Golden Cellar: chasing harmony

A cellar only built using the ancient construction techniques. From the relations among spatial dimensions, strictly in the Golden Ratio,
to the use of natural clay bricks and a mortar made of lime: this building chases
harmony to be given to the wine which gets refined here for the first years of its life.

1:1,618033, this ratio, considered magical, is to be found in architecture since 1500 BC, when Stonehenge was built, we find it in the Athens Parthenon, as well as in Leonardo da Vinci's works and in the recent United nations Secretariat Building in New York.

Furthermore we find again this ratio in the DNA's molecules or in the shape of the spiral galaxies: I would say this a divine number and I consider it an harmony bearer. This is why I decided building my cellar using these ratio meticolously.

My son Ernesto Illy, the architect, realized the final project: it took 7 years to be designed and developed, one more year just for the bureaucratical matters, since the authorized jurisdiction in charge preferred to have a consultance with the University of Florence to convalidate the executive computations.

At a later stage, during 4 years, more than 750.000 bricks have been manually laid down only using a mortar made of lime, in order to avoid building in contemporary design, in other words avoiding cement, which, in our humble opinion, "breathes" badly. Moreover we took the decision to avoid iron scaffolds so as not to create Faraday cages that, thanks to their electrical continuity, produce magnetic fields influencing negatively the natural magnetic field of the soil on which the cellar has been built.

From the day we started thinking and imagining our cellar until today, 12 entire years have passed. It was totally worth it, because whoever enters this cathedral of wine has the possibility to strongly perceive the intense harmony emitted: I know that even my wines feel it.

At the beginning we were thinking about cement...

because in the distant 2003, year of our first harvest, we were conceiving - more than projecting - Podere Le Ripi's cellar. The first sketches of the architects (Ernesto was twenty years old at the time) were based on the contemporary construction solutions. Reinforced concrete and that was all.

...but then the comparison with history came.

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

He was pouring water in a bucket filled with white rounded river rocks and those were overheating,resulting in producing clouds of vapour. He explained to me that the lime was necessary to wall up and then he said: <See, we are in the closed barn. This farm was handed down generation after generation, to the most apt son or daughter, in order to be lead on for the next decades. I am building only with bioarchitecture because the I abhor the idea that in a few decades or centuries a heir will think about the terrible job I made. For this reason I pay close attention and I put love: in the centuries to come they will remember me as the one that enhanced things rather than as the one that worsen them with the tecnology of his age.>

A sudden vision.

That prhase was enough to understand that my future cellar would also last longer than me! In the blink of an eye, Ignaz's concept was completely mine.

The projects 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 here can overtake five years. It should occur in a environment free from negative influences as the one from the magnetic fields, that the iron of the reinforced concrete, contains. Moreover in a path lasting years, that involved my son Ernesto and Marco Pasqui, we reached a final idea: a cellar in a continue slope. Fermentation in the highest part, the bottling line as well as the ageing in the lowest one in order to allow us to do all the pourings by gravity, comfortably moving the tanks up and down with a fork lift.

I remember that Marco Pasqui did also a styrofoam scale model of 2 meters in diameter: in the centre the Dome, resembling the Pantheon of Rome and all around a vaulted tunnel enveloping the Dome for circa 2 turns.

That scale model convinced us to follow this way.

What if history rejects me?

While the project was taking  more and more shape and while we were waiting for the license, I worried about one thing: < Will I be remembered as the only idiot that conceived a downhill cellar?>

We were about to begin the excavations and I was expressing my doubts to Maurizio Anselmi, the friend who always solve my problems. He was waiting  to begin the work with the bulldozers and replied: <It is clear that on the the project it seem that the gradients are such to allow us working, but let's see in practice. You tap on the ground a piece of the ramp and I will create the slope with the excavator by Saturday>

Easier said than done: By noon of that beautiful September's Saturday we were trying the movement with the fork lift, up and down on the ramp. I do not think that without that proof, I would have had the audacity to achieve it!


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    'Golden Ratio' Cellar · Video

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    From digging to the foundations

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

     My childhood dreams, as steering a dumper with six driving wheels bigger than me or digging with a 30 tons' Caterpillar, became true. Hours and hours went away in digging: I was having fun while I was sparing on the manpower.

    In the end a big hammer was needed, because 10 meters deep the soil is so compact that not even the brutal grab of the Caterpillar 300 could move it. Nevertheless the Authorities imposed us a basement in... reinforced concrete! Exactly what I truly wanted to avoid and that was not necessary.

    Seismic area: this was what the Authorities were repeating to us. On the contrary I was telling everybody: <Do you see all these castles here around? If this truly is a seismic area, how many times should they have been rebuilding them? They are here since 1200 AC.>

    However before the law you can only be wrong and I had to use reinforce concrete foundations but we did not give up and 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 eletrical fluxes were passing through one wire and the other. Eureka!

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    The laying of the first brick

    Beppe Vargas hammered a post 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 to be equal in both the extremities of the brick: I will never forget it!

    The cellar was being built. First the walls and then the centrings made of polystyrene, sustaining the vault. Little by little the tunnel was being developped, one meter a day when we were lucky.

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    The Pantheon

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

    He came up with a stroke of genius I did not expect: from the center of the building he planted a steel shaft of 10 meters height. At a later stage with some ball bearings, he created a compass with the bending radius of the dome. Imagine a thin curve pole, touching slighly the wall to be raised and reaching every single brick. With this compass he could reach every single point and define where every brick should be laid down. There was a hidden beauty in seeing all that bricklayers pulling the compass for all the circumference of the dome, while six or seven of them where laying the bricks down in different areas. Such an harmony, a kind of magic spread clearly from the rhytm of the work and everybody could feel it.

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    The cellar starts to work

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

     The weather was simply perfect. Hot when needed and when the soil became too dry the right amount of water rained. I welcome this gift of Nature as a sign of good auspice for this new cellar.

    The workers told me they work very well there. On one hand it is unconfortable because it is downhill, but on the other hand it is useful to have everything at one's fingertips, pouring without using pumps. I feel them happy to work in such a magical and harmonic environment.

     But also the guests, joining numerously, feel this harmony almost by instinct. When reaching the Pantheon many of them remain enchanted by the shape and by the perfect acustic. In fact this is a gift on the Nature that we did not forecast while projecting.

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    The harmony...the music

    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 in 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 have a new project together!

    In the centre of the Pantheon, I want a loudspeaker made by Mauro to spread the best of Classical music. As the experiment made by Masaru Emoto demonstrates, water is sensible to music. Therefore the wine, since it is made mostly by water, will become even more harmonious.

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    Of the beauty and the richness of the poverty

    Visiting ancient sites, also in this region, I observed always the same thing: 

    the poorest men were, the more time they used to gain in return

    And this time was dedicated to beautify things around like 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 into the vineyards and into the refurbishment did not permitted to invest into the cellar. We needed to wait. In this time span, 7 years long, allowed us to examine in deep the project. We reached the final idea: a cathedral dedicated to wine. If the circumstances had been different, we probably would have had a cellar in reinforced concrete. In spite of the fact we had to be thrifty, this cellar has costed slightly less of the same surface in cement. This project can leave a proof for whoever wants to build in the future and it is a pretty simple teaching: a very slow and scrutinized preparation of the project permits to build in bioarchitecture with limited costs. As a result you obtain an outcome to be proud of.


The refinement can last over 3 years.

The French often criticize other wine-producing countries with their famous saying: “Nous faisons de l’affinage, vous faites du stockage.”
Meaning that they refine the wine, while the others are only able to store it. Maybe somebody does, we don't. But they are right, saying that this is a particularly delicate phase of the wine production: all the barrels have to be tested more than once a week and many analysis sustain this process.

Wines slow their processes down and sometimes they produce a smell of rotten eggs: here we have been careful because this smell must be restrained. Sometimes is the wine itself that changes but sometimes we need to oxygenate it, simply moving it from one cask to another.

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    Sorting the grapes

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

    On these grounds we decided to introduce the manual selection: six to ten persons check every single bunch to get rid of all the flaws. Some grapes are too ripe, others are unripe, others could show small blemishes: with more than twenty eyes verifying bunch by bunch, we are sure that all the clusters, reaching the destemmer, will be perfect.
    I learnt this from my father, who in 1968 decided to create a machine able to pinpoint every defect present in the green coffee, before it get 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, as well for the wine.

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    The fermentation at Le Ripi takes place in oak vats.

    At the end of the sorting table there is a destemmer. We use a precise and delicate machine, imported from France. Afterwards the grapes, softly pressed, go into our fermentation vats, strictly made in oak, 35 0r 40 Hl of capacity. Here we wait for the fermentation to start spontaneously by effect of the yeasts naturally present in the grape. They are called indigenous yeasts.

    Depending on the years, the grapes remain into the oak vats from eight to twentyone days. Soon thereafter we proceed with the racking of the wine, separating the liquid part from skins, seeds and lees. Some vintages can reach six months of maceration on the skins. This is a method called by the winemakers " Piemontesina" and by which we can extract the most from skins and seeds.

    The wooden vats offer excellent temperature control of fermentation (we cannot explain precisely why), but in the more "virulent" years, temperatures can exceed 30/32 ° C. In this case we immerse some cooling plates in the vats because we want to avoid the temperature to overpass those values.

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    Ageing in oak

    The ageing in oak can last over than 3 years.

    This was my dream since the beginning and the experience gained during these years supports it. Our wines age usually more than 4 years in oak vats and casks. We use different capacities in order to diversify the masses and the vineyards. Moreover for our Sangiovese we age part of the wine in tonneaux of 500 liters capacity, while Merlot and Syrah have a passage in the smaller barrique, roughly 225 liters capacity.

    The difference lays in the kind of environment the tuns are able to create. As for the small barrels, they create an oxidative environment. The staves of the barrel are thinner and there is less surface in contact with the liquid. The anthocyanins, responsible of the colour of the wine, remain of a purple shade with blue shadows, typical of the grape.

    While the big casks create a reductive environment: less oxigen penetrates inside and therefore the colour tends to a brick red or a burnt Sienna colour.

    I believe that this has always been the typical nuance of the Brunello di Montalcino, traditionally aged for long in big casks. The name Brunello means in fact dusky probably related with its typical colour, recalling earthy shadows.

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    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 year and a half.

    When the wine is bottled, sometimes we say that it is affected with the "long for the oak". The original harmony seems lost and the wine becomes rude and rough: you will never be able to recognise it, even if you tried the wine from the barrel just a week before.

    I believe that the wine is living, hence losing the freedom to move around it had inside the big casks, is something shocking and to which it needs to adapt. Sometimes it takes more than one year before we can say:<Yes, this is what I wanted from this wine!>. This is exactly the moment in which I can start to label and sell the wine. Furthermore, the longer it stays in 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 more round and velvety in the palate. The aromas become ripe and the olfactory complexity increases as well as the body improves, getting more elegant and fine.

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