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Passionately Green

Since there is a color called “passion pink”, there should be a ”passion green” for folks like Tuscan winemaker Michele Manelli of Salcheto.  Everything about Manelli and Salcheto is green except the color of their wines.

Me, I take my wine with a grain of salt.  For a long time, I thought that Riedel’s different-glasses-for-different-wines mantra was a great marketing strategy but made absolutely no scientific sense.  Then Georg Riedel sat me down in front of three different glasses with three different wines, performed his magic shell game of shifting them around, and I had to drink my words.  Riedel was right, however impractical it may be to have 27 different stems around if you’re a polygamist drinker.

The same with Manelli and his green wave of winegrowers.  Until recently, I thought all these self-declarations of being greener than green were largely failed PR and marketing attempts at brand differentiation – “failed” because it’s not differentiation if everyone is doing it.  Then I saw the light, or, more accurately, the color – these guys not only believe what they’re saying, they have changed the way grapes are being grown and wine is made, using less energy and preserving the environment.  Who’da thunk it?

I met Manelli recently at a tasting lunch at Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria in NYC.  Like too many writers, I asked him a statement as a question.  “Most businesses only make big changes to meet government regulations or because there is, or they think there will be, a customer demand for it,” I ventured.  “But you’re not getting pressure or incentives from the government, and most retailers and sommeliers say customers don’t order wine because it’s green or organic.”  He laughed.  “I think you’re right, because no one is forcing us to make these changes – at least not yet.”

Manelli acquired Salcheto, a 165-acre estate in Montepulciano, in 1997, partnering in part with NYC lawyer Ron Prashker, who may drink even greener Kool Aid than Manelli.  Today, the estate makes five wines available in the U.S., three priced at under $20 (Chianti Colli Senesi, Rosato di Toscano, Rosso di Montepulciano).

The bearded and fuzzy-wuzzy Manelli is as geeky as you can get about carbon footprint stats and environmental research.  He will give you Nate Silver-worthy numbers on tradeoffs between corks and screwcaps and plowing by horse versus tractor.  But he is as friendly as a rescue puppy, has a droll sense of humor and makes damned good wine. Consider this:

Salcheto is off the grids, meaning it uses no electricity wired in from the outside.  (Where I live, only the Amish can do that.)

Salcheto uses precision technology to deliver simple, but tricky-to-do, concepts.  For example, a closed-fermentation system keeps out oxygen, has no sulfur (except what comes with the grapes), powers pump-overs and disinfects, all by harnessing escaping CO2.

Salcheto’s new wine, “Obvius” Rosso di Montepulciano, is a successful attempt to make a serious, delicious wine that is as close to being “from grapes only” as you can get.  By carefully controlling oxygen and using the CO2 fermentation technology, Manelli has been able to make an elegant wine with no added sulfur and minimal intervention.  Very much aware of the reputation of no-added-sulfur wines, Manelli says, “I’m leaving it in the cellar for six months to prove that it’s stabilized before shipping.”

And, showing his humor and awareness that some lazily made “natural” wines have poor reputations, Manelli laughingly declares, “Obvius is not a ‘natural wine,’ as I understand the term, because I had a lot to do with it.”

I’ll admit, it’s refreshing to find a winemaker as committed to whatever term we use for being environmentally correct but who remains as open-minded as Manelli.  He’s even thinking about using a little sulfur before bottling the next vintage of Obvius.  (I asked him for comparisons: most wines, he says, have 25-40 ml of sulfur, the 2012 Obvius has about 3 ml of naturally occurring sulfur and the projected 2013 may have 5-10 ml.)  Why do it?  “I just want to better understand the process,” he says. 

Manelli is green, but not a jade(d) green

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