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 for the bricks and a mortar made of lime, without suing reinforced concrete. This building chases harmony which is given back to the wine during its refining here during the first years of its life. A unique and alive cellar.

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.

We encounter this ratio even in nature: like DNA’s elliptic form or the spiral shape of galaxies: I would say this is a divine number and I consider it as being 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 another year for the approval alone, seen that this was a very ambitious project to be built without reinforced concrete.

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 using ancient bricklaying techniques.

Podere Le Ripi Golden Cellar in Montalcino

We decided to avoid iron scaffolds by removing 90% of the reinforced concrete, 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.

Therefore, we believed that by eliminating concrete, we would have avoided building something incapable of breathing properly and that wouldn’t have welcomed the soil’s rhythms. It is as if we’ve asked ourselves  “what would the wine want?”. Does it rather rest in a modern building made of iron scaffolds, or does it want to feel welcomed in a small temple built with natural materials, an incubator ready to host life (wine’s life) surrounded by harmonic shapes and great energy?


Between the day in which we started thinking and imagining our cellar and 2015 (the year of its inauguration), 12 years have passed. It was worth it, because anyone who now enters this wine cathedral can perceive the intense harmony that it radiates; and I know that even my wines feel it too.

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

…because in the distant 2003, year of our first harvest, we were already fantasizing about - more than planning – our cellar in Podere Le Ripi. 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 it.

… but then the encounter with history happened.

One day Peter Mittelberger, our trustworthy cask master, brought me near Bozen to visit a client who was starting the construction works to extend his own 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 steamy clouds. He explained that the lime was necessary to wall up and then he said: “You know, here we are in a very closed system:

This place has been entrusted, generation after generation, to the most capable successor (son or daughter) in order to be led on for the next decades. I am building only using bio-architecture because I despise the idea that in a few decades or centuries one of my heirs could think about the terrible job I’ve 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 lasted longer than I would! And just like that, 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.

It should occur in an environment free from both negative influences and magnetic fields contained in the iron of reinforced concrete.

Moreover, during our decision-making process, which lasted for years and involved my son Ernesto and Marco Pasqui, we reached a final idea: a cellar developed on a downward slope, to exploit its natural inclination.

Fermentation was to be held at the highest point of the slope, while the bottling line and the aging area were at the lowest, allowing us to do all the racking of the wine by gravity: good old gravitational flow.

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 testing the movement with the forklift, up and down the ramp. I do not think that I would have had the audacity to build the cellar without that test.

From the digging to the foundations

It took almost one year to move the 15.000 square meters of soil...

My childhood dream of steering a dumper with six driving wheels and digging with a 30 tons Caterpillar became true.
The authorities tried to impose 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 be wrong, and I had to use reinforced concrete foundations.
Yet, we did not give up and we thought up a plan to avoid magnetic fields: we connected the iron wires of the reinforced concrete with duct tape and plastic strapping, thus interrupting electrical continuity. Subsequently, we verified with a tester that no electrical fluxes were passing from wire to wire.


The laying of the first brick

Golden Cellar construction

Beppe Vargas hammered a pole in the center of the cellar “square” and pulled from there 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.
Then, 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 under construction. We started with the walls and then the arching made of Styrofoam, sustaining the vault.

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

The Pantheon

The The Golden Cellar construction in Montalcino countryside 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 that only a craftsman’s mind could conceive: he planted a 10m tall steel shaft at the center 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 around the entire circumference of the dome, while six or seven of them were laying the bricks down in different areas.

Golden cellar montalcino: the cellar start to work

Podere le Ripi winery in Montalcino Golden cellar interior

The wealth of poverty

Podere le Ripi winery, view of Montalcino vineyards

When visiting ancient sites, I often observed the same situation: the poorer the men, the more they gain in terms of time

And it seems to me that men from the past, men of this region, dedicated their time to beautifying things around them, such as houses, churches, and villages. If you pay attention to every sign from the past, from houses of farmers to cathedrals, you will see how this concept repeats itself. I call it “the wealth of poverty”, what I mean by it is the people’s ability to invest time in creating beauty.
At Podere le Ripi we’ve been lucky: during the first few years, the investments made into the vineyards and the renovations of the farmhouse (my home) did not permit us to invest in a new cellar. We needed to wait. During this waiting period that lasted seven years, we were able to examine the project in-depth until we reached the final idea of our current cellar. 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 eventually cost slightly less than the same surface built-in cement.


This project represents simple teaching: a very slow and scrutinized preparation of a project permits building in bio-architecture with limited costs. As a result, you obtain an outcome to be proud of.

The Harvest

Without a doubt, the most exciting time of the year. As we have vineyards on two different sides of Montalcino, we know in advance that the harvest starts on the eastern side and then ends on the west, which is where grapes reach ripeness at a later stage. Much is based on the tasting of the grapes, what we care about the most is the taste, it must be well-formed and balanced.

In the past years, we’ve been harvesting increasingly sooner, so much so that we now start at the beginning of September. We harvest accordingly to the biodynamic calendar, by hand. Grapes are placed in a 20kg basket that is transported to the Cellar in Podere le Ripi where is sorted by hand. We normally process the grapes gathered in the morning whereas the ones picked during the afternoon are cooled down in a cold room for 10-12 hours. That way they will be entering the barrels at a temperature lower than 15 °c, resulting otherwise in aggressive fermentations.


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 opened-top tonneaux. Once the barrel has been filled, we begin with opened pumping overs, carrying out between two to four pumping overs per barrel each day depending on the fermentation trend. Our cellar is a small incubator of microbiological life where we’ve always fermented spontaneously. We naturally have different indigenous yeast groups that alternate with each other, performing between the 95-98% of the fermentation in the beginning months. In some instances, they work alongside the malolactic fermentation which in the last few years it has become more and more impatient.

Cleaning the Barrel Montalcino harvest

When the fermentations begin to slow down and the yeast enters the stalling phase, we interrupt every contact with air, and we fill up and subsequently close the barrel with the skins inside. This technique is referred to as "piemontesina". The following spring the wines start showing a fermentative awakening stimulated by the seasonal change. And through a fermentative “momentum” which can last up to 2 years, the remaining sugar residue finally runs out. Nothing is added to the wine, besides a small quantity of sulfites that we are currently trying to lower as our aim for the future is to eliminate them completely.

Montalcino Wine aeging in the Golden Cellar

Sangiovese is not a simple variety to deal with and it does not adapt to premade protocols and procedures due to how sensible it is to environmental changes. Therefore, every year we change something trying to adapt to the vintage. We thoroughly enjoy the idea of taking a step back and leaving room to nature in all its forms.

We are present in what we do, but our interaction is limited to an “escorting” action, we do not want to impose our hand on the process. We trust our vineyard and the work we put in the fields; the wine is not left to consultants but to people that for years have truly lived the farm. We take some additional risks and things sometimes don’t go as we’ve hoped, but very often things do go well. We certainly don’t know best than nature. We would like our efforts to speak for the soul of our land.

Podere Le Ripi's Montalcino wines refining in the bottle


All our wines, once fermented in oak and racked, begin their journey inside bigger oak barrels. Here too, there is no specific rule or protocol to follow, we listen closely to what each vintage has to say and decide accordingly.

Certain vintages need to breathe inside the wooden barrel for longer, even 40 months, others, especially those from hotter years, are quicker and after 24-26 months have other needs.

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 possible. The wine goes through periods of reduction or re-fermentation, but we are not scared by it, this is what helps maintain that energy and vitality which makes the difference after 5 years.

When tasting the wine and realizing we are close to the “peak” of its harmony, we move each batch inside concrete vats, which according to us is the ideal material to age it between barrels and bottles. At this point, the wine slows down and deposits the sediments for about 12 to 24 months.

Once we decide that the wine is ready, is only a matter of waiting for the right moon and bottling the wine by adding a smaller amount of sulfites.