19 Sep Francesco Illy: Chasing Brunello Perfection in Montalcino
It’s another warm, summer day in Montalcino, especially in the southern part where the Podere Le Ripi winery is located. I was intrigued to explore this winery which was founded by the owner of the Illy coffee empire, Francesco Illy.
Surrounded by Calanchi (protected ancient lands here in Tuscany) and across the way from Poggio Di Sotto, but also next door to Mastrojanni, it is quite clear there are some other famous wineries here. Typically in the southern part of Montalcino, one will find warmer wines with higher alcohol levels and more fruit as a general rule. However, this area gets quite windy as well due to the Monte Amiata effect and the wind being funneled directly through this particular winery. The wind is essential as it dries off the grapes should there be rain, protecting them from mold and creating healthy grape bunches. I should also note that this is a biodynamic winery with a fresh, young, hip approach: nurturing their vines to perfection. They have an entire vegetable garden, an animal farm with pigs, ducks and they compost. This creates a healthy eco-system and certifies them as biodynamic.
I was met by the young winemaker Sebastian Nasello who appeared to have just rolled out of bed for our morning appointment. He reminded me of an older Fiat Pandas 4×4 diesel which takes a while to warm up much like Sebastian’s energy and personality. However, once he got going he was similar to the Pandas again proving that he was indestructible and about as reliable as they come.
In all of Italy, these older Pandas are highly coveted and sought after as they are like a tractor and never die. Sebastian showed me the absolutely stunning cantina which was perfectly designed as a giant oval with a spiral ramp up and down, with the hallways lined with all of the large barrels. In the center they had barrels aging as well with classical music playing (this has no added benefit, just purely ambiance for tours). We quipped about how you really need to be in shape to work in this cantina as you will be walking up and down all day. He informed me that everyone who works at the winery is young, all under the age of 30.
We toured the vineyards where I learned about their gardens and the really interesting bonsai vines. These high density, planted vines grew to about one meter and were covered with a mixture of straw and organic compost at the base to keep everything moist and retain water as its scarce here. This ultimately forces the vines to go deep and fight for minerals resulting in really complex wines! The roots are over 10 feet deep and are the highest density vines in the world.
We then moved inside for a tasting of Italian wines that were quite surprising for their focus and clarity. I was surprised with the studious nature of Sebastian. He informed me that the owner Francesco is very supportive, does not interfere and gives him all the tools he needs to succeed. Many of the Brunellos were quite elegant, focused tannins and structure; a non interference in winemaking resulting in complexity, longevity and purity of the wines. The wines speak of the simplicity of Montalcino and their commitment to terroir driven wines.
I think they will benefit from another 3-5 more years of work in the vines to produce the finest quality that they are capable of as a result of this terroir. The wines are good, but have the potential to be one of the top brunellos as the vines age resulting in more complexity and an aspiring young winemaker who is motivated to improve with the support of a great team.
In addition to the tasting, they provided a delicious bruschetta, cheese/meat board and a lasagna. We dined on long farmhouse-style tables, perfect for a large business function or private group.
The cantina itself is stunning and perfectly equipped to satisfy a party of 32 for a stunning Italian wine dinner. They even collaborate with the Michelin Chef Roberto Rossi of Il Silene to do private events sometimes. I can’t wait to see what happens over the next 10 years at this winery.
A nod to the coffee icon Francesco Illy to not interfering in the winemaking and supporting his team to do what they are best at. Francesco definitely understands what it takes to be a world class coffee company and he is adopting an approach of listening, and supporting his team to achieve better results every single year. Sebastian himself is a young, eager winemaker that really is driven to produce high quality wines that speak of terroir. They are definitely on their way and I enjoy witnessing the progress. What an overall young, fun, dynamic team that creates a positive workplace fostering this passionate work environment.