic, the branches were thin. That vineyard looked dreadful in the midst of the other lush vineyards in the area, which were well organized and without a blade of grass. Antoine’s vineyard was really unwatchable!

Federico Giotto_3Looking around, I noticed that his vineyard was full of a parasite called red spider mite. Fresh from my academic studies, I was keen to give Antoine a list of pesticides that would quickly solve his problem. His answer was sharp: “If the vine needs chemistry to survive, then it’s no longer part of Nature.” I was shocked and kept thinking about those words for two months. During that time I discovered that this epidemic was seen mainly in vineyards that are cultivated in bare land without vegetation. So I finally suggested that he sow a range of different grasses in the middle of the vineyards in the autumn, in order to promote the proliferation of the spider mite’s main predator, the ladybug.”

Did it work?

“It did! When I came back the following spring, I found the same poor vineyard, but in the middle there were also some vines that were better, in full bloom, and the leaves were bright green – and Antoine was beaming, of course. Nature was regaining its balance. That day, thanks to Antoine, I learned that knowledge has little meaning unless applied in the real world.”

The last ingredient of a great wine is thought. What do you mean by this?

There are two kinds of wines: wines that surprise you, and wines that touch you. The latter are wines where you feel the terroir melded with the thoughts and the sensibility of their producer. Those are personal wines. If a wine is truly great, is always the expression of a great man’s (or woman’s) thought.”

Why are these three – Hurdles, Knowledge and Thought – so important to you?

“Because they are also the principles that inspire the work in my research and consulting company which is called Giotto Earth Listening. And I’m lucky enough to have about 10 people, men and women, who are agronomists, enologists and laboratory technicians that share my same ideals. This year we are going to celebrate 10 years of team work.”

Giotto Earth Listening In which countries or regions do you work?

Everywhere! Italy, Romania, Moldova, the Caucasus… we also have new projects in Chile, Spain, China and Africa”.

Are your customers’ wines available in the US market too?

“Sure. Sorelle Bronca, Corte Sant’Alda, Cescon, Monte Dall’Ora, just to name a few of them, are exported to the USA”.

How do you approach working in so many different places? How do you help the local wine producers to achieve their goals?

“The secret is to know how to listen, understand and interpret. Understanding the abilities of a place or a vine and being able to celebrate them without being a slave to your own knowledge. Because you have to always be open to discovering something new, and to revising your beliefs. This is ongoing research that embraces all the stages of production, from the vineyard to the cellar.”

You live in the Veneto region of Italy, but if you had to move, what country would you choose and why?

“San Francisco, California. This is the city that I love most – apart from my small village of course. It’s dynamic, innovative, full of opportunities. I feel it’s very close to my way of being and my passions.”

What’s your favorite daily wine?

“I love wines with some soulfulness, like the great Pinot Noir.”

Do you have any “food of your hearth?”

“My best pairing is…bread and olive oil! In them, you can find the essence of a man’s work and of a country. They are seemingly simple, but actually, it’s tough to get a really good bread and a great olive oil.”

Any advice for a boy or a girl who wishes to have a job and a life like yours?

“To really figure out a great wine you have to go beyond passion and knowledge. They are very important elements, but there is something even more important: your own awareness. You have to sharpen it if you want to discover and understand the character of a country, and of the man (or the woman) who stands in front of you and produces that wine.

In the end, the real soul of a wine comes from these elements: the terroir and the producer’s personality.”