Francesco Illy, born in Trieste in 1953, has a family name that is world famous thanks to the quality of its coffee products. After spending his youth travelling the world as an artist and nature photographer, at the end of the 1970s he went into business, starting to sell Illy products in Switzerland under the Amici brand. Together with his many other passions, which include sailing and flying, at the end of the 1990s his innate curiosity led him to enter the exciting world of winemaking, and to transfer to Montalcino, where the Etruscan civilisation first flourished, maybe due to the beauty of this natural environment.

“Until 1998 there was only a sheep farm in this area. At the time, I was managing the Illy brand, creating a series of customised coffee cups that allowed me to meet any number of extraordinary artists. One of them, Sandro Chia, showed me this land. Since then it’s been the place I call home.
“I planted vines immediately, in the traditional way. I thought that I would sell the grapes, leaving the hard labour of making wine to someone else. Then I got excited and started to study: at Florence University they told me that the roots of the vines don’t go down much further than 50cm. In 2005 I started doing some experiments and found out that this wasn’t true: my first thousand vines went down much further, to 3.5 metres, then stopped because they reached a layer of blue clay that was full of salt.” No fertiliser, extreme pruning. The first result was promising: “the vines didn’t sicken”. The second even more so: “the grapes were perfect – they seemed like blackcurrants, we picked them by hand, taking them off the bunch one by one”. The first vintage: 2007. “The wine was discoloured – he remembers – a disaster. I thought it had all gone wrong. Then I placed in barriques and it turned out perfect. A Rosso di Montalcino with a full range of aromas”.

“The adventure of a lifetime”, as he now asserts proudly. That involved choosing to define quality of life as a job well done, in a picture perfect environment, surrounded by nature. Breathing pure, clean air, far from the smog of the city and far removed from ugliness, with beauty all around him. “Because I have always dreamed of harmony”. For him, this was the place he could make that dream come true. The perfect place to try, knowing that perfection would always be unattainable - a dream. “Since I was a child I’ve always believed that beauty was the only answer”. And in this place, beauty assails all of the senses, from the carefree song of the sparrows at dawn, to the fresh scent of the wild flowers, to the feel of millennial dust under the fingernails, to the vineyards that decorate the hillside as far as the eye can see. And finally, to the taste of Bacchus’s nectar, which made the Brunello name famous. “Beauty produces harmony. And harmony delivers quality of life to everyone. Here I found beauty and harmony”. His new life in the paradise of Montalcino. “The best place I’ve ever lived”, and he is there to prove it.

“I love quality, no, excellence. I believe that excellence creates excitement. And that excitement leads to joy. But the excitement also helps our brain remember. And this produces culture. And culture has always granted us a better life. At times we forget, and that puts…our whole future at risk. Because our future is dictated by the evolution of our culture.”

“Excellence, from the Latin EX (outside) and CÈLLERE (move), defines the highest level of quality. In wine, how do you define reaching the peak of quality? Many producers are ‘searching for excellence’, although it is hard to ‘become the best’. The result of this constant competition is a series of ‘excellent interpretations’ that allows us to enjoy the many faces of perfection.

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Castiglione dell'Abate terroir
“Since 1200 this area, which at the time was only inhabited by sheep and country folk, has been known as “Podere le Ripi”. In 1997 I bought almost 54 hectares (c. 135 acres) of pure, dry, wild land from a Sardinian shepherd, and three years later I started to plant the first vines. To tell the truth, at the time all I wanted was a beautiful house in Tuscany…in the end, however, I fell completely in love with this uncontaminated landscape, to such an extent that I became a winemaker”.
Francesco Illy fell in love with Montalcino in 1984 when as a nature photographer the landscape – as the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti wrote – illuminated him immensely, stealing his soul.
So it was that in 1987 he began to seek out a Tuscan residence, without a thought to wine – which he certainly loved – or its production, considering himself too old to take up such a demanding vocation. Everything he was offered was either too big or too expensive, or in some way unsuitable, so ten years passed until his friend Carlo Vittori called him to say: “this is the last chance you’ll have before prices at Montalcino explode. Come and look at it”. How prophetic his words have proven to be! Francesco immediately realised that this time it was meant to be. The place he could dedicate his life to. The beauty; the distance from everything that we call civilisation; the absence of modern architecture, that aberration of the last century that destroyed entire Italian landscapes; the aromas that arise from these hills all through the year; the panoramic views to Monticchiello and Montepulciano to the east; the prehistoric volcano of Monte Amiata to the south; the amphitheatre of hills that protects the estate to the West and North. Such a wonderful combination... So, in 1998 he started to renovate the house and prepare the land for the vines. He was so struck by the beauty of the land and its flowers that he decided to move earth using long excavators that dug the ground without overturning it.
This allowed him to keep the existing flora intact. “I can’t claim that this makes my wine better, but it gives the vineyard a beautiful appearance that I love: it has retained its original form, with the curves and footpaths that you don’t see in others”.
Planting began in 2000 with Sangiovese grapes, at a density of 5,000 vines per hectare (2,000 per acre). In 2002 Francesco wondered whether greater density would have produced fewer bunches per vine, increasing the quality. He therefore decided to reduce the space between the rows from 2.5 metres to 2, bringing the density to 6,666 per hectare (2,700 per acre). Then in 2003, he increased the density further: five rows 1 metre apart and then one with a 2 metre gap to allow the tractor to get through. This brought the density to 11,111 per hectare, or 4,500 per acre. Finally, in 2005 he opted to try the maximum possible density, reducing the gap between plants to 40cm (1 foot 4 inches), or 62,500 plants per hectare (25,300 per acre). This made it the most densely planted vineyard in the world.

“I decided to plant vines in squares of four metres by four, with 121 plants per square metre. My agriculturalist and oenologist were staggered at how stupid I could be. “I said to them, it’s only a tenth of a hectare, indulge my stupidity”.

His thinking was: “if in Borgogna they say that good wine can’t be made until the vineyard is 35 years old, because by then the roots have delved really deep, then the quality of the wine must be closely correlated with the route the roots take to burrow down through the various geological layers, absorbing various kinds of minerals. If I force the vines to drive down deeper by planting them really densely, maybe I’ll get better wine”.
For Francesco it was like a wonderful spiral that began with the idea of a house in the middle of uncontaminated countryside. Initially, he never dreamed that he could become a real winemaker, but he fell in love with the vines that grow so abundantly, and he ended up harvesting them and creating his own wines.
A dream that took 15 years to come true. As he has always maintained: “the most beautiful adventure of my life”. That continues still. “Because I’m still dreaming, I’m still inventing things that could lead to better wine, I’m still waiting to see what will become of many of the dreams I’ve had over the years, such as the cellar made from natural limestone, or the Bonsai I planted recently. And I still get frightened that maybe something could go wrong. There is still that resolve to avoid any possible error”.

So it was in the hot, dry summer of 2003 that he decided to make his first wine. An incredible story.
The grape varieties available
in Brunello - Castiglione dell'Abate