Medieval Secrets: Ancient Walls, Modern Winemaking in Chianti’s Castello di Volpaia

Vinted on October 13, 2011 binned in on the road, sexy wines

When you’re dealing with the wine biz on a consistent basis, there’s one thing you get to see a whole lot of (besides wine, Styrofoam, and cardboard, I mean):

Stainless steel tanks.

Everybody who produces wine wants to show you their steel tanks.  Wine people are obsessed with their steel tanks; they basically have total hard-ons for their steel tanks.  There might actually be a support group for wine industry folk who have steel tank fetishes… I’m not sure, but I’m also not in any hurry to research that one. Anyway, they don’t just want to show you their steel tanks, they want to talk at length about their steel tanks – their capacity, how many they have, how big they are, and how they use them in special, careful, meticulous ways for separate vinifications of Wine X versus Wine Y. They want you to really understand their steel tanks. They want you to love their steel tanks.

The trouble with all this steel tank love is that there are only really two kinds of people that actually give a rat’s ass at all about steel tanks:

1) Wine producers who use steel tanks, and 2) Companies that manufacture steel tanks.

I’ve yet to meet anyone (anyone!) else in the Universe that cares about steel tanks – including me, and (very, very likely) including you who are reading me talking about the wine biz’s hard-on for steel tanks.

So when you find yourself in a situation where steel tanks are actually, truly, 100%-certified cool – like when they’re hidden in the bowels of churches from the Middle Ages in Chianti’s Volpaia, for example – well, let’s just say you get real interested, real fast. Which is exactly what happened to me a couple of weeks ago as I whiled away my time under the Tuscan sun in the heart of Italy’s ancient, beautiful and storied Chianti Classico region…

Within the picturesque Inside an 11thCentury fortified hilltop village of Volpaia – whose closest neighbor is a charming little spot called Radda that boasts an impressive view of the countryside, a café, and a couple of tiny grocery stores (and, like every other small Italian town, about 400 churches) – lurks the workings of a modern winery.

You wouldn’t know it from strolling the town’s narrow streets, though.

Volpaia, owned almost entirely by one family, is an historic landmark, and as such the winery inside of it – Castello di Volpaia – isn’t allowed to modify the walls or exterior of the town’s ancient buildings (only the roofs can be altered). Which means that its steel tanks sit inside the remains of de-sanctified Medieval churches, and making wine therein involves transporting juice between buildings via a hidden piping system to get it from press to tanks to barrel to bottle. On the outside, it appears as though little has changed in Volpaia since the Renaissance, when scientific instruments were made there by Lorenzo della Volpaia (a buddy-bud of another famous Italian inventor, Leonardo da Vinci).  But inside, those steel tanks are holding some tasty vino as they butt their metal heads against archways that long ago cast shadows on the town’s worshippers.

All in all, it’s a situation that presents some charming, if odd, juxtapositions: in the town’s only remaining sanctified church, for instance, an ancient crypt is now the resting place of Castello di Volpaia’s Super Tuscan blends as they age in 1-3 year old French oak (which had me wondering if the priests ever enjoy a special “upgrade” to their altar wine…); in one of the de-sanctified churches, a former holy water font is now a functioning utility sink (which struck me as simultaneously strange and yet somehow oddly appropriate).  A small amount of (very good) olive oil is also made on the property, which hosts a few guest apartments, an office, living quarters for the company’s workers, three small restaurants, and a wine shop.  No torture chambers, though (at least, not that are shown on the tour I signed up for).

While I found Volpaia’s crypt-aged Super Tuscan blends good-but-not-great, I was loving me some of Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico; particularly the Riserva bottling, which delivers a very big bang for the buck (or Euro):

2007 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva
Price: $39
Rating: B+

Old (vibrant acidity) and New (vibrant fruit) Worlds collide and, like the marriage of ancient and modern in Volpaia’s winery itself, ultimately find some finely-hewn balance in this tangy, black-fruited beauty of a wine.  The dried herbs and cherries that you’d expect from a really good Chianti are in abundance, along with hints of orange peel (work with me here, people, you know what it smells like!), but the star of the vinous show is the balance and interplay between the dark, structured fruit and the food-friendly, lip-smacking acidity.  It’s in that balancing act that this Riserva really shines – ultimately so brightly that it casts shadows over its more expensive Super-Tuscan cousin, Volpaia’s single-vineyard Balifico blend.  It’s a balance that makes the wine simultaneously possess a sense of weight and a sultry, sexy, svelte side that makes it a pleasure to pair with wild boar prosciutto or just drink on its own (preferably with someone equally as sexy, svelte, and versatile).






  • Wee Ree San

    Great post Joe. Interesting perspective on a very interesting situation. Wish I were there!

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Wee Ree! You would have loved this place, just for the history alone. It was nice to finally sit down for a day and basically do nothing but eat, drink their wine and sleep; not my fave way to relax, but it was AWESOME for a day. Cheers!

  • Nick

    Wow, thank you for this awesome lil vignette. Great pics. You bring it to life. Wish I were there right now. That, and I know what you mean about the steel tanks!

    • 1WineDude

      :) Thanks, Nick. As for the steel tanks… I see them in my nightmares!

  • Jerry

    Very cool post Mr. Wine Dude. Congratulations, you’ve officially renewed my interest (as if it ever went away completely) in returning to Italy. It sounds like you had an amazing time. When my wife and I went for our honeymoon almost 9 years ago- our interest in wine was pretty casual. So I hope to get back there for our 10 year anniversary and sample lots of good juice- maybe we can use the wine condom. Are those Foudres in the 4th pic?

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Jerry – but did I renew your interest in stainless steel tanks (I sure hope not! :)? Those are the large / plus-size wooden casks in the 4th pic. Apparently they had to take them apart and reconstruct them inside since they wouldn’t fit fully assembled through the doors. Cheers!

  • 1WineDude

    Ah, forgot to mention – I may post soon about the Vinsanto production there at Volpaia, they had two pretty interesting spots where the grapes were hung to dry them out…

  • fredric koeppel

    not only stainless steel tanks but barrel aging rooms. always giant stainless steel tanks first, then the barrel aging rooms. inevitably. and when you've seen one of the damned things, you've seen thousands. all you want to do is taste the wine, have lunch and get outta there.

    • 1WineDude

      Fredric – Apparently, those barrel rooms are *literally* sacred to wine producers, at least in the way that they treat and light them! :) At least the barrel rooms often have photogenic appeal (at least the first two three you ever visit, anyway)…

  • Troy

    Great photos! Looks like a nice day at the winery!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Troy – it was pretty much a nice *week* in Tuscany while we were there. Narry a cloud in the sky the entire time…

  • [email protected] Drawing

    It’s great that they didn’t change the exterior appearance of the buildings and they hid the steel wine tanks. This helps preserving the medieval aspect and is what makes Castello di Volpaia a wonderful place lost in time.
    It’s nothing more pleasant than enjoying a good wine in a place like this and of course in good company.

    • 1WineDude

      Daniel – thanks, that pretty much sums up the experience. :)

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