Francesco Illy, from the espresso coffee to the Bonsai Brunello di Montalcino. Story of a “fool” who was right.

When I read about the story of Francesco Illy I couldn’t resist: I said to myself, I need to meet this man, I need to look the foolish sparkle in his eyes! So I drove among the beautiful hills of Tuscany, though the Chianti region, to the small village of Montalcino, 5000 residents, home of one of the most appreciated wine in the world. The journey itself is an emotional experience, the colors and the beauty all around talk loud to your soul. Nestled in Castelnuovo dell’Abate there is Francesco Illy winery, Podere Le Ripi. For the most distracted of my readers I specify that Illy is THAT ILLY, his family distributes high quality coffee all over the globe.

He is a nature photographer and fell in love with Tuscany (hard not to fall), he decided to buy a piece of land and starting growing Sangiovese, but he did it his way: “The well known concept of the vine that need to struggle to give good wine is what aimed my decisions – he tells me while we are walking around (not in) his vineyard – : I simply took this viticulture rule and brought it to the extreme”. Literally extreme: we can’t walk in the vineyard since the vines are planted so close one to another that it’s impossible to go in, unless you have to. And they have to: for maintenance, pruning, harvesting. “In 2005 I decided to test the densest possible setting of the plants at 40 centimeters one from the other: 62.500 p/H. This is the densest vineyard in the world! I chose to plant it in squares of 4 x 4 meter with 121 plants per square and let my agronomists and my oenologist yelling at me for how stupid I was. Everybody told me I were a fool, that the plants wouldn’t have survived, but I believed that nature always find a way and there we are now: healthy, vigorous plants with roots that reach 2.5/3 meters under the surface and can take minerals and nutrients”. He forced his plants to go through many different geological layers in a short time span, by planting them in such a high density system. This gave them a single chance in order to survive: go deeper with the roots or die.

 Francesco Illy called this the Bonsai vineyard, since the goblet trained Sangiovese vines can’t grow high or large due to the high density. “When we harvested the Bonsai we were all excited: we could not believe that this crazy experiment had worked – says Illy – The work in the Bonsai is huge, from the pruning to the mulching with organic straw, passing by the harvest done with the buckets. The results is simply unbelievable and the Bonsai wine is sold out quickly, regardless the elevate price”.

But the innovative philosophy of Francesco Illy does not end up only in the vineyards: let’s talk about the cellar: he built a Pantheon inspired continuous slope cellar where the wine ferments, ages and is stocked. Harmony is the keyword of this architectonical work: when you step in you immediately feel that light, temperature and shadows are perfectly balanced by the round spiral descending slope. The project of the cellar has the signature of Ernesto Illy, Francesco’s son. The lower level is reserved for the tonneau aged Brunello that is exposed constantly to the vibration of background classical music spread by a speaker in the center of the cupola: it feels like to be in the wine temple, some sacrality and magic is in there! “From the day we started thinking and imagining our cellar until today, 12 entire years have passed – comments Illy – 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”.


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