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Looking up at Masseto Hill, a tiny protrusion amid the green and terracotta hues of the Tuscan landscape, it seems almost impossible that its seven-hectare vineyard could conceal a modern winery where Italy’s most expensive wine is produced. The “unicorn” Tuscan merlot in question is now made entirely on—and deep within—the tiny hill of rare blue clay which distinguishes its wines.
It’s only atop the hill’s crest that you realize only two parts of the winery are actually visible above ground: the exact reconstruction of a ruined 1800s family home (which houses two invitation-only tasting rooms) and the grape reception area, behind.
Inspired by the Frescobaldi family’s pursuit of something precious from the earth—and with the goal of creating a gravity-flow facility with minimal impact on Masseto’s vines—Milan- and Avellino-based studio ZITOMORI created a winery around the concept of extraction, rather than construction, gradually excavating the hill to create a quarry-inspired facility before restoring the hill’s soils and topography.
The result of the architectural masterpiece is a sloping, partly-enclosed ramp which leads down into an intimate reception space. The space then opens onto a grand staircase and an organic sequence of cavernous spaces and smaller chambers, defined by cast-in-place concrete.
In the fermentation room, striking geometric tanks evoke the aesthetics of natural granite boulders and optimize interior surface area for fermentation. A series of rectangular pools maintain barrel room moisture levels. The library of reserve wines (which are kept behind a concelaed, key-operated revolving door) is modeled on a bank vault, as every bottle occupies its own cubby within a labyrinthine metal lattice grid in tribute to the precious nature of its contents.
“We chose concrete as a primary construction material to represent monolithic mass, [like] the blue clay, which is one of the attitudes of the stratification of Masseto hill and its vineyards,” explains ZITOMORI partner Hikaru Mori, whose previous projects with her husband Maurizio Zito include Controne River Park in Salerno, fortress-like Feudi di San Gregorio winery, and renovations to the Venice Biennale Japan Pavilion.
Masseto’s ancient blue clay is unique in the Bolgheri DOC and the land was planted exclusively to merlot in the early 1980s, after famed Russian oenologist André Tchelistcheff–credited with defining the style of Californian winemaking–noticed its similarities to those of Bordeaux's Petrus and Le Pin estates, famed for producing some of the best, most expensive merlot wines in the world.
Sure enough, the wines produced here were exceptional, so Antinori decided to vinify them separately to those of Ornellaia, starting with the 1986 harvest when it was bottled simply as “Merlot” before earning the name Masseto after the hill in 1987.
Since then, it’s become the darling of collectors and critics. Multiple vintages, including both 2015 and 2016, were awarded perfect 100-point scores, released for around $700 per bottle.
After quietly upending and rebuilding the image of Tuscan winemaking from the ground up, the Frescobaldi family has announced another disruptive move: October brought the launch of a new wine, Massetino 2017, which incorporates cabernet franc grown secretly on the estate.
“When you think of it any great institution in the world, it has a physical building–the White House, St Peter’s–to identify what the institution is,” says Masseto CEO, Giovanni Geddes da Filicaja. “Each of the great wines must have its own house. Masseto’s house is this winery.”