Life as an Italian Winemaker at a Sardinian Vinyard

Not all winemaking gigs are created equal.

A winemaker’s responsibilities vary greatly depending on the type of winery for which he or she works. Producing wine at an estate winery that owns and manages its own vineyards is understandably different than winemaking at a custom crush winery offering contract winemaking services to clients. But what’s it like working at a cooperative winery, also known as a cantina sociale in Italian? Is it a mix of both? 

A cantina sociale is more common in European regions where the average vineyard size is small and wine prices are relatively low. Local growers sell their grapes to the cantina sociale based on parameters set by the winery.  Then, the cantina sociale takes care of the rest, producing, marketing, and selling the wine.

I recently interviewed winemaker Biaggio Boi of Antichi Poderi di Jerzu and winemaker Angelo Corda of Cantine di Orgosolo, both cooperative wineries in Sardinia, Italy. These wineries boast drastically different production sizes. Though they both work passionately to produce wines representative of their respective regions in Ogliastra and Orgosolo.  

Here’s their take on what it’s like to be a winemaker at a cantina sociale.

How was the cooperative winery started?

Biagio, Antichi Poderi di Jerzu

Viticulture has been present in Ogliastra for millennia, but until 1950 each producer acted independently of the others.  The grapes and the wine obtained from them were sold in neighbouring countries. In 1950, there was a turning point. Forty-five partners decided to put their efforts together and built the first winery in the area, the Antichi Poderi di Jerzu winery. Today, the winery is made up of 450 members and more than 500 hectares of vineyards.

Angelo, Cantine di Orgosolo

Cantine di Orgosolo was established in 2007 at the behest of 19 people. All the members who participated in the foundation of the winery had a lot of experience managing the vineyards and in wine production. The latter, however, was practiced at a family level to meet personal needs.

The decision to create the company stemmed from the desire to enhance the Cannonau grape grown in our region. In fact, it was agreed that cooperation and common work is a fundamental value of the company. And that the various diversities of each partner are ultimately an added value, which make our work and our product unique. I joined the company in 2017.

To date, the members of the winery work an average of about 1 hectare per person. There are those who own 3 hectares, and there are those who own half a hectare. Each member independently works his own vineyard, following the guidelines that the winery dictates. This ensures that the final product is of the highest quality. The yields are kept fairly low (we have an average of 50 quintals per hectare). In addition, the health suitability of the grape is fundamental, which is why every year the company organizes training and updating courses held by highly specialized technicians in order to better guide the members in the processing and care of the vineyards.

How does a cantina sociale function?

Biagio, Antichi Poderi di JerzuTo understand how a social winery works, think of a small town. There are various towns in Sardinia that have less than 450 inhabitants, so the example is even more appropriate. Each town-municipality has a municipal administration and a mayor who represents the community and takes care of its interests. In the same way, the cantina sociale has an administration and a president. The structure is very similar. Inhabitants of a country, as well as the members of a social winery, choose the people to whom (for a limited number of years) they entrust the management of the common interest.

The members of the cantina sociale are mainly dedicated to the production of grapes and their goal is to produce grapes that respect the physical-chemical parameters (phytosanitary aspects like pH, total acidity, sugars, etc.) imposed by the company. These parameters are also the basis for the payment of the grapes. Technical assistance to members is provided by Laore, a Sardinian agency that deals with agriculture. The agronomists of Laore help Antichi Poderi di Jerzu to monitor the phytosanitary and ripening status of the grapes. Then, we decide when to harvest on the basis of the data collected.

Today, our cellar works from 30,000 to 40,000 quintals of grapes and produces over 2,500,000 bottles. To support this number, we bottle almost every day from Monday to Friday. And it is the winemaker’s daily routine to prepare wine for bottling the next day.

Angelo, Cantine di Orgosolo

Annually, the cantine sociale establishes a minimum quantity of grapes that each grower must compulsorily supply, and that constitutes the share of each member. In order to reach the pre-established productions, each member of the company is invited to provide further quantities of grapes, which are paid according to pre-established values. Upon receival, we analyze the grapes for certain parameters, such as sugars, acidity, pH, and phenolic quality. Then, the value of the grapes is established based on this analysis. The higher the quality, the greater the value attributed.  From this you can understand that every member is encouraged to produce excellent grapes for greater profit.

In the last two years, in order to increase production, we started to buy grapes from winemakers in Orgosolo outside of our cooperative that still respect our grape quality regulations.

I deal with the management of the production process starting from monitoring ripening up to bottling.

The first goal of the company is to obtain a wine that is as close as possible to the traditional product. To achieve this, I try to implement processes that do not affect the primary essence of our Cannonau.

Over time, we’ve created harmony between the members of the winery. All understand that by working the vineyard correctly, it is possible to obtain very good products. I can say again, and this I would like to emphasize, that the diversity of each individual member leads to a unique result, both on a human and technical level because it allows me to have different types and qualities of grapes. These in turn allow me to make unique and unrepeatable wines.

To date, Cantine di Orgosolo concentrates its activity on Cannonau. However, we also work with a minimum amount of other varieties, including Bovale Sardo (which we call Muristellu), Carignano and Monica. Traditionally, these are varieties that were always present in a small part of our old vineyards.

In the 2019 vintage, Cantine di Orgosolo worked with about 470 quintals and we expect to produce about 35,000 bottles. In April we will also bottle a new wine, a rosé of Cannonau.

What is the average workday like at a Cantina Sociale during harvest?

Biagio, Antichi Poderi di Jerzu

Before talking about the organization of the harvest, it would be advisable to focus on the reality of Ogliastra. This is a land of steep hills and mountains. The viticulture is only partially mechanizable and the vineyards need a lot of manual work, including the harvest. This is organized by giving priority to the collection of white grape varieties, mainly Vermentino, followed by the harvest of Cannonau grapes.

Basically, harvest begins with the grapes from the vineyards closest to the sea and ends with the vineyards located at 700-800 meters above sea level.

Often a friendship is created between the winemaker and the partners, this allows you to do great teamwork. An example is the collection of grapes for the production of top wines where the member agrees to carry out complicated and expensive operations, such as thinning out the unsuitable bunches or harvesting a small and particular area of ​​the vineyard due to exposure, age of vines, etc. In return, the enologist does his utmost to ensure that the extraordinary quality created in the vineyard is preserved right down to the bottled wine.

The Wine Zoning of Cannonau di Jerzu was a study was carried out a few years ago to help better organize harvest, thanks to the collaboration of various public and private entities. Thanks to the work of Zonation, today we know which areas and vineyards are most suitable for making the various types of wine that our company produces.

It is important to remember that the Antichi Poderi di Jerzu winery is the main producer of Cannonau wine in Sardinia. In fact, the production accounts for about 30% of all Cannonau produced on the island.

Harvest at Antichi Poderi di Jerzu

During harvest we receive grapes from 9:00AM until 5:00PM. In these hours, the grapes are sorted by variety, origin, and quality. During the day, the oenologist’s task is mainly to analyze the chemical parameters of the grapes in the laboratory and give regular instructions to the workers so that the cellar operations are carried out in a precise and timely manner. Moreover, the fermentations of the grapes from the previous days are monitored.  This way we can intervene, if necessary, with temperature corrections and the nutritional status of the yeasts. In the evening, the musts of the tanks filled during the day are analyzed. We then decide on the type of yeast to use for inoculation and if any nutrient additions are needed based on this analysis.

Harvest is done by sleepless nights. It’s a lot of work and you never seem to have enough time. You must pay the utmost attention, especially at the end of harvest when the workers feel physically and mentally tired.

Each harvest is different from the others. In 2017, we did not have a drop of rain for 10 months. While in 2018, it rained throughout the summer. The harvests have always been different from each other and this is also what makes the world of wine fascinating. The variables are so many that they can never be repeated. However, I must say that despite my young age, I can see that the real challenge in the vineyards, as well as in the cellar, will be to live with climate change. The risk is that in the coming years we will find ourselves working more and more with unbalanced grapes and we should be good at managing them.

Post-Harvest, Spring & Summer at Antichi Poderi di Jerzu

The months following harvest, new wines are monitored. We make sure that red wines end malolactic fermentation before the start of winter. If the wine does not complete malolactic fermentation (which occurs completely spontaneously), the problem is usually due to a wine temperature that’s too low. Therefore, if the wine does not complete the malolactic fermentation by the end of November, we intervene by heating the wine to around 18 degrees Celsius so that malolactic fermentation can take place.

At the beginning of Spring, the blends are made in order to be ready to present the new vintages at the markets starting from March-April. At the same time, the vineyards and the vegetative awakening are monitored.

In the summer, Sardinia is full of tourists and the bottlings must support the great demand for wine from the restaurants. Then, before you realize it you find yourself back in harvest and inside the big carousel of the grape and wine cycle.

In Italy, you have stricter regulations to deal with when it comes to producing D.O.C. and D.O.C.G. wines. Can you share some considerations you need to make in the cellar to adhere to these regulations? And how are these regulations implemented?

Angelo, Cantine di Orgosolo

In order to produce a Cannonau di Sardegna D.O.C., the member’s vineyard must be registered as a “D.O.C. vineyard.” This implies many rules, including that at least 85% of the vines must be Cannonau. A certification body carries out checks in the vineyard to verify that this percentage is respected. As in the vineyard, the same minimum percentage of Cannonau must also be used in the winemaking process.

There are other regulations to comply with in order to produce a Cannonau di Sardegna D.O.C. wine. The wine must have a minimum of 12.5% ​​alcohol content, which is not a problem for us because we have products with high alcohol content. The acidity of the wine must be minimum 4.5g /L expressed in tartaric acid. This also is not a problem for us because our grapes have good acid content. As for the Classico designation, which is produced only in the provinces of Nuoro and Ogliastra, we are obliged to refine it for one year in barrel.

Differentiating Wines Of The Same Variety

Cantine di Orgosolo produces five wines. Three are pure Cannonau and two are blends with a Cannonau dominance.The 100% Cannonau wines are differentiated by the age of the vineyards, their altitude, and the period of aging in barrel.

Luna Vona, organic, is produced from the youngest vineyards, those between 3 and 15 years old, located at an average altitude of 300 meters above sea level. It makes a rapid passage of 6 months in Sardinian chestnut barrels.

Urulu is produced from vineyards with an average age of 30 years, at an average altitude of 500 meters,  and ages in oak barrels for 9 months.

Soroi, the Cannonau Classico, is produced from vineyards with an average age of 70 years, located at 700 meters above sea level, and ages in large oak barrels for 24 months.

Locoe is an IGT wine with 70% Cannonau and 30% other native varieties, including Carignano, Monica and Bovale. It ages for 6 months in oak barrels.

Finally, Neale has 85% Cannonau and 15% Sardinian Bovale (or Muristellu in Sardo) and ages in cement tanks for six months.

As you can see, the substantial difference that exists in our wines lies in the diversity of the grapes. Even though they are mostly Cannonau, it is fair to say that each microzone, from which the raw material comes, manages to give its own imprint to the grapes and this is then remarked in the finished wine. Equally true is that the age of the vineyard has its importance. The older vineyard’s smaller production gives more concentrated fruits and a wine with marked differences.

What Is Involved In Producing A Certified Organic Wine?

Angelo, Cantine di Orgosolo

Luna Vona Cannoanau di Sardegna D.O.C. is our first organic wine. Producing an organic wine means respecting strict rules. First of all, starting from the vineyard, the various practices such as fertilization and phytosanitary treatments can be carried out using only certified organic products.

To counter the pathological adversities of the plant, you can only use sulfur and copper in quantities established by law, products of natural origin designed to increase the resistance of the plant, or natural antagonists of pathogens, such as Ampelomyces quisqualis, a mildew parasite fungus.

Running an organic vineyard also means having to face a conversion period, which lasts three years, in which there are continuous checks by the bodies set up to ensure that the winemaker respects the rules established by law. After these three years, your organic vineyard certification is in effect. Of course, the strict controls continue even after organic certifications are obtained.

What changes have you seen in the vineyards or made in the cellar in response to climate change?

Biagio, Antichi Poderi di Jerzu

Unfortunately there is not much that can be done in response to climate change but there has been some change, for example there is a delay in pruning over the years in order to delay budding a little, this solution was born because the Winters are getting colder and shorter and the plants sprout earlier than ever before.

Another solution is to dig new wells and create an irrigation system in the vineyards so as to be able to face the torrid summers, but the problem is that if it does not rain enough during November-April, the aquifers gradually empty. In the future it will be necessary to review the vine system, rootstocks, new cultivars and new clones.

Angelo, Cantine di Orgosolo

If I should talk about challenges to be faced, in this period I am reminded of the one dictated by climate change. Well yes, even if some personalities of the world political world deny that it is this change, we alas live it in our work.

We are facing considerable changes. I will give you some examples.

The 2017 vintage was perhaps the hottest year of the century, with maximum temperatures that exceeded 40°C in August and an extraordinary drought.  I therefore found myself having to deal with an early harvest and with very high sugar levels.

For the 2018 vintage, we had heavy rains in August and September; values, expressed in mm of rain, ten times higher than the average. This delayed harvest by 2-3 weeks and the plant had difficulty bringing the fruits to maturity. The winegrowers who follow the organic style had great difficulty in counteracting the onset of vine diseases.

In the current 2020 vintage, we didn’t have a real winter. So, the plant has already started to sprout a month in advance, and we ran the risk of freezing in April which can ruin the whole development process.

How do you overcome these adversities? It’s a big challenge. We are faced each year with grapes that have different characteristics. Knowledge of the raw material is the fundamental thing. The analysis I do before the harvest certainly plays a very important role; as I base the follow work processes and decisions on this.