....as Magical and Majestic as the Dolomites
From the first time I heard about Northern Italy’s Foradori winery, I wanted to visit. The dramatic background of the Dolomites - stark, nobbly, granite mountains drawing themselves skyward, while their rocky feet strain towards the earth’s core, along the way, infusing the soils with minerals and something deeply mystic and kinetic, protecting the vineyards from wind and reflecting heat back into the valley vineyards.
And the story, so inspiring – an intrepid woman winemaker takes on a male dominated industry, blazes new biodynamic trails, and is considered ‘crazy’ by the locals – first for focusing on the blending grape, Teroldego, and vinifying it as a single varietal wine; and, later, for her commitment to an ethos focused on producing wines in sync with nature; and, perhaps, overall, because she is a woman. Although, according to her son and current Foradori winemaker, Emilio Zierock, the whole family is considered crazy by many for continuing to break the mold of what wine making and wine growing should be. If that is crazy, it is definitely my kind of crazy.
Foradori wines inspire cult-like adoration: the Teroldego, beautiful, complex, and peppery, full of pomegranates, blackberries and a deep-veined minerality; the skin-contact Nosiola, slightly floral, nutty, fruity and fulsome; the Manzoni Bianco, a Riesling/Pinot Blanc crossing that is rich and crisp and aromatic, and their complex Pinot Grigio, a wine that puts some of Northern Italy's mass-produced white water to shame.
Although I was already a believer, my pilgrimage to Foradori was to experience it from the ground up and to understand more about why.
So, following John Muir's words about those 'calling' mountains, and after attending the 2022 Wine Media Conference in Desenzano del Garda, I headed north to Trentino-Alto Adige with my wine colleague, 2022 Wine Writing Competition Winner, and intrepid driver, Gwendolyn Alley. Trentino-Alto-Adige is made up of two autonomous regions, and descends due south from the Austrian border. It is about as far north as winemaking gets in Italy.
Nestled in the foothills of the Dolomites, the Foradori estate is in the Campo Rotaliano zone of Trentino, on the border between Trentino and Alto Adige, in a triangular plain deeply influenced by both the Dolomites and the Noce River, a tributary of the Adige. The region is blessed with alluvial, sandy and pebbly soils, flowed down from the mountains, tossed up by the rivers, and is rich in dolomitic rocks (magnesium and limestone), as well as in clay (for the whites), churned up by glaciers.
It was a crisply transparent October morning when we arrived, the sun shimmering gold off the massive granite walls that rose up on either side of the lush green of the Foradori vineyards, living proof that just because we were in an alpine area, the climate is not necessarily chilly, in fact it was generously warm.
Though still in the throes of harvest, Emilio greeted us with perfect, freshly-made espresso and then took us into the stunning vineyards where Teroldego vines lifted themselves sunward on Guyot trellises, as well as to the old Terodelgo vines that casually streamed over delicate pergolas, under which winter vegetables, planted by his sister, created an appetizing, wide, and biodynamically functional blanket between the vines, and then into the deep underground cellar, where even more magic happens - a literal symphony of fermentation.
The estate, which has 30 hectares of vineyards and produces about 180,000 bottles a year, was first established in 1901 as a winery, and the cellar dates back to then. Purchased by Elisabetta’s grandfather in 1939, the first Foradori vintage was in 1960, just a year before the Trentino behemoth Santa Margherita started its journey towards, for better or worse, defining Italian white wine.
When Elisabetta's father passed away in 1976, her mother took over until, in 1985, at age 19 (and after studying at San Michele all’Adige’s wine school), Elisabetta took the reins. At the time, the Trentino wine industry was (and still is) dominated by cooperatives with little room for, or interest in, smaller winemakers. Red wines had dominated winemaking in Trentino until after the second world war when the region shifted its focus to whites, specifically the very successful Pinot Grigio and sparkling wines. Winemaking in Trentino had become focused on creating ‘clean’ predictable wines for the world market, providing little incentive to growers for the cultivation (and careful crafting) of Trentino's indigenous grapes such as Teroldego and Nosiola.
When his mother took over the winery, says Emilio, “No one respected Teroldego, it was rarely made as a single varietal wine, and almost always used for bulk wines. Because of its good color it would be added to Schiava and other grapes.” And, even though most of those wines were 70% Teroldego, it was sold not as Teroldego, but as ‘red wine’ for the central European market.
But, Elisabetta had other ideas for the bulbous blue-black berries growing on the estate's pergolas. She entered winemaking on a world stage influenced by Robert Parker and the trend of riper, more extracted, more opulent red wines, unafraid of oaky flavors. Her vision was for a bolder, more distinctive version of Teroldego than the undistinguished wines it historically produced. After all, Teroldego boasts a noble heritage - it is related to Syrah and Pinot Noir– and, with the right cultivation, is capable of expressions that conjure up the very best of both of those noble grapes.
In 1986, she created Granato, a concentrated, deeply colored and oak-tinged single varietal wine, named for the garnet color of the grape and for the pomegranate, which often grows with grapes in the Mediterranean, and whose flavors are easily found in these wines. "What she did, said Emilio, was simply revolutionary at the time.”
And it wasn’t easy. Teroldego, a vigorous vine, is at the limit of ripeness in Trentino. Surrounded by those vast mountain walls, it can benefit from the valley’s warmth as well as from massive diurnal shifts in temperature (as much as 7C at night / 28C by day), so critical to maintaining freshness and complexity. With its good acidity, gentle tannins and medium alcohol, Elisabetta saw a grape that, with the right care, could not only produce fresh fruity floral wines, but also wines capable of aging into complexity.
It was clear that the prevalent Teroldego clones, developed to produce quantity, rather than quality, would struggle to produce anything better than thin and uninteresting wines. So, she focused on finding and propogating the best quality clones through massal selection – weeding out the low quality vines and focusing the vineyard on the best ones (usually with smaller berries). Working with her husband, the late Rainier Zierock, something of a specialist in grape geneology and something of a philosopher, she identified 15 quality clones and gradually moved to Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) trellising vs the traditional pergola, to achieve maximum ripeness.
Her efforts were very successful, not only did she increase the genetic diversity in the vineyard and improve the concentration and complexity of the juice, but her barrique-aged Granato matched the current trends, leading to a resurgence in interest in Teroldego, with Foradori’s wines becoming highly sought after. That being said, to this day, Granato has never been accepted in the DOC, it is sold as an IGT. According to the bemused Emilio, it had too much color for acceptance by the powers that be.
By 2000, according to Emilio, his mother "became bored with the normal winemaking and growing methods - she could see the wines had much potential yet to be expressed.”
Elisabetta explains in her website notes: “My path was like that of many other winemakers….a predominantly technical training led me to consider all agricultural procedures to be only mechanical and repetitive actions whose ultimate goal was the production of apparently healthy grapes and similarly flawless wines ….a feeling of incompleteness and uncertainty began to permeate my days...leading me to acknowledge the absence of a soul in the wines I produced.”
Emilio’s younger brother was at a Steiner school at the time and, Elisabetta was in touch with, and deeply influenced by, the Loire’s Nicolas Joly, known as the Godfather of Biodynamic Wine, and she began exploring biodynamics.
Biodynamics is a holistic system of agriculture, developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. It encompasses organic protocols and biodynamic preparations - most famously cow manure stuffed into a cow horn and then buried...but the preparations are far more varied and complex than that and are both animal and herb-based. And it centers around an ethos that all operations should be guided in some sense by the sun, planets, moon, and stars, with the vineyard and/or farm a self-sustaining loop - cows grazing cover crops between the vines; manure, grape must, organics used for compost, etc.
“The journey back to Mother Earth is not an easy one,” says Elisabetta. “To recover the ability to steer within the cycles of nature…to work with nature – and not against it.”
But it was a journey she committed to and, in 2002, she converted the winery to biodynamics, receiving Demeter certification in 2009. The change to biodynamics, while continuing to leave some of the locals scratching their heads, only further intensified the appeal of the wines. Although, according to Emilio's brother Theo in a recent podcast: "The natural wine Taliban see us conservative and the conservatives see us freaks.'
And it is this next generation that continues that biodynamic journey today. Emilio, who first followed his father's footsteps into philosophy at university, became Foradori's winemaker in 2012, after working harvests and wineries around the world, from France to Patagonia, and studying wine at Montpelier. Theo runs sales and marketing, and sister Myrtha, who worked in organic farms in Oregon and Quebec, runs the estate's vegetable farm where she grows beautiful robust organic vegetables for sale to the public. Although her children are now in charge, Elisabetta has not put away the cow horn, far from it. Today she is focusing on blazing another trail with biodynamic cheesemaking from their small herd of Tyrolean Grey cows whose alpine grazing is reflected in her rare and heavenly wheels of cheese.
“We see ourselves as a farm, a whole ecosystem,’ says Emilio. “What is fertility? It is our job.” This was a key axiom of his late father, whose quotes adorn the wine labels: “Respect the land and its fertility as you would respect yourself.”
Emilio sees that job as three tiered, “1. Take care of the land. 2. Make money to keep the winery going, 3. Take care of the employees,” which they do in a number of ways including subsidizing a social care program and, rather than only seasonal workers, maintaining 12 fixed employees. "Labor is critical to our mission as everything is done by hand."
Has climate change had an impact on this holistic vision? Although rain is usually abundant in the region, the 2022 vintage, like the rest of Northern Italy, has been a dry one requiring the use of drip irrigation at Foradori for the first time since 2017 (the vines are usually dry farmed). “We still have to fight for ripeness," says Emilio of the late-ripening Teroldego, "We have to wait and be patient.” Climate change, however, has been moving harvest forward and Emilio acknowledges that it has the potential to improve ripeness and create more expressive wines. But, at the same time, it also is bringing on more traumatic climate actions, more intense thunderstorms, and destructive bursts of vine-damaging high winds. But the Foradori’s vision of everything working in harmony is also a hope that they can sustain the potential challenges ahead. It remains to be seen how this vision will survive what the planets have in store.
Emilio’s winemaking philosophy reflects this holistic vision of letting nature do its thing “we try to bring out the freshness of the wines and not hide from it,” by gently guiding and shepherding the grapes on their delicate journey. Basically, his winemaking is down to zero – zero ingredients (apart from the grapes), indigenous yeasts, no temperature control, very little oak - some acacia for whites, big and old oak for the Granato (which hasn’t seen new oak since 2000).
The stars of the cellar, however, are the 247 clay Tinajas from Spain, in which the wines macerate, ferment and mature, giving full expression to the grapes and which, Emilio says: “Breathe like a barrel but don’t taste like a barrel.
They fit with Steiner’s belief that clay is a mediator between the Cosmos and the Earth – and if you listen to the sounds they make in the above video, it isn’t hard to make that connection.
Moving back – or perhaps forward – a step from the ‘revolution’ of not employing skin contact that made Santa Margarita a generic giant in the industry, Zierock employs significant skin contact on all his whites, including his Pinot Grigio.
Foradori’s winemaking mission “is to bring into the wineglass the fragrance of the flowers from the mountain pastures, the minerality of the surrounding cliffs, the transparency of the mountain skies, the character of the people that live in these alpine valleys to convey with each bottle the character of the land of Trentino.”
And in that, indeed, they succeed brilliantly.
Let me prove it. See below for Part Two, a rundown on the wines I tasted at Foradori.
Click here for Part Two: Foradori's Wines
For more information on Foradori, click here: