Giulia Negri: pragmatism, vivacity and familial flair

Giulia Negri’s great-great-grandfather purchased the families’ Serradenari estate in 1870. Far from any noble intent, Barolo’s highest point served as an escape from his wife living at home in Turin. Each side of Giulia’s family had been engineers, her great-great-grandfather more eccentric than the rest with a daring spirit his children would inherit. It was Giulia’s great-grandmother Emma Diatto who first worked the land, tending to grains, hazelnuts and more. Meanwhile, her grandfather continued the familial tradition of discovery. Giulia’s father recalled a bathroom full of steam as his father trialled his latest inventions. Obsessed with truffles, he installed a pump to irrigate the trees, rebuilt his roof to gather water, and installed primitive solar panels. Although her father had worked as a politician and later a journalist, in 2001, he discovered the family estate and replanted it. Born in Palermo and raised in Rome, Giulia studied biotechnology management, working in anti-cancer research where she helped source start-up funding. Despite being in love with this work, during a chance visit to Burgundy, she had an altogether revelatory experience with a bottle of 2007 Liger de Belair Aux Reignot. Soon after, she returned to La Morra and later worked harvest in Chile. Although Giulia had always considered herself smart and able to grasp most topics, in wine she had found something more larger than her. In 2014, at the tender age of 24, she became the steward of her family estate. In the years which had preceded, she had learned ferociously, taking on increasing responsibility and expanding her skillset. Today—now boasting a modest workforce—she remains a garagiste at heart, eschewing dogma—preferring pragmatism and innovation. Yet, as vibrant and enchanting as her wines, Giulia’s spirit is infectious. Here follows the story of Giulia Negri, the proud Barologirl.

Giulia’s great-great-grandfather was a Diatto, a family of engineers building automobiles in Turin. In 1879—escaping his wife living in Turin—he purchased the Serradenari estate, long before recognition as an MGA. The farmhouse traces its name back many centuries to when the Black Death pushed the farmers of Barolo and La Morra to take what little money they had and escape to the top of the highest hill. Since 1450, the hill was known locally as the “money hill” or “Sara D’né,”. Then, the property was more extensive than today, with more vineyards—planted mostly to Dolcetto—and a large forest, accompanied by a country house. Giulia’s great grandmother was the first to work the land here, tending to the hazelnuts while her son—an eclectic inventor—obsessed over truffles and filled his bathroom with steam. Her father recalls coming home to find steam filling the bathroom as his father tested an electronic device for automobiles lights in the rain. Despite the estate featuring nineteen sources of water and a small lake, Giulia’s grandfather designed and installed a pump to irrigate the trees—which he had planted to encourage the propagation of truffles. Further, he covered a small outdoor bunker in primitive solar panels, collecting rainfall from its sloped roof. Alas, his pursuit would prove fruitless after he died in 2001 without having found a single truffle.

Later, Giulia’s father—working as a politician until 1989 and later turning his hand to journalism— ‘rediscovered’ the holdings and began replanting, including Pinot Nero and Chardonnay vines on north-facing slopes. Both varieties are vinified by Giulia to this day. Born in Palermo—her mother from Sicily and her father from Turin— Giulia lived in Rome until her 17th birthday. Moving to Milan, she studied management followed by biotechnology management, leading to a brief career in anti-cancer research where she helped source start-up funding. Though she found this work fulfilling, Giulia felt she found something ‘more significant than her’ following a short trip to Burgundy. Shortly after returning, she left Milan for La Morra, succumbing to an overwhelming allure. In 2013, Giulia worked the harvest at her family estate; motivated and receptive, she learned everything she could.

By 2014, Giulia had begun to influence decisions at Serradenari, though still ‘outside’, those around her valued her receptivity and intuition. Following the release of small micro-cuvées under her eponymous label in 2017, she took over management of the Serradenari estate. By 2015 she was free to do whatever she wanted, freedom she found to be as much a curse as a blessing. Free from bureaucracy, she could move quickly; however, the bills had to be paid, an imposing reality. In 2016, Giulia spent harvest in Chile at Calyptra, an overseas project of Louis-Michel Liger-Belair where he produces Aristos in partnership with Pedro Parra and François Massoc. This openness and unrelenting desire to learn continued to serve her well, shaping the land she works as well as the wines she makes. Candidly, she admits the early days were tough, ‘the first two years was the best school of my life first’ she remarks, recalling the breadth of tasks required of her, from farming to knocking doors convincing people to taste, buy and sell the wines. Adversity notwithstanding, today Giulia employs seven full-time employees, producing 50,000 bottles each year. 

Barolo’s highest point

Serradenari—long recognised as superior, even before the MGA—is the highest vineyard in the Barolo area. However, the exposition of the vineyards varies, one side facing the Alps and the other a sea of vineyards. From its highest vineyard Marassio, Serradenari descends from 536 metres to 400 metres at Pian delle Mole, its ‘lowest’ point. This dramatic variation results in flagrantly different microclimates, cold and windy at the top with shallow soils rich in limestone and silt, warmer and less turbulent at the bottom with deeper sandy soils rich in fossils. The resulting differences in soil hydrology yield varying degrees of ripening, concentration, and tannic structure.

giulia-negri

Further, soil pH varies between lieu-diets, 5 in Serradenari proper, 7 in La Tartufaia, and as much as eight elsewhere. Today, Giulia benefits from a land seldom exposed to conventional synthetic fertilisers and herbicides. Perhaps partly due to foresight, though in reality, the land her family owned was simply not farmed during the period of indiscriminate chemical application. Albeit organic, Giulia’s viticulture continues to evolve, not bound by notions of yesteryear. Following a comprehensive analysis, she will cover crop the entire estate next year, primarily to prevent erosion. Following the experiment in 2018, in 2019, Giulia began rolling the vines apical shoot—next year she plans to test the results row to row. Primarily, she is interested in understanding whether tressage closes the gap between technical and phenolic ripeness. Wanting to reduce tractor passages, Giulia recently trialled treatment application via drone, leveraging the drone’s ability to apply treatments more precisely. Following a 70% crop loss in 2019, Roberto Voerzio advised she install nets. Though instinctively she does not like them, she does want to understand how they impact the vine. Interestingly, one can observe that nets often inhibit certain viticultural practices, often requiring more leaf thinning. Her father planted Serradenari’s oldest vines in 2001; today, Giulia prunes to Guyot poussard, a method Giulia learned from Simonit and Sirch. 

Over time, Giulia has gotten to know her vines, paying close attention to how each small decision ramifies, attention multiplied by those she employs working with the same passion. Parcellating the vineyard, she started in chaos and journeys toward calm, over time edging closer to her vision, though each vintage brings new opportunities to push further. Having spent her childhood years surrounded by forest, Giulia knows no different than to respect the land; most admirable though is her pragmatic, tireless and open-minded vivacity. Despite not promoting it herself, there can be little doubt that her hand plays a substantial role in the overall quality of her wines. Terroir notwithstanding, viticulture of this calibre is paramount to great wine. 

Chi nasce tondo non può morire quadrato

Giulia learned from her grandfather that one ought to excel at all tasks in their estate. To this point, she once spent several months learning to fix tractors. This pursuit—learning from a friend at François Frères—resulted in dramatic revisions to the estate’s use of oak. Initially preoccupied with only volumes, she soon realised there was much more to consider: grain, forest, age of wood, toasting and more. ‘That which is born square can never be round’ she tells me. Drinkers regularly conflate producer signature with cooperage. A wine beginning its life in an unsuitable or obtuse barrel may never find harmony, a thought concerning many Langhe winegrowers. Today, her cellar contains a mix of wood and steel for both fermentation and élevage. Mostly she removed small wooden barrels from the offset.

giulia-negri

The wines ferment in a mix of wood and steel; Barolo in 60-hl truncated wooden vats, Langhe Nebbiolo in steel, Chardonnay in 350-litre French oak tonneaux, and the Pinot Nero in truncated vats. Fermentation is spontaneous, a luxury afforded to a healthy cellar. Semi-open top barrels support favourable fermentation temperatures. Fermentation and maceration durations range from 50 days for Barolo to c. 15/20 days for Langhe Nebbiolo. Opting for ‘traditional’ methods, the Barolo macerates gently and for a relatively long period, extracting ample complexity and depth from the solids. Never getting too hot, the resulting fermentation yields breadth and stability, without the faintest hint of ‘over-extraction’. For the Barolo, élevage last at least 30 months in 25-hl Austrian oak, Langhe Nebbiolo 14 months in steel and truncated wooden vats, and 16 months in steel 350-litre French oak tonneaux for the Chardonnay. There’s a distinct lack of magic in the cellar; instead, Giulia simply stewards quality fruit, eschewing commercial yeast and additions. Long macerations produce fine-grained wines, enticing in their youth with great structure for ageing. These are crafted wines, all the while demonstrating a deep respect for Langhe tradition and terroir.

The rise of the garagiste 

Giulia Negri is the latest in a long line of entrepreneurs and grapegrowers. Her ancestor, Giambattista Bodoni designed the now-famous Bodoni serif typeface, Giovanni Negri published wine books, and Chiappero worked in the Italian Parliament. At the same time, her father and his father before him demonstrated great foresight, not afraid to test boundaries. Crafting her first Barolo before her 20th birthday, Negri is a pragmatist, unshackled from dogma though draped in a significant pride for Piedmont. As William Kelley has said about winemaking, ‘if it were a puzzle, the best winemakers have already seen the front of the puzzle’, undoubtedly, Giulia has stared long and hard at her jigsaws cover. Giulia’s vibrant energy is enchanting and infectious; hers are wines deserving of any wine drinker’s attention.

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