Published 26 February 2012
Although I’ve loved my many trips to Umbria over the years, I’ve never thought of it as a particularly progressive region. Its output is predominantly agricultural, and it is common to see industrial facilities made out of grey concrete amongst the beautiful Umbrian countryside. The people, although very hospitable, seemed happy with century-old methods of farming.
So I was surprised, during a recent trip to Umbria for the International Wine Tourism Conference, to find a number of wine-makers who are embracing technology, considering the future and making their wineries beautiful without loss of functionality. The first was Castello della Sala which stands on a rocky cliff over 500m above sea level close to the Tuscan border. The Antinori family, a well-known producer of Tuscan reds, bought the castle in 1940 in order to make white wines from mainly native Umbrian grapes. They restored the 14th-Century castle and built an avant-garde fermentation cellar (which focused on controlling temperature, in order to preserve the grapes’ aromas longer).
But it was in 2004 that they broke the mould when work began on a type of underground cellar never before seen in Italy. It is a simple concept which uses gravity to transport the grapes; rather than pumping them from one stage to the next. By building on a slope, they were able to construct the cellar’s floors on successive levels, so the grapes (or juice or wine) can just fall to the next phase of production. The benefit of this is that it ensures a gentler treatment of the grapes. But, it is also progressive in that it shows a respect for the surrounding countryside: as opposed to a huge concrete building that they could have built, Castello della Sala’s cellar seems to sink into the hillside with only parts of it being visible. Being just down the hill from the 14th-Century castle, you get a sense of the historical blending with the modern – without any constraints on beauty or functionality.
Castello della Sala’s cellar was opened in 2007.
The Castello della Sala property covers 160 hectares of vineyards of mainly traditional grape varieties, Procanico (a clone of Trebbiano, but less productive) and Grechetto (an Umbrian variety that is gives an acidic wine with spicy/grassy flavours, which ages well); but also Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Nero.
The wines produced by Castello della Sala include: