Bulgari family brings innovation to Tuscan vineyard
Giovanni Bulgari, a scion of the famous Italian fashion and luxury goods dynasty that founded the Bvlgari brand, made an unusual career transition, when he devoted himself to resurrecting winemaking in a previously-abandoned vineyard in Tuscany, Italy. The move resulted in an interesting shift in perspective, sustained by two important aims: to make “elegant wines with simplicity,” in a way that “respects the environment,” Mr Bulgari said in an interview with Innovation Hong Kong.
Giovanni Bulgari spent eight years working with the Bvlgari brand – one of the most sought-after luxury brands among consumers in Hong Kong and Greater China, as well as globally. In 2004 he and his father – Paolo Bulgari – bought the Podernuovo estate in southern Tuscany, situated between Umbria and Lazio.
The 54 acres (22 hectares) of vineyard at Palazzone are part of the municipality of San Casciano dei Bagni, in the province of Siena, an ancient thermal retreat. The previously abandoned vineyard was completely replanted in 2007. Its position facing southeast is said to impart structure and elegance to the wines that spring from it.
“This adventure was, and actually is very challenging for us. The Bulgari family created one of the most well-known jewellery brands in the world, and [only] started making wine 10 years ago,” Mr Bulgari said.
“On one hand the name Bulgari help us to transmit the sense of engagement that the family has always had in its activities; on the other for some people it might be hard to understand that this is a life project of Giovanni Bulgari, and not just a game,” he noted.
The wider world appears to appreciate the product. In 2017, approximately one-fifth of the estate’s exports were to mainland China; with Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Bali and Australia also being significant destinations for its products.
“The Chinese market has grown a lot in the last years. For Podernuovo it is a very important market, and amounted to around 20 percent of total exports,” the businessman said.
Some evidence that Podernuovo is not an example of someone with a famous name tinkering with a hobby, is suggested by the way the winemaker speaks about his current life.
“Working at Bvlgari transmitted many important values, such as: a sense of elegance, of respect and an aim to achieve the best results by employing wise people,” Mr Bulgari explained.
The role of being a custodian of a famous luxury goods brand and that of running a winery have some things in common, he suggested. They include respect for traditional crafts and the need to have a sustainable business.
“At Podernuovo we approach winemaking in a very respectful way,” stated Mr Bulgari. “We try to preserve the historical heritage of winemaking, but at the same time we are trying to develop it with the most sustainable technologies, in order to respect and especially preserve nature,” he added. “Today winemaking has to be evolutionary itself, because if we do not respect the environment, we cannot create a fresh history founded on the values of quality, elegance and respect.”
The winemaker is also familiar with the ongoing narrative among practitioners and consumers regarding wine styles, stressing that in the last 30 years, “tastes regarding wine have changed a lot.During the 1980s and 90s, people and winemakers loved very structured wines with a strong use of oaks for the ageing process. I personally feel that nowadays consumers and winemakers prefer to encounter the varietal characters of the grapes in wines,” he explained. “The ageing process is important, but it has to improve the grape’s character and not to distort it.”
The three red wines produced on the property are: “Therra”, a Tuscany blend of Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes; “Argirio”, a single-variety wine based on Cabernet Franc grapes; and “Sotirio”, named after Sotirio Bulgari, the founder of the luxury goods house, and which is a pure Sangiovese wine.
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Functionality, elegance and simplicity
In Europe it is quite common for existing farmhouses or mansions serving estates of vines to be modernised as wineries. In Podernuovo’s case, there was no such existing building. The winery – and a winery tradition – had to be built from scratch.
The architecture practice commissioned to design the winery building – Alvisi Kirimoto & Partners – has partners who have worked respectively with two of the most famous contemporary architectural practices: those of Renzo Piano and Oscar Niemeyer.
The main task was to build a winery that would meet Mr Bulgari’s aspirations. The structure was built on two concepts: functionality and low environmental impact.
“I explained my idea, and Alvisi immediately understood. The winery had to be part of the landscape, and the functionality was the most important aspect, followed by elegance and simplicity,” Mr Bulgari told Innovation Hong Kong. “The main challenge was to build a something that did not disappoint in terms of my concept of what winemaking should be.”
He added: “At Podernuovo we are trying to use many innovations in order to have the most sustainable production.”
Examples of innovation in the design of the winery, were the decision to take advantage of the undulating local terrain; and to make use of the fact that the land mass of Italy runs along a fault line in the Earth’s crust.
“The winery is settled inside the hill; and this permits us to use the [locally available] geothermal energy, to control the fermentation temperature,” Mr Bulgari explained. “On the roof, we have a massive solar panel system and it helps with electricity consumption. Our aim is to obtain a total sustainable wine production.”
In seeking to pursue sustainable viniculture, Mr Bulgari’s team combines the use of innovation with techniques used in the past to produce wines.
“At Podernuovo we use the newest technology combined with the know-how from the past,” the entrepreneur explained. “For instance, in the treatment process we use only sulphur, as winemakers used to do in the past, but we are able to control the fermentation temperature by using geothermal energy, which is one of the latest technologies used now by winemakers,” he added. The main reasons for adding sulphur to wine are to inhibit or kill unwanted yeasts and bacteria, and to protect wine from oxidation.
Referring to his winery master Stefano Piccio, and his vineyard master Giorgio Gigliotti, Mr Bulgari said: “Stefano and Giorgio are bringing to Podernuovo their know-how. They know how to do their work, and respect nature as their parents taught; but at the same time, they are very open-minded regarding new technologies. Their great capacity for binding together historical heritage, and technology bring the authentic character and the contemporary style in our wine.”
Innovation Hong Kong asked Mr Bulgari what personal qualities or outlook were needed in order to pursue innovation in winemaking, and production of high-quality wines. He told us: “The most simple and humble quality required in high-quality winemaking production is to be conscientious. People cannot forget that our job depends on nature. So, our highest duty, is to produce great wines with a great respect for the environment.”
Mr Bulgari was also asked about plans to launch new products in the near future, to which he answered: “We are a very young winery, and we must be focused on what we are doing now, but of course in the future there will be some special surprises.”