Tuscany Wine Producer Uses NASA Know-How To Combat Climate Change In The Vineyards

There was no greater view than that of the Earth from the International Space Station (ISS), as no other gave such a feeling of insignificance – the petty problems, the constant fears of the unknown, the overwhelming exhaustion of never living up to a grander purpose. All of it melted away as a feeling of peace, contentment, of utter awe overtook the astronauts. For the newbies, it was the first time they had had such an experience and for those who had been on the station for a while, they had seen that view more times than they could count but it never lost its power, especially when someone knew that they were seeing it for the last time.  

Living on the ISS had its profound life-changing moments but most of the time, the crew kept to a strict schedule of tasks that would help NASA advance its knowledge of the effects of space on the human body. Also, keeping busy kept them from thinking about some terrifying aspects of being in a situation such as CO2 poisoning. The Apollo 13 mission, in 1970, which was supposed to be the third Apollo mission to land on the moon, went through such a nightmare as the CO2 expelled by the astronauts’ breathing started to rise to toxic levels.

There have been significant advances since Apollo 13 one of them is using zeolite to capture CO2 on the ISS so it can then be released once it is exposed to the vacuum of space. Some researchers are considering using zeolite to capture CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, then compress it and store it in a nearby geological facility. Zeolites are crystalline aluminosilicates typically formed by a chemical reaction between volcanic glass and saline water.

But NASA is not the only place using zeolite, as one of the largest organic certified wine-producing farms in Tuscany, Italy, Col d’Orcia, has taken to using zeolite in their soil to combat climate change.

Col d’Orcia Wine Estate in Tuscany

Francesco walking in
Poggio al Vento vineyard
Photo Credit: Col d’Orcia

Family owner and chairman, Count Francesco Marone Cinzano, discussed how sustainable farming and encouraging biodiversity had always been important to his father (who bought this centuries-old historic farming estate in 1973) even before such terms were even discussed in the wine world.

And it is a place of pride for Francesco that his family owns the fantastic wine estate of Col d’Orcia in the highly regarded area of Montalcino, in the stunning region of Tuscany. When he speaks about Montalcino, one quickly forgets that he is there to represent one estate as his utter reverence for Montalcino as a whole is evident in the amount of time and passion he devotes to explaining why it is one of the most incredible places on Earth. One cannot help but believe him as he describes how 50% of the land is covered by natural woodland and Mediterranean scrub while the rest is vineyards and farms that include olive trees, grains, honey and truffles. Its magnificent beauty was one of the reasons his father, who was from another prestigious Italian wine region called Piedmont, fell so deeply in love that he invested tons of resources and time into an area that was still unknown worldwide in the 1970s.

Harvesting the Poggio al Vento vineyard
Photo Credit: Bruno Bruchi

Francesco, who inherited the desire to keep balance and harmony with nature from his father, has made his own contributions to the estate by transforming the vineyards to organic farming in 2008, eventually becoming certified. He also notes that his estate is a working farm with chickens, sheep and goats, and much of the estate is preserved woodland where wild boar and deer roam. The sheep and goats graze on the forest, keeping it from getting too overgrown and the chickens are used for eggs and meat for the families living and working on the estate.

Yet when it comes to the philosophy of sustainability, Francesco says that it can only truly exist at any company if the employees have good working conditions. “In Italy, unfortunately, 70% of the work contracts in agriculture do not comply with workers’ security and workers’ rights,” noted Francesco, and he feels an obligation as someone who is “lucky” to produce high-end wines to “show the way.”

Nature & Technology 

Francesco under oak tree with son
Photo Credit: Col d’Orcia

There are some biodynamic practices and preparations employed, but Francesco admits that they cannot be completely biodynamic as it is impossible to strictly follow the biodynamic calendar with such a big estate as they cannot prune all the vineyards only on specific days – they just have too much to prune. Some of the biodynamic preparations Francesco uses contain zeolite in it, as zeolite is not only used by NASA to capture CO2 but there are experiments on the ISS that involve growing plants in zeolite-based substrates. As space travel advances in the future, astronauts will need to be able to grow their own food in space if they want to make the trip to Mars, for example. Since zeolite has a “special hydroponic quality,” it can retain humidity and water during the winter and release it during higher temperatures in the summer, improving the soil’s water retention capacity and combating drought years. As Brunello di Montalcino is experiencing warmer and drier vintages, water scarcity is becoming more common.

The Col d’Orcia label displays this commitment to both nature and technology that was first started with Francesco’s father, as three rows represent the hills overlooking the Orcia River – a commitment to Mother Nature. On top of those three rows is a hand pointing to the stars representing their relentless pursuit of finding better ways to protect her.

And it all started when Francesco’s father visited the estate 50 years ago. He was so taken by the paradise of Montalcino, an unknown area back then, because an abundance of produce grew there. During that first visit, he came upon an old oak tree that was stunning in its majestic appearance and as he stood underneath it, a unique energy pulsated through his body. Despite this tree being in an area where it was best to plant the vineyards, he spared this beauty as it would be the monument that would remind him to be true to the natural diversity that initially captured his heart. Yet he could have never imagined that many decades later, a natural substance that could one day make traveling to Mars possible would help his beloved farming estate continue to thrive during intense challenges as the climate changes.

**Link to original Forbes article: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2023/04/20/tuscany-wine-producer-uses-nasa-know-how-to-combat-climate-change-in-the-vineyards/

2015 Col d’Orcia, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, 2016 and 2017 Brunello di Montalcino Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2017 Col d’Orcia, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG: 100% Sangiovese. The nose gives juicy, rich fruit such as cassis and black cherry preserves with notes of broken rocks and round tannins on the palate with hints of nutmeg and pressed flowers.

2016 Col d’Orcia, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Vigna Nastagio: 100% Sangiovese from a single vineyard cru. Deep, dark fruits on the nose with flavors of blackberry scones with an intense minerality; elegant on the palate with chiseled tannins that give structure to the pristine fruit with hints of spice and overall harmony and a very long finish.

2015 Col d’Orcia, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG, Poggio al Vento: 100% Sangiovese from a single vineyard cru. The Poggio al Vento single vineyard is mainly sandy soil as opposed to clay which is dominant in the rest of the Col d’Orcia vineyards. Smoldering earth, cured meats, nutmeg with a slightly firm structure, black cherries and sandalwood incense with hints of tobacco leaf with a long, linear finish.

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