Philine Isabelle: the spirit of a shokunin from Heidelberg to Barolo

The philosophy of shokunin transcends mere physical skill, the shokunin embodies a social consciousness and embraces an obligation to work to the best of their ability for some greater good. This obligation, characterised by both the material and the spiritual, can be more simply understood as an endless pursuit of perfection, often of a single process, product or craft. Aged 16, German-native Philine Isabelle, had considered agriculture an attractive pursuit. In 2009, after a brief stint studying Politics and Administration at Konstanz University, Philine abandoned formal education in search of a more industrious endeavour. Her father’s passion for wine and her employment in a local restaurant drew her toward viticulture. For almost a decade, Philine worked at a number of biodynamic estates including Odinstal, Pranzegg, and Heinrich, as well as working as a consultant for master pruners Simonit & Sirch. Today, renting a 1.2ha plot in Preda, nestled between Cannubi and Vignane, Philine works tirelessly, aspiring to craft an ‘effortless masterpiece‘. A Barolo that while on the surface simple, is untiring, revealing subtle details that balance simplicity with complexity. I spoke with Philine as she embarks on a life’s work, exploring her shokunin in more detail.

The desire to create something tangible is a deeply human one. To craft a product with one’s hands is rewarding beyond measure. Philine, herself notably industrious, became quickly disillusioned by her studies in Politics and Administration at a local university. As a 16-year-old, she had briefly considered agriculture an alluring vocation. Though not an altogether typical teenage aspiration, the lure of the land would later shape her decisions upon her early departure from University in 2009. As a spirited 20-year-old, she had been working in local restaurants, where she was close to wine each day. Additionally, wine had been important to Philine’s family, her father was an avid collector, she recalls the family bathtub regularly full of wine bottles so that her father could soak off his favourite labels.

Lure of the land 

A growing fondness of wine coupled with an unsatiated desire to cultivate the land led Philine to pursue a career in viticulture. Having no desire to return to university immediately, recognising the acutely practical nature of agriculture, she made the decision to first work in the field. Through the restaurant she had been working in, Philine was connected with Odinstal, a small biodynamic winery in Pfalz. Philine worked there for three days a week free of charge, for the remainder of the week she continued to work in the restaurant where she earned enough to pay her living expenses. After a little over a year, overwhelmed by a sense of liberation, Philine was certain viticulture was most certainly her cup of tea.

Alongside a strong cultural responsibility to educate the next generation of German winemakers, Philine took advantage of a professional formation that provided training to young Germans seeking vocational qualifications. During her time at Odinstal, Philine would earmark half a day each week to soak up the knowledge of her peers and seniors, encouraging open discourse, acting as a sponge, nourishing her profound desire to learn. She regularly had the opportunity to open bottles, quickly improving her palate, as well as her ability to accurately assess wines. After three and a half years she left Odinstal, having completed a bachelor’s degree in Viticulture and Oenology during her time there.  

Shortly after, Philine began working for master pruners Simonit & Sirch, leading advocates of sap-flow pruning. For one and a half years she consulted in both Germany and Austria, developing existing and prospective markets in both countries, as well as travelling further afield to Italy and Switzerland. Her time with Simonit & Sirch proved profound, directly impacting the way she thinks and works in the vineyard today. In 2015, Philine left Simonit & Sirch and joined Martin Gojer at Pranzegg, a small biodynamic estate in the Alto Adige. At Pranzegg she was Martin’s ‘right hand and left brain’, it was here that she learned the value of social cohesion, of how explosive, rewarding, and effective the right team can be. Having already begun to develop a strong conventional foundation, at Pranzegg, Philine saw how natural winegrowing could be executed with technical precision, how balance and harmony could be sought alongside attention to detail. 

In late 2016, following a number of unappealing offers, Philine left Pranzegg and joined Heinrich, a 100ha biodynamic estate in Burgenland, Austria, reinforcing the 5-strong managerial team, she found herself working between the vineyard, the cellar and assisting with commercial activities. With a production of half a million bottles, assemblage at Heinrich involved several weeks of tastings hundreds of samples, providing further opportunity for Philine to sharpen her palate, focusing intensely on precise and efficient technical analysis. In the vineyard, she directed the implementation of a technique known as ‘composting on field’ focused on building humus. This work involved completing a one-and-a-half-year soil development course. Her time at Heinrich was of vast personal value, helping reassure her of her own capabilities. However, she began to feel detached from the vineyard and in 2019 Philine left Heinrich, setting out on what would be the beginnings of Azienda Agricola Philine Isabelle. 

Having established friendships in the region following visits as a travelling winemaker at Vini Corsari, a fair arranged by Rinaldi and a Portuguese importer. Philine found herself settling in Piedmont. Believing she would never be able to afford to even rent her own land, she immediately began purchasing fruit, keen to begin working with native varieties. In 2019, she bought Dolcetto (from Massimo & Luigi Veglio in Diano d’Alba), and Barbera (from Roberto Forno in Montforte), with Nebbiolo fruit (also from the Luigi brothers) from a rented parcel in the Castagni MGA in La Morra. Everything she produced in this vintage was vinified at Rinaldi. Philine was able to agree to the ongoing purchase of the same plots year on year from Massimo & Luigi, affording her a better relationship with both the fruit and the growers. 

In 2020, a 2ha parcel in Preda became available to rent and Philine proposed to fellow prospector Tom Myers that they rent the parcel, splitting it and cultivating it according to their own method. The parcel is planted mostly to Nebbiolo, with several rows (0.3ha) of Chardonnay toward the bottom of the slope. Philine is not yet certified biodynamic; however, once she has established her relationship with Preda, she plans to begin the process of certification. Though acknowledging both the pros and cons, she admires the consistency certification offers as well as believing that it serves as a strong, visible rejection of conventional, chemically intense agriculture. 

From vine to barrel and all in-between

Her work in the vineyard is fastidious, at the core of her philosophy is the belief that this work is crucial to ensuring bright and elegant fruit is brought to the winery. Depending on the vintage, the amount of shadow cast by the canopy is carefully controlled, maintaining adequate but not excessive light exposure, ensuring no cooked or burned grapes reach the ferment. There is never any hedging, instead, Philine prefers to bend the apical shoots, forming arches. As one may expect, given her time at Simonit & Sirch, a great deal of time is spent pruning, where vine health and balance guide each cut. 

In her wines, Philine aspires to a pure, fresh and vivid profile, she hopes to craft wines that are finely woven, well-structured and intellectual. The Nebbiolo is, for now, entirely de-stemmed, Philine does not think too much of the exaggerated carbonic-related aromas that can often result from whole-cluster and so opts to negate this risk entirely. Fermentation is spontaneous with maceration lasting the duration of the fermentation (roughly 24 days for the Barolo and 19 for the Langhe Nebbiolo) until the cap begins to drop. She punches down during the final third of the fermentation, opting for gentle pumpovers twice a day during the initial stages of fermentation.

The Chardonnay is pressed immediately with stems, next year Philine plans to press in the same vertical press she uses for the reds. Fermentation is spontaneous and with a fairly low-tech cellar, malolactic happens when it happens, as it does with reds. The Chardonnay is aged in concrete and will stay as such while Philine gets to know her parcel a little better. A single barrique has been earmarked for 2021 to experiment with barrel ageing. The Nebbiolo will age in botti, Philine is working with Mittelberger, a family business with an emphasis on engaging the process from tree to wine. The three brothers can often be found at auctions smelling oak is it is cut to identify suitable candidates. ‘Good wood is like a nice corset; it lifts everything up from the middle without adding layers that cover the wine itself’ Philine tells me. 

Crafting a masterpiece

After almost 2 hours on Facetime, I asked Philine what her aspirations were, what she wanted to achieve at Azienda Agricola Philine Isabelle. Her response inspired fond imagery of Japanese aesthetic terminology. Shibui products are simple overall, boasting subtle details, such as textures, which balance simplicity with complexity. This balance means that one does not tire of shibui, instead one finds new meaning and hidden beauty that results in the value of the product increasing over time. Shibui products are masterpieces in their own right, they are understated and unravel the more time one spends with them. They present as simple, like perfectly crafted Risotto, while offering immense satisfaction, satisfaction derived from the artisans shokunin, the result of one’s endless pursuit of perfection. It is this kind of masterpiece Philine aspires to craft in her Barolo, a Barolo of shibuic proportion, a wine presenting as simple yet unwinding in the glass and the mind. I’m truly excited to see what Philine’s future holds, I hope I have encouraged this same excitement in you. 

2 thoughts

  1. I don’t exactly know how, but I feel like every producer spotlight you write gets better. Which is saying a lot since they are all masterfully written. Well done.

    I am really looking forward to the results of Philine’s experiments, and I wish her the best of luck! I feel like the Barolo of her dreams will also be a dream to taste.

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