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Meet Four Women at the Forefront of High-Altitude Winemaking in Chianti Classico

Meet Four Women at the Forefront of High-Altitude Winemaking in Chianti Classico

As global temperatures rise and unpredictable weather becomes increasingly common, the rules of winemaking are being rewritten. The European Union now allows hybrid grape varieties in an effort to confront the realities of climate change. Vineyards are being planted in northern countries like Norway, Sweden, and Finland. And growing conditions that were once viewed as undesirable or disadvantageous are now becoming the new standard. 

Enter high-altitude winemaking. Growing vines at very high altitudes—for example, at 4,000 feet in the Spanish Pyrenees, or even higher at 9,000 feet above sea level in Salta, Argentina—has its challenges. The weather conditions are generally harsher, there’s limited access to water, and the soil can be poor, which can require more labor. 

But when you consider the statistic that 56% of current global vine-growing areas may be lost by 2050 in the case of a 2 °C increase in temperature (and as much as 85% by 2100 with a 4 °C increase), planting vineyards at high altitudes starts to make a lot of sense. And besides, for all the downsides associated with high-altitude winemaking, there are numerous benefits. Grapes tend to mature slower and in a more balanced way; the vines get more sunlight, which promotes thicker grape skins and a higher concentration of anthocyanin. This gives wines with more color, more intense flavors and tannins, and a longer aging potential. 

In Italy’s Chianti Classico region—where winemaking at more than 1,200 feet was once considered unusual if not disreputable—four female winemakers came together to shine light on the potential of high-altitude winemaking, specifically as it relates to the cultivation of Sangiovese. They also wanted to form an all-female allegiance in a region largely dominated by male winemakers. In April 2021, the four women—Susanna Grassi of I Fabbri, Serena Coccia of Podere Castellinuzza, Sofia Ruhne of Terreno, and Sophie Conte of Tregole— organized a tasting for the local press at the Castle of Lamole in Tuscany. Their wines dazzled attendees, showcasing the power of high elevation. The event was such a success that the group plans to organize most press testings in the future. 

Read more to find out about these trailblazing winemakers. 

Susanna Grassi 

Photo Credit: Fabbri Winery

Owner of I Fabbri Winery in Lamole, Tuscany

Vineyard altitude: 450-680 m

I Fabbri winery is situated in the village of Lamole, one of the highest towns in the Chianti Classico region (hence its nickname as the “roof of Chianti”). The Casole land and estate have been in the Grassi family since the 17th century, when they were both wine growers and blacksmiths. Susanna—the first woman in 11 generations to manage the family estate— took the reins of the family farm and vineyards in 2002 after a career in fashion. I Fabbri is now organically certified and produces terroir-driven, low intervention wines. 

What characterizes your Sangiovese?

We make wine with Sangiovese grapes grown at 680 meters altitude, which is the limit for the cultivation of this grape. The soil consists mainly of sand, bedrock, and sandstone. It is soil that produces fresh and fragrant wines with an accentuated acidity and long aging potential. The vineyards have a southwest exposition, and over the years, our grapes have been ripening better. My father used to say that, in the past, he had one good vintage in 10 years ,while now we have 10 good vintages out of 10. 

What challenges have you encountered as a female winery owner?

I took over the family estate and started the winery from scratch in the early 2000s, which was not easy because I came from a very woman-dominated sector and entered a very male-dominated world. I went from designing lingerie to learning how to make wine. I didn’t have any agricultural experience, but I was lucky to have the estate’s former farm manager and a younger farmhand to help me navigate the waters. They had more traditional views and were not used to taking orders from a woman, so I had to earn their trust, and step by step we found a balance. Today, we are a close-knit team that works well together every day.

Serena Coccia

Photo Credit: Podere di Castelinuzza

Co-Owner of Podere di Castelinuzza in Lamole, Tuscany

Vineyard altitude: 550-600 m

Located in the Castelinuzza locality of Lamole, Podere di Castelinuzza comprises 9 hectares of vines that have been in the Coccia family since the 1960s. Today, Serena runs the winery together with her father, Paolo, who mainly works in the vineyards. Serena and Paolo produce wines that are authentic and have a strong sense of place. They are firm believers in respecting local traditions and winemaking techniques.

What characterizes your Sangiovese?

There are two aspects you must consider. First, all our vineyards are very old, on average 50 years old, but we also have vineyard plots that are 120-130 years old. It is very difficult to have vineyards in such a harsh area where the soil consists mainly of sandstone. Secondly, our vineyards are high elevation, but we are among the lowest in Lamole at 550 to 600 meters. This gives our wines good acidity, elegance, and sapidity, but also a certain body and structure. 

What challenges have you encountered as a female winemaker?

I started working at the winery a decade ago, after a career in administration. I entered a very male-dominated context, but I believe I’ve brought a bit of a female touch by seeing wine as culture and communicating the beauty of Lamole and its traditions through wine. My father is very happy that I decided to join the family winery, as it was his dream to pass down the farm to the next generation. 

Sofia Ruhne

Photo Credit: Terreno Winery

Her family owns Terreno winery in Greve in Chianti, Tuscany

Vineyard altitude: 300-550 m

It was in the late 1980s that the Swedish couple Mats and Birgitta Ruhne finally realized their dream of owning a Tuscan winery. The estate Terreno, which is situated at the outskirts of Greve in Chianti, comprises 150 hectares of land of which 20 hectares are vineyards. A decade ago, the Ruhne’s youngest daughter, Sophie, stepped in when her parents decided to retire. In 2014, Terreno became organically certified. The vineyards are divided into three plots, namely Terreno, Le Bonille, and Sillano. The Sillano vineyard plot of 4.5 hectares will be in focus here because it is located at 550 meters altitude above the village of Montefioralle. 

What characterizes your Sangiovese?

Around the time I took over, we acquired the high-altitude Sillano vineyard so we could produce Sangiovese with higher acidity. It was also a step that represented us coming to terms with climate change and specifically, the increase of temperatures. The Sillano vineyard is located at 550 meters altitude in Montefioralle, which is in another subzone of Chianti Classico with a different terroir. The soil is mainly calcareous, very bare, and harsh. The temperatures are 2-4 degrees lower there than in Greve, which allows the grapes to ripen more slowly during a longer period of time. As a result, it produces a more balanced Sangiovese with lovely acidity and minerality.

What challenges have you encountered as a female winery owner?

I believe growing up in Sweden has been a huge help, as there is a lot of equity in the workplace there. There have been big changes in Italy during the last decade with many more women in the workplace and in leadership. Still, I’ve had to make some hard decisions and reorganize a part of the company that was resistant to female leadership. 

Sophie Conte

Photo Credit: Tregole winery

Her family owns Tregole winery in Castellina in Chianti, Tuscany

Vineyard altitude: 500-580 m

Together with her mother and brother, Sophie Conte has been at the helm of Tregole winery since 2015. Her parents (her mother is originally from Alto Adige and her father from Ischia) settled on this farm in Castellina in Chianti in 1998 after having searched for a property to buy for quite some years.The estate—which dates back to the 11th century when it was a Lombard watchtower— is situated on a hill and surrounded by three valleys. The Conte family got to work renovating the buildings and recuperating the vineyards that had been planted in the 1950s to restore them gradually to their former glory. The about 4.5 hectares of vineyards where they grow mainly Sangiovese, but also Merlot, are certified organic. Sophie says that for her family it is important to respect and achieve harmony between Tregole, Sangiovese, and nature.

What characterizes your Sangiovese?

The soil in our vineyards is rich in rock fragments: limestone, galestro, and sandstone typical for Chianti. It is an ideal soil combination for the Sangiovese. The altitude and the different expositions make it possible for us to produce Sangiovese wines with very good acidity and minerality, even if global warming is taking its toll. Our wines are also very elegant and have a long aging potential thanks to the altitude of the vineyards. The biggest challenge for us is always the frequent spring frosts that can damage the vines and lead to a loss of production. 

What challenges have you encountered as a female winery owner?

I started in the agricultural world when I was only 25 years old. My voice was not always heard, and it was not always easy to assert my choices in front of workers, collaborators, and colleagues. You need a lot of tenacity and the strength to never give up. Today, there are more women working and having leadership positions in the agricultural sector in Italy, and this is a good sign because it creates mutual respect. I am proud to be a woman, a wine producer, have a clear connection to nature, and be continuously productive and proactive. What makes a farmer stand out is not only physical strength, but the combination of sensitivity, foresight, determination, and passion.