"It will only take 15 seconds." We follow the shaggy grandson of the Francesco Illy who in 1933 founded Illy caffé, into the kitchen of his Tuscan house and watch as he selects one of a battery of five different machines – "Yes, I use them all but this one’s faster."
We’re in Montalcino in the week of the release of the 2011 Brunellos, and Illy has just held the official opening of his new cellar. It’s a beautiful snail-shell-like construction that was made by laying 750,000 bricks, echoes the Pantheon in Rome and uses the proportions of the golden mean, a ratio that dates back at least to Pythagoras and is believed to underpin the structure both of ferns and financial markets.
The Trieste-raised Italian, who now works for the family business in Switzerland, bought the Podere le Ripi estate here in 1998. From the building of the cellar to the planting of the vines, he has been doing things differently from the locals ever since. And the story of how he came to be here is unusual, too.
The winery was built using the golden mean principle, which appears in ancient structures such as Stonehenge and the Pyramids
Illy in a vineyard where he is experimenting with permaculture
In 2003, a super-hot year throughout Europe, when many of his grapes were so raisined as to be unsaleable, Illy decided to have a bash at vinifying them himself, producing a small quantity – just two barrels – of "extremely good" sweet wine. "This kind of made me a winemaker, because the attraction was very strong to the vertical experience of preparing the soil, growing the grapes, making and then finally drinking the wine. It brings you into a rapport with the land."
That was the turning point, but Illy had already been very hands-on with the viticulture. Planting vines at higher density (in terms of the number of plants per hectare) is already fashionable among producers of higher quality wine. Illy got the idea from a visit to Burgundy where he was told he’d have to wait 35 years before the vines produced decent wine. "I asked myself, shall I wait until I’m 90?" and began to increase the density of his own plantings. "It obliges the roots to go deeper, more quickly, which means they get the benefit of the minerals in different geological layers."
The cellar also has a built-in sundial – a hole through which a shaft of light will fall every day when the sun is at its zenith. On average it means that sun will strike stone at noon and 13 minutes and 14 seconds. It is built in continuous descent – there are almost no flat floors until you reach the bottom, just a gently descending spiral passageway. A further peculiarity is that Illy was insistent that the construction contain no steel girders or metal bottle-storage cases, on the grounds that, "metal creates a Faraday cage and this creates very weak electricity and a very weak magnetic field. I asked a doctor if doing this" – he touches a leg very gently with his fingertip – "continuously for five years would hurt and he said, 'Well it’s going to give you an injury.' It’s the same with the wine."
Illy is ambitious for his wines. At her own estate, his girlfriend, Stella di Campalto, makes some of the best in Montalcino but his wine role models are further afield: he cites Guigal from the Rhône and talks a lot about Vega Sicilia, the Spanish icon from Ribera del Duero. Now those are big wines: Vega Sicilia’s Unico sees a lot of oak and long ageing before its release. Illy says that he wants to release his wines ever later, and certainly later than is traditional in Montalcino, where Brunello is released more than four years after the harvest.
It has a built in sundial, through which a shaft of light falls every day when the sun is at its zenith.
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