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Chianti’s Hidden Treasure

“Volpaia is one of those seductive Tuscan places that tempts people into quitting their jobs and uprooting their lives. The hilltop town sits nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, looking over Chianti Classico, reachable only by a narrow road that climbs through sunbathed vines, olive trees and cypresses. A relic of the 12th century, the old village is home to fewer than 60 people, living behind walls that Siena’s medieval soldiers found intimidating and modern visitors find charming.

“On a sunny but cool morning, just a few tourists are walking on the old stone streets, soaking in the fresh air and historic charm, never suspecting that one of Tuscany’s best wines is coursing through steel pipes beneath their feet. Volpaia’s chief commercial enterprise is Castello di Volpaia, a winery that produces outstanding Chiantis and super Tuscans. Its Chianti Classico Riserva 2010, 93 points and retailing for about $30, earned a spot in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 last year. (Here’s a chart of selected recent releases.)

“When Castello di Volpaia’s owners, husband-and-wife team Carlo Mascheroni and Giovannella Stianti, began building a new winery here in the 1970s, the town was a recognized historic location, protected by Italian law. The easy choice would have been to construct a modern winery outside of town and open a tasting room inside Volpaia’s stone walls. Instead, the couple integrated the winery into the bones of the town itself.

“They hid their fermentation cellars inside old buildings, removing the roofs so cranes could lower in the vats. They housed their aging cellars in cool basements, including under an old church. And they connected all these spaces with a ‘vinoduct,’ 600 feet of pipe under the streets. To avoid using potentially damaging pumps for moving their wine, they employed the hillside, situating their crush pad at the top of town and barrel rooms at the bottom.

“The project demanded ingenuity and investment, and the toughest obstacles were Italy’s local, regional and national agencies. ‘You wouldn’t believe how much bureaucracy we had to go through to get it all approved,’ Carlo says. And while the construction is now finished, making wine each year at Volpaia is a dance of logistics. Why go to all this trouble? To preserve the beauty of Volpaia, and to capture it in the wine itself. ‘It’s not easy,’ Giovannella says. ‘Our philosophy might seem stupid, but I think what we do is reflected in the wine. There is more to the wine than the juice.'”

“There is the town the winery calls home. There are the vineyards, planted in one of Chianti Classico’s more unique terroirs. And there is the family that has made the wine for almost 50 years, adding its own character to it. Giovannella and Carlo work hard on this place because it seduced them once too. The first time Giovannella saw Volpaia, she fell in love with its splendid isolation. It was 1966, and she was 19. Her father, Raffaello Stianti, a book publisher from Florence, bought a third of Volpaia’s land and much of the old town itself. But Giovannella never thought she would spend much time there. She was at university, and within a few years she would be working as a translator in the city. Volpaia was her father’s retreat.

“On a winter morning, Giovannella, now 68, with lean features and an elegant, confident manner, is walking through one of the vineyards with her daughter, Federica, and Lorenzo Regoli, the winemaker and vineyard manager. Icy rain is in the forecast, but for now the sun is shining. Giovannella explains how her father found Volpaia. ‘The village was divided among three different owners,’ she says. ‘In 1966, he bought the first part, and little by little he added more. Now we own two-thirds of the village and 900 acres all around, including 116 acres of vines.'”

“Volpaia has a long history-the earliest recorded mention is from 1172, and the old walls likely date from a century earlier-but it was in decline when Raffaello arrived. Once it had been a key stronghold for medieval Florence, defending its border against Siena. By the 1960s, however, farmers across the Tuscan countryside were moving to cities for factory jobs, and wealthy landowners were selling their semi-abandoned estates. Raffaello wanted to preserve the town’s character. He took over management of the wine and olive oil production. He also made it clear that tenants could remain in perpetuity.

“Volpaia has practiced organic farming for decades now, and the initial credit goes to Raffaello, who banned synthetic pesticides-because he wanted to shoot animals. He’d bought Volpaia as a hunting retreat. ‘He wanted the animals to stay here,’ Giovannella explains. ‘Animals know very well where there are chemical products and where there are not.'”

“Raffaello had been looking for relaxation, not terroir. But the location that made Volpaia an ideal border outpost also make it a special place for Sangiovese. The town sits atop the southern end of a ridge running down the center of Chianti Classico. The vines are planted on the slope where the ridge ends, from altitudes of 1,300 feet to 2,100 feet. The height and southern exposure provide signifcant diurnal temperature swings, as well as plenty of sunshine, both crucial for the slow-ripening Sangiovese grape.

“Regoli bends over and picks up a chunk of brownish-gray stone. This is macigno del Chianti, a compact sandstone found here and almost nowhere else. Much of Chianti Classico’s soils are a mix of clay and limestone. Volpaia’s sandstone doesn’t hold water, but it allows vine roots to push deep into the earth to find the moisture they need. Those qualities help produce more elegant Sangiovese. ‘You can always recognize the wine from Volpaia,’ Regoli notes. ‘It is not possible to make a fat wine here.’ It’s also easier to farm organically here; mildew is less of a concern in a spot with dry soils and strong breezes.

“Thanks to this soil, Volpaia had a reputation for decent wines when the Stiantis arrived. But both the vineyards and the town needed work, and Raffaello needed help. He would find an unexpected ally in his future son-in-law. Giovannella’s husband, Carlo, is an unlikely farmer. A lawyer who runs a successful commercial practice just outside Milan, his passion since childhood has been sailing. As a young man, he crossed the Atlantic twice in a small boat. Yet he fell in love with a landlocked farm in Tuscany.

“Giovannella and Federica have returned to the family house, ready to warm up after their walk among the vines. Carlo is in the living room by a large fireplace, happy to have stayed by the hearth. With close-cropped gray hair and a face still full of youthful curiosity, Carlo, 75, is friendly and intelligent, someone who enjoys talking details, whether it’s the history of the town, winemaking techniques or finding good wind at sea.

“He met Giovannella in 1968 in a Tuscan beach town while both were on summer holiday, and they dated for the next four years. At one point, Carlo left to compete in a race from Plymouth, England to Newport, R.I. When he returned, he wrote a book about the experience. Not long after it was published, friends began calling Giovannella, telling her to skip ahead to page 70. There, Carlo asked her to marry him.

“At their wedding on Nov. 25, 1972, her father surprised them with a gift: Volpaia. ‘My mother complained, ‘You didn’t give her a present, you gave her work,’  recalls Giovannella. ‘I thought I would never come back here. Carlo had a beautiful home on a lake. Why would he ever come back to Tuscany with my family?'”

“My idea of a nice time was to be on a boat,’ adds Carlo. But when the next summer arrived, one of Carlo’s brothers was dying of cancer, and he and Giovannella decided to spend their vacation in Chianti, where they could be reached. We spent 15 days at Volpaia and I fell in love with it,’ Carlo recalls. ‘Volpaia was, and still is, so Tuscan, so historic, such an intact picture of a country village of the 12th century, that it was impossible not to fall in love with it.’
His father-in-law was happy to have someone who shared his passion. Soon they were making plans to restore the town and turn the winery into a successful business.

“The vineyards sorely needed replanting; like much of Chianti at that time, the vines were planted at a low density, which led to high yields of poor quality fruit. ‘At that time there were 30 acres of vines, and today we have 116,’ says Giovannella. ‘Of course, production is more or less the same. They produced a lot of grapes from those 30 acres.'”

“Between the early 1970s and 2004, they would more than double the planting density. As they replanted, they began selecting some of their best clones, vines they believed had evolved to this terroir over the centuries. Today they have singled out 25. As they learned the land, they also began producing two single-vineyard wines: Coltassala, from a site planted almost 100 percent to Sangiovese, and Balifico, which holds approximately 65 percent Sangiovese and 35 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Carlo wants to show the other half of their labors-their work in the town-so everyone grudgingly leaves the fire. The clouds have arrived, but the rain hasn’t. The streets are quiet, with a deliveryman wheeling a hand truck loaded with vegetables to a shop, and some locals walking home for lunch.

“Giovannella says that when her family arrived, the town was slowly dying. Many of the buildings were empty, home to birds and mice. She points out one they restored and turned into a cooking school. Another they now lease to a restaurant. In the center of town sits a tall tower, the only one left from the original city walls. In the 1960s, someone was using it as a garage for a Jeep. Now it’s home to Volpaia’s wineshop. There are also apartments; the town has 56 residents, many of whom work for the winery. Others have called this place home for generations.

“We had two very different possibilities in front of us, says Carlo. ‘We could build a modern winery just outside of the village, and simply restore the existing buildings to obtain a sort of ‘theater for tourists,’ with no connection to a true rural life. ‘Or we could preserve the rural and viticultural identity of the village by inserting a modern winery into 12th-century buildings and gently urge our employees to live in Volpaia by providing restored houses free of charge.’ Regoli walks ahead to a tiny old church and unlocks the wooden door, revealing a secret stash of steel vats. This is one of the fermentation cellars, which Regoli and his team navigate via a small staircase that winds its way between the tanks.

“Farther up the hill is one of the town’s few modern-looking spots-a small parking pad, where sorting tables and a destemmer-crusher are set up during harvest, right outside two more fermentation rooms. These are filled with more modern vats, complete with automated punch-down pistons. Upstairs is an attic space where grapes for sweet Vin Santo are hung from the ceiling for a few months after harvest, to dry before fermentation.

“Between the narrow lanes outside and the curving, underground corridors between cellars, the ‘winery’ is a maze. Just keeping straight which pipes lead to which rooms is challenging enough, but Regoli doesn’t mind. For him, Volpaia has been a lifetime opportunity. He grew up in a town not far away, tasting the Sangiovese wines his grandfather made on their family farm. In enology school, he devoted his thesis to Sangiovese clonal research in Montalcino. After school, he worked for Livio Felluga, an outstanding winery in Friuli, known chiefly for white wines. Volpaia offered a homecoming.

“When grapes arrive at the top of the vinoduct, Regoli and his team gently crush them before putting them in the vats. He allows the temperature to slowly rise from about 60° F to just above 80° F over several days as fermentation begins. The juice will stay on the skins for up to 25 days. ‘In recent years, I have reduced the number of pump-overs and punch-downs,’ says Regoli. ‘We are trying to create softer wines. Sangiovese is generous in tannins-and not always good tannins.’ After fermentation, the wine is transferred down to the barrel cellars. The Chianti Classico is aged in 3,000-liter casks made of French oak. Italian cooper Eugenio Gamba had to assemble these botti inside the cellars. The Riserva is mostly aged in botti, with a small percentage aged in French oak barriques (228 liters). The single-vineyard wines are aged in a mix of barriques and tonneaux (500 liters).

“Walking through the town, Carlo stops repeatedly to elaborate on the small details that went into the winery’s contruction. When the vats were installed, the terra-cotta roofs had to be removed tile by tile and all the pieces numbered so that each roof could be reassembled accurately. They petitioned several agencies to allow them to develop stone covers for gas-meter boxes that the utility had cut into the outside walls of houses. ‘The real work is impossible to see,’ says Carlo, referring as much to the bureaucratic hurdles as to Castello di Volpaia’s complex physical infrastructure.

“Carlo spends 40 weekends a year and the entire month of August at Volpaia, which means a lot of train rides from Milan to Florence. But because he was busy with his law practice, it was often up to Giovannella to oversee day-to-day affairs. She also made most of the trips to sell their wine in Italy and abroad. Giovannella enjoyed the work, and she liked that she was able to bring their children to Volpaia so often. Nicolò, 38, and Federica, 36, recall many happy days playing with local kids in Volpaia’s town square, escaping the crowded streets of Milan.

“Today Nicolò tries to bring his own family here as often as he can, to give his children the same experience. His work is demanding-a vice president for The Weather Channel, he’s responsible for the company’s expansion into Europe, the Middle East and Africa, which requires shuttling between Milan and London. ‘My family lives in Milan, and I live on a plane,’ Nicolò jokes. He has two young daughters and a baby boy.

“With all that on his plate, he tries to contribute as much as he can to the winery. ‘Volpaia is a well-oiled machine. It’s a women-driven business,’ he says. ‘My father and I help with the boring legal and administrative stuff and some of the strategic investments decisions.’ His mother and sister keep the place running. Federica spent years telling herself she would never work at the winery-Volpaia meant working with family. She studied art and started a career restoring paintings. But she helped out at Volpaia with some matters, and eventually began asking herself why she was fighting so hard. Now she is the one who is at Volpaia full time.

“Around five years ago I realized that Volpaia was my real home and passion,’ she says. ‘Within days, I quit my job and got totally involved in the wine business.’ She also unwittingly found herself in charge of another winery. In 2007, Carlo and Giovannella sold an apartment in Milan. With the money, they decided to buy a house by the sea in Maremma, on the Tuscan coast. The place they found, north of Grosseto, included a few acres of vines. Before long, they started a winery there, called Prelius. And then Carlo, following his father-in-law’s example, gave it to his daughter. ‘She didn’t have a choice, just like me and Volpaia,’ observes Giovannella.

“Carlo jokes that Prelius is Federica’s dowry. And despite her grumbling about the surprise gift, Federica is enchanted with this winery by the sea. It is a new terroir that she, with the help of Regoli and her family, is beginning to decipher. With decades of work it may prove to be their new special estate.

“It is, after all, another of those seductive Tuscan places.”

Mitch Frank, October 31, 2015
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Chianti’s Hidden Treasure