Chianti Classico’s Eccentric Aristocrat

How the noble Castello dei Rampolla was shaped by a winemaking legend, stolen vines and a far-out priest

Chianti Classico’s Eccentric Aristocrat
May 5, 2020

Castello dei Rampolla sits dreamlike on a prime hilltop in the heart of Chianti Classico’s Conca d’Oro valley.

Hidden at the end of a long dirt road, south of Panzano, its stone farm buildings, chapel, fresh water well and tower—built over seven centuries beginning around 1300—have the patina of an antique book.

For me, Rampolla is one of Tuscany’s most intriguingly unconventional estates—farming biodynamically long before it was fashionable and experimenting with everything from grape varieties to sulfite-free winemaking to wine amphorae made with an ancient material I’ll bet you’ve never heard of. Rampolla, which produces about 8,000 cases annually, has gotten so good that, of late, it seldom produces a wine scoring less than 90 points in Wine Spectator’s blind tastings.

The farm and its 300 acres—nearly 80 now under vine—came into the noble di Napoli family as a wedding dowry in 1739. For more than 220 years, it was farmed by sharecroppers producing wine, wheat, livestock and more.

Alceo di Napoli Rampolla, who studied agriculture and inherited the farm (known as Santa Lucia in Faulle) from his father in 1965, turned the land tenants into salaried workers and planted vineyards with a classic Chianti blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and the white varieties Malvasia and Trebbiano that were still permitted at the time.

“At the time, the countryside was emptying, and his idea was to give dignity to it and to find a way to live with agriculture,” says Alceo’s daughter, Maurizia, 62, who for the past 26 years has run Rampolla with her older brother Luca, 64.

Maurizia di Napoli dressed in casual work clothes stands outside an old stone farmhouse.
Maurizia di Napoli pauses for a moment outside the old stone farmhouse where she lives on the estate that has been in her family for centuries. (Robert Camuto)

With the 1975 vintage, Alceo began bottling estate Chianti Classico. Then in 1978, he visited Bordeaux’s Château Lafite Rothschild—and set the stage for his future. Di Napoli discreetly purloined fresh Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings, smuggled them home in a suitcase and began propagating them.

Encouraging him was his friend and enologist Giacomo Tachis, the winemaker behind super Tuscan legends Sassicaia, Solaia and Tignanello, who worked with Rampolla until his death in 2016.

“Tachis was never fond of Sangiovese,” Maurizia recalls. “He was convinced Cabernet would grow very well here, and my father was the first to plant it in this area.”

In 1980, Tachis and di Napoli vinified a Rampolla super Tuscan from Sangiovese and Cabernet. But in 1982, when the wine was ready for release, tragedy struck when di Napoli’s son Marco died in a helicopter crash. As a small way to cope with the crushing loss, friends urged him to name the wine for his son. The result, called Sammarco, has evolved over time to become dominantly Cabernet, consistently remaining a flagship.

In 1991, di Napoli started another project, planting a high-density vineyard of bush-trained Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Petit Verdot, on a sun-drenched, southeast-facing slope.

The vineyard was planted in three phases, but di Napoli died while the first was being planted. The family stepped in, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Luca and Maurizia took over Rampolla, completing the vineyard and naming the wine it produced d’Alceo.

“Now I couldn’t live anywhere else or do anything else,” says Maurizia, wearing an old wool sweater, jeans and muddy boots on a gray winter morning.

The week I was there, Luca, now Rampolla’s sole winemaker, was visiting his wife’s native Japan. So Maurizia explained how their ideas about agriculture and wine were influenced by an unlikely source. In their youths, they followed the free-thinking priest and author Giovanni Vannucci, who was assigned from 1967 until his death in 1984 to a small agricultural hermitage in Chianti.

Vannucci preached living in harmony with nature and often cited Rudolf Steiner, the late 19th– and early 20th–century philosopher who founded biodynamic agriculture.

“The message of clean agriculture and another way to understand the universe was a seed that grew inside us,” Maurizia says. “So when Luca and I came here, we knew what we were going to do to let that seed grow.”

Wine fermentation vessels—ceramic eggs, concrete vats, clay amphorae and basket-wrapped jars—lined up inside a no-frills winery.
The winery at Rampolla is filled with a variety of fermentation vessels—from cement tanks and ceramic eggs to amphorae made of terracotta and cocciopesto—that help shape the character of the wines. (Robert Camuto)

The di Napolis, who rarely use tractors to turn vineyard soils, treat their vines with an array of “teas,” from algae to propolis (a resinous, antifungal substance made by honey bees), along with sulfur and copper to fight mildew.

Yet though they are members of the winegrowers association for Panzano, Italy’s first organic zone for wine, they refuse to be certified as organic or biodynamic.

“In Italy, it’s a sort of mafia: You pay and they certify you,” Maurizia says defiantly. “We don’t need it. Everyone who comes here can see how we work.”

Inside their no-frills winery, partly dug into the hillside behind the main house, is a range of fermentation tanks of different materials—the glass-lined iron introduced by their father, the cement that has become their standard, ceramic eggs for their skin-contact white called Trebianco (a blend of Chardonnay, Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia) and tall amphorae.

They began using terracotta amphorae a decade ago for their Sangiovese di S. Lucia, fermented and bottled with no added sulfites. But they weren’t satisfied with the result. In recent years, they have shifted to amphorae made in Pisa from cocciopesto, an ancient Roman material that combines crushed clay bricks and stone with lime.

Perhaps the change is a geeky detail, but Maurizia says it made a big difference in the wine. Terracotta “didn’t exalt the taste of the wine,” she says. “It was too mineral and not enough fruit. Cocciopesto is better; it’s more inert.”

Sangiovese di S. Lucia is only made in strong vintages. The 2018 that I tasted was fresh, faultless and fruit-driven. Though the wine is made with what some consider extreme methods, I’d serve it without hesitation to anyone.

Next up, the di Napolis plan to introduce a pure Merlot, named Donna Liu for their mother, with the 2018 vintage. As for the future, the family has a sole heir—Luca’s son, Martino, 30, a graphic designer in Florence.

“He would like to work here,” says Maurizia with a laugh. “But for now, it’s too heavy to be here with his father and his aunt. We take up a lot of space.”

People Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Sangiovese Italy Tuscany

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