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Roberto Di Filippo: Ethical Farming from Umbria to Romania

Roberto Di Filippo: Ethical Farming from Umbria to Romania

katarina Andersson

If you visit Roberto Di Filippo, you’ll see him in the vineyard working with his draught horses while faithfully followed around by the geese. By some Italian journalists, he has been called the oenologist horse whisperer.[1] Although he is a winemaker, he defines himself first and foremost as a farmer if you ask him. He has a profound love of the surrounding nature and passionately talks about his work as a vine grower and winemaker. Roberto is a person who takes farming, sustainability, and ethics seriously, which shines through in his work in both Umbria and Romania.

His commitment stretches from the rolling hills of Umbria to the Danube Delta in Romania. He has two wineries in Cannara in Umbria—Cantina Di Filippo and Plani Arche—and, as of 2010, a wine venture in Romania. He began this project with his friends and colleagues Roberto Pieroni, Andrea Pesaresi, and his sister, Emma Di Filippo. Today, with Pieroni, he runs the Sapata winery in Romania. Their work in Romania is a way to produce wine in another country and support and give something back to the Romanian community. They try to give people hope in an area where poverty and marginalization have been challenging for the local population.

A Land of Hope

Photo credit: Sapata winery

Jancis Robinson MW has defined Romania as the land of hope[2] when it comes to wine. Historically, winemaking in Romania dates back thousands of years. It has been mentioned in relation to the Agathyrsi people around 700 BC and later the Dacian Kingdom from the 2nd century BC and onwards. In recent times, Romania’s wine production suffered a low period when it was hit by both the phylloxera epidemic in the 19th and early 20th centuries and a communist regime characterized by high quantities and low quality. However, the future is looking bright with development, improvement, and innovation since the country’s entry into the EU in 2007.

Furthermore, Jancis Robinson stresses that Romania has more land under vine than any other eastern European countries. Looking closer at the OIV[3] statistics show that Romania has similarly the amount of land covered by vines as Portugal and Argentina with 191,000 hectares in 2018. The total volume of wine produced that same year was 5.1 million hl, in line with the production of Russia and Portugal. Wine consumption was also fairly high in Romania with 4.1 million hl.

There are eight main wine areas in Romania, namely the Transylvania Highlands, the Moldavian Hill, the Muntenia Hills, the Oltenia Hills, the Banat Hills, the Dobruja Hills, the Crișana Maramureș Hills, and the Danube Terraces.[4] Roberto’s Sapata winery is located in the Dobruja region in the south-eastern part of Romania that borders Ukraine, Moldova, and Bulgaria. It sits in the Somova locality in the Cislita area between the Danube River and the Black Sea. This area is a melting pot with more than 25 different nationalities or ethnic groups existing together, including Romanians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Turkish Gypsies, Cossacks, Russians, and many more. The Turkish influence has been strong through the years, which is noticeable by place names of Turkish origin such as ‘Cislita’ that means ‘small sheepfold’ in Turkish.

Starting in Umbria

The Di Filippo family originates from Campania two generations back but then settled in Umbria. Roberto has run the Di Filippo winery with his sister Emma for several years, but he has also owned another winery, Plani Archi, with his wife Elena for almost 20 years. Since the Covid pandemic, Roberto has decided to dedicate his time to the Plani Archi and Sapata wineries, while his sister runs the Di Filippo winery.

Both Italian wineries are within the production areas of Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG and Colli Martani DOC. The Di Filippo winery was organically certified as early as 1994, and in 2008, they also started to apply biodynamic farming methods. They are not Demeter certified yet, but sustainable ethics is at the heart of the Di Filippo family. It is important for them to directly connect to the land, not only as a place where they cultivate the vines, but to be responsible to the work they carry out, the choices they make, and their effect on the final product and the world at large.

In 2009, Roberto used five hectares to introduce draught horses to work the soil in the vineyards. He has extended it to more at the Di Filippo winery since then. They collaborate with the University of Perugia to further research the benefits of both organic and biodynamic farming. Together with a co-worker, he has trained the horses himself during the years and has about ten horses in Umbria today. Roberto says that it is more cost-effective to work the land with draught horses than with tractors in the long run. However, he underlines that it takes time to train the horses and to get into the mindset of such farming techniques. He also introduced the breeding of geese to clean and fertilize the soil in the vineyards. By letting the geese graze freely in the vineyards on grass and herbs, their meat also becomes of much higher quality. Moreover, the use of animals in the vineyard results in saving energy up to 40 percent.[5]

A Model to Build on in Romania

Photo credit: Sapata winery

In 2010, the Di Filippo family brought their philosophy abroad to Romania and bought land. Roberto explains that he had gone to Romania with a friend, Roberto Pieroni, who had lived there for many years. They decided to invest in a joint wine venture. Their vision was to focus on organic farming and invest in local resources and people to create business for the local community.

They started by buying up scattered vineyard plots in the Cislita area and then planted the vineyards by hand with workers from local villages. This was a stark contrast to how it generally works in the rest of Romania, where wineries hire external or foreign companies to come and plant the vineyards mechanically. It was also important for Roberto and his partners to use local material as much as possible. In many cases, the poles used in Romanian vineyards are often stainless steel or metal and imported from France, Italy, or Belgium. But at the Sapata winery, they decided to construct them of Acacia oak directly from the Transylvania area. After a year, they started to build the winery, and in addition to using industrial bricks, they built straw rooves to blend in with the local building tradition and style. Technology is essential, but Roberto stresses their focus on manual labor to be able to employ local workers.

In the vineyard

Roberto and his partners use the same work ethics and model in Romania as they do in Umbria. They practice organic and biodynamic farming with the help of draught horses in the vineyard. They have trained their local employees to independently manage the work in the vineyards and at the winery. Today, they have about 20 hectares of vineyards growing local grape varieties such as Feteasca Alba, Feteasca Regala, Rkatsiteli, Babeasca Neagra, and Feteasca Neagra. They are also conducting more research into cultivating indigenous varieties. However, they also grow the international grapes Aligoté, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The wines in the Dobruja area are elegant, says Roberto, thanks to the sand and clay soils with a continental climate.

Sapata produces a range of wines that include organic and experimental styles using ancestral method and pét-nats. In Umbria, Roberto makes a couple of wines without sulfites, mainly white wines, and the fizzy re-fermented wine Malafemmina.

Challenges

Photo credit: Sapata winery

During the first few years, it was not easy for Roberto and his partners to get started because they were ‘foreigners’ in a local village of about 4,000 inhabitants and the surrounding area. Many of the locals considered them foreigners with pockets full of money they could fool into giving it away. Step by step, they have inserted themselves in the local community and its administration. Today they have become an important point of reference in the area.

Roberto explains that it is not easy to have a vision focused on artisanal winery activity, the local people, and their community. It is a vision where the human side of the business is what counts. The Dobruja region is a poor area where alcoholism is an outspread problem, especially among the male population. Roberto has many anecdotes to tell; he says that one of the more touching stories is of a young girl, “Maddalena, who at the age of 24, was already pregnant with her fourth child. She ended up leaving her husband and four children behind to go search for work elsewhere, or perhaps it was to run away with a new man.”

The contrast of life in the countryside and life in the cities, such as Bucharest, is vast, continues Roberto. It feels like a world from many years ago in the countryside, while in the city, you can find every comfort imaginable. Roberto describes one morning when he worked in the field and had lunch with the workers, sharing a loaf of bread and cheese, while chatting and joking. Later in the evening, he went to Bucharest for dinner where one of the guests ordered a bottle of Barolo that cost more than one week’s pay where he was in the countryside.

Photo credit: Sapata winery

According to Roberto, the future looks a bit uncertain regarding having access to local workers or finding future entrepreneurs in the wine industry. This is because more and more people in the Danube Delta area continue to move to larger cities, or even emigrate abroad during the last few years. They are looking for a more promising future than the hard life back in rural Romania.

However, the story of Roberto Di Filippo, his family, and business partners, shows that an ethical mindset and a belief in sustainability can pay off in the long run.


[1] Roberto Di Filippo, l’enologo che sussurra ai cavalli e alle oche, by Gabriele Ancona, https://www.italiaatavola.net/vino/cantine-consorzi/2019/10/15/roberto-di-filippo-enologo-che-sussurra-ai-cavalli-alle-oche/63294/

[2] Romania – land of hope, article by Jancis Robinson MW, https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/romania-land-of-hope

[3] http://oiv.int/public/medias/6782/oiv-2019-statistical-report-on-world-vitiviniculture.pdf

[4] See the article Everything you need to know about Romanian wine, in https://vincarta.com/blog/romanian-wine-facts/

[5] A Biodynamic Expression of Sagrantino in Umbria