'Wine Anorak' Jamie Goode Meets Marco Simonit

By Jamie Goode

Jul 13th, 2020

With the upcoming release of L’Età Più Bella (With Age comes Beauty) – the first collection of wines made exclusively from old vines managed by Marco Simonit – we thought who better to extrapolate the important elements behind Marco’s philosophy than celebrated wine writer and self-confessed 'wine anorak': Jamie Goode.

Jamie explores Marco's rise to fame - from his formative years with his grandparents in Friuli, to the establishment of his successful pruning consultancy Simonit&Sirch - and the ideologies that have influenced his first wines made from old vines in Collio.

Marco inspecting a Friulano vine in Corno di Rosazzo (Friuli)

Marco Simonit has become something of a celebrity in the world of wine, but his specialisation – pruning – is not normally considered glamorous. Pruning is often low-paid work left to contract crews. But with his childhood friend Pierpaolo Sirch, he set up the Simonit&Sirch pruning consultancy that now has a team of 20 experts operating all over the wine world. Partly this is because of the rise in grape vine trunk diseases, which are considered a major threat to viticulture. Simonit’s pruning methods are suddenly in high demand because they have the potential to vastly reduce the risk of trunk diseases. Now, in conjunction with FINE+RARE, he has made his first wines from old vines in Collio.

The origins of Marco’s interest in the vine began with his background. "I lived with my grandparents because my father died and my mother worked," he says. "They had a small farm with cows, horses, sheep and goats, and also a small vineyard to make wine for the family’s consumption." He says that it was a good environment to grow up in, surrounded by nature with a gentle pace of life. His real passion was animals, though – not vines – and he had set his heart on becoming a vet. But after studying agriculture at the local college in Cividale in Friuli, he had to take a job. He began working as the technical adviser for the Consorzio of the Collio DOC in 1988, a role he was to fulfil for a decade, offering guidance to growers on viticulture. "I loved the landscapes, and I loved to observe the trees, plants and hills," he recalls.

"I drew the trunk and the arms and the canes and leaves, and I met the wounds. There were a lot of wounds. I started to think about what it must be like for the vine."

Vine sketch by Marco

Then one day, he started drawing vines. "After work I would go to the fields, and I drew the vines," says Simonit. "I drew the trunk and the arms and the canes and leaves, and I met the wounds. There were a lot of wounds. I started to think about what it must be like for the vine." Observing the pruning wounds and their effects on the old vines made a big impression on him. He asked a viticulturist if he could pull out an ailing old vine, and when he got permission, he approached one of his friends who was a carpenter. "I asked him if it would be possible to help me make a section through an old vine," Simonit recalls. "He said, this is a strange request. Why do you want to do this? I said I wanted to see inside."

So with the aid of the carpenter, Simonit cut the vine in half. "It wasn’t completely dead but it wasn’t in good health," he says. "It had an extraordinary impact on me: when I saw inside, a big part of the vine was destroyed. A small part of the wood was white (alive), but most of the inside of the trunk and the arm was brown and black, and with fungi. I was shocked."

White wood inside = life wood. A happy and healthy vine. 

Brown wood inside = dead wood. A lot of fungi, esca. No branching, no longevity. A vine in poor health.

At that time no one in the schools and universities had sectioned vines to look at the consequences of pruning. "I called my professors and I spoke about this, and the professors said, Marco, since the beginning people have always approached pruning the vines in same way, so why are you going crazy taking the trunk and making sections to see what is happening inside? Just do a normal pruning like everyone has always done." None of the professors he spoke to were interested in his ideas. But he decided to carry on.

His growing obsession with old vines led him to start travelling, initially around Italy, and then further afield. He saw a similar pattern everywhere. "In these years the viticulture was changing," he says. "A lot of local training systems, such as pergola in Trentino, tendone in Abruzzo and albarello in Sicilia, were being transformed." People were turning to more ‘modern’ ways of training vines, such as vertical shoot positioning (VSP), and then after 20 years these new vineyards were starting to lose vines to trunk disease. "The spacing for growing the vines wasn’t enough," he says. "In its natural state, the vine is a creeper, a liana. For sure, it is not easy for the vine to remain in the same position for a lot of time, with domesticated demands, without consequences for its health and longevity."

An undomesticated vine

A traditional pergola trained vine

A vertical shoot positioned vine

"In the beginning of 1990 I started to introduce a new technical approach to pruning and shoot thinning by myself in different places in Friuli."

He came back to Collio. "I asked some viticulturists if it would be possible for me to try to change the approach of the pruning in modern vineyards. I wanted to change the approach to pruning because the consequences were terrible. The response was they said they didn’t really understand what I wanted to do, but they let me try. In the beginning of 1990 I started to introduce a new technical approach to pruning and shoot thinning by myself in different places in Friuli."

Simonit didn’t have a program, and at the time hadn’t heard of Guyot-Poussard pruning, which is an old system that’s somewhat similar to the technique he developed himself. Over a ten-year period he tried to find new solutions, observing old vines and applying different approaches. After this period of experimentation, he thought he had something worthwhile, and he began to approach professors and viticulturists, only to meet with disinterest. Attilio Scienza, professor of viticulture at Milan University, was the exception, though. "Scienza said to me, it is interesting what you do," he recalls. 

Simonit's First Major Consultancy Jobs in Italy: Gaja, Ferrari & Bellavista

"Scienza was impressed with my work and started to speak about it with important producers in Italy, such as Bellavista and Ferrari," says Simonit. "And in Schiopetto we built our campus, our laboratory. In Schiopetto today it is possible to see and touch the last 30 years of my work." This was the early 2000s, and although Simonit was starting to get his first consulting gigs, he wasn’t sure that pruning was going to be his professional future. "But I thought: I believe in this. I had a passion for vines and wanted to help reduce the risks from bad pruning. And I thought, maybe the top wineries in Italy might be interested in my new approach for pruning and shoot thinning. I tried to call these guys and show them what I was doing in the campus of Schiopetto. One day I was in my car, and I looked up Angelo Gaja’s number. I thought this guy might be interested because the wines are expensive and high quality. Maybe he would be interested to keep his heritage vines."

"I had a passion for vines and wanted to help reduce the risks from bad pruning. And I thought, maybe the top wineries in Italy might be interested in my new approach for pruning and shoot thinning."

"I called and asked the secretary whether I could speak with Angelo." He was stunned to be put through to him. "I told him that I’d worked in a lot of vineyards over the last five years to find a new solution for pruning and shoot thinning, and I asked him if he was interested in coming to Friuli to see it in action. He said yes, and two weeks later he came along with his entire team from Piemonte and Tuscany to Friuli. They were really impressed, and a few weeks later I had contracts with Angelo Gaja, Ferrari and Bellavista." This was in 2003, and Simonit finally began to see that this was going to be his future. He took his approach all over Italy, working with some of the top estates, including Frescobaldi, Planeta, Tasca d’Almerita, Feudo di San Gregorio and Ornellaia.

What is different about the Simonit approach?

There is no recipe, because vineyards, regions and training systems are all different. But there are two main principles. The first is that the sap flow of the vine has to be respected, and pruning cuts are made with this in mind. The second is what Simonit describes as ‘ramification’. "One of the big principles for respecting vines is independent of the training system you use, or the variety," he says. "It is ramification. You first build the trunk (the first structure), then the arms (the second structure). It is like a chronology. You need to build a chronology of wood." He points out that the vine is naturally a creeper, and that pruning should respect this as much as possible. "Our principle rule is ramification. Build a chronology of live wood: first floor, second floor, third floor and so on."

So, for example, with a double Guyot, the canes chosen on each side of the vine should be furthest from the head each time, with the replacement spur the outside cane, and the cuts should always be made on the upper branch. When a cut is made, it should be of young wood only – one or two years old. And the cut should not be made flush to the trunk, because there is always what is called a ‘cone of dessication’, roughly equal to one-and-a-half times the diameter of the cut, where the wood left dies back. This can interfere with the sap flow and make the vine susceptible to trunk disease.

But respecting the sap flow isn’t always key. "Not all the varieties suffer if you don’t respect the sap flow," says Simonit. "Some varieties are very sensitive, like Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese. Others don’t suffer a lot. For example, Nebbiolo and Semillon. I work for Château d’Yquem. They called me because the Sauvignon Blanc is being destroyed by trunk disease after 20 years. The Semillon is not: it has super energy and lives a long time, because the genetics are different."

"But always respect the ramification. If you think about the albarello in Primitivo in Puglia, they grow up vertically. The arms of the Primitivo grow up vertically. It isn’t possible to respect the sap flow. For other examples of alberello training with different varieties, such as Moscato d’Alexandria, to follow the sap flow is necessary. We need to find solutions for each variety in each terroir: it’s not always possible to take the same approach."

Marco using surgical chainsaws in Bordeaux

Bordeaux Came Calling

A big moment for Simonit was when he was contacted by the late Denis Dubourdieu in 2011. "Denis called me from Bordeaux, because with the Guyot Médocaine, after years and years, there wasn’t enough space for the canes. They wanted to know what to do." If canes are taken from the outside each time, after a while the vines grow out along the row, and when the planting is close, they run out of space. In Bordeaux their solution was to take a shoot from inside, close to the head, and then lay that down after cutting the old arm off. Often, this would result in fatal trunk disease. "They destroyed a lot of vines this way, trying to regain the space and reduce the risk of congestion of canes overlapping," says Simonit. "This was a disaster for the Médoc and all the double Guyots in the world, because the big wounds destroyed the vines."

"We started with a new approach in the Médoc, introducing the spur in the sap flow, building the chronology, preparing new exits for two or three years in the way of the sap flow, and then cutting the big arm, far away from the position of the new spur. This is one of the smart solutions when you have lost a lot of spacing. But this problem is particularly present when the distance between the vines was not enough in the first place when they were planted." Simonit now has many prestigious clients in Bordeaux.

The Dangers of High Density Planting

High density planting is very popular these days, but it is causing problems because the vines are planted too close to allow for sustainable pruning approaches. "The risk is that if you don’t have the idea of the vine architecture at the beginning for the next 50 or 60 years, it becomes a problem. I see this problem all over the world, not only in the double Guyot, but also in Bourgogne and Champagne and Provence: everywhere. The big problem is people and space: people are scared to leave space for vines. Then to create space they use pruning, and it is a disaster."

"In the past in Bordeaux, particularly in the Médoc, the Cabernet Sauvignon was planted further apart. Now we find Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted 80cm apart. We need to think about this for the future sustainability of vines and vineyards. We need to speak about the space. If we build vineyards for the next generation we need to think about the spacing."

"The big problem is people and space: people are scared to leave space for vines. Then to create space they use pruning, and it is a disaster."

One idea that Simonit has adopted from Dubourdieu was ‘curetage’. Dubourdieu gifted Simonit with a book: this was René Lafon’s 1921 title Modifications à apporter à la taille de la vigne des Charentes, taille Guyot-Poussart mixte et double: l'apoplexie, traitement préventif (méthode Poussard), traitement curative. This book described the experiments on pruning carried out by Eugène Poussard, a viticulturist in the Charentes area. Poussard is responsible for the vine pruning system called ‘Guyot Poussard’, which is very similar to Simonit’s system. But he also treated affected vines using ‘curetage’, cutting away affected wood. "More than 150 years ago this man was trying to do some surgery on the vines with rudimentary tools," says Simonit. "Denis asked me to go to Sancerre, because he knew that a lot of older viticulturists had used small chainsaws to open the vines and clean the wood affected by fungi, and the vines survived."

Dissecting the vines

They headed to the Loire and visited different vineyards. Sancerre has been particularly badly hit because Sauvignon Blanc is very susceptible. "We shared experiences with François Dal [another pruning expert who works for Sicavac, the regional technical body], and he was also interested in working with chainsaws. We tried doing this surgery in the wineries of Denis Dubourdieu, like Château Reynon, Doisy-Daëne and Floridène. In 2014 we began teaching others how to do this." As soon as the first foliar symptoms are seen, then any soft wood that has been infected by the fungi is cut out of the trunk. The infected wood produces toxins, and once it is taken out, the vine usually recovers. 

FINE+RARE x Simonit&Sirch

Now, for the first time, Simonit has begun making wine from old vines, in conjunction with FINE+RARE. "On my trips and jobs around the world, I met a lot of old vines, and sometimes these vines are not vinified separately," he says. Making small parcels of wine appeals to him. "It is a ways of speaking to people about the importance of old vines for increasing the identity of wines, speaking about vineyard sustainability, and thinking about the relation between humans and vines." He adds, "I wanted to make wines that speak about this philosophy."

"I have never thought about making wine before. Now I’d like to expand this project to other Italian regions, and also other countries, with a small production focusing only on old vines."

"Patrick O’Connor [of FINE+RARE] and I share a mutual friend, and he knew about my idea," says Simonit. "One day Patrick called me to ask me if it’s possible to organise a meeting because he was interested in this old vines project. He was very excited about the idea, and he proposed starting this project in Friuli, where my heart is."

"He asked me which varieties were most interesting for me. I chose Sauvignon because I love it, and it is very difficult to have old vine Sauvignon because of trunk disease. Many of the vineyards have vines of different ages, because after 25 years the original vines often begin dying, and people co-plant with new vines. Then they make wine with all the vines – young and old – together. Also, I chose Chardonnay: in Colli Orientali we have the oldest Chardonnay in Friuli, 80 years old. And after I chose Friulano, which is 50 years old."

The vineyards of Friuli

Winemaking is in the hands of Christian Patat, an old friend of Simonit’s. "Twenty years ago we started with a small project but it stopped because we were both so busy. So when FINE+RARE and I began working, I spoke to Christian seeing if he could make the wines. He married the owner of Ronco de Gnemiz, and he makes the wines there. This guy has an approach to wine that’s close to mine – we like the same sort of wines. Our goal was to make two or three barrels of each variety."

This is Marco’s first wine project. "I have never thought about making wine before. Now I’d like to expand this project to other Italian regions, and also other countries, with a small production focusing only on old vines."

"It is a unique approach because we try to vinify with just the oldest vines. In the Chardonnay project, for example, we don’t use all the vines. Part of the vineyard is 80 years old. We pick only the grapes from the original old vines to make this wine from. These wines speak about the relationship between humans and vines, sustainability, the importance of the age of the vine, the importance of terroir."

L’Età Più Bella (With Age Comes Beauty)

Tasting Notes

The wines are called L’Età Più Bella (With Age Comes Beauty), and will be released as a mixed case of three separate cuvées – a Chardonnay, a Friuliano and a Sauvignon Blanc.

L’Età Più Bella Sauvignon 2018 - Collio, Italy

"13% alcohol. Lean, taut and chiselled, this is a bright lemony Sauvignon with good acidity and some fine herbal hints. It’s quite compact and mineral with precision and focus, finishing quite taut. Stylish stuff."

L’Età Più Bella Friulano 2018 - Friuli Colli Orientali, Italy

"14% alcohol. There’s good density here with taut pear, apple and lemon fruit, as well as a touch of richness on the mid-palate. This has a lovely focus, combining some richer notes with good acidity and a long, mineral, subtly nutty finish. Beguiling and elegant. "

L’Età Più Bella Chardonnay 2018 - Friuli Colli Orientali, Italy

"13% alcohol. Hazelnut, spice, honey and citrus on the nose. The palate has fresh fruit with an appealing cedary, woody, spicy undercurrent. Citrus, pear and white peach, with a warm spicy finish. Lovely intensity here, with good fruit purity."

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