I met Italian winemaker Alessandro Cellai at Cafe di Stasio on a cold, wintery Melbourne day. Coming in from the cold, I was welcomed with a glass of his Classico Riserva Il Poggiale 2006, the perfect way to learn more about this up and coming hero of the Italian wine industry and get an afternoon of food, wine and an enjoyable interview underway. You can read more about lunch over here.
Alessandro is the general manager of two wineries and has also started his own project producing his great love, Pinot Nero. Nothing short of an overachiever, Alessandro also likes to race vintage cars, run the odd marathon and produce some of the most exciting wine from the Chianti region in years.
The Italian tradition is for families to operate a winery over many generations. Is winemaking in your DNA?
It wasn’t in my family, it is my own passion. My uncle was a priest in his first church. I was very young, so 4 or 5 years old, and he introduced me to the vineyard world. I think my passion is connected with him.
I studied at winemaker school first and then chemistry at university. I had my first experience in the wine world at Rocca Della Macie for 6 years then in 1996 I became winemaker and general manager of Castellare di Castellina. In 1999 I was brought in at Rocca di Frassinello as winemaker and general manager there too.
I have had a wonderful experience with Castellare, since the beginning they have been extremely connected with the respect for tradition. No blend between indigenous and international grape varietal and we are very focused on Sangioveto grapes. That is an amazing experience because the Sangioveto is one of the top grape varietals of the world.
How did it feel to be recognised as one of the Decanter Magazine’s Italian ‘Stars of Tomorrow’? Has it changed how your wine is perceived?
That article was, for me, a surprise. Early in 2009 I was interviewed by one of the sub-editors of Decanter, based in Italy. She asked many questions about my philosophy of production, the property, my story. At the end of the interview she told me ‘you are nominated from a panel of historical and great winemakers from around the world as the new, greatest winemaker.” I was very embarrassed. And then on 1st April the magazine appeared and I was extremely happy. For me it was the high point of my experience because, of course, I have a lot of experience but I am not at the end, many steps to do, so that for me was like a push to be better.
Has the nomination increased your profile as a winemaker?
Yes. It was incredible advertising about myself around the world. I got many phone calls from friends around the world from this article. But for me it is very important to keep the attention on the quality and to my philosophy – to do better and better and better. As soon as you have an award like this you have to maintain the outstanding standard. The risk is to go down very fast. I know that I have to do better.
Is your approach to winemaking traditional or progressive?
If for you, traditional means old, no. If traditional means respecting the traditions, yes. I think the life of winemakers is the total respect of the grape varietal and the total respect of the terroir for that grape variety. Take Sangioveto, for example, in Chianti you have to respect the synergy of the Sangioveto grape and the terroir of Chianti. For this reason, in this situation, to work in the sense of tradition is correct, because the tradition means no blend between indigenous and international grape varietals and for me that sense is there to preserve the terrior of the Chianti. That is the work, for me, of any winemaker around the world, they have to preserve and protect the relationship from grape varietal and terroir.
But what about in new areas with no immediate history?
Of course if you are working in a new area without any tradition of grape varietal you can do anything you want, you can experiment. But if you are in a very strong terroir like Chianti Classico, like Barolo, like Brunello di Montalcino, like Brunello di Montalpuciano, you have to respect the connection between grape and soil.
How does what you do at Castellare di Castellina differ from what you do at Rocca di Frassinello?
Of course another good skill of a winemaker must be the ability to work at the same time in different realities and with a different approach. At Castellare we have an approach of tradition, at Rocca di Frassinello we have a modern approach because there is no historical relation between terrior and grape varietals. Now, there, I think we are in the right place to blend part of our great experience of Castellare with Sangioveto and part of the experience of international varietal like cabernet merlot and cabernet franc, some Bordeaux blends. I think that is also a wonderful experience for me as I have an experience to work in both sides. With the opportunity to try something new at Rocco di Frassinello and to maintain and consolidate the experience at Castellare.
Has working with Christian le Sommer enhanced your winemaking? Have you been influenced by French techniques?
Christian is the winemaker at Rothschild. They are not participating during the fermentation but of course the experience that I have in staying close to them was great because they are probably considered one of the best in the world and I had the opportunity to have several visits to Chateau Lafite and Chateau Rieussec, spending several times in Bordeaux. Of course it was a nice improvement of my experience but, talking about Sangioveto, they have no experience with that. I am more connected with that grape varietal. I get from them, international grape varietal experience.
How do you remain passionate? What keeps you going?
My philosophy is that to make wine it is always a challenge, always is a trial to do the best in comparison to last year. But every vintage is different, every year you have a different microclimate, different weather, in the different seasons. You try to control some elements, but some are outside of your control. For that reason, it stimulates me to work better and better and improve upon vintage and vintage.
Sometimes your effort is not the only things you can put on the table, you also need good weather, wonderful season, temperature, several other things. You need luck. It’s a small component but it’s there. Always, I say to my uncle (the priest), I command myself to the Gods.
Do you have many interests outside winemaking? What do you do for fun?
My hobbies first is vintage car racing. I only do one or two races per year, because I have no time. I have a Fiat 128 and I am very excited about that. I’m very, very excited about that. As soon as I am in the car I try to de-charge all my stress and tensions. The adrenaline is amazing. That is my first hobby.
I like to play soccer and do marathons and to ski. I was a ski instructor when I was young, I had the licence to teach kids. So I love to ski too.
What inspires you? Who do you look to for inspiration?
My inspiration is always from one man, Giacomo Tachis. For me he is the best winemaker in the world. He has now retired but he was the winemaker of the Antinori family. He also is the father of Sassicia, the father of Tingerello, the father of all top wines from Italy.
I had the opportunity before I finished university to listen to him speak. For many years I was a teacher at the university. Since my first words with him, I felt a connection from my mind to his works. So after that seminar I had to ask him something, in fact, at the end of the seminar I went up to him and said ‘Mr Tachis, I am at the end of university and my idea is to start to work in the wine business. I know something about you, it was wonderful, your words, I appreciate a lot your philosophy and I agree totally with you. I would like the experience to taste some wines with you.’ And he said ‘Come to my house next week, Wednesday 3pm.’ I was so emotional.
So from that day till now I establish with him a very, very strong relationship. He is not only a great winemaker, but he is a philosopher. He touched the wine, looking for something different. Not only the grape. He is extremely connected with the Galileo Galilei philosophy, for example, the interference of the light in the maturation of the grape.
That is my inspiration as soon as I am in front of a new wine or new vintage. He has a great appreciation of my wine, but he respects my work and tastes my wines when they are bottled, at the end of my work.
What is your favourite wine to drink?
Pinot nero is the great varietal of my life. When choosing a bottle of wine in a restaurant I go straight to pinot nero. I think the expression of pinot nero is like a gentleman with a jacket and tie. It’s muscle but it’s extremely elegant, extremely soft, able to age for a long time, able to be drunk for year and year and year, but the elegance is the main character of the wine. The pinot nero has velvety character in the mouth is extremely round, is never heavy. That is my idea of wine. To make wine with good body but extremely elegant, that is my approach to wine.
The Domini Castellare wines are available nationally from Arquilla Wines. To locate your nearest stockist, please contact Arquilla Wine – www.arquilla-wine.com or phone 03 9387 1040