WWC20 – Montemaggio, Chianti

Montemaggio - Valeria Zavadnikova

Andy Kelly introduces his entry to our sustainability heroes writing competition: 'I’m a wine lover currently based in Liverpool, UK. What started as an interest has quickly become a passion and I’m proud to run my own wine website with a good friend (www.getyourcorkout.com). If I’m not drinking wine then I’m usually talking about it and if I’m not talking about it then I’m usually writing about it! Bordeaux reds are my first love though I’m a keen drinker of both new and old-world wines. My most favourite bottle is Pulenta Estate VII Gran Corte from Mendoza which I credit for starting my love affair with wine. I’m not employed in the wine trade though this is an aspiration. As a customer experience professional, I feel that there will be requirements for wineries to embrace marketing and the customer experience post COVID so I’m using my time on redundancy notice wisely to plot my next move. I’m WSET level 2 qualified and I’m currently studying my level 3 with my studies currently suspended due to COVID. I’m looking forward to picking this back up in January.' See this guide to the entries so far published.

There was only ever going to be one nominee for my sustainability hero and that is Fattoria di Montemaggio.

Based in Radda, Chianti, Fattoria di Montemaggio is a family owned, 70-hectare estate of vineyards, olive groves and forest. The estate lies on a slope between 450–600 metres above sea level with the 8-hectare vineyard primarily growing Sangiovese with smaller plots of Merlot, Pugnitello, Chardonnay, Malvasia Nera and Ciliegiolo.

The estate produces wines of outstanding quality, where the grapes are organically grown, hand harvested and the wines contain no chemical additives other than sulfites.

I was fortunate enough to meet with the young and charismatic owner, Valeria Zavadnikova, via Zoom. Her enthusiasm for winemaking really shone through and it’s clear that her philosophy for sustainable, organic winemaking has been shaped by her experience growing up in Soviet Russia. Valeria recalls playing in her grandparent’s vegetable garden, where they grew a range of vegetables both for food and to trade for other goods, and the sense of tranquillity she felt as she did so. The feeling of being ‘at one with nature’ at Montemaggio evokes her time spent in her grandparent’s garden, and so is the foundation of her organic ethos.

This ethos is at the core of Valeria’s operation of Montemaggio and is a consideration of all aspects of her work, beginning in the vineyard. She explains that pesticides can metabolise inside the grape, changing its DNA and impacting quality. The use of pesticides can even have an effect beyond the vineyard as they can contaminate soil and be washed further afield by rain water. Valeria shared that she’d ‘seen pesticides contaminate ponds and kill the fish living there’ and it is this experience, and a desire to be respectful of her surroundings, that led her to employ more natural methods of ridding the vineyard of unwanted pests.

One such method was the use of ladybirds in an attempt to keep critters such as aphids, known to devastate the Cypress trees that populate the Tuscan countryside, in check. Whilst the success of this was limited, another natural method used to rid Montemaggio’s vines of ravenous caterpillars has been highly successful, Valeria explained: ‘A lovely butterfly always comes and leaves her eggs on our vines but their caterpillars will eat everything! Instead of killing them we put a plastic pouch filled with the male butterfly’s hormone on to the plant. When the female comes to lay her eggs, she gets confused because she can’t find the male and flies away to lay her eggs elsewhere’. This is a perfect example of the sustainable methods Valeria uses to enable her to produce exceptional wines without compromising her surroundings or its wildlife.

This continues in the care and attention that is given to the soils; once the grapes have been harvested in the autumn, cover crops are planted that grow throughout the winter. These crops help to manage the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil, minimising the threat of erosion whilst promoting greater biodiversity within the vineyard. Given that much of their vines are situated on slopes, drainage can also be a particular issue. To address this, Montemaggio now plants barley at the bottom of the slopes, allowing any excess water that would have otherwise saturated the grapes to be used up.

In the short term, Valeria would like to shoot a couple of videos on composting but there’s a niggling worry in the back of her mind, ‘I want to do a couple of videos about the worms but are people really going to find any of this interesting?!’ she ponders. I wouldn’t worry Valeria. Given your enthusiasm and the love you’ve put in to Montemaggio, I think a couple of videos about composting shouldn’t be too much trouble!

Montemaggio has been certified organic since 2009 by the CCPB and you will find the Ecocert logo on the back of all their wines. It’s a vigorous process as Valeria is keen to stress, ‘In order to be certified organic you actually need to have two certifications, one for organic grapes and another for organic wine’. There are some compromises that Valeria accepts are part and parcel of the winemaking process. Copper is employed in the vineyard to tackle fungus though the spray that’s used is permitted by the CCPB. SO2 is added to her wines but in minimal quantities, just enough to ensure that her wines remain fresh to survive the long journey via container ship to the United States.

Speaking of shipping, Montemaggio are pleased to be phasing out their current packaging, substituting their old polystyrene wrapping and replacing it with recyclable cardboard. It’s a great step forward, and one that elicits a funny tale from Valeria, ‘I’ve been doing some testing, by throwing my bottles packed in the new cardboard off of the terrace to the floor below and I’m satisfied now that my bottles will arrive intact to our customers!’. Her desire to recycle as much as possible has also extended to the bottles themselves. Both the Chardonnay and Rosé are bottled with a unique glass cork, allowing customers to use the bottles for a range of other purposes once they’ve enjoyed the wine.

However, Valeria’s most ingenious idea lies in what she does with waste from the winemaking process. Produced from the seeds and skins of the grapes that contain flavonoids, Montemaggio’s new skincare range includes a face scrub & serum, eye contour cream and an anti-ageing day cream. Valeria explained: ‘I would have otherwise thrown away the skins and seeds but I’ve been able to do something else with them. This resonates really well with my idea of sustainable agriculture and not throwing anything away’. The stem cells used in her skincare range would otherwise help the plants regenerate so, according to Valeria, these same stem cells should support the regeneration of our skin. I’ve been using the face scrub for a number of weeks myself and my sensitive skin does feel much better!

Great emphasis is placed on the health and wellbeing of all the staff working at Montemaggio. Illaria, her agronomist, has worked with her since 2007 and Valeria believes that her own risk-taking approach is suitably tempered by Illaria’s more traditional style, complementing each other well. For the remainder of her small team, great emphasis is placed on understanding the complete workings of the vineyard. This gives her team a sense of place, allowing them to understand the importance of their role within the winery. She explains that employment law in Italy is catered towards workers so she’s all too happy to comply with their laws regarding the training of her team. However, she’s also an advocate for their own professional development and she even takes an active interest in their career choices. For example, by encouraging Haseeba, her cook, to undertake any cooking classes that will improve her offer to tourists.

Valeria’s ethos extends far beyond the boundaries of her estate and she places great importance in partnering with smaller businesses within Chianti. Upon browsing the Montemaggio website, I find that I can book my entire trip to Radda and beyond. Before long, I’ve mapped out a full itinerary that includes a stay at the Hotel Villa Campomaggio, delicious lunches at Casa Porciatti, evening meals at Ristorante la Bottega di Volpaia and nightcaps at Bar Ucci. I can even pick up gifts at Decori nel Tempo and I haven’t yet left Radda!

So, what next for Montemaggio? Well, Valeria isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s completely aware that there is more that she can do to boost her sustainability credentials. ‘I would love to install solar panels and have my tractor to run on biofuel. I would also love to become biodynamic and have a 100% sustainable ecosystem where everything works in unison but these things take time and cost a lot of money. Everything that I’m able to achieve right now I try to achieve, and for me this is a legacy that I will leave to my children and future generations,’ she explains.

And finally, what of the wines themselves? They’re fabulous, with the Chardonnay being my absolute favourite. But don’t just take my word for it, take a look at their website and you can see for yourself just how many awards these wines are winning.