Feature Coverage

Tuscan Splendor

“When you receive an incomparable wedding gift, such as a quaint, historic village situated in the Tuscan countryside, it comes with great responsibility. This is what Federica Mascheroni Stianti’s mother Giovannella got from her father the day she wed. She and her new husband Carlo had plans to move to Milan. Instead, the newlyweds embraced the extraordinary largesse – the village of Volpaia – that would eventually become the family estate and provide a one-of-a-kind tribute to Tuscan wine culture.

“Set against the backdrop of Tuscany’s rolling hills, snowcapped mountains, dramatic cypress trees and miles of Tyrrhenian Sea coastline, the hilltop hamlet is a relic of the 12th century. At its heart is Volpaia, where some of the region’s most outstanding Chianti Classico and Super Tuscans are made. The charming Federica and I met for lunch, where we talked about the family’s passion for its business, the village’s preservation and her own special wine project, Prelius.

“I soon learned that Volpaia means ‘a place of foxes.’ It’s also the name of the estate, symbolized on the Riserva label by a cagey, four-legged friend. Could Volpaia be a village where foxes and people live in harmony?

“Federica pulls out her iPad and shows me a photo, taken by her niece, of a sweet, red fox with an injured leg. ‘So we caught her, put her in a box, and I drove the fox to the hospital,’ Federica says. ‘I was starting to get so nervous because it was trying to scratch its way out of the box.’

“Just as the fox is mindful and adaptable to its surroundings, so, too, are the Mascheroni Stiantis, whose dedication to capturing the essence and beauty of their wine is deeply rooted in their respect for the land.

“‘What is important to us,’ says Federica, ‘is the environment and to conserve what is there. We grow organically; we conserve the village. We want to keep history alive.’

“Volpaia’s earliest recorded history dates to 1172. It was once a key stronghold for medieval Florence, helping defend the powerful city-state’s border against rival Siena. But by the 1960s, when Tuscan farmers started moving to larger cities and abandoning their countryside estates, Federica’s grandfather, Raffaello Stianti, wanted to preserve Volpaia.

“Thanks to investment and a bit of ingenuity, the fortified village today retains a great deal of its original architecture. It has become a must-visit site for those looking to visualize early Tuscany.

“The family preserved the village’s rural and viticultural identity by discreetly inserting a modern winery into the 12th century buildings. It housed aging cellars in cool basements — one is under an old church — and linked the subterranean spaces by a ‘wineduct’ that hides modern winemaking amenities. The family also exploited the hillside’s natural elevation to move wine from the higher ground to lower ground: the crush pad is at the top, the barrel rooms downhill.

“From the exterior, Volpaia retains its ancient Tuscan charm. But within the village is a hive of activity. All the inhabitants are directly or indirectly involved in winemaking, and over the years they’ve become like one big family.

“‘Most of the people have worked with us for more than 10 years,’ says Federica. It takes a year to learn the basics of the wine process, she says, and relationships are key in ensuring a quality product and mastering the process.

“‘Life is made by the season of the wine,’ she adds. ‘So one year is never enough, because it’s really only the first experience. One year is one moment.’

“Running a family business, she adds, also takes balance and a focused vision. She and her brother Nicolò, and their parents, have leveraged their individual talents, she says, in trying to produce the best quality wines to represent Volpaia.

“Her mother, Giovannella, remains a huge inspiration and is clearly at the head of the business. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without her,’ Federica says. ‘She has so much energy and passion.’

“Federica describes the idea of the Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva offered with lunch. ‘What we want to have inside the bottle is the originality of the place. Volpaia is very unique. We want to keep the tradition of the place – all the concepts of organically grown and conservation of the village.’

“But alongside the reds was a crisp, white wine, made of vermentino grapes. The label was more modern in style than those on the reds. Prelius, as the white is known, is from a different ‘place,’ Federica says. Just as her mother received the village of Volpaia from her father, Federica was given the Prelius winery, on the Tuscan coast of Maremma, by her father.

“Guidebooks often refer to Maremma, a once-forgotten region two hours north of Rome, as ‘Tuscany’s wild west.’ Its sweep spans a Tyrrhenian seacoast of limestone cliffs and dunes to maritime pines, which look like storybook broccoli forests, to broad plains of olive trees and fragrant Mediterranean brush, and up to woodlands and ancient, fortified hill towns.

“The plains here long were laced with swamps that were finally drained and channeled. Today, summertime offers vistas of sunflowers and waving, golden grain.

“Federica manages the 52-acre Prelius property, where organically planted vermentino, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot grow. The hilltop vineyards lie along what once was the shore of the ancient Lake Prelius. Accordingly, Prelius’ vermentino label features rings of shrinking shoreline, centered by an amorphous, celestial blue water drop. Today, only a small portion of the lake exists. It’s now part of a national park and a wintering home to migratory birds.

“I fell under the spell of Prelius and its surroundings after a single sip of its distinctive white wine. Its racy citrus, tropical fruit and mineral notes, softened by maritime influences linger on the palate. This is all thanks to the Mascheroni Stianti family. Their passion and determination to revitalize an ancient village, their leadership of the local organic viticulture movement, has produced wines of unpretentious charm that capture the historic beauty of their home under the Tuscan sun.”

Marisa Finetti, June/July 2016
Tuscan Splendor