Cantine Volpi from' osteria' to cutting-edge Piedmont advocate
By Ellen Budge. Photographs: Courtesy of the winery, posted on 11 December 2023
Cantine Volpi is the epitome of what Italy does best – fusing native grape varieties and tradition with innovative winemaking techniques and astute marketing. Fifth-generation winegrower Marco Volpi pinpoints some of the landmark moments in the company’s 100-year history, and details its plans for the future.
Everything about the Tortona area in Italy’s storied Piedmont region speaks wine. Its rolling hills are clad with neat rows of vineyards that follow the lay of the land and are home to varieties that were once on the brink of extinction. Cantine Volpi has played a pivotal part in resurrecting a tradition of winegrowing that dates back to the ancient Romans, and its own history mirrors many of the milestones along Italy’s wine journey. “Cantine Volpi started in 1914 as a small winery that was complementary to a local ‘Osteria’ or typical traditional restaurant. The family would produce the wine that was entirely sold in their own restaurant”, recounts Marco Volpi, who joined his father Carlo Volpi and wife Laura at the winery in 2019.
Cascina ‘La Zerba’, set amidst the rolling Colli Tortonesi, was bought by the Volpi family in 2003 and is now the home of the winery’s new tasting room.
A major turning point in the company’s history occurred in 1957 when the winery in Viguzzolo was built to produce wines from the local Tortona hills. In 1962, the most modern winery in Tortona for maturing and bottling wines broke ground, paving the way for Cantine Volpi to blaze the trail for quality by securing a controlled designation of origin or DOC for its wines in the 1970s. Fast forward to 2019 and the company invested over one million euros in a state-of-the-art winery which superseded the Viguzzolo facilities and now handles the entire production process, from fermenting the grapes to packaging the end wines. The winery is equipped to control temperatures and reduce its energy consumption whilst also lowering its carbon footprint by centralising its operations. Along its 100-year journey, Cantine Volpi has ramped up production which now totals some 2.5 million bottles, spanning a number of prized DOCs and DOCGs, including Barolo, Gavi, Barbera d’Asti and Colli Tortonesi. The fruit is sourced from 20 hectares of its own vineyards, planted to Timorasso, Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato and Cortese, complemented by Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio grapes bought from partner growers over 100 hectares of vineyards.
Marco Volpi was ranked among the most promising under-30s in the world of food and beverage by the S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna digital magazine in 2020.
From exciting native grapes to range staples
The winery’s varietal range features Italian classics but also the much lesser-known white Timorasso cultivar, described by renowned UK wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd as “one of the most exciting Italian autochthonous grape varieties to surface in recent years”. Its popularity is echoed in the surge in plantings over the past few years – after virtually falling into oblivion twenty years ago, 400 hectares are now planted to this native grape of the Colli Tortonesi. Cantine Volpi celebrates the variety in its flagship white label Timorasso Derthona, which Marco Volpi describes as “an outstanding white wine with many similarities to red wines, like its body, structure and amazing ageing potential”. Timorasso’s red alter ego at the winery is Barbera, its original mainstay: “I always mention the fact that Barbera is the reason why we exist”, stresses Volpi. “It was the first grape we grew more than 100 years ago and the first wine we ever sold in our Osteria”. Moscato, another historic variety for the winery, also joins its varietal line-up.
Marco and Carlo Volpi intend to focus on promoting Piedmont and its native grape varieties.
Organic wines key to developing exports
But whilst Cantine Volpi treasures its long-standing history of growing wines, it also has its sights permanently set on the future. “At the end of the 1990s, my father understood that the Italian market was going into a huge decline in consumption and decided to try and find new openings in export markets”, recounts Marco Volpi. The decision proved to be extremely judicious and 80% of the wines are now shipped abroad. To gain a foothold in overseas markets, Cantine Volpi chose to step up its environmental commitments and go down the organic route, among other strategic decisions. “Organic wines are the reason we have been able to open up and develop the export market. Now we are trying to focus on turning most of our vineyards and wines from Piedmont organic”. The organic labels have been particularly successful in the United States and, predictably, the Nordic countries, where sales have grown apace over the past twenty years. The winery is continuing to build on these achievements by focusing on other sustainable practices: “we use techniques like green manure to enhance biodiversity”, explains Volpi. In 2022, the company started and completed the formalisation and consolidation process of practices and procedures aimed at achieving the sustainable ‘Equalitas’ certification scheme. The initiative dovetails with the guiding principles at the winery, where respect is shown for the environment and employees, the local area is the focal point of promotion and progress in quality is incremental through the use of new technologies.
Alongside classic Italian varietals, Cantine Volpi also makes Timorasso, recently described by the Wine Spectator as “one of Italy’s most exciting white wine stories”.
Using innovation to cope with a changing climate
There is every likelihood that technology and native grapes may hold the key for coping with issues like climate change in the future. This year, Tortona only received 300 mm of rain over the first eight months of the year – and 80 mm in just 24 hours – compared with an annual average ranging from 800 to 1,100 mm. Whilst recognising that climate change is a challenge, the Volpi family is again planning to stay ahead of the curve: “We are changing vineyard management techniques, like keeping the grapes more covered, but also looking into innovations like hailstorm nets and creating water reserves like small lakes close to the vineyards in order to have water supplies in case of emergencies”.
Cantine Volpi combines innovative winemaking techniques with time-honoured traditions.
Piedmont and native grapes as a focus
Alongside innovative techniques, the winery’s focus will also be on promoting Piedmont and its native grape varieties, which have proven to be effective at opening up new markets, both at home and abroad. In a challenging global wine market, Timorasso offers great opportunities in the on-trade worldwide whilst also helping to unearth new opportunities in emerging markets like South Korea, Vietnam and Mexico. As an economics graduate with work experience gained from a four-year stint in supply chain management and commerce at the Heineken group, Marco Volpi is well-equipped to continue in his family’s footsteps and honour the legacy of his ancestor Cristina Volpi and her two sons who laid the company’s foundations on the eve of the Great War. The fifth-generation family representative intends to wage and win his battle by combining history, the unique attributes of his home region and ability to adapt to a constantly changing market and environment.
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