Michael Lewis, one of my all-time favourite authors (Moneyball, The Big Short) says he knows he’s at the intersection of a great story and a great central character when his palms start to sweat. Usually, he adds, the story involves someone who doesn’t take the safe road. They follow some idealistic, quixotic path that inevitably provides a bumpy road forward.
Yup. I’d say that pretty much describes the journey travelled by Avignonesi Winery’s owner Virginie Saverys, a spirited Tuscan force of nature who had my palms sweating mere minutes into our conversation (but more on that later).
As I try to describe the winemaking powerhouse that is Saverys, I find myself reverting to English language idioms: calls it like she sees it, doesn’t pull any punches, calls a spade a spade – are just a few phrases that come to mind.
The Belgian lawyer, former Director of Belgium’s leading shipping agency (Compagnie Maritime Belge NV) and Chairman of the largest Vino Nobile di Montepulciano biodynamic* estate in Tuscany is feisty and direct. She doesn’t mince words (there I go again) in her assessment of Italy’s notoriously ‘complex’ business culture, prompting one Italian wine enthusiast to suggest ‘non sputare sul piatto dove mangi’, which – according to google translate – means avoid criticizing the people who give you an economic advantage.
Advice shared by someone who clearly doesn’t know Saverys.
Of course, none of Virginie’s comments are strategic mis-steps. Instead, her modus operandi is ‘full transparency’ in everything she does, which often equates to a brutally-honest, ‘Belgian perspective’ on all things Italian. “If they say they’re sending something in a week, expect it in a month. Once I figured this out, this is now how I plan and run my business.”
Despite this pragmatic cynicism, what’s obvious from my interview and the many others I read with Saverys, is a) her incredible passion for her newly-adopted Vino Nobile di Montepulciano homeland, and b) her deep and abiding commitment at Avignonesi to doing right by the planet.
Together with her partner, fellow-lawyer Max De Zarobe, Avignonesi is leading the charge to resurrect the (faded) glory of one of the most spectacular wine regions of the world. And while she’s hell-bent on putting the noble wines of Montepulciano back on the map, she’s also proving that large-scale, biodynamic, regenerative agriculture is the only path forward for Italian wineries, the planet and consumers who “deserve not to be poisoned by their wine”.
“Well, I was presenting at a Demeter conference and called conventional winemaking the ‘viticulture of death’. And everybody there was whoa ………but if you spray the vineyard with chemicals, that’s what it is. I believe we owe it to wine lovers and our planet to do better. We can’t go on like this and I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t try.”
Hence my sweaty palms.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano’s Spirit of Renewal
Virginie’s origin story and love affair with Italy started with her Italian boyfriend at 18 years of age. She would spend summers in the country under the Tuscan sun soaking up la dolce vita, becoming fluently Italian along the way. Eventually, she put down roots. She purchased a ‘local ruin’ in Montalcino, converting a run-down farmhouse into an impressive country estate.
At the ‘ruin-no-more’ christening party she met the son of Avignonesi’s then-owner (Ettore Favro). The family was looking for an investment partner to help bridge financial challenges and family-discord (a recurring theme in Italy). At the time, the idyllic hilltop estate of Avignonesi was one of the most esteemed producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in Tuscany and a #4 100 Best Wines of the World 2001 recipient from Wine Spectator.
An initial 2007 investment of 30% to ‘help a friend’ soon became a 90% stake, and then a 100% ownership position in 2009. “That was never the plan,” says Virginie, bluntly. The plan, was for the Favro family to teach her the ropes and ease her into her new wine director role. But the family reneged on this commitment. Losing patience, Virginie bought them out…lock, stock and (ahem) barrel. “We were not prepared for this. We didn’t know anything about owning a winery,” she admits. “It’s one thing to be a consumer of wine, quite another to suddenly own an estate.”
With that, a determined Virginie said bon voyage to shipping, hello to Avignonesi, taking the reins of the 175-hectares (430 acres) of vineyards in the Montepulciano and Cortona districts. Her investment included production of 700,000 bottles annually (now ~960,000) and an extensive portfolio of still wines, Vin Santo sweet wines (including the famous Occhio di Pernice), Grappa, olive oils and balsamic vinegar. Also included in the purchase was Avignonesi’s sister company Classica Distribution, which ships Avignonesi’s full range of wines and artisan food products internationally, including distribution of a dozen sustainable and organic Italian wine brands.
Of course, job one for the highly disciplined, ‘runs-a-tight-ship’ CEO included a complete audit of the books, the soils, the properties and the processes. And that’s when Virginie’s living the Tuscan dream vision spiralled into a disaster-management plan.
“The purchase of Avignonesi included many skeletons in the closet,” says Virginie in her characteristically candid way.
“I quickly discovered the staff had been trained to use a devastating regime of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and there wasn’t a single tool in the shed to work the land. Everything was managed through chemicals. I watched as staff would cover themselves from head to toe to spray fertilizers and chemicals, and I thought these products can’t be good for you. That should tell you the scale of this challenge.”
Lack of transparency, a viticulture and cellar team loyal to the previous owner’s industrial and chemically intensive winemaking methods, demanded a massive operational and production ‘pivot’.
Tuning out the doubters – “there were many” – Virginie started her regenerative renaissance by visiting prominent estates throughout Italy and France. She took courses and immersed herself in organic and biodynamic literacy with noted Burgundy expert, Pierre Masson. Along the way she hired the esteemed agronomy consultant, Dr Adriano Zago.
She also brought in Bordeaux’s respected agronomy institute – ENITA – to scan and map all of Avignonesi’s vineyards and terroir. This health audit unearthed a treasure trove of information on soil structure, soil diversity, climate zones, clonal selection and more. These baseline metrics provided a comprehensive snapshot of the 11 vineyards – 10 in Montepulciano and one in Cortona – helping map Avignonesi’s exciting road forward.
“One of the things we quickly implemented was converting all of Avignonesi’s vineyards to organic and biodynamic viticulture. I wanted to turn the clock back and do everything differently,” says Virginie. “I quickly learned organic is about not doing certain things whereas biodynamics is about being proactive, boosting the immunity of plants, increasing the health of your soil, introducing plant and animal biodiversity into the vineyard.”
Virginie’s other critical concern included creating a healthier working environment for her employees. In a difficult move, she had to dismiss staff who weren’t interested in transitioning to environmentally-responsible winemaking. But by 2010 – less than a year after taking ownership – she’d hired a young, dynamic team, including agronomist Alessio Gorini and winemakers Ashleigh Seymour and Matteo Giustiniani (now CEO), who shared her biodynamic and regenerative vision.
“It’s been a very interesting journey to start as a wine lover and consumer and then to purchase a winery because that’s when you realize oh my god, so many things are hidden from people who drink and love wine.”
Virginie and her team have worked tirelessly to bring life back into the vineyards.
“I’ve seen it work,” she says of her commitment to biodynamics. “Here, in other parts of Tuscany, France, Oregon. Many studies on soil research at Geisenheim University in Germany show biodynamic soils have more healthy bacteria and more microbial life and it shows in the wines,” she insists. In their early research, the Avignonesi team would treat specific rows with biodynamic preparations and their consulting agronomist would walk the vineyards identifying which rows had received the biodynamic preparations and which had not.
“There’s no question, the wines of Avignonesi are more dynamic and more alive today. They’re so much more vibrant and better express the character of each vineyard producing the fruit. People would say I’m going to lose my yields with biodynamics, when in fact yields and vine health have improved, dramatically. People would say the wines will cost more with all the manual work in the vineyard. But the huge savings from not using chemicals has been profound. And the price of our wines has not changed.”
Today, Avignonesi is the largest biodynamic estate in Tuscany, silencing many local naysayers along the way. “We’ve proven you can create healthy, biodynamic soils and balanced vineyards at scale,” says Saverys. “Like a mother of eight children, you just need to be focused and organized!”
According to Virginie, the conversion was made easier with “precision viticulture”. By mapping all the soils, rootstocks, clones and aspects, Avignonesi has been able to optimize the biodynamic applications and cover crop mix of legumes and grasses for each vineyard. Compost and biodynamic preparations ensure soil vitality and deep-rooted vines and a flock of sheep, geese, chickens and soon – cows – provide ongoing fertility. Bees, have been a steep learning curve, says Virginie. But her agronomist Alessio Gorini is figuring it out and of course the 18-bee hives help with cover crop pollination and do the heavy lifting for Avignonesi’s growing honey brand.
Sustainability and low intervention winemaking is also paramount. “Our wines receive minimal intervention in the cellar,” says Virginie. “We don’t use purchased yeasts. We work with our own indigenous yeasts or make ‘pied de cuvees’ (the winemaking equivalent of sourdough starter).
On the issue of sulphites, Virginie says her team focuses on adding just the right amount of S02 to the wine. “We tested the previous owner’s wines when we took over,” she admits in another ‘full-transparency’ moment. “Not surprisingly, they were at the maximum limit of conventional winemaking. Today, we are really well below the sulphur limits of organic and biodynamic winemaking. We ship internationally and the wine becomes vinegar if we don’t protect it. But most of our wines would qualify as natural wine even though there’s no international definition of what a natural wine is.”
Certifications = Credibility….. B Corp and beyond
Virginie believes in certifications to be credible. “Everyone is sustainable these days I find, which would be nice if it were true.”
Avignonesi secured Ecocert organic certification in 2015 and Biodyvin Biodynamic certification in 2019. “For me, it’s important to certify our sustainability and ethics in how we work, how we treat our staff, how we manage energy consumption and how we measure our carbon footprint.” To track this commitment, Avignonesi has applied to be a B Corp and is currently working through the certification. “It’s a push for us to be better and do better. We are making a luxury product – it’s not essential. We can live without wine. I wouldn’t want to, but making wine comes with great responsibility.”
Refocusing the Sangiovese Spotlight
The other decision Virginie Saverys took soon after helming Avignonesi, was to put Montepulciano back in the Sangiovese spotlight. Here, the challenge was twofold.
“I quickly realized Montepulciano was an underdog in the appellations of Tuscany even though it’s an appellation that has a longstanding history dating back many centuries,” she says. “Even Alexandre Dumas the French author who wrote the Count of Monte-Cristo – which is such a lovely book to read – he talks about wines from Montepulciano and he’s definitely not talking about Montepulciano D’Abruzzo on the Adriatic side because that grape variety didn’t exist back then!”
On the confusion between Montepulciano the village and DOCG appellation – where wine is made with the Sangiovese grape – and Montepulciano the grape varietal and value brand best known as Montepulciano D’abbruzo, Virginie wrings her hands.
“This confusion is a very real detriment to our region,” she explains. “Price levels of Montepulciano D’abbruzo are very damaging to the price structure of Montepulciano DOCG producers, and adds so much confusion.” Going forward, Avignonesi and other producers are dialling up NOBILE on the packaging and in marketing and downplaying Montepulciano. “So far it’s helping and sales are responding”.
The second “underdog” challenge of course, comes from the very direct competition of neighbouring powerhouse region, Montalcino, where Sangiovese** is known as Brunello di Montalcino.
Separated by the gentle undulating hills of the UNESCO Val d’Orcia, Montepulciano has a continental climate with soils that tend to have more clay, while Montalcino has more Mediterranean influence and more limestone.
The two Sangiovese strongholds are a mere 20 miles apart, but the share-of-mind, share-of-voice (aka wine media) and sales advantage of Brunello over Vino Nobile is considerable.
Still, from a tourism perspective, Virginie believes Montepulciano has the advantage. “It’s definitely the more beautiful of the two Tuscan villages,” she says proudly. “The reality is Montalcino doesn’t have the beautiful palaces and picturesque buildings of Montepulciano with famous architects like Vignola. But unfortunately, we had bad luck and the owners of Banfi – the Mariani Family – now American owners – decided to buy a property in Montalcino. Had they purchased in Montepulciano, I believe our region would likely be at the top of Tuscan wines. But, c’est la vie.”
The Rebirth and Renaissance of Nobile Wines
Virginie says she quite likes being the underdog. “For that, I have to prove that my wine is just as good as a Brunello, but at a fraction of the price.” Indeed, Montepulciano’s 70+wine producers believe they can make Sangiovese as high in quality and as age-worthy as their Montalcino – and Chianti Classico – counterparts.
“You know, I come from the shipping business and the shipping business is very well known for making alliances between ship owners. Since we realized we wouldn’t get anywhere on our own, we had to find colleagues.”
Virginie and Max reached out to local Nobile producers, suggesting they craft an annual ‘cru’ Nobile wine made of 100% Sangiovese. This wine would represent the best of their individual estates, add ‘news value’ to the region and help promote the rebirth of Nobile wines. They would combine marketing dollars and take this celebration of Vino Nobile wines to Italian wine lovers and key international destinations.
“Today, we are Alliance Vinum – an alliance of six prominent Montepulciano wineries. We chose these partners because they are wineries with a strong connection to the family who owns them.” Virginie says the Italians were very enthusiastic and wanted to bring more wineries on board. “But having five Italians agree amongst themselves is a very difficult thing so we – Max the Basque and me the Belgian – we managed to unite five Italians and agreed to do many marketing things together.”
Avignonesi’s Alliance Vinum wine is called “Poggetto di Sopra” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (see tasting notes below). Alliance partners include Antinori – La Bracceska – led by Albiera Antinori, Dei – led by Caterina Dei, Salcheto – organic producer Michelle Manelli, Boscarelli – led by the Ferrari Family and Poliziano – led by Federico Carletti.
The Alliance has hosted events in New York and Milan and was about to roll out more when Covid-19 struck in spring 2020.
“I must say, over the last few years, people talk more and more about Nobile and we have steadily increased sales. Of course, we have been very badly hit because of the pandemic in Italy. Unfortunately, Italy (25% of sales) is an important market for us and that has been a total collapse including the tourists who visit us at the winery.”
Virginie and her team have made an intentional shift to 100% Sangiovese wines, even though the Corzione or appellation loosened the DOCG regulations several years ago (Montepulciano wineries can blend in up to 30% of other local grape varieties). Instead, Avignonesi is all about profiling the many unique terroir expressions of the grape based on vineyard location, aspect, soil pH, soil type (heavy clay, blue clay, clay and sand, sand and loam, etc). The 11 different vineyards across the region – produce 75 separately vinified lots of Sangiovese – allowing many blending options and producing a broad stylistic range of wines.
So don’t be asking about the “Avignonesi style’ unless you want your palms to sweat!
“Is there one style of Brunello or one Chianti Classico style? Of course not,” says a slightly exasperated Virginie of my question. “This is why all Tuscany regions are pushing for subzones. But if I want to ‘play this game’ I would say in Montepulciano, if you vinify correctly and you’re a good winemaker and you pick your grapes when they’re ripe but not over-ripe, you will get a Sangiovese wine without a lot of colour, like what a good Sangiovese should be. And flavours called la macchia mediterranea – the French call it the maquis –some oregano, some thyme, and some wild mint. That’s the kind of bouquet you get in a true Sangiovese.”
“But there is a deliberate thread across all our wines,” insists Virginie of the broad portfolio of Avignonesi wines, and price points. “They are biodynamic so they have nothing added, which means they are vibrant and elegant, reflecting the terroir and place they come from. They are never over-extracted. Some have more tannins like our Single Vineyard Sangiovese or Poggetto di Sopra. Some have a little more wood because that’s what we want – wines that can age and require complexity. I want to please various budgets, but even someone who likes to spend money on an expensive bottle if they drink our Cantaloro they’ll say OMG, that wine for that price point? It’s amazing.”
Just like the inspiring woman steering the Avignonesi ship.
I spoke to Virginie Saverys and her partner Max De Zarobe on Earth Day, an important day on the Avignonesi calendar. Virginie kindly sent a gift of Avignonesi Tuscan sunshine my way. Here are my notes:
Avignonesi – Da.Di IGT Toscana Sangiovese 2019 – Organic
A 100% Sangiovese wine aged in aged in clay Amphorae and made with local Tuscan clay. Da.di means ‘earth or soil’ in Chinese. This light bodied, fruit-driven wine is targeted at a younger audience with fun packaging and a “disruptive” label featuring a big mamma embracing mother earth.
On the nose, deliciously singular, bright cherry fruit that follows through on the palate. The juicy, purity of fruit here is a thing of beauty, as is the light, clean silky texture. Lively, refreshing acidity with fine grain tannins. Pure elegance. This is Tuscan food wine at its best.
Avignonesi – Rosso di Montepulciano DOC Toscana 2018 – Organic
Another 100% Sangiovese wine. Fruit driven with a shorter oak regime of about 6 months in large oak casks and then further aging in bottle.
Dark ruby, floral aromatics with a rich ripe nose of black cherry violet, spice and dried herbs.
The palate offers ripe fruit, reassuring acidity, black cherry with under-currents of vanilla, mocha, tobacco, sweet balsamic and herbs. Fine tannins make this very drinkable.
Avignonesi – Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG Toscana 2016 – Organic
This Vino Nobile is produced based on consortio or appellation rules. Aged for 18 months in large Slavonian oak casks (vs smaller barriques), the goal is to make Avignonesi’s iconic Nobile fresher, less oaky and more fruit driven.
The wine is decidedly more garnet in hue. Floral, with violets and dried rose, an earthy intensity and ripe cherry on the nose.
Discernable firm tannins, great texture and mouthfeel. Fresh, M+ acidity frames cherry fruit, black plum, strawberry with savoury, leather notes. Beautiful balance and structure. Solid aging potential.
Avignonesi – Poggetto di Sopra Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG 2016 – Organic
This is Avignonesi’s Alliance wine celebrating Montepulciano’s historic Vino Nobile appellation. The Vinum Alliance is dedicated to Nobile’s re-discovery and all six partners in the consortium produce a 100% Sangiovese cru wine each year.
The Poggetto di Sopra shows a high impact nose with black cherry, expresso bean, pencil, leather, and camphor-like medicinal herbs.
The palate is fresh, lifted with a light silky texture. Dark cherry, kirsch, vanilla and herb de provence flavours add complexity and structure.
Truly elegant, beautifully balanced, with a finish that just keeps on going.
Avignonesi – Grifi IGT Toscana Rosso 2017 – Organic
A 50/50 blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, this is Avignonesi’s super Tuscan entry.
Dark ruby with a hint of green pepper freshness, ripe cherry and blackberry aromatics.
Round, with dark sweet fruit and flavours of cherry, cassis and toasty notes of vanilla, balsamic and leather. Fresh, medium bodied, elegant with a long rewarding finish.
Avignonesi – Desiderio IGT Toscana Merlot 2017 – Organic
A 100% Tuscan merlot blend from the Greppo, La Selva and Le Badelle vineyards. The wine is named after a bull owned by Avignonesi’s Capezzine farm, which helped define the Chianina cattle region that’s responsible for the famous Bistecca Fiorentina.
And to drink with that steak? Desiderio – a deeply purple wine, with a fruit and floral nose of violet, fresh blueberry, ripe cherry.
On the palate, it’s fresh, almost tart, with plush dark cherry, pomegranate and ripe plum fruit. Framed by silky tannin structure, notes of earthy underbrush, vanilla and leather round out this beautifully structured wine. Lovely length and great aging potential. Serious yum.
Feature image: Aerial image of the stunning Avignonesi estate. Photo credit: Avignonesi Winery
In Ontario, Avignonesi wines can be purchased from Rogers & Company https://rogcowines.com/wineries/avignonesi/
*In the beginning of the 20th century, the Austrian philosopher and social thinker Rudolf Steiner began disseminating thoughts on the future of agriculture – he held that the current system was on the road to failure. In his opinion, agricultural practices should be tailored to be a reflection of each individual site, with the presence of animals and varied crops – a self-sustaining ‘farm organism’,functioning in total harmony with nature. This came to be called biodynamics. https://www.dahu.bio/en/movies/wine-the-green-revolution/plot
** There are hundreds of different sangiovese clones grown throughout Italy, but the most important families are the prugnolo gentile which is used to make Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, sangiovese grosso used in Brunello di Montalcino, and the sangiovese piccolo, which is grown in Chianti.