‘Man is more important than terroir’: Bibi Graetz on wine and art

The son of a Swiss-Israeli sculptor, Bibi Graetz could have easily pursued a life in art, but chose winemaking as his preferred form of self expression. Adam Lechmere meets the Tuscan wine maker with a cult collector following

Words by Adam Lechmere

It always surprises me how few actual artists there are in winemaking. Chemists and biologists are ten a penny, you’ll find a geologist in every town, there are many zoologists and veterinarians manqués. But for a community that often claims to value art above all else, winemakers don’t tend to be artists.

Bibi Graetz isn’t an artist either, but he nearly was. He’s not a household name even in wine-literate circles. But collectors who love Tuscany in all its guises are willing to pay serious money for recondite gems like his ‘Colore’ series, pure Sangiovese from old vineyards in the unfashionable end of Chianti Classico. He’s in London to launch a new range – Balocchi di Colore – three wines comprising a Sangiovese, a Colorino and a Canaiolo, from the oldest parcels of the old vineyards that go into Colore.

A trained artist, Graetz creates the artwork for his wine labels

Graetz is often billed as an ‘abstract artist’ who turned to wine, but that’s not quite how it happened. He comes from an artistic background – his father was the Swiss-Israeli sculptor Gidon Graetz, whose monumental public works are in cities from Zurich to Detroit – but I don’t think his heart was ever really in it. ‘I was kind of always involved in creativity and craft. I was doing it, but I didn’t really have a clear idea.’

Like his father, he studied at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence; he dabbled in stained glass and thought at one stage of opening a studio. Did he feel he had to follow in his father’s footsteps? ‘Yes, maybe, kind of following the path.’ He never picks up a brush now except to paint the rather nice labels of his wines. The Balocchi labels (fittingly, as the name means ‘toys’) are done by his daughters Margherita and Ingrid, and his son Ludovico. So he’s neither artist nor scientist, but that other kind of winemaker – the born entrepreneur.

The Balocchi di Colore range is formed of a Sangiovese, Colorino and Canaiolo made from old vines grown in the hills around Colli Fiorentini in Chianti

It took him until his 30s to realise it. His family (his mother is Norwegian and they moved to Tuscany in the 1950s) had been making wine and selling it locally for years – ‘very traditional Chianti wines from a little farm in Tuscany’. Yet it wasn’t until he went to Bordeaux in the early 2000s and met luminaries such as Peter Sisseck and Jean-Luc Thunevin that he realised the possibilities in winemaking. ‘I went from zero to sky-high,’ he remembers. ‘I just told myself, “I want to make the best wine in the world”. But I really didn’t know what it meant.’

From the start, he concentrated on Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino from the hills around the family estate in Colli Fiorentini, an unfashionable corner of Chianti where all the wines are labelled ‘IGT Toscana’. His method was to aim for ‘transparency’ but it took another epiphany, with the difficult 2009 vintage, to find the elegance and lightness of touch that is now his hallmark. ‘It was a weak vintage. The berries were enormous, and it was impossible to create concentration.’ He now describes the vintage as ‘completely non-Tuscan… totally Burgundy, transparent and amazing.’

Clones aren’t interesting to me. I like to go and fall in love with a vineyard and I go and take my shoots there, reproduce them, and then we see what happens

We’re at Quo Vadis restaurant in London to taste the three Balocchi di Colore wines, which Graetz (who is wearing enormous day-glo red plastic glasses) describes as revealing ‘the DNA of the estate’s icon wine, Colore.’ The grapes are selected from parcels of old vineyards, some planted by his father, which are used in Colore.

They’re produced in tiny quantities – 900 three-bottle cases, sold via Bordeaux’s high-end distribution network La Place de Bordeaux (alongside their sister wines Colore and Testamatta) at €1,200 per bottle, making them one of Italy’s most expensive wines. With his wines on the Place, Graetz has cemented his place at the high table. ‘It’s an amazing experience for us,’ he tells me. And there’s more to come – he intends to make Balocchi a yearly event, with a Trebbiano and a field blend already in barrel for release next year.

Graetz wants his estate to become one of the most important wineries in Italy

Graetz’s methods are pure. He extracts as little as possible, fermentations are spontaneous; he eschews international varieties and champions old vineyards and grapes such as Canaiolo which have traditionally been overlooked (‘winemakers would put them down’.) He claims never to have opened a book of oenology in his life, and he rolls his eyes if you ask him about clones, rootstocks or other technicalities. The most scientific he gets is a careful massal selection. ‘Clones aren’t interesting to me. I like to go and fall in love with a vineyard and I go and take my shoots there, reproduce them, and then we see what happens.’

For me, the most important element is the man, and the second thing is the terroir

He’s also an iconoclast: he has no patience with the idea of the primacy of terroir. ‘For me, the most important element is the man, and the second thing is the terroir.’ He might have turned his back on art but this is the voice of the artist: just as a great artist can produce something sublime with substandard paint, so can a winemaker produce ‘a fantastic expression in bad terroir. If you put the same energy into good terroir, you’re going to do even better. But it has nothing to do with clones.’

The ultimate goal of many winemakers is the perfect interpretation of their terroir; for Graetz, it’s more personal. ‘I’m using the wine more as a tool… it’s a way to express yourself,’ he says. And that expression of himself is bracingly practical. ‘Everybody likes to think big. At least I like to think big, and I want to become one of the most important wineries in Italy. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think that we’re one of those wineries that are known in the world.’ He pauses with a knowing smile. ‘I mean, it’s a game.’