Although Tuscan winemaker Castello di Volpaia is widely recognized for its portfolio of upscale Chianti Classico labels, in recent years the winery has spread its wings with Prelius, a larger-volume brand produced from 12 acres of land in the coastal Maremma Toscana DOC. Initially launched in 2007, the Prelius lineup includes 100% Vermentino and 100% Cabernet Sauvignon expressions. Both wines are certified organic and priced at $16 a 750-ml. The brand is aimed at restaurant and wine bar accounts—its Cabernet Sauvignon is 84% on-premise—with a target by-the-glass price point of $10.
Current production levels for Prelius are nearly double those of Volpaia’s Chianti Classico-based labels. The winery produced between 80,000 and 100,000 bottles of the wine in 2016, with Cabernet Sauvignon accounting for 80% of total volume. “The Cabernet Sauvignon is like a bridge that connects the public with Prelius,” says third-generation Volpaia family member Federica Mascheroni Stianti. “Everybody knows the grape, but this is an expression with an Italian personality.”
Though the Vermentino has a smaller following, Mascheroni Stianti sees great potential for the varietal in the future, given consumers’ growing affinity for experimentation. “Vermentino has an amazing freshness, and it’s becoming more well known all over the world,” she notes. “Even though the public has focused much more on other types of white grapes, like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, they are now willing to experiment and are asking for new international white wines.”
Wilson Daniels, Volpaia’s U.S. importer since 2007, distributed 60,000 bottles of Prelius to 46 markets in 2016. Volpaia is gearing up to launch its third Prelius label, a red blend, later this year. The new wine—which has been in production for a few years—will integrate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a touch of Sangiovese.
The rest of Volpaia’s portfolio consists of organically grown luxury offerings sourced from estate vineyards within the village of Volpaia, located about two hours north of Maremma in the heart of the Chianti Classico DOCG. Here, most of the winery’s 43 acres of vineyards rise at least 1,200 feet in elevation, towering over neighboring properties in the region. “When we talk about high vineyards in Chianti Classico, it usually means around 1,200 feet,” Mascheroni Stianti says. “Almost all of our vineyards start at 1,200 feet and go up. This makes a noticeable difference in the style of our wines; you can immediately recognize Volpaia.”
The estate’s flagship Chianti Classico ($21 a 750-ml.) is the key driver. Chianti Classico Riserva ($29) and a number of single-vineyard wines—Coltassala ($70), Balifico ($70), and Il Puro ($151)—round out the lineup. Il Puro in particular represents yet another designation within the Chianti region. The wine is labeled as a Gran Selezione, a new quality tier created in 2013 that sits one spot above Riserva in the Chianti hierarchy. According to Mascheroni Stianti, the new designation serves to further elevate the Chianti region by enforcing even higher quality standards and aging rules. As a result of the outstanding 2015 growing season, the 2015 vintage of Coltassala will also be branded a Gran Selezione.
Despite their great variety, all of Volpaia’s offerings share one common feature: being certified organic. The winery was a pioneer of the organic winemaking movement within the Chianti Classico region, setting off on the path to certification in 2001. The inaugural organic vintage debuted in 2003, and since then many of the region’s other winemakers have taken to the trend. Today, almost 80% of Chianti producers are certified organic. “Going organic was a great move for us because it speaks to the healthiness of the fruit,” Mascheroni Stianti says. “We’ll definitely have less quantity, but fewer grapes means the plant has much more concentration, so there’s a higher quality fruit, and ultimately, a higher quality wine.”
Volpaia’s organic ethos extends well beyond the vineyard, and is evident in its namesake village as well. First settled in the 11th century, the village today maintains its medieval layout, with many of its original structures and a section of its protective wall still in place. Behind some of those ancient stone façades lies modern winemaking technology—the winery conducts renovations by taking rooftops off to preserve the delicate walls—and electrical wiring runs almost exclusively underground. This is thanks in large part to the Mascheroni Stianti family, which owns two-thirds of the village and has long worked to preserve its historic nature. “We want to give life to the village, and keep it there,” Mascheroni Stianti says. “If we moved our business to a different area, it would become a ghost village, no more than a touristic theater.” Indeed, local residents largely rely on the tourism and commerce that the winery attracts, and many contribute to the winery in both direct and indirect ways.
Though inclement weather negatively affected the 2017 harvest and resulted in a 30% decline in production, Volpaia generally produces around 20,000-25,000 9-liter cases annually, 10% of which are IGT rather than DOCG. Across all of Volpaia’s wines sold in the U.S., depletions were up 37% in the 12 months through September 2017, and Wilson Daniels expects that growth to continue this year. Looking ahead, Mascheroni Stianti believes Volpaia’s dedication to certified-organic winemaking will continue to pay dividends, and she projects that the launch of the new Prelius red blend will drive further progress for the estate.