The Woman Behind the Wines
In Tuscany’s male-dominated wine business, Cecilia Leoneschi stands out—less for her gender than for her award-winning Brunellos.
It’s a glorious autumn day as Cecilia Leoneschi strides into the upstairs reception lounge of Castiglion del Bosco winery. Beyond the plate glass windows, acres of pristine Tuscan woodland cloak the landscape like the folds of drapery on a Sienese quattrocento Madonna. Curiously, there’s not a vine in sight. When I mention this, a smile flashes across the face of the raven-haired winemaker—whose default mode is serious, passionate intensity.
“There’s a reason why we’re called Castiglion del Bosco,” she elucidates: In Italian, bosco means wood. The estate, whose award-winning wines she’s been crafting since Massimo Ferragamo purchased and relaunched it in 2003, lies in one of the remotest and wildest corners of the Brunello di Montalcino wine zone. “It’s a unique terroir,” she says. “Ninety percent of our land is forest. We’re in the part of the Brunello zone with the lowest density of wineries.”
Castiglion del Bosco also makes wine at its Riparbella enclave on the Tuscan coast, but here in the winery’s home base, Leoneschi’s reign takes in just two isolated vineyards—49-acre Gauggiole, not far from the Borgo (the historic estate village that forms the heart of the Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco resort), and 104-acre Capanna. The latter, which produces Castiglion del Bosco’s most prestigious Brunello cru, Campo del Drago, stands in magnificent seclusion on a lofty site more than a mile away from the winery, surrounded by oak and ilex forests.
Leoneschi believes the isolation and woodland setting contributes to the wine’s flavor and “aromatic complexity”—as does the lack of groundwater in this stony, southwest-facing vineyard, which forces the vines to put down deep roots. The location, she adds, “ensures biodiversity and protects the vineyards from diseases and parasites.” And it works. “Campo del Drago is one of the great single-vineyard expressions from a wild and lesser-known side of Montalcino,” says Monica Larner, longtime Italy correspondent for Wine Enthusiast and current Italy reviewer for Wine Advocate.
The 45-year-old Leoneschi hails from the still profoundly rural Tuscan coastal region known as the Maremma. Her winemaking father inspired her to embark on a career which, in Italy as elsewhere, is still seen as something of a male preserve. “Women more often than men seem to need a family figure to introduce them into the field,” she comments. “For me, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. It was only later that I realized there weren’t many other girls taking the same route.” Today, she sees the diversity represented by Italy’s growing band of female winemakers and producers as a plus. “Vineyards and cellars need women’s emotional sensitivity as well as men’s concrete, practical worldview,” she believes. But she has chosen not to join Italy’s 770-strong Donne del Vino association, which represents women who work in the Italian wine trade. “For me,” she asserts, “wine women and wine men don’t exist—just wine people.”
When the Castiglion del Bosco winery was founded in 1967, it was one of the 25 founding members of the Brunello di Montalcino consortium. Today, there are well over 200 producers of the great Tuscan red, ranging from die-hard traditionalists to rule-bending innovators. The denomination’s strict DOCG regulations decree that Brunello di Montalcino should be made from 100 percent Sangiovese grapes, and that it should undergo a minimum of two years’ aging in oak, followed by at least four months in the bottle. What the rulebook doesn’t state is the fact that the wine was originally aged for up to five years in large Slavonian oak barrels. Wineries keen on giving this often austere, tannic red a more international appeal—and, conveniently, cutting down the “waiting time” between release onto the market and drinking readiness—have opted for the more rapid passage in small barriques of new French oak.
In 2009, certain Brunello producers were accused of taking this search for more user-friendly wines to an extreme by fraudulently blending other grapes in with the Sangiovese. Since then, the traditionalists have held the high moral ground. Leoneschi believes that “the tide’s turning against barriques right now,” and declares herself to be a great admirer of the prescient long barrel-aging rules first developed by Brunello’s founding father, Ferruccio Biondi Santi. “The great fortune of Brunello,” she explains, “is that it gives the Sangiovese grape the time it needs to express itself.” She’s also optimistic about the increased global demand for wines that carry a distinct sense of place, and are not constructed in the cellar post-harvest: “I see an increasing attention being paid to the personality of the wine…we’re going back to the idea that there is an indissoluble link between wine and vineyard.”
When she’s not busy in the winery, Leoneschi leads guests of Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco on cellar and vineyard visits, as well as guided wine tastings. I decide to risk a provocative question: Doesn’t she sometimes envy colleagues whose wineries are not attached to world-renowned resorts, who can just get on with making wine? Leoneschi breaks into another of her rare but infectious smiles. “Not at all,” she replies, “it helps us a lot to understand how to convey our wines and help people appreciate them.” Plus, she says, there’s no way you’re going to grasp what makes Castiglion del Bosco unique “by reading a brochure, an article, or an interview… to explain a wine like Campo del Drago, all I really need to do is take visitors up to our Capanna vines—the vineyard does the talking!”
When in Tuscany…
Leoneschi recommends three other local wineries to seek out
The new Montalcino radical: “Francesco Illy’s biodynamic winery Podere Le Ripi has revolutionized viticulture in the area. They plant at a crazy density of 11,000 vines per hectare, and train the vines so they’re virtually bonsai.”
Back to Sangiovese basics: “Morellino di Scansano is the wine I grew up with. At its best, in the hands of a producer like Terenzi who’s not trying anything too fancy, it’s a perfect, pure expression of the Sangiovese grape.”
Good old-school Brunello: “Capanna—not to be confused with our Castiglion del Bosco vineyard of the same name—may not be the most talked-up of the traditional cellars, but their wines are a lovely interpretation of the denomination, and they’re nothing if not consistent. Even if this means that there have been times when they’ve gone against the prevailing fashions.”