In this second article about the ancient wine cellars of Tuscany, I’ll show you two more fascinating places of the italian winemaking art.
The first one is the cellar of count Costanti’s farmstead. The name Costanti is quite significant in the history of this region; the family was born in XV century and had its role during the period in which Siena was in conflict with Firenze. Even after the capitulation of the Republic of Siena, the Costantis remained settled just out of Montalcino, where they had many acres of landholding. Thanks to their merits of war, the Costantis were honored with the title of counts at the beginning of the XVIII century; as you can see in the photograph below, their coat of arms is a prancing bull with a crown above.
This family is important also if we speak of wine: they were between the firsts to use the name “Brunello di Montalcino”, toward the end of XIX century and, from that moment on, they started the production of this great wine. Nowadays they have about 61 acres of land, of which 29 are exclusively of vineyards.
Calling “farmstead” the Costanti’s estate is quite reductive, in my opinion: it’s a beautiful complex located on the top of one of the numerous curvy hills, within a stone’s throw from Montalcino, and surrounded by vast vineyards. Nevertheless, the real jewel of this estate are the ancient wine cellars: once crossed the solid wooden portal, framed with creepers and topped by the family crest, a dim lighted corridor brings you in a place that makes you wonder if, in reality, you’ve just crossed a time portal.
The air is cold and humid, thanks to the thick stone walls (the perfect conditions for wine aging) and the only light coming from outside passes through a small window, drawing a bright beam on the ground. The cellar is small and divided in three spaces, each of which is packed with casks made of oak wood, whose steel rings shine under the light of the old wrought-iron chandeliers. It really seems to be in a castle.
In the deeper part of the cellar, whose floor is four steps below the others, seven massive casks almost fill the narrow room: they are arranged in a way that makes me think of a gathering of noble elders. I’ve particularly liked the craftsmanship of these casks, their polished wood bordered in red and the burnished steel rings.
An element that definitely caught my attention has been the “Canon Missae”, namely an ancient Roman Missal, opened on a bookrest arranged on a vertical cask. The beautiful representation of Christ’s crucifixion was blended in some way with the context of the cellar: from a “tactile” point of view, being in such a humid place, the pages of the book were wavy and stained, so the paper was starting to harmonize with the natural textures of the cask’s wood and of the wall’s stones. From a conceptual point of view, I’m sure enough that it was a reference to the holy blood of Christ, in which the red wine transforms during the rite of transubstantiation. Therefore, red wine, that’s the result of the hard, honest and respectful work of man, becomes a symbol, besides being a delicious and healthy drink.
The second and last ancient wine cellar of this reportage belongs to the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore: it’s a beautiful Benedictine monastery, whose firsts stones were laid in 1320. Located on high ground in the area of the famous Crete Senesi, it keeps some notable pieces of art, such as the series of frescoes “Life of St. Benedict”, by Luca Signorelli and Il Sodoma, considered as one of the most important Renaissance artwork in Italy and the church’s wooden inlaid choir by Giovanni da Verona, that is one of the most prestigious example of tarsia in Europe. The structure itself is a fascinating mix of a castle and an abbey: behind the drawbridge and the high walls and towers with barbicans and merlons, there’s the heart of the complex, with its beautiful great cloister, the church, the library and pharmacy, as well as other restricted areas, seclusion rooms and the refectory.
In the lower part of the abbey there’s the place I was looking for, in this visit: the ancient medieval cellar with its original giant casks. The architecture of the cellar is characterised by the use of red bricks (as in the majority of the upper structure) and the inner spaces, whose ceiling is shaped in barrel vaults, are divided by Roman round arches. Many massive casks are aligned along the cellar’s perimeter and are placed on pedestals made of bricks and wood; looking closer, I’ve noticed many details highlighted by the strong spotlights: the wooden planks are worm-eaten and the iron rings are almost completely rusted, so I’m quite sure that these casks are arranged just for display. Even if not in use anymore, I think it’s interesting to see where the monks have been preparing the “Monte Oliveto Maggiore” wine for centuries and the chance to discover a place of worship that also preserves local traditions is undoubtedly an enriching experience.
Here ends the second and last part of my reportage about the ancient wine cellars of Tuscany. I hope to have been able to show you some interesting details of a culture with its traditions, bringing you in places that are rarely (if not at all) seen on internet. Feel free to drop a line of comment if you wish, it’s always appreciated.
I’d like to thank mr. Andrea Costanti for allowing me to shoot his family’s property, making possible for me to complete this photographic series.