How Preservation Efforts Keep Chianti Classico Intact

A Day of Beautiful Commonalities at Castello di Volpaia, I Fabbri and Castello di Monsanto

Chianti Classico vineyard landscape from Volpaia in the Radda in Chianti commune of Tuscany, Italy
23 min read

In this long-form article — a preview of his forthcoming book on Italian wine — writer Kevin Day examines how three wineries in Chianti Classico embody the spirit of preservation through architecture, land use, and laying down old wines.

Red Corkscrew Illustration ©Opening a Bottle

Castello di Volpaia: No Stone Left Unturned

What lies beneath the hand-laid stones of Volpaia says as much about Chianti Classico’s identity as the black rooster emblem, the galestro soil, and even the king grape of the region, Sangiovese.

It is stainless-steel pipes, running in a network of chases connecting seven separate, perfectly preserved buildings and therefore, the various winemaking operations of Castello di Volpaia. I would have never seen the pipes had Federica Mascheroni Stianti — whose grandparents purchased much of the village in 1966 — not removed a wooden panel to reveal one of their key junction points.

On the surface, Volpaia looks and feels like a medieval idyll and nothing more. “My family put all the wires underground, too.” Federica pointed out. “I think you see more wires from one building to the next in San Francisco than in Volpaia.”

Through these pipes, newborn Chianti Classico wine flows via gravity from the relatively tiny fermentation facility (also cloaked in a historic village building) to the barrel room for aging. This latter structure lies in the shadow of the Commenda di Sant’Eufrosino, a deconsecrated church built to impress the Knights of Malta in 1443. Federica explained that when her family purchased Volpaia in 1966, the church had been used for vehicle storage. “Can you believe they parked trucks in a church? Unbelievable!”

As surprising as these inner workings are, on the surface, Volpaia simply looks and feels like a medieval idyll that time skipped over. Forest and mountains and the numerous songs of birds surround it. Vineyards are judiciously placed on the surrounding slopes to the south (you might not even notice them on the approach), as are olive groves. These are all hallmarks of the Chianti Classico landscape, where efficiency and biodiversity are a multi-generational aspect of stewardship. Everything feels cared for.

And that’s what brings us back to those stainless-steel pipes. To convert the fortified village into a quality-minded winery, the Mascheroni Stianti family opted to use the existing structures for the various stages of winemaking, and connect them underground so that the wine could gently move through its various stages of élevage with minimal pumping.

But to do that, they had to “conserve the image of the village as it was in the past,” as Federica put it. Yes, the family’s love for Volpaia was strong, as was their commitment to preserve it, but the local authorities also wouldn’t allow it any other way.

“Do you see any wires?” Federica asked me. “Okay, this is another crazy part. My family put all the wires underground, too. I think you see more wires from one building to the next in San Francisco than in Volpaia.”

The Commenda di Sant’Eufrosino, Federica Mascheroni Stianti and an alcove at Castello di Volpaia, Chianti Classico, Italy.
The Commenda di Sant’Eufrosino (left) was built to impress the Knights of Malta, but was found storing tractors when Federica Mascheroni Stianti’s (center) family purchased Castello di Volpaia; (right) a medieval portal to provide the resident priest with his food and drink. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

I assumed that they lifted stones and bricks, dug where they needed to, and then put everything back. But Federica told me they had to go a step further: every stone and brick needed to be numbered and cataloged, its exact position charted, before it could even be lifted. In other words, Brick 127b was going back into Position 127b. That’s where it had been since the 14th century, and that’s where the Stianti family was going to place it whether it was time consuming or not.

Of course, they agreed to these parameters. If they had wanted to build a modern winery from scratch, they would have found a place less “set in stone” in the first place. Purchased in part as a pheasant reserve for hunters, Federica’s grandfather, Raffaello Stianti, laid the groundwork for its future. “He thought ‘what do you want to have when you are hunting?’ A glass of wine.” (That’s honestly something I’ve never overheard at my local Bass Pro Shops).

But it was Federica’s parents — Carlo Maria Mascheroni and Giovannella Stianti Mascheroni, Raffaello’s daughter — who took things a step further in the 1980s, seeing Volpaia as part of a new wave of fine-wine estates in the land of wicker-basket bottles of jug wine. Carlo was from Monza, Lombardia, while Giovannella was from Firenze. Volpaia was their wedding gift from Raffaello, and very quickly, the young couple made it their mission to seize on Volpaia’s potential, both for wine production, and as an intimate countryside retreat for visitors.

“They had something special between them,” Federica said. “The passion of Tuscan people mixed with the industriousness [of the Milanese].”

According to Federica, her parents were among the first in Chianti Classico to purchase stainless-steel tanks for temperature-controlled fermentation. But if you’ve ever seen one of these goliath cylinders, you’ll know they don’t easily fit through a medieval hamlet’s door. So, off came the roof, tile by tile, beam by beam — with temporary structural supports in place to keep the ancient walls from collapsing — while a crane lowered each tank into place. Once complete, adaptation became the name of the game, as the tight spaces of the fermentation room presented atypical working conditions.

Wines aging in cask at Castello di Volpaia.
Chianti Classico wines age in barrels in a historic vaulted room next to one of Volpaia’s three churches. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

“To work inside this, it is not easy,” Federica said to me in one of the fermentation rooms, chuckling a bit at the craziness of it all. “The team here is magical.”

And loyal too. The family’s enologist, Lorenzo Regoli, has been at the estate since 2001. Roberto Pannocchia has been cellar manager for 11 years, while their viticulturist, Simone Vignali, has tended the vines since 1990. (Cristina Matassini in the office has tenure to beat them all, with more than 36 years at the estate). This kind of continuity showed in a small retrospective tasting that Federica and I conducted later on, in an atmospheric bottle room set aside for just such occasions.

“Look, Sangiovese is a terroir grape,” Federica said, as though she were putting an end to a discussion.

We started with their 2021 Chianti Classico, a playful take on the Sangiovese-focused classic — tinged with iron-strike minerality and juniper-like herbaceousness. This was followed with recent vintages of the Chianti Classico Riserva and the “Coltassala,” a Gran Selezione made from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Mammolo. “Coltassala” used to be labeled as Toscana IGT — a Super Tuscan — because the DOCG rules did not permit such a generous proportion of Sangiovese.

“Look, Sangiovese is a terroir grape,” Federica said, as though she were putting an end to a discussion. Her family were among a cadre of growers to espouse this pride before the DOCG regulations adapted to their way of thinking. Nowadays, Chianti Classico tends to be 100% Sangiovese.

The 1997 Castello di Volpaia "Coltassala" Toscana Rosso and the 1988 Chianti Classico Riserva
Older vintages of Castello di Volpaia’s wines reveal a continuity of fine winemaking. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

In the Coltasalla vineyard just downhill from Volpaia, Sangiovese achieves a fineness of tannin that can only be described as elegance. For me, it tastes purely of Radda, the iconic wine village whose sanctioned terroir zone envelops tiny Volpaia, as well as such prominent cohorts as Poggerino, Istine, Monteraponi and Caparsa. We then traveled back in time to 1997, for a taste of Coltasalla that deftly conveyed dried strawberries and mint, with a citric note that dashed across the palate with agility. The tannins seemed fixed in a permanent state of grace despite the 27 years of age. Sangiovese? A terroir grape? Indeed.

She then tapped into the cork of a 1988 Chianti Classico Riserva with a Coravin. This wine had roughly 10% Trebbiano and Malvasia — white grapes — blended into it, a common practice back in the day. While it is an often-maligned facet of Chianti Classico’s history, in the right hands it could polish the edges of Sangiovese’s once rustic tannins. The 1988 Riserva was no fiasco wine. It had a vital energy to it that countered a profusion of tertiary tones. I was astonished by its beauty, but with each taste, I was also beginning to form a personal relationship with the legacy of Chianti Classico.

I thought again about those pipes under the stones, the stainless-steel tanks lowered by cranes through the roof, and the steadfast people behind the scenes who have felt little urge to update their résumé over the last few decades. Things moved on a different timeline here, and because of that, the fragile vitality of wine — and all the stories it carries, vintage after vintage — was in safe keeping.

I Fabbri: The Wild Landscape of Lamole

The word castello in medieval Tuscany did not always describe a bona fide castle. It also meant a group of houses whose proximity allowed for some semblance of fortification from outside attack.

Castello di Lamole in the Chianti Classico DOCG wine region
Castello di Lamole may not resemble a castle per se, but its tight cluster of houses were designed for defensive purposes just the same. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

At midday, I stood on a winding country road with Susanna Grassi — the heart and soul of I Fabbri, a small boutique Chianti Classico winery — and looked upon Castello di Lamole, her home.

“This was built in the 12th century,” she told me with her softened voice. “You can find it on the maps of Leonardo di Vinci, and it was once like a fortress to control the border between Florence and Siena.” Today there are just four families living within the historic perimeter of the castello, but back in the day, around a dozen would have occupied it — their lives devoted to tending the terraced vines and olive trees, and serving the community through odd jobs such as masonry, woodworking and eventually welding.

“We have, all around us, woods. And they keep Castello di Lamole up, against erosion. You see [the forest] is like a big hug for us, to protect us from any contamination and the heating of summer.”
Susanna Grassi
Winemaker, I Fabbri

“We have, all around us, woods,” Susanna said with a grand, sweeping gesture of her arms. “And they keep Castello di Lamole up, against erosion.”

Nothing can match the root structures of a forest for guarding against gravity, but ancient terraces are a close second. Made with dry-stone masonry and so old they look woven into the landscape — knitted together by moss, grass and the fibrous roots of plants — the terraces curtail erosion and make agriculture in Lamole possible. “We have to really thank our predecessors, because they are built in an excellent way,” Susanna said.

Of Chianti Classico’s 11 designated terroir zones, Lamole is perhaps the most distinctive geographically, with the highest elevation and some of the steepest terrain. This leads to one of the most particular wine profiles as well: Sangiovese with a fragile falsetto voice. The power of clay, the richness of living “under the Tuscan sun”— that’s not found here. Instead, Lamole’s wines speak of mountain wind, cold nights and toil.

But on this fine February morning, Lamole is speaking in different tongues, namely the gurgling of roadside springs — a unique feature of this zone — and a chorus of bird song. The melodies of warblers and robins are so profuse in Lamole, they make the morning songs at Volpaia seem like a simple vocal warm-up.

Because of its unique attributes and outstanding heritage, Lamole is protected by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, not only for the landscape’s attributes, according to Susanna, but for “the practice of how we cultivate. Like in the past, we cannot use mechanization in this kind of vineyard. Everything is done manually.”

She explained to me that just 10 percent of Lamole is cultivated, the remainder locked away as woods. “You see it is like a big hug for us, to protect us from any contamination and the heating of summer,” she said, noting that the cool ambient temperatures of the forest sculpt the tasting notes of Lamole Chianti Classico.

As we climbed the road for an overview of Lamole, I got a sense for the driving force that preserves Lamole’s unique character: Lamole itself. My calves were burning from the steep pitches, and over a mere one kilometer walk along the roadway, we covered three hairpin turns. This rugged and mountainous place was never going to be anything other than itself.

View of the Lamole landscape in Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy.
The steep slopes and forest of Lamole have more in common with mountain viticulture than most other places producing wine in Tuscany. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Nonetheless, the legal protections are a necessity. In order to remove forest for new vineyard plantings, a producer needs to prove that the parcel of land has been cultivated in the past. At the dawn of World War II, Susanna said, Lamole had roughly 900 residents. But the post-war industrialization and rebuilding of urban centers, mixed with the end of the mezzadria sharecropping system, drained the Tuscan countryside of its population. This was acutely felt in Lamole, which today has a population of only 88.

The upshot is that numerous terraces for vines and olives were abandoned and overtaken by woods. Clearing this plant growth and reclaiming the terraces for production has become economically imperative — something Susanna knows well.

From an overlook, she described a small vineyard she replanted two years ago, whose tiny vines were not yet visible from our distance. Susanna went through the formal procedure to reclaim that land, using aerial photos from the 1950s that she located in a local archive to prove the precedent for cultivation on that singular plot. Her request was accepted.

“I always say, ‘Lamole is a particular place.’ You need to enter very peacefully, because it is a place that needs a lot of respect.”
Susanna Grassi

In recent years, Lamole has seen the spotlight shine on its tilted slopes. “A lot of producers are now looking for a small vineyard in Lamole, but you know the surface is really limited here. Plus, it is not easy, because we are far away. You need to have organization, the vines with the terraces and the steep situation — it is not for everybody. I always say, ‘Lamole is a particular place.’ You need to enter very peacefully, because it is a place that needs a lot of respect.”

That feeling of respect is what brought Susanna back to Lamole in the first place, and it inspired her to play a key role in its renaissance.

Grape farming has been a proud tradition for the Grassi family since 1620 — a viticultural lineage that is older than Chianti Classico itself. The family also provided blacksmith services for generations, which is why Susanna chose the name I Fabbri, Italian for “The Smiths.”

Her great-grandfather, Olinto, had been the first to estate-bottle the family’s wines in the 1920s, a trailblazing endeavor in a time when rural Chianti was still very poor and remote. As we gather in a small, rustically atmospheric living space inside the castello to taste, Susanna shows me Olinto’s original label, lovingly placed in a scrapbook. It is nearly identical to the current label she uses for her annual Chianti Classico, a gloriously retro label with a jagged red-and-white pattern and “Proprietà Olinto Grassi e Figlio” stamped in the middle. It is one of my favorite throwback labels in all of Italy: 100% Sangiovese, yes, but also, 100% nostalgia.

The estate would pass from Olinto to his son Roberto, who would opt for selling the grapes rather than bottled wine — a decision in line with the economics of the day. And Roberto’s son (Susanna’s father), Giuliano, would pursue engineering for a career despite his passion for the family business and land. Again: the economics of the time.

Collage of photos from I Fabbri winery in Lamole Chianti Classico with winemaker Susanna Grassi
Olinto Grassi pictured in an archival photo album with the label he inspired (far left); winemaker Susanna Grassi; the woods and steepness define Lamole’s landscape more than vineyards do. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Susanna would find her way into the fashion industry, working in Florence, Milan and Como with such brands as Dolce & Gabbana and Versace. However, she always felt the pull of Lamole, and in 2000, she committed to her heritage and returned to the overgrown vineyards, forming I Fabbri. This was not a move of disillusionment with the fashion industry (in fact, she continued to work in fashion for three more years). Rather, it was a vision of where she wanted to take her life forward.

“We work with nature. We are artisans. But, you know, we also need to survive and have some [business] education. We cannot just write poetry.”
Susanna Grassi

She still sees fashion as a vital stepping stone for realizing her dream business, particularly when it comes to understanding customers.“We work with nature. We are artisans,” she said of her winemaking profession. “But, you know, we also need to survive and have some [business] education. We cannot just write poetry.”

Of course, Lamole was the furthest thing on the map from “fashionable” in 2000. The kind of wines celebrated and lauded internationally at the time — ripe, rich, jammy — were of a nature Lamole could never achieve. “[Lamole was] considered absolutely out of the market,” Susanna said.

Sometimes business sense is less about satisfying immediate customer needs, and more about seizing the trends when they invariably pivot towards you. But while tasting her wines, I got a strong feeling that something beyond trendiness was at work.

Because of its steepness, its forests, its isolation — and because of Sangiovese’s ability to transmit this terroir — Lamole’s Chianti Classico cannot be anything other than Lamole Chianti Classico. Wines that taste as though they can only come from a specific place may be what customers demand now, but there is also a timelessness to a “sense of place” that will endure any market force. It is the very thing that makes wine so compelling and different from all other beverages.

The wine that seemed to demonstrate this best in that tiny room was the 2020 Chianti Classico Riserva, a vintage which marked the 400th anniversary of the family’s viticultural heritage. In the hills of Chianti Classico, Sangiovese typically conveys four elements: a cherry-fruit core, savory and herbal edges, as well as a citric quality that dashes across the palate. The 2020 Riserva showed Sangiovese’s fruit stripped down to its lithest of forms, and replacing the textural void of fruit flesh was a stony quality that created mystery, subtlety and persistence.

As we wrapped up, I asked Susanna about the community of winegrowers in Lamole — eight producers in all within the local association — and if they work together to support each other’s operations.

Si, si, si,” she said enthusiastically. “There is a nice feeling between us. But you know, because Lamole is trendy now, we have to understand how to protect each other, too. We have been here when nobody wished to be here, and we have worked so hard to bring Lamole to life again. We have a strong identity that we want to maintain. If a [new] producer arrives here, and they are very silent and ask permission, then they understand. That is the right way. But we have to pay attention.”

As I drove away to my last appointment, the winter sun caught Lamole’s vineyards just right, casting the formerly drab tones of sleeping forest and timeless terraces in a new vivacity. A simple rain shower down the road seemed to usher in spring, and I soon found myself in San Donato in Poggio at Castello di Monsanto, where preservation takes on an entirely different meaning — one you can drink decades later.

Il Poggio vineyard at Castello di Monsanto in Chianti Classico, Italy.
The Il Poggio vineyard crowns a hill and benefits from aspects facing all cardinal directions. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Castello di Monsanto: Ageless Wonder

If Chianti Classico’s surface is about the past, its pulse beats for the future.

Along that rain-spattered drive, it had finally occurred to me why the heart of Chianti Classico holds such a strong grip on my imagination. It is easy to fall in love with “the other Tuscany” — the Duomo of Firenze, the Palio of Siena, the expansiveness of Val d’Orcia — to the point that it can feel like a polished stone in your hand: beautiful, but worn by tourism and attention. Yet the mountains of Chianti’s heart are still a rugged place with spooky-looking trees and little softness to the mise-en-scene. This is not the fantasy of Tuscany, as much as it is the hardened soul of it. It is the scenery of endurance. The stone walls holding things up, the seemingly impenetrable forests, the harmony of the color palette — they all speak to longevity despite the odds. As visitors, we often forget the turmoil and poverty of the past given this moment of plenty, but like wrinkles on a face, Chianti Classico wears its tribulations with a resolute grace. It cannot lie about the past.

My final winery visit that day was with a family who exuded a complementary quality to this endurance: prescience. If Chianti Classico’s surface is about the past, its pulse beats for the future.

In 1961, a successful textile mogul named Aldo Bianchi bought Castello di Monsanto in the enclave of San Donato in Poggio. The 18th century “hunting house” plays loosely with the term castle. A three-story, rectangular manor house crowning a hill, it boasts a feature that recalls the defensive postures of the past: a single crenelated turret disrupting the roofline. Was it designed for defense or simply for presiding over one’s wealth of land? For Aldo Bianchi, his 20th century motive was simple: he just wanted to be closer to his hometown, the nearby medieval masterpiece of San Gimignano, which can be seen from the top.

Bianchi knew little about wine, but his wife, Anna, was from a wine family in Piedmont’s Colli Tortonesi, and her passion imbued their son, Fabrizio, who soon took an interest in making Castello di Monsanto a winery worthy of international attention.

Laura Bianchi — Fabrizio’s daughter and the current proprietor of the property — told me the family tale as we strolled over a gravel road leading to the crest of Il Poggio, the estate’s famous hilltop vineyard. Over one day and three wineries, I heard this parallel narrative in one form or another: a family with roots in Tuscany heads to Northern Italy to seize economic opportunity and experience only to return to Chianti Classico with new ambition, focus and renewed passion.

“The real love for wine was transmitted to my father by my grandma,” Laura said. “She is the one who had the mentality of Piedmont.”

Wine in Piedmont in the 1960s was a far cry from its present-day world-beater status, but even then, there was a heightened awareness of the quality winemaking techniques being used by the French, thanks to the region’s Savoy past. This included a focus on the terroir of single vineyards, which today is best exemplified by Barolo’s cru system.

Tuscan wine, however, was a far cry from what it is now. Often a blend of red and white grapes from various and divergent vineyards, it was frequently bottled in mass quantities and sold in bulk. The mezzadria system — essentially sharecropping — continued to define how agricultural products in Tuscany were tended, harvested and sold. Because of how it reinforced poverty and stagnated upward mobility, the system would eventually be outlawed, but not until 1964. So, when the Bianchi family took over Castello di Monsanto, vines across Chianti Classico had been trained for the economically functional purposes of the system — that is, volume instead of quality.

However, when he uncorked bottles found laying in the castle, Fabrizio tasted something different. These wines weren’t the substandard juice you put into a fiasco bottle. He sensed a certain character that must have been coming from Monsanto’s vineyards. What he tasted he interpreted as potential, which inspired a vision for Castello di Monsanto’s future: a winery founded on not just age-worthy Chianti Classico, but a showcase of a singular terroir over time.

And that terroir was simply called Il Poggio — “the hill” in local dialect.

Castello di Monsanto and its proprietor Laura Bianchi with Giulia Cecchi, her daughter.
Castello di Monsanto amidst the cypress trees; proprietor Laura Bianchi with her daughter, Giulia Cecchi. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Laura and I followed a road whose surface functioned as an X-ray of Il Poggio’s rocky galestro soil — a flaky mix of layered shale. From the very beginning, Il Poggio has been vinified separately as a single-vineyard wine — the first such wine in Chianti Classico. Why? With its four aspects facing all directions, as well as that stony soil, Il Poggio lends a uniquely even-handed expression of Sangiovese year after year, but with its own distinct hallmark: a strong sense of dried orange peel in the glass. Because of that tell, Il Poggio is one of a kind — a wine that doesn’t hide in a lineup of other Chianti Classico.

“Our Sangiovese just needs more time.”
Laura Bianchi

From a triangular-shaped platform in Il Poggio’s heart, Laura and I surveyed the surrounding landscape. There was San Gimignano with its medieval towers and the mountain of Montenidoli beyond. There were the hills surrounding distant Volterra and even the ridges separating us from Bolgheri and the Tuscan Coast.

Wind, Laura noted, is vital to Il Poggio’s terroir, as it rides in from the northwest and freshens the vines, preventing mildew and rot. Adjacent forest — that enduring trait of Chianti Classico, as symbolic as the Gallo Nero emblem — modulates temperatures and keeps the grape clusters from overripening during the hottest days of late August and September.

While that microclimate ensures freshness, it also seems to embed a complexity of character into each grape berry. “Our Sangiovese just needs more time,” Laura said, perhaps echoing her piemontesi ancestors a little bit. To that aim, her father hatched plans for an extensive wine cellar to stash roughly 10% of production annually. The problem? Castello di Monsanto didn’t come with a cellar. He’d have to build one.

Standing there overlooking the fabric of the land, it became clear why one would move heaven and earth to put all of this in a time capsule for future generations. And, as if on cue, Laura’s daughter — Giulia Cecchi — arrived to join our tour of that cellar Fabrizio eventually had built.

We walked from Il Poggio past the vin santaie where the family’s Sangiovese-based Vin Santo del Chianti Classico Occhio di Pernice undergoes its patient transformation. Per the regulations, this air-dried dessert wine must age for 3 years, of which 24 months must be in caratelli barrels — tiny oak casks that are sealed with wax and left undisturbed until the final moment.

“We are a little crazy with vin santo,” Laura said, once again underscoring the family’s patience. “We age them 16 to 17 years before opening the barrels.” In other words, before it is even put in the bottle, the Bianchi family’s vin santo could apply for a driver’s license.

It has always struck me as perplexing how someone could take on such a financial commitment — waiting more than a decade to realize revenue on a 375 mL bottle — but before I could formulate the question, we entered the gallery entrance to the cellar, where the Bianchi family’s idea of preservation efforts rendered my question moot.

Scenes from the expansive underground wine cellar at Castello di Monsanto in Chianti Classico, Tuscany.
The vaulted cellar of Castello di Monsanto houses one of the largest private collections of wine in all of Europe. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

“How this gallery was built, it is part of our philosophy: To preserve the old way of working without always having a ‘ready-by’ date. To have patience.”
Laura Bianchi

“How this gallery was built, it is part of our philosophy,” Laura said as we passed underneath the first archway. “To preserve the old way of working without always having a ‘ready-by’ date. To have patience.”

Nearly 20 years after the family established the winery, ground broke on a proper aging cellar beneath Castello di Monsanto. Once excavation was complete in 1986, the Bianchi family did things the Chianti way: they hired three local masons to lay every stone by hand.

In a nod to Tuscany’s past, the masons employed temporary wooden arches to hold the stones in the form of an Etruscan arch along the entire 300-meter length of the vault. All of the stones came from the local vineyards. Considering these traits, the feat accomplished by the three masons is nothing short of miraculous, especially when you learn of their age.

“They were 70 years old when they started,” Laura told me. She pointed to an inscription over the first archway with the date 7-8-1986 etched in stone, and three names: Giotto Cicionesi, Mario Secci and Romolo Bartalesi. “They worked for us for many years renovating the castle, the other houses and then we decided to create this gallery. They say ‘okay, let’s start. Let’s see if we will finish.’” And then — as though the marvel of it all still astonishes her — Laura laughed: “And they did.”

Laura Bianchi, Giulia Cecchi and a bottle of 1969 Castello di Monsanto Il Poggio Chianti Classico, south of Florence, Italy.
Inside the cellar at Castello di Monsanto, and one of its treasures, the 1969 “Il Poggio” Chianti Classico. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

By 1992, the Bianchi family finally had their proper cellar, and today it holds one of the largest archives of wine in Europe. Towards the hallways’ terminus, alcoves for each family member are separated by gates with their name forged in iron — a collection of birth vintages locked away for the future. Together with Giulia, we take a peek at her stockpile of the 1994 vintage and laugh at how the iron spelling Giulia on the gate was installed backwards: “The carpenter must have been drunk,” Giulia said.

“My grandmother started this tradition,” Laura added. “And there is a rule that the kids cannot open the gate before they are 25 years old, because otherwise they won’t appreciate the gift.”

In another alcove, the 1962 Il Poggio lies under a sheen of dust — still dozens of bottles preserving a moment when the climate and the economy of Tuscany were very different.

Later, in the tasting room, I am honored with a sip of the 1969 Il Poggio Chianti Classico. Its orange-zest character and lively acidity are as unassailable as the 2019 I tasted moments before. An incredible core of energy hums through the middle, holding on to lovely, focused and fascinating traits of bitter black chocolate and leather — the only signs I see of its ample age. For me, this is the justification for all the labor, toil, risk and hardship involved with the preservation of wine, but I ask Laura and Giulia anyways: what do they hope future generations will learn from these old bottles? In other words, what’s the point of all this effort?

“Do you feel the energy of this terroir? It’s in the glass,” Giulia said. “And to show the aging potential of Sangiovese. It’s magical in a way. I hope people will understand the incredible value of the terroir.”

“I hope that future generations, through the tasting of the older vintages, can sense all the culture that is behind a bottle of wine,” Laura added. “All the philosophy, study, thinking, and vision that a bottle of wine needs to have behind it. By tasting older vintages, you can really tell a story.”

She then paused and thought about these preservation efforts a little longer. “No, it is not just ‘I will tell you our story.’ It is ‘I will offer a taste of our story.’”

Red Corkscrew Illustration ©Opening a Bottle

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A Note About the Word Chianti

To alleviate confusion as much as possible, I use the term Chianti Classico here to describe both the wine as well as the sanctioned area where the wine is produced, even though the world outside of the wine industry — namely tourism — refers to the hills between Florence and Siena as just Chianti. “Classico” is often appended to a wine region to indicate “from the historic heart,” which is why I occasionally say “the historic heart of Chianti” when referring to this area.

As it relates to wine, “Chianti” by itself is a separate chain of nearby wine regions that emulated the winemaking formula created in the Chianti Classico area, which is why I’ve largely avoided the term. Learn more about the fascinating history of Chianti and Chianti Classico with the article linked below.

History of Chianti Classico

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