by Cynthia Chaplin
By Cinthia Chaplin,
wine teacher in Rome
On the only sunny day of a very rainy November, I had the opportunity to chat with Alessandro Cellai, renowned enologist of the award winning Winery Castellare di Castellina.
Cellai is also the enologist for Podere La Villa which, as it turns out, is hallowed ground for him.
Driving through the gentle golden sunlight of a misty bronze Tuscan autumn, I had time to ponder the career of this great wine maker.
Cellai started at Castellare when he was 28, freshly graduated from the University of Pisa where he studied chemistry because enology was not a diploma course in the 1990’s. Since then, Cellai has guided the famous winery through many international awards and developed his expertise in both the land of chianti classico and the inimitable Super Tuscan french style, incorporating local sangiovese grapes as well as international varietals such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Having climbed the stunning hills that create Castellina’s unique microclimate, I arrived at the winery and was treated to a glorious view over the yellow and copper coloured vineyards, as well as an enticing tour of the cantina where the air was full of promise as the recent harvest fermented gently in its tanks. Cellai arrived in the tasting room, obviously fresh from his work and bundled up in a simple blue down jacket to ward off the autumn chill. We tasted the Chianti Classico 2018 as Cellai gave me some background about the vineyard. With refreshing candor, pride and humility, he commented that the 2017 vintage was named in Wine Spectator’s top 100 only yesterday.
“I fell in love with wine at the knee of my uncle, who was a local priest in the commune of Castellina,” Cellai told me. While I breathed in the bright signature cherry, violet and spice scent of the wine, he continued with the story of his love affair with wine. “My uncle had a small vineyard and from the time I was five years old I worked with him and learned all the processes of caring for the vines and making the wine. He was not an enologist, but he passed his love for the wine on to me.” Cellai knew from his youth that he wanted to work with wine but it wasn’t until 1994 that he had his true lightbulb moment. “Giacomo Tachis came to speak at my university and I stayed after the lecture to ask him some questions. So many questions that he smiled and told me we needed to drink the wine to have a proper discussion, and then he asked me to come to his house a few days later so we could drink and talk together. Of course I was in awe, that this great man would invite me, and of course I went! A huge friendship was born and Giacomo became my second father.” Cellai credits his uncle and Tachis as “the two pillars of my career, the two pillars of my life,” and he does not even attempt to hide his emotion as he speaks of the two men who clearly meant so much to him.
The friendship with Tachis was to be the foundation for all of Cellai’s work and that friendship is why Cellai is the committed and passionate enologist for Podere La Villa. Of Tachis Cellai says, “we had the biggest friendship, una grande amicizia, in the truest sense of the word. A fellowship, a goodwill, he loved me and I loved him. I could talk to him about everything and he always gave me the right answer. He was a philosopher, a historian, he knew plants, he knew economy, he knew so many things. To be with Giacomo for so many years was the best school with the best teacher, he shaped me, he taught me, he always gave me the correct advice.” Now Cellai collaborates with Giacomo’s daughter Ilaria and her husband Raffaele at Podere La Villa, the vineyard Giacomo created in his final years. “I love Ilaria like a sister,” he tells me. “She is an exquisite person, a volcano! When I go to Podere La Villa, I am going home. I feel something like a fermentation inside me when I arrive there, and I know that Giacomo is present in that vineyard. I tell Ilaria her father is always there, protecting us and guiding us.”
At Podere La Villa Cellai and Ilaria have achieved all of Giacomo’s aims. He told them that a wine must have three primary characteristics in order to be great: the heart of the territory, the best choice of the vines, and the soul of the enologist. Cellai believes that Pargolo, the Chianti Classico produced at Podere La Villa is the truest expression of Giacomo’s rule. In fact, Cellai declares that the 2018 vintage of Pargolo is proving to be extraordinary, “grandissimo grandissimo!” Having been a serious fan of Pargolo for many years myself, I understand his love for this wine that speaks so much of its roots in San Casciano, its history and tradition.
For the future, Cellai sees growth and success coming to Podere La Villa, through the Merlot that bears Giacomo’s name and the continued development of the Chianti Classico Pargolo. Having recently received the permissions necessary to begin the restructuring, renovation and building of a new wine making facility at a property barely a mile from the vineyard, Cellai believes that having this level of control will only add to the potential of the wines. “It’s an emotional collaboration at Podere La Villa, “ he tells me. “Giacomo is lighting our way and I am extremely convinced that we will make great wines that will stop the world because they carry the DNA of Giacomo and his enormous passion.”
James Suckling clearly agrees, having awarded Podere La Villa Giacomo merlot 92 points only days ago.