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Salcheto: Going Off the Grid

Salcheto: Going Off the Grid

Montepulciano's Salcheto winery sets its sights on carbon-free winemaking

Never before have I been so intrigued by a shadow. I’m snapping photos like some tourist from the dark side of the moon, watching the negative shape of Michele Manelli (above) flap its arms for my amusement. We’re 70 feet underground in the cellars of Salcheto, Manelli’s organic winery in the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano region, and there’s nary an electrical light to be found, other than the faintly glowing exit sign mandated by law.

Nonetheless, light floods down from overhead, emanating from circular openings that look for all the world like LED fixtures. But this is sunlight, pure and simple, which has snaked its way down “light conveyors”—tubes lined with reflective silver film—and, navigating around two right angles, entered the cellar with bravura, 98 percent of its luminosity intact.

Biomass heating accounts for 29% of Salcheto's energy supply

Biomass heating accounts for 29% of Salcheto's energy supply

Welcome to life off the grid. Corralling an assortment of renewable energy sources—solar, geothermal, biomass, CO2, evaporation, you name it—Salcheto is Italy’s first winery to be completely independent of the region’s electrical network. What’s more, through energy-conservation practices, it uses 54% less energy than a comparably sized conventional winery. It’s also the first to have established a European Carbon Footprint for the production of a bottle of wine, tracking all direct and indirect emissions of CO2 according to the certified worldwide standard ISO 14064. And for consumers, it provides a QR Code on every bottle, linking you to a Carbon Footprint Calculator where you can check the extra CO2 emitted to get that bottle to your local wine shop, as well as compensatory actions you can take to offset those emissions, such as walking three miles instead of driving or choosing a local fish dish for dinner rather than imported meat. These feats and its leadership through the Salcheto Carbon Free Working Group have earned it a special award from Gambero Rosso for 2014 Green Winery of the Year.

If there ever were a prize for Extreme Makeover among wineries, Salcheto would win that too. It started life in 1984 as a traditional farm, with sheep and mixed crops, including one historic sangiovese vineyard (now named Salco after its bordering willows—salco in ancient Tuscan). In 1990, the owners began bottling their own wine. In 1994, Manelli joined as a partner, just when they were starting to expand vineyard holdings and get more serious about winemaking. Though schooled in Political Economy, Manelli was anxious to get back to the land. “I consider myself someone who really has had a passion for the environment and nature ever since I was a kid,” says the 38-year-old winemaker, whose shoulder-length hair, worn jeans, and trendy glasses give him a hipster-meets-trail-guide look. By 1997, Manelli had bought the farm. Later joined by two new partners, Ron Prashker and Luca De Feo, they began a wholesale makeover. As Manelli wrote in Tong magazine, “Our cellar looked old, tight, and tired, made of disordered layers of ideas accumulated over time.”

Manelli’s re-do went far beyond the gravity-based system now au courant among wineries that want to give fastidious kid-glove treatment to incoming grapes. Sustainability and energy efficiency were his cornerstone concepts. The building blocks were natural resources that every winery has in spades (vine cuttings, carbon dioxide from fermentation) coupled with ones shared by all (sun, earth, water).

In addition, Manelli wanted to show people what’s possible, to make sustainable practices seem less idealistic and more here-and-now. Since the retooled winery opened in 2011, he’s flung open its doors with an enthusiasm that’s rare in Italy’s appointment-only winery world. (Not surprisingly, this natural-born communicator and organizer served a stint as president of the Strada del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, an association of 130 wine growers and tourism entrepreneurs.) “We want to be a Napa-style site,” Manelli asserts. “That is, we want to have tourists every day, all day.” To that end, he hired a full-time hospitality staffer, opened a small enoteca/café and gift shop inside the winery, and even set up hitching posts near the vineyards for the horseback circuit encircling town.

But Salcheto goes beyond these Napa-esque gestures in one big way: The winery reads like an open book of Renewable Energy for Dummies. Here the abstract becomes tangible as concepts like photovoltaics and adiabatic thermodynamics are seen in action. Most importantly, zero-carbon design seems cool. “As long as an environmental choice seems like an idealist challenge—against the ‘bad’ people, against industry—it’s never going to be popular,” Manelli states. “We have to be able to translate this idea of “waste is useless and stupid’ into a choice that is positive and happy.”

Intake points for the light conveyor, lined with a film that reflects 98% of light

Intake points for the light conveyor, lined with a film that reflects 98% of light

Shrinking the carbon footprint

Anyone visiting Salcheto will first be struck by an odd presence on the terrace: All around, the tops of light conveyers poke out like bubble-capped submarine periscopes. It’s an amusing introduction to Salcheto’s lighting system, visually its most space-age element. This impression hits home on the lower floors, where eight of these shiny tubes converge in a circular huddle and seem like a Starship transporter waiting to beam you to the next galaxy.

The light conveyor, carrying light two floors underground

The light conveyor, carrying light two floors underground

Despite the big impression it makes, Salcheto’s sci-fi lighting system accounts for a relatively small piece of the pie, conserving some 23,000 kilowatt hours per year. Topping the power list is biomass heating, which accounts for 29% of their energy supply (182,000 kWh). “Biomass” sounds new, but looks old: Beside the terrace, Manelli points out a stack of vine prunings tied in bundles. These seem no different from the fagots seen in 17th century Dutch genre paintings or imagined at Cinderella’s hearth. More biomass comes from woodland-floor detritus that’s made into pellets (46,000 kWh), which burn in a little Hansel-and-Gretel oven. Waste is transformed into energy, and that’s no fairytale.

Down the hill are solar panels discretely bordering a vineyard. These photovoltaic cells can generate 20 kilowatts per hour—energy that can be used, stored in batteries, or dumped into the electrical grid for future drawback. “Since there was an electrical line here at the farm, we’re not isolated,” Manelli notes. “The idea is: We produce continuously, we don’t consume all we need, we give to the grid what we don’t consume, then we can get back what we need.”

Invisible beneath our feet is another renewable energy source: the chill of the earth. Five feet under the vineyards and parking lot, a circuit of geothermal water pipes snakes for 1.5 miles. The earth cools down the water to temperatures that are sufficient for air-conditioning and for cooling the stainless steel fermentation tanks. Energy savings: 20,500 kWh.

The vertical garden with 3 light conveyors

The vertical garden with 3 light conveyors

A far more obvious feature is the vertical garden, a lush blanket of vegetation covering the winery’s exterior walls. Like a green roof, this garden absorbs the heat and acts as a natural air-conditioner. Made of feathery ferns, russet ivy, and all manner of shapely scrub and ornamental grass, it looks nice, too. This works in concert with the adiabatic cooling system—a fancy word from thermodynamics that applies to the irrigation of terrace and roof during the hot months. The sun’s energy is benignly hijacked, as it were, used to vaporize the water rather than to heat the structure underneath. Less heat means less need for AC. Bingo: another 16,300 kWh saved.

The list goes on: evaporative cooling towers, natural ventilation to cool the interior, recycled waste water. The reuse-and-recycle philosophy is all-pervasive, seen even in the shop and enoteca. Here one finds water glasses cut from recycled wine bottles, placemats made from old mattresses, wooden tables carved from oaks harvested on nearby Mt. Amiata, a funky candelabra made from colorful electrical cords threaded through an old meat grinder. It’s all positive and happy stuff.

Proof in the pudding      

So what about the wine? Salcheto makes seven bottlings (available in the U.S. through Massanois Imports), the most lauded being its top-of-the-line Salco Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a 100 percent prugnolo gentile (the local sangiovese clone) made from the two oldest vineyards. This habitually offers great concentration and finesse, with earthy, balsamic notes underlying a plush black-fruit core. But as a DOCG wine governed by strict rules, there’s not much room for experimentation. So it’s in Salcheto’s younger wines—particularly its brand new Obvius Rosso di Montepulciano—where change is afoot.

Manelli leads me to a room of shiny fermentation tanks. It’s here that carbon-free design and winemaking most profoundly intersect. “This is a very innovative project that we’re very proud of,” he says, beaming. Working with LASI, a small manufacturer in Venice, they came up with a prototype fermenter that uses no electricity whatsoever. Instead, it harnesses pressure from CO2 released during fermentation. Using values to collect and manipulate the gas, the dual-level, gravity-based tank can perform either of the two methods typically used for wetting the floating cap of grape skins. There’s pump-over, during which the closed tank compresses the CO2 as it builds up, then a valve is opened and an effervescent fizz of gas ripples upward through the juice, gently wetting the skins. For the equivalent of punch-down, excess gas is collected in the fermenter’s lower chamber; on demand, a large gas bubble is released into the upper chamber, generating a juice wave that breaks the cap. What’s more, by injecting a calculated amount of outside air, the process can include some micro-oxygenation. This not only softens the wine; it feeds the yeast a precision diet, which in turn prevents stuck fermentation when sugar levels are high—even with finicky native yeast.

Their first Rosso di Montpulciano made with a fermentor that uses no electricity at all.

Their first Rosso di Montpulciano made with a fermentor that uses no electricity at all.

Simple, safe, self-sufficient. It’s what scientists call an elegant solution. But in the beginning, “we didn’t know if it was possible to make a wine as good as it was before,” Manelli confesses. “We worked three years on an experimental level, doing analysis and so on, until we could finally say, ‘Okay, we think it’s not only as good; it’s even better.”

This makes sense. The new fermentation procedure is delicate (wouldn’t you rather be pushed around by gas bubbles then metal blades?), so it reduces bitter tannins from broken skins. Better yet, lab analysis shows that extractions are 5 to 10 percent greater than with mechanical pump-over.

We’re seeing the results now in the very drinkable 2012 Obvius Rosso di Montepulciano, the debut release of their new style of Rosso di Montepulciano. With jewel-like ruby reflections and bright cherry flavors, it’s as fruity, floral, and charming as a young gamay. Their first wine using this fermenter, it holds out great promise for the rest. Tasting it now after six months in bottle, it seems Manelli can rest easy. “This is a wine,” he pronounces with a satisfied smile, “not an experiment.”

Published in the April 2014 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.

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