One can’t help but want to taste – and love – Il Molino di Grace’s wine after being on the receiving end of one of Frank Grace’s big smiles and hearty handshakes. After all, Il Molino di Grace’s wines must reflect his warmth, right? If truth be told, they do, with their soul-warming colors, beautiful, clean aromas, inviting palates and memorable finishes. They are one of a kind, just like the Graces’ stunning estate. Indeed, the vineyards – each named after one of Frank and Judy Grace’s grandchildren – reflect the love and care they and their staff have always put into cultivating perfect, healthy plants. Further cementing this idea, the winery became certified organic in 2014 – with the first vintage release in 2015. But make no mistake, they had already been practicing organic viticulture well before going through the formalities.
Il Molino di Grace is located in the heart of Panzano, which by no coincidence is the largest organic-growing district (we’re talking 500 hectares) in Italy. At least nineteen out of twenty wineries in the area are organic and they each belong to the association called the Vintners’ Union of Panzano in Chianti. Being part of this elite community affords them many advantages, not least is the one giving them constant access to the expertise of a “group” professional agronomist, paid by the associates to keep a close eye on any potential disease and/or pest infestations across the area. Because the entire zone is organic, this system of checks and balances eliminates the risk of potential outbreaks and spread. The other side of the coin is that it also eradicates the threat of contamination of synthetic pesticides or weed killers used by neighbors. Consider that even the posts used to tie the vines are organic chestnut. That is just how important it is to them. Why? The answer to this question illustrates why a winery might choose to go organic in the first place.
Iacopo Morganti, general manager of Il Molino di Grace, explains the root of the issue: “Synthetic treatments of all types enter the lymphatic system of the plants. This means the plants are treated from the inside out,” he explained. These chemicals absorb very quickly and become part of plant’s inner workings, even making life too easy for them. They don’t have to build up much immunity if everything is being done for them. He continues, “On the other hand, organic viticulture treats the plants on the outside. The leaves are sprayed, when necessary, with totally organic products. And rain can potentially wash them off. In fact, the more precipitation, the more treatments are hypothetically needed.” In this way, the plants grow strong, lush and resilient and are not dependent on anything. Treatment is nothing more than an all-natural helping hand and each treatment takes much longer to take effect.
The peaceful vineyards surrounding Il Molino di Grace’s spectacular estate, an unpretentious private residence and their many sculptures cover 30 hectares (74 acres). Each vine basks in welcome sunshine from the south, southeast, and southwest, while the Gratius vineyards face east. The vines, ranging from four to sixty years of age, were organically cultivated long before the winery was officially certified. This comes as no surprise as it seems that for most growers, it is a way of life. We asked Iacopo if he had any “before and after” shots of the plants or even the soil and he said he did not. Because they’ve been using organic products for so long, it’s hard to pinpoint a true “before” moment.
For pest control, they, like Speri, also employ sexual confusion tactics, using the same strips and traps placed throughout the vineyards. The traps are frequently checked and any captured bugs are counted to see that the strips are working. Occasionally, Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt), a microbe naturally occurring in soil, is used to fight larvae that furrow into the grapes while they are small, grow as the grapes grow and kill them from the inside out as they feed and eventually try to escape. For disease, copper and sulfur are used. The winery has almost always used natural fertilizer and currently plants favino (fava or field beans) every other year to use as natural fertilizer. They also manually cut grass and use it as mulch. They agree that more manpower is needed as a result, but say that this is a good thing as it allows them to be in constant contact with the vines. Plants are left to do their thing, but under the watchful eye of the winemaker and his staff. With traditional cultivation, no contact is needed at all. You just spray your chemicals and walk away.
Organic winemaking is honest winemaking. There is nothing to hide behind. “Each wine is a true expression of its terroir and the vintage. Year after year, you see how the wines evolve, the effects of each seasonal trend, how the winemaker dealt with each problem or lack thereof, and the differences and similarities between each vintage. It is winemaking par excellence,” explains Iacopo. “The grapes are everything. The plants are happier when grown organically and the wines reflect that.” We asked how the wines have changed and he said, “They are fruitier – you really taste the primary aromas. They are also fresher.” The winery also uses cement casks, which helps to further preserve the primary aromas of the grapes.
The hilly vineyards in Panzano are also blessed in more ways than one. The high altitudes, day/night temperature swings and galestro soil allow for slow ripening, high acidity, elegant structure, good alcohol and color, and a recognizable one-of-a-kind flavor. This combination leads to excellent ageability, even up to fifteen years. But that is not their only blessing. They say the land itself is blessed, having once been owned by a thousand-year-old church called La Pieve di San Leolino. The vineyards themselves are 300 to 400 years old and many references to the wine they produced have been found. Now, a statue of Saint Francis, the patron saint of Italy and all things natural stands tall above the vineyards at Il Molino di Grace. Frank Grace commissioned Sandro Granucci, a local Panzano artist, to sculpt the statue and dedicated it to Judy for their 45th wedding anniversary. A befitting choice, we asked Frank why he chose Saint Francis, and he grinned, “Because that is my name!” Indeed, Frank and Francis dutifully watch over the naturally cultivated fruit of the vines day in, day out, letting nature guide their every move and acting in the least invasive way possible and only when absolutely necessary. After all, the grapes – and their health – are the stars of any good wine.
Photos courtesy of Il Molino di Grace.