The outstanding oenologist Donato Lanati creates in his innovative research center Enosis…
…Wine is an invention of nature itself, not by humans. Our analysis is at its core a measurement of the complicated relationship between humans and the land. It is the restoration of the link between people and the area they live in…
…Over 35 years we have been studying grape skin and the berry directly in its sheath. The quality of a wine depends 95% on the quality of the substances concentrated in this very part under the grape skin…
…The study of the berry helps us understand and assess all properties of grapes. This way, we can evaluate the potential of each area, plan the production process and make a schedule…
…Our research determines the color of wine, its taste and fragrance — both the initial smell we perceive through our nose and the aroma that will reveal itself after years of ageing…
…To achieve superior quality, it is of the utmost importance that our knowledge, acquired as a result of our research, is transferred to the people responsible for completing the final image of the wine…
…To achieve superior quality, we then pass our data on to the team that works directly in the cellar…
…Five times we have been granted the title of the best wine producer in the world. Indeed, we first gained this recognition when we managed to create a united team working together to combine science, our laboratory and the wine cellar…
…This is precisely how we try to arrange the process at Badagoni as well. Creating wine of superior quality is an ambitious project, where success depends directly on knowledge.
I’d like to show you something: here we have some frozen Georgian vine. Over five hundred kinds! This is how we study that part of the grape I mentioned earlier, all based on material we store in our own research center…
…Our goal is to satisfy our customers’ and our clients’ needs, so we make them happy by carrying out all this work to achieve the highest quality possible. In our lab we study grapes and vines to achieve our ultimate objective — the highest-quality wine possible…
…Here is a device we invented ourselves: under a pressure of 400 atm, it allows us to extract all the components needed to guarantee the best quality of wine. I came up with this machine 20 years ago. In fact, there’s a joke running among my colleagues that this device threw me back to the Stone Age forever…
…The Enosis Center is an active participant of various international meetings and conferences, and often presents its researching findings…
…The regional government invited me to give a speech at the international conference on climate change. According to our calculations, the best vessel for wine ageing in Italy in 30 years will be a ceramic container, or basically an amphora. We came to this conclusion based on the rise in temperature and an increase in the percentage of carbon in the air. The tannins accumulated in grape berries will over time become sweeter because of climate change, which means we won’t need oxygen in the refining process. Wooden barriques will also become obsolete. Can you see what I’m getting at? History is practically winding itself backwards!..
…Here, take a look at this glass. What purpose does this Saturn’s ring serve? It’s here to prevent the aroma from disappearing in the process of stirring. In a sense, it directs the aroma back into the wine. In just 20 seconds, you will perceive 30% more of the wine’s aroma, as these substances return to the wine. Naturally, this glass is the best option for tasting sessions…
Donato Lanati. Special Oenology Forces.
Interview by Oleg Cherne
Prior to this interview, I had already visited the Georgian monastery of Alaverdi, talked to the co-founder of Badagoni, and knew that Donato Lanati, who worked with them, was a world-renowned Italian oenologist and winner of the international Oscar del Vino award. Plus, I was aware that Wine Enthusiast magazine listed him among the top 5 best oenologists in the world. He created a one-of-a-kind research center, and as he was already a renowned expert, he dared to accept a new challenge: he travelled to Georgia, where he had never been before, in order to learn more about its ancient tradition of winemaking and create truly supreme wine.
However, interviewing him wasn’t on my list of priorities until one day when the co-founder of Badagoni, Georgi Salakaya, invited me to his house and said: «I’d like you to try my champagne.» I responded: «Oh, come on, what are you talking about? Give me some red instead!» To which he said: «No, try this one first.» And then something unimaginable happened to me for the first time in my life—for the entire night I drank that sparkling Badagoni Sexton Brut, nothing else. So I exclaimed: «I positively must see Donato!» So unusual and unexpected the drink was for me, and he was the key to it all.
The following course of events was also quite unusual: before the interview, as signor Donato showed me around his lab, I felt like I was turning into champagne as well. What I mean here is that our talk in his lab filled me with effervescent bubbles of excitement… And you know, no one but him has ever got me in the mood for an interview quite like that before!
Back in that place, the home of wine philosophy, I felt this all quite clearly. Visitors become a part of Enosis, the unique research center Lanati has created.
— Signor Donato, during our tour at your lab, I kept recalling my interview with Michel Rolland.
— A fantastic oenologist! Number one in the whole world!
— This was our first-ever interview for Code de Vino, and I was thinking: «What should I ask him about? I can’t blow this opportunity…» So I said to him: «Michel, I think that the most important part of a grape variety are its genes, the history of the soil… Even despite the age of a vine.» We spoke mostly about Cabernet Sauvignon. And he couldn’t answer that question. He said: «That’s a very interesting thought, but I’m not a researcher.»
And here, in your stunning center, for the first time in my life I can see a place where people do exactly that—you study the genetic history of grapes. It’s like a glass of wine for my soul, because finally, after all these years, I’ve found confirmation to my hypothesis. So, I have a question. One time I interviewed Antinori, who works with Cabernet Sauvignon. This isn’t a typical variety for Tuscany, and Antinori was the one who introduced it to the high-end wine-making of Italy. And I’d like to ask you: can the wine, that didn’t belong to an area naturally, from the start, represent this area. And if so, should they represent it?
— That’s a very good question. I think that a wine that truly represents its area is limited to autochtonous wines. Like Saperavi, an amazing variety, or Mtsvane. I chose them for Badagoni because they have been cultivated on Georgian soil for thousands of years. They represent the history of this land.
When Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay is imported into a new area, I take issue with this, as they can’t represent this land to the same extent as the original grapes do. The value of a wine region lies in its history and tradition, which need to be preserved.
If Saperavi had not passed the test of time, all the climatic changes, natural disasters and so on, and if the winemaking traditions of this area had not been propelled primarily by this particular grape, it would not have survived until now. The grapes that failed this test are now long gone. In this area, tradition brought to light and carried through the ages these particular varieties, which had been selected naturally over the course of eight thousand years.
In France, it was Julius Caesar who imported vines there two thousand years ago. He conquered Gaul and forced the Roman centurions to grow grapes there. If he had forced them to grow grain, they would have just grown one harvest, collected it and left for good. However, taking care of a vineyard required time and effort, which was why they stayed.
Then, about two hundred years ago, rich bankers of Bordeaux paid to conduct scientific research on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other local grapes. That’s why I consider them a bit artificial, do you understand what I’m trying to say here? Like they’re grown in a lab. They’re excellent grapes, of course, but… In France, there are five universities studying oenology. But when I’m talking about traditions, I mean something different.
The Italian tradition is very different from that of the French. The same as in Georgia, the grapes were cultivated by peasants over a long period of time as they selected those varieties that were most fit for this land.
Plus, I believe that the entirety of the bouquet and the best qualities of a wine reveal themselves only in the domestic terroir. Even though famous French grapes take root well everywhere in the world, the true wealth of Italian winemaking is in its uniqueness! We have Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, etc. Today, wine is more than just a combination of color, flavor and taste. It’s also everything that surrounds it.
The French register of grape varieties consists of several dozen sorts, while in Italy we have five hundred. The same is true for Georgia. The French approach is very scientific, and they are gifted at selection. Perhaps, Shiraz and Petit Verdot can eventually become good wines for Georgia. Nevertheless, they will never be able to represent this area adequately on their own. You can attempt to create an interesting new wine, but history has already determined the right place to make the best Saperavi.
Of course, today’s scientific knowledge can help define the best location for cultivating Shiraz as well. I’m all for these kinds of experiments. I work for Castello Banfi, where they make a wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But! Their most popular wine is Brunello, made from Sangiovese.
Castello Banfi is owned by an American, who was all for using Cabernet Sauvignon. However, the market and customers opted rather to come to Tuscany to buy Brunello! That’s why today we do our best to study Sangiovese, as a good Sangiovese is what our customers want.
In Georgia, we would like to conduct a more thorough research of the varieties selected throughout the course of history, as we realized that certain types of grapes work quite well for sparkling wines, which was one of the keys to the success of Badagoni Sexton Brut.
Plus, there’s one other thing. If I buy a bottle of wine for $50 and want to enjoy it to its fullest, I need to learn the history of this wine. It stimulates my imgaination, and as I taste it I travel through space to where it was made. It brings about new associations and wakes up my curiosity.
As a little side note, I’d like to tell you a story. When I was a student in the University of Turin, I had a girlfriend who lived in Rome. Sometimes she would call me and say: «I’m in the phone booth in front of the Coliseum», and at that moment I was no longer in Turin, but in that phone booth in front of the Coliseum with her! This is what a good wine should be able to do—transport us to faraway lands.
— I agree that there is more and more blank, featureless wine being produced in the world today. However, I had a very interesting experience in Argentina, where I met Arnaldo Etchart, the owner of Bodegas Etchart in Salta. Michel Rolland was their oenologist. In my opinion, they had the best Malbec in all of Argentina.
I visited him at his house, where he was sitting with his friend and paying zero attention to me. I was there waiting… And they just went on drinking wine. Suddenly, he turns over to me and asks: «Why are you here?» I answer: «I want to talk about wine.» So he says: «Have you read Borges?» — «Of course I have, I would never come without doing my homework!» Then he says: «Well then, sit down!» We had a long conversation about Borges, and only after that he said: «Now you can try my wine.» But Argentina isn’t a native home to Malbec!
— Etchart is a rare type of winemaker, a unique case and perhaps even one of a kind. I think that on the whole Merlot is growing better in Argentina. I know Argentinian wines quite well, we’ve analyzed a fair share of them. By the way, many wines with Malbec also contain a good portion of Merlot.
— Why can’t we say that today Malbec is already autochtonous to Argentina and Shiraz is autochtonous to Australia? They found a new interpretation there. Can we accept that for what it is?
— Actually, it’s considered that all the grapes known today come from Mesopotamia. And all the vineyards in other areas should be referred to as «traditional varieties of cultivated grapes.» But tradition here plays a very important role. In this sense, we can say that Shiraz is a traditional and typical variety of Australia, as that’s what it is now.
— Now let’s talk a bit about Russia. When I was studying Russian wines, I came to the understanding that I like two varieties of Russian grapes in particular: Tsimlyansk Black and Krasnostop. In one of your interviews you also mentioned Tsimlyansk Black. Both of them are considered autochtonous in my country. Can we say that these two varieties represent the spirit of Russian wine, the culture of our winemaking tradition?
— We analyzed these wines because two producers from Russia requested we do so. One company was called Fanagoria, and I don’t remember the other… it was a private winemaker. During our analysis, we discovered that these wines have a certain unique character. Indeed, Russian red wines have their own individuality. The same as Bulgarian wines. This individuality differs from Saperavi—in fact, they have nothing in common.
I believe that Krasnodar Krai is a great area for wine production, as it has an excellent climate. Unlike in Kakhetia, this region is known for its sharp changes in temperature.
I also know Yanis Karakezidi, who represents Russian producers making terroir-specific wines based on intuition, with no need for any scientific research. Their soul is in perfect harmony with the land, can you imagine that? Now this is a true producer.
One of our future goals is to create a chromatogram of all these wines, by assignint a musical note to each point and turning it into music. This way, each land will be represented by its own beautiful melody. People can have the chance to hear the music of wine.
— People today can hardly express how a wine makes them feel, and you’re trying to get them to listen to its music!
— That’s our dream, and we’d like to learn to make wine that would possess a harmony and balance similar to what can be found in music.
— It’s impossible to interview you: every time I ask a question there’s a new treasure trove of information! You’re setting the board incredibly high here! Let’s just go ahead and move on to the next section. No, better to ask one more question! I love Wagner: what sort of grape reflects Wagner’s music the best?
— One of the great red wines.
— Perhaps, Krasnostop or Saperavi aged in qvevri.
— Donato, how does it feel to win an Oscar of winemaking?
— I would be a liar if I told you I’m not excited about it. However, I won this Oscar in a difficult moment of my life, as a couple of months before that the American magazine Wine Enthusiast listed me among the top five oenologists ever. And I was the second on the list, which of course upset me, as like any other person with ambition I always want to be first! But then I won Oscar del Vino award. Nevertheless, the best awards for me are the companies I work with, the ones I provide with advice and consultations, and the ones I keep in touch with every day. Of course, our final customers are a reward in their own right as well.
— When I first started studying wine, I realized for myself that the best profession in the world is a sommelier. In their work they get to use all of their senses, which means with all that comes with them. But then what makes an oenologist? Is their perception even more acute and sublime? I see tasters as people with no particular taste, but oenologists are a different breed.
— An oenologist is someone who watches how tastes change on the market. Allow me to explain: when we bring the glass to our nose, it perceives the flavor substances naturally. Now imagine a flavor of a certain length. It enters your nose, produces an effect on its mucous lining and the proteins capture only a part of its molecule. This means we perceive only a portion of this flavor. Here we have leptins and maybe only three or four neurons that take the flavor to the hypothalamus, our memory center. In a fraction of a second, our brain restores the entire molecule by memory, but only depending on what we already have stored there. So you’re only going to enjoy the flavor if it reaches your hypothalamus and finds a pleasant memory there to restore.
— In this case, are we able to speak of a chaotic molecule and a molecular chain?
— No, it’s a molecular chain.
— But this is very important too! People need to understand that often they react to a chaotic molecule, and they don’t ever get the idea of a molecular chain! This determines the quality of a wine.
— So they only ever perceive just a piece, or a fraction of this wine. For example, how is it that the whole world might enjoy Saperavi? Because it has lots of molecules of ripe red fruit with a delicious flavor. It’s the flavor of cherries, strawberries, other forest berries… Almost everyone knows these tastes, expect for maybe the Chinese. They don’t have strawberries there. But to the rest of the world these flavors are quite familiar. The Chinese will probably pick up more on the notes of tangerine. And even if they don’t know how, for example, a cherry tastes, they’ll still enjoy the balance between these flavors.
— Music again…
— Yes, that’s why we want to reconstruct this harmony and embody it in music. That would be so great! Using the scanner, we upload the molecules and try to make a composition from the notes we get. I estimate we’re going to need from three to five years to finish the project. Then I can finally retire! (Laughs.)
— After I tried your sparkling wine, I realized that even Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot and the rest are truly no match for it. It’s a natural product, which cannot find its true expression in the modern technology used in champanization. For starters, because the makers pour in their efforts that will reveal themselves only in 10–15 years. But since no one ever keeps wine for that long, what do final consumers end up drinking?
I want real champagne and I want it now… Not in three, not in five years… And they can’t give it to me! When I tried the sparkling wine from Mtsvane that you made, it was such a Eureka moment for me!
— I can tell you what’s so special about this grape. The flavors you felt depend on the amino acids in the soil. This grape variety manages to capture them. What you feel in the taste are indeed these amino acids. In our lab, we experiment with temperatures to see how the yeast acts, and find the perfect conditions for extracting these flavors out of the soil to transfer them to the grape.
— Well, this can be said in respect of lots of grape varities. But to achieve the champanization we do… This process demands a good deal of ionization!
— Fermentation is what produces these special bubbles. Spumante, the sparkling wine, is almost like two wines in one. The first product is the wine material made from white wine, where the moment of harvest plays the most crucial role. You should never gather unripe grapes, or your wine will be bitter. And the territory giving the right acidity is also essential.
After the harvest comes vinification, which is the initial process of extracting amino acids. Then the wine is filtered and sent to the second stage of fermentation. Using the yeast, we increase the pressure up to 5 atm to guarantee extraction. Amino acids contain proteins that serve to transfer and preserve these flavors.
While the flavor of white wine may change in the course of seven or eight months, sparkling wine is more stable thanks to this fixation. During secondary fermentation, the proteins from the yeast stabilize these flavors. Once secondary fermentation is over, the yeast leaves behind its saltiness when the nucleus of the yeast molecule is transferred to the wine. The nucleic acids are what gives wine this particular taste.
— So Mtsvane is able to absorb all of this?
— Yes, Mtsvane contains these amino acids. The yeast absorbs them and modifies into similar amino acids to transfer them back to the wine. You can say that the yeast is a cell that devours everything it sees on its way, but rather changing instead of destroying it.
Imagine a chain with an atom of hydrogen. The yeast captures and devours this amino acid molecule; not destroying it, but rather giving it back in a modified version. At the beginning of the process, we had four hundred amino acids, and at the end we’re going to have the same amount, but they’ll be slightly different this time.
— Do you plan your formula from the start, or just try your luck?
— Here, I’ll show you a graph of amino acid analysis. We conduct a thorough examination of the berry. This allows us to better understand its components and see what we can get out of the grape in this area. All of my friends who cultivate grapes in Italy analyze the vine leaves before making wine. But since wine isn’t made of leaves, we examine the grape berry itself.
The transformation that happens to amino acids is a natural process, as the yeast requires amino acids to reproduce. The number of amino acids changes, in some places growing larger, and in others diminishing.
— You’re right, but you wouldn’t be able to achieve a sparkling wine of the same quality using a younger Mtsvane. Here I’m talking about the age of the vineyard.
— Right, the perfect age for a vine is 10 years.
— Fine, but in this case, can you actually reproduce the exact same quality and taste of your champagne?
— That’s what we’re aiming for. Sure, when you draw up a quality graph, it shouldn’t ever have any sharp peaks or falls. The value is ideally constant. That’s what quality control means, and the applied science we rely on ensures this.
In a certain sense, tradition means when you’re able to maintain the same level of quality, and reproduce the best characteristics of your wine. Tradition isn’t just about passing on experience, it’s about explaining.
— So, the quality criterion lies in technology.
— That’s correct. And it involves both knowledge and the ability to analyze and understand the process. One friend of mine, a very famous chef, often says: «People used to do it this way, and now they do it that way.» But here this isn’t so hard to understand, because the new way makes perfect sense.
This is what oenology is currently lacking — in Krasnodar, Kakheti and Italy — greater study and scientific research. There is an experimental vineyard in Georgia, not far from Tbilisi, with five hundred grape varieties, many of them still entirely unknown! They have no idea what to do with all them! Every year we study about twenty of them.
— Was Badagoni the first to start using these specific scientific methods?
— In Georgia, yes.
— And in Russia?
— I’ve never worked in Russia. I used to have some contacts in your country, but I’ve never worked there. It’s hard because you need a team to start researching, it involves joint efforts.
In Badagoni, we decided to combine practice with theoretical study. Still, there are a lot of superficial approaches and work in the world of oenology. What I mean is that people think all they need to do is make pomace to produce a good wine. But much the opposite, I created a research center that provides the latest theoretical basis for all winemaking needs.
The French envy the strength of my team. We have a very intense work flow. You won’t see one lab working on, say, polyphenols and another — on flavor; no, we all work together.
And the last step, which I’m quite fond of, is the tasting. Sometimes I can taste wine for twelve hours in a row. Approximately seven hundred glasses. I do this because I want to grasp certain nuances and understand where they come from. Thanks to this comparative analysis, I start to realize how to reproduce the same effect in a different batch. Then we pass the results of our studies on to the guys working in the wine cellar.
— Now let’s talk about a very complicated topic: you make great wine at Badagoni, invest your time, effort, research and love in it, and then some complete wine ignoramus goes ahead and buys it. And he dares to judge it…
— You mean if the customer says something like: «Well, it’s okay, I guess?»
— Or fails to understand it at all.
— Since winemaking involves lots of persistent efforts, it appears under a brand name, its own trademark. So, when someone who doesn’t know anything about wine asks for advice, an expert might say: «You see, this and this producer makes a good wine.» And the name will give them a direction.
— Why don’t they put a quality sign from a renowned oenologist instead of their Parker’s score? In Argentina, Michel Rolland even signs some of the wines.
— But he’s known all over the world. A brand name is important if your wine is already good and its quality has passed the test of time. Here is another essential moment: in order to help the customer choose and discover your wine, you need communication. Without reporters, the market wouldn’t even exist! There wouldn’t even be a market for good wines. This is the work you’re doing right now, what you’re doing for the readers who pick up your magazine to learn something new and make the right choice of wine, to test and compare different options. There is nothing more ideal than comparison. Comparison allows one consumer to choose the best option for themselves, while another can focus on what suits them best. In any event, you’ve already done your part of the job by writing this article or creating certain material on wine.
— Let’s be honest here: in today’s world, business rules everything, not just the desire to educate people. Our magazine is independent, but it’s still part of the media. I spoke to the heads of Vinum magazine, and they’re opposed to all these types of publications. They say: «Our task is to find and show everything from a different perspective.» They’re the only magazine that I believe works according to their own idea. They aren’t against Parker, they’re against applying the same criteria for every product out there.
— The difficulty with Wine Spectator and Parker is that if you have no idea about a wine in the first place, with this list of numbers you won’t even bother to ever read the comments on it.
In fact, point-based classification serves only to sell wine, and I can’t get behind that. I want the comments about my wine to reflect its history and the tradition behind it. Plus, I think people deserve the chance to taste a wine before buying it.
I understand that this approach is not for everyone. But your magazine is written for people who already love wine and know a thing or two about it. What we’re talking about with them are business magazines. That’s why all producers strive to hit at least 90 points from Parker. Otherwise, they say, they just won’t be able to sell their wine in America. And if they can’t sell it in America, they won’t sell it in China.
The same goes for Russian distributors; the first thing they ask is: «What’s your Spectator score?» To me as an aficionado in the world of wine, this type of «cold» evaluation is unacceptable. It just doesn’t work for me.
Spectator mostly includes wines sold in America. Those that are not imported in America just fall out of the picture completely. Can you see what’s going on here? Right off the bat, they’re treated as «mediocre»…
Of course, this approach is far from ideal. You don’t have to advertise your wine in a local magazine just to be able to sell it in that part of the world. I don’t want to make any rough parallels, but let’s say that as an oenologist I want to sell my 100-point wine, so I head into a wine boutique. Yet my competitors also want to offer their wine with the same score, and if they have, perhaps, a wine with 200 points, they’ll just shut me down completely. I have my lab, my team, my whole world—can this all really be just in pursuit of the highest score? Someone else has a wife, a secretary, two cars… And his wine receives 100 points as well. What did he do for it? Just smelled some wines and that’s it. So the score is the same, but the work and effort behind them are totally different!
— I think this makes for a perfect conclusion. We’re not against them, but we’d like everyone to listen to Chopin.
— Bravo! To me, it’s like the sword of Damocles. Magazines are here for people’s enjoyment, but you still open them with fear: what’s my score, how high am I on the table? In the end, many people don’t even read the comments—they go straight to the score, which is closer to checking sports statistics or gambling.
— I think the title «The Laboratory» suits this interview better. I’m happy to have visited you not only because you’re now an Oscar winner, but because of the chance to taste your wonderful sparkling wine.
— I think the main treasure in my work are the people I meet. All the great people I’ve ever met, each of them has given me something. The same goes for today. You’ve stimulated my imagination and gave me a lot of food for thought.
— One last question, which may sound unusual, but is actually quite normal in the context of our talk today about tradition. Can wine help you travel through time?
— In Georgia, I found myself in the past, as I was rediscovering the history of wine and the origin of the vine. For me, it’s like a journey into the past, into the history of wine and the beginning of winemaking.
With age people start to look back towards the start of things, and want to return to the old times. They want to see the house where they were born, the place where they grew up… The same is true for me. But since all my life I’ve been conducting research in winemaking, I wanted to see the place where grapes were born and where the first vines came to be. That’s why this journey to the Caucasus is so special for me.
Plus, one might say that wine also makes us think about the future. A good wine charges you with positive emotions, making your life better. And I want to make people’s lives better—both with wine and thanks to wine.