Dreaming with Gini - Winespectator by Robert Camuto

Monteforte d’Alpone is one of those places where wine is everywhere and everything. These volcanic rolling hills on the eastern edge of Italy’s Soave appellation are covered as far as the eye can see with slope upon slope of vineyards.

The Gini family has been cultivating wine grapes here for more than 400 years. For more than 30 of them, their winery has not only been a pillar of quality Soave Classico, it has also quietly produced “natural wines”—using organic cultivation, ambient yeasts and minimal sulfite additions at bottling—long before it became cool.

The modern story of Gini begins in 1980. For nearly 40 years at that point, Olinto Gini, who took over the farming in his teens, had sold most of his grapes to the mega-scale producer Bolla, while making some wine for local trattorias.

“My father used to say, ‘When my son becomes an enologist, I will stop selling grapes. We will vinify everything!’” says Sandro Gini, the eldest Gini of his generation.

In his youth, Sandro studied to be an artist, but with no good art academy close to home for him to continue, he opted instead for viticulture and winemaking. “All the great artists were inspired by how nature creates,” he says, surveying the family’s prized sloping vineyards from a nearby hilltop. He is gray but energetic at 61, and when he smiles, crow’s feet gather around his blue eyes.

Sandro joined his father for the 1980 vintage, producing 250 cases of Soave Classico from 20 acres in Monteforte and selling off the rest of their wine in bulk.

The Gini family’s evolution ever since has been as steady as their success. They have tripled their vineyard holdings in Monteforte and planted another 60 acres in the nearby Valpolicella appellation, mostly for red wines. Production has grown to 11 bottlings, totaling more than 16,500 cases. Most important, during decades in which Soave’s image suffered from overproduction of characterless wines, the Ginis improved their offerings in every way.

Sandro, his brother, Claudio, and Sandro's son, Matteo—who make up the core of the winery staff today—continue to experiment, going beyond organics to use only herbal "tea" treatments to prevent disease in some vineyards, and contemplate new single-vineyard wines for the future.

Their flagship whites—deliciously well-rounded, single-vineyard Soave Classico bottlings—come from their historic vineyards, as well as some sites they’ve acquired, on the Froscà hill, a cool-climate terroir whose basaltic-soil slopes are fanned by winds from the nearby Alpine foothills.

These sites, planted to Garganega vines trained high overhead on pergolas, yield wines such as Gini Soave Classico La Froscà 2015 (91 points, $29) and the late-harvest Contrada Salvarenza Vecchie Vigne 2015 (90 points, $44).

Gini’s vines range in age from 60 years to more than 100, with the oldest vines planted on their own roots, rather than grafted to phylloxera-resistant rootstock.

Since he began, Sandro says, the family hasn’t replanted a single vineyard, adding, “For me, that’s important because, in the 1980s, [area nurseries] selected grapes for high production, not quality.”

For the Ginis, the 1980s were a period of creative change—going against the tide of mass-produced Soave flooding the market. In 1985, long before it became a trend, Sandro became convinced that vinifying without added sulfites would enhance wine complexity and aromas, so he stopped using them and only doses with low levels at bottling to ensure stability.

“We risked everything,” he says. “But we knew it would work.”

Sandro also designed new cellars—cavernous, stone-and-brick spaces with classic arches—that his father built, over the span of 20 years, behind the family house and old winery. The naturally cool, gravity-flow facilities are used today to vinify and age all the family’s Soaves.

Since the Ginis had always relied on ambient yeasts for fermentations, when they inaugurated a new fermenting cellar in 1987, Sandro selected yeasts by scraping residue out of his grandfather’s long-abandoned wine casks. He used those yeasts to start fermentation that year, and ever since the cellar’s yeast population has started fermentations spontaneously.

That same year, Sandro scouted a hillside nine miles away in Valpolicella that largely contained abandoned farmland, along with some high-altitude vineyards. A study of the soils and climate found them to be near-Burgundian.

Only 29 at the time, Sandro needed to convince his father to experiment with new vineyards there. “This is our future,” he explained to Olinto. His father responded: “All I see is a mountain of rocks.”

But Olinto had one piece of advice for his son: If you believe in it, don’t just buy a couple of acres, buy all you can. After years of painstaking work to clear, terrace and plant the area, it has since become Gini’s center for red wines, including Pinot Noir, Valpolicella and Amarone.

Though Olinto died in 2010, the family remains close, with most Ginis literally living on top of one another in buildings above or next to the winery. Three generations—topped by family matriarch Maria—gather for lunch every day at a long table in the ancestral home to eat and to taste together.

“Everyone in the family has strong feelings about wine,” Sandro says.

Last year, Sandro was elected president of the consortium of Soave producers and growers, and he set to work immediately to boost the appellation quality by limiting production in Soave’s fertile lowlands. This year, for the first time, the consortium will decide which vineyards to de-classify in July—a radical step because it will analyze their state of health months before harvest, rather than being based on average yields.

“With this system, only the best vineyards that are in balance will go into Soave,” Sandro says. “The producers accepted it because if we are serious, Soave can take off.”