Golden Cellar: chasing harmony

A cellar built using only ancient construction techniques; from the relations among spatial dimensions, strictly following the Golden Ratio, to the use of natural clay bricks and a mortar made of lime. This building chases harmony and that’s given in return to the wine during its refining here for the first years of its life.

The Golden Cellar of Podere le Ripi

1:1,618033, this ratio is considered magical and has been used in architecture since 1500 BC, when Stonehenge was built. We can find it in the Athens’ Parthenon, as well as in Leonardo da Vinci’s art and even in the recent United Nations Secretariat Building in New York.

Furthermore, we can also find this ratio in the DNA molecules or in the shape of the spiral galaxies: I would say this a divine number and I consider it as a harmony bearer. That’s why I decided to build my cellar by meticulously following this model.

Ernesto Illy, Golden Cellar Architect

My son Ernesto Illy, who is an architect, realized the final project: it took 7 years for it to be designed and developed, and one more just for the authorization, since the jurisdiction in charge wanted to consult with the University of Florence to validate the cellar’s executive computations.

At a later stage, after 4 years, more than 750.000 bricks had been manually laid down only using a mortar made of lime, building without any contemporary design ideas; in other words, we wanted to avoid using cement because, in our humble opinion, it doesn’t “breathe” properly.

Podere Le Ripi Golden Cellar in Montalcino

Moreover, we decided to avoid iron scaffolds not to create Faraday cages that, due to their electrical continuity, produce magnetic fields which would negatively influence the natural field of the soil on which the cellar has been built. Between the day in which we started thinking and imagining our cellar and 2015 (the year of its inauguration), 12 years have passed overall. It was totally worth it, because anybody who now enters this wine cathedral can strongly perceive the intense harmony that it radiates; and I know that even my wines can feel it.

At the beginning we were thinking about using cement...

because in the distant 2003, year of our first harvest, we were already conceiving - more than planning – our cellar at Podere Le Ripi’s. Back then, Ernesto was twenty years old and was still waiting to graduate at University, and the preliminary sketches of the architects were based on contemporary construction solutions: reinforced concrete, and that was all.

... but then the encounter with history came.

One day Peter Mittelberger, our trustworthy cooper master, brought me near Bozen to visit a client who was starting the construction works to extend his cellar. Ingaz Neidrist welcomed us while he was slaking lime.

He was pouring water inside a bucket filled with white rounded river rocks. They were overheating and producing steam clouds. He explained that the lime was necessary to wall up and then he said: “You know, here we are in a very closed farmstead.

This place has been entrusted, generation after generation, to the most capable son or daughter, in order to be led on for the next decades. I am building only using bio-architecture, because I abhor the idea that in a few decades or centuries one of my heirs could think about the terrible job I made. For this reason, I pay close attention and put love in what I do: in the centuries to come they will remember me as the one that enhanced things rather than worsening them with the technology of his generation.”

A sudden vision.

That quote was enough to understand that my future cellar would’ve been lasting longer than I would! In the blink of an eye, I had made Ignaz’s concept completely mine.

The original idea of my wine cellar started to change: from a three-leveled reinforced concrete cellar, we started thinking about the longest phase at Le Ripi, the ageing of the wine in oak.

In fact, aging wine in Montalcino can take up to 6 years. It should occur in an environment which is free from both negative influences and the magnetic fields contained in the iron of reinforced concrete.

Moreover, during our decision-making journey, which lasted for years and involved my son Ernesto and Marco Pasqui, we reached a final idea: a cellar built following a never-ending slope.

Fermentation was to be realised in the highest part, while the bottling line and the ageing area were in the lowest, allowing us to do all the pouring just by gravity, comfortably moving the tanks up and down with a forklift.

I remember that Marco Pasqui had also made a Styrofoam scale model with 2 meters in diameter: the Dome was in the middle, resembling the Pantheon in Rome, and it was enveloped by a vaulted tunnel all around for about 2 turns.

That scale model convinced us to follow exactly that idea.

What if history rejects me?

While the project was taking shape and we were waiting for the license, I was just worried about one thing: “Will I be remembered as the only idiot who has ever conceived a downhill cellar?”

We were about to begin the excavations and I was expressing my doubts to Maurizio Anselmi, the friend who has always solved my problems. He was waiting to begin constructions with the bulldozers and commented: “On paper, it looks like the gradients will allow us to work, but let's see what happens in practice. By Saturday, you’ll be shaping a piece of the ramp on the ground and I’ll be creating the slope with the excavator”.

Easier said than done? On that beautiful September's Saturday, before noon, we were already trying the movement with the forklift, up and down the ramp. I do not think that I would have had the audacity to realise the cellar without that proof.

Eureka!

From the digging to the foundations

It took almost one year to move the 15.000 square meters of dirt, where now our Bonsai vines are growing.

My childhood dreams of steering a dumper with six driving wheels and digging with a 30 tons’ Caterpillar became true. Hours and hours were spent in digging: I was having fun while saving on manpower.
In the end a big hammer was needed, because at 10 meters depth the soil is so compact that not even the brutal grab of the Caterpillar 300 could move it. Nevertheless, the authorities imposed on us a basement made of… reinforced concrete! Exactly what I wanted to avoid and that was not even necessary. “Seismic area”: that’s what they had been repeating to us.
At the same time, I was telling everybody: “Do you see all these castles around here? If this is really a seismic area, how many times should have they been rebuilt? They have been here since 1200 BC”.
However, before the law you can do nothing but being wrong, and I had to use reinforced concrete foundations.
Yet, we did not give up and we excogitated a trick to avoid the magnetic fields: we connected the iron wires of the reinforced concrete with some duct tape and plastic strapping, interrupting electrical continuity. Later on, we verified with a tester that no electrical fluxes were passing through a wire and the other.

Eureka!

The laying of the first brick

Golden Cellar construction

Beppe Vargas hammered a pole in the centre of the clearing and pulled an iron wire 13 meters and 22 centimeters long: he named it “the compass”.

He poured the lime mortar on the concrete foundations and laid down the first brick.
Afterwards he measured the distance with the compass, so it was equal in both extremities of the brick: I will never forget it!
The cellar was finally being built. We started with the walls and then the centrings made of polystyrene, sustaining the vault.

Little by little the tunnel was being developed, one meter a day... when we were lucky.

The Pantheon

The Golden Cellar construction in Montalcino countryside

When the walls reached the planned height, Beppe Vargas started walling up a 6 meters radius dome.

He came up with a stroke of genius I did not expect: he planted a 10m tall steel shaft again in the centre of the building.
At a later stage, using some ball bearings, he created another compass with the same bending radius of the dome. Imagine a thin curved pole, slightly touching the wall to be raised and reaching every single brick.
With this compass he could reach every single point and easily determine where every brick should be laid down.
There was a hidden beauty in seeing all those bricklayers pulling the compass for all the circumference of the dome, while six or seven of them were laying the bricks down in different areas.

Much harmony and a kind of magic spread clearly from the rhythm of the work and everyone could feel it.

The cellar starts to work

Golden cellar montalcino: the cellar start to work

With the harvest 2015 the cellar started to work: this was more than an exceptional year.

The weather was simply perfect. It was hot when needed and it rained the right amount of water when the soil became too dry. I welcomed this gift of Nature as a sign of good auspice for this new cellar.
The workers told me they worked very well there. On one hand, it seemed uncomfortable because it was downhill, but on the other hand it looked practical, as we had everything at our fingertips, and we could pour without using pumps. I feel they were happy to work in such a magical and harmonic environment.

Also our guests, joining numerously, feel this harmony almost by instinct. When reaching the Pantheon many of them remain enchanted by its shape and by its perfect acoustics. This is, in fact, a gift of Nature that we did not forecast while making the project.

The harmony... the music

Podere le Ripi winery in Montalcino Golden cellar interior

One day Marco Geronimi and his son came into the Pantheon and they started singing a Baroque chant: their voice gave us goosebumps because it was reinforced by the echo inside the Pantheon

For this reason, I decided to call my friend Mauro Clementi, a specialist in sound systems. He creates loudspeakers of a fine quality: we also have a new project together.
I want a loudspeaker made by Mauro in the centre of the Pantheon, as to spread the finest Classical music. As the experiment made by Masaru Emoto demonstrates, water is sensible to music.

Wine, since it is made mostly by water, will then become even more harmonious.

Of the beauty and the richness of the poverty

Podere le Ripi winery, view of Montalcino vineyards

Visiting ancient sites, also in this region, I observed always the same thing: the poorer the men, the more they used to gain in return in terms of time

And they dedicated this time to beautify things around, such as houses, churches and villages. If you pay attention to every token of the past, from the houses of the farmers to cathedrals, you will see that this concept repeats itself. I call it "the richness of the poverty", intending the capacity to invest time in creating beauty.
At Le Ripi we were lucky: in the first years, the investments made into the vineyards and the refurbishment had not permitted to invest into the cellar. We needed to wait. During this time span, 7 years long, we were able to examine the project in deep and we reached the final idea of a cathedral dedicated to wine. If the circumstances had been different, we probably would have had a cellar in reinforced concrete.
As we were forced to be thrifty, our choices had to be more accurate and this cellar has eventually costed slightly less than the same surface in cement.

This project can leave a proof for whoever wants to build in the future, and it represents a pretty simple teaching: a very slow and scrutinized preparation of a project permits to build in bio-architecture with limited costs. As a result, you obtain an outcome to be proud of.

The Harvest

We harvest the grapes by hand,

then put them in baskets in the early morning to bring them fresh to the cellar. The western side is normally harvested around the second/to the third week of September, whereas the eastern side around the first week of October. Sometimes the fog forces us to wait because of too much dew that moists the grapes. We halt until it evaporates and then we harvest as fast as possible: we do not want our grapes to warm up under the sun. We try to gather in two different stages: first the ripe grapes and a few days later the ones that aren’t ripe yet. Nevertheless, the yield is very poor, 3.000 kilograms per hectare, and the maturation is almost uniform throughout the plants. If some grapes are slightly ahead in the maturation process, they will bring the most sugars and tannins. Whereas the slightly less ripe ones will balance out with great acidity and big aromas.
We must be most careful about the completely unripe grapes, which give wine bitter tannins also known as "green tannins". They release into the wine a rougher and greenish sensation. For this reason, I always fight against the weather: we need to be brave and wait. In September and October, it is common to see the weather getting worse and be obliged to wait until the plants fully absorb the rain. But we know very well that if the grapes are not perfectly ripe we will make defective wines. And so, we must gather some courage!

Sorting the grapes

Our pickers harvest only the best bunches... but some blemishes are less visible, and they can always be present.

In our estate, we decided to introduce the manual selection: six to ten people check every single bunch to get rid of the flaws. Some grapes are too ripe, others are unripe, others could show small blemishes: with more than twenty eyes sorting bunch by bunch, we can be sure that all the clusters reaching the destemmer will be perfect.
I learned this from my father, who decided in 1968 to create a machine able to pinpoint every defect present in the green coffee before it got toasted. He said: "You will never be able to create excellence if you accept compromises with the perfection of your raw materials".
As for the coffee, so it is for the wine.

Montalcino wines harvest at Podere Le Ripi

Vinification

All of our wines are the outcome of very slow fermentation processes, which last up to 2 months. They occur in conic-shaped big Vosgi barrels or used tonneaux. The different indigenous yeast groups alternate depending on the seasons, performing between the 95-98% of the fermentation in the beginning months. In some instances, they work alongside the occurrence of the malolactic fermentation. The following spring the strongest yeast will complete its job once awakened from the warm weather after the cold winter. During the primary fermentation, the grapes (and therefore the must) are subjected to slow macerations, periodical manual pump-overs, and open-barrel punching downs. Nothing is added to the wine besides small amounts of sulfites. Our recently-fermented Sangiovese shows all of its nervousness and unpredictability. Many producers wouldn’t hesitate to dominate its natural character/instinct and therefore intervene, but only our experience and trust in our vineyards allow us to be sure that everything is going to go according to plan…and we know is only a matter of waiting.

Montalcino Wine aeging in the Golden Cellar

Ageing

All of our wines, once fermented in oak and racked, begin their journey inside big vosgi barrels. Such a journey may last up to 36 months, during which the wine completes its micro fermentations and integrates its most ethereal characteristics. In a nutshell, inside during this time the wine is in the pursuit of harmony. All we do is trying not to disturb it too much, by avoiding further racking (max. once a year) adding sulfites which might negatively affect the aging process which should be as linear as it can be. The wine goes through periods of reduction or re-fermentation, but we are not scared by it, actually, this is what helps to maintain that energy and vitality which makes the difference after 5 years. When tasting the wine we realize that we are close to the “peak” of its harmony, we move each batch inside concrete vats (free from any fiber-glass) which ensures microoxygenation, indispensable for producing a great sangiovese. At this point, the wine slows down and deposits the sediments for about 6 to 12 months. Once we decide that the wine is ready, is a matter of waiting for the right moon and bottling the wine using gravitational flow.

Being able to age using both bigger barrels and concrete vats is crucial to adapt to wines’ personalities and vintages – which range from having a delicate feminine balance in colder vintages and will, therefore, spend longer time inside concrete vats to warmer vintages that are richer and need longer time in wooden barrels.

Podere Le Ripi's Montalcino wines refining in the bottle

Refinement in the bottle

The last step, before the wine is sold on the market, is the refinement in the bottle, which can take up more than one and a half years.

When the wine is bottled, sometimes we say that it is “longing for the oak”. The original harmony seems lost and the wine becomes rude and rough: you will never be able to recognize it, even if you had tried that same wine from the barrel just a week before. I believe that the wine is a living entity: it needs to adapt to the loss of the freedom to move around it had inside the big casks, which is somehow shocking. Sometimes it takes more than one year before we can say “this is exactly the moment in which I can start to label and sell the wine”. Furthermore, the longer it stays in the bottle, the more refined it will be.

Over time, thanks to the evolution of the tannins and the molecular bonds formed in the bottle, the wine will become rounder and velvetier in the palate. The aromas become ripe, the olfactory complexity increases and the body improves, getting finer and more elegant.