Grace and determination, respect for tradition but also the courage to innovate: Agnese Mazzei is an all-round architect.
From his studio in Florence come projects for luxurious private residences, restoration works (his specialization) of ancient castles, villages and farmhouses, gardens and you work in the hospitality field.
And many winery projects, tackled "as an 'insider', because being born into a family that produces wine is essential for the spirit with which you approach the subject".
Furthermore, Agnese Mzzei's family is not just any family: it has been making wine in Tuscany for over 25 generations and counts among its ancestors Ser Lapo Mazzei, the first to name, in a notarial document from 1398, a certain 'Chianti wine'.
Are you aware that you are probably the female architect who has designed the most wineries in Italy?
“I thought about it for a long time, and at first I even enjoyed playing with it,” she says. "But now I care relatively and above all it seems to me that the question does not interest anyone".
Agnese Mazzei told through her projects
Brief overview of her projects in the wine sector.
The first was, in 1995, the cellar La Brancaia in Radda in Chianti, where he began to experiment with the theme of natural fall winemaking.
Follows Brolio-Ricasoli in Gaiole in Chianti: here , she explains, intervened on existing spaces, re-adapting the old cellars into conference rooms and some rooms into barrel cellars.
In the meantime, she worked on the Fonterutoli project, which lasted over ten years ... "Indeed, I still consider it in progress!"
Agnese Mazzei continues: “Subsequently the Antinori family entrusted me with the task of La Braccesca winery in Montepulciano. There I created a C-shaped building, typical of the Tuscan countryside, to house offices, a tasting room, a vinification cellar and a barrique cellar".
Then we arrive at the most iconic experience, that of Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri. “I also designed the cellar of Villa Taverna, residence of the US ambassador in Rome, and I have several unrealized projects, from Scansano to Sicily. The latest addition is the Ipsus winery - Il Caggio in Siena (2021), still in our family".
Client and architect: the Fonterutoli Castle project
Inaugurated in 2008, it is among the first cellars of a certain size built in the Chianti Classico area.
“It was not born as an image cellar”, explains Mazzei, “even if I immediately thought of it as open to visitors. In fact, it was born on the production process, but this does not mean it is industrial. On the contrary the approach is sartorial, because the spaces were designed according to the wine we wanted to make".
That is a wine that enhances the terroir, very jagged, divided between three municipalities, with 73 different vineyards and 120 parcels: hence the presence of 74 tanks, for ad hoc micro-vinifications of the individual crus. The aim was to convey all the company's functions in one place, production, offices and representation, so far scattered throughout the village.
“Thus was born the idea of a single building that embraces a square, inspired by the ancient brick factories”, explains Agnese Mazzei.
“I translated a form with a certain contemporaneity and worked on the details, such as the design of the shaped brick cladding, a tribute to Siena. The square is the center where everything happens; during the harvest it's like a village!
This is where the process starts: arrival of grapes, fall, vinification, aging.
Ten thousand square meters for 75% underground: from the zero level of the square to the -15 meters of the barrel room, all passages take place by natural gravity, on whose exploitation the entire project is based.
This involved a huge team of oenologists, structural engineers, plant experts, consultants for the more industrial part to which I gave order and cleanliness, also thinking about the circularity of the routes.
The sancta sanctorum is the barrel cellar. It is reached via an oval staircase, scenic but secluded, different from the theatrical ones placed at the center of almost all contemporary cellars. It allows for a gradual perception of space, the progressive and dynamic discovery of different perspectives”.
A sustainable project
The fact that the cellar is three-quarters underground gives great advantages.
In the barrel cellar there is no air conditioning or humidification system. “During the excavation work we unearthed a stupendous rock wall, on which water flowed from no less than eight small springs: we incorporated it into the barrel cellar project and transformed it into a painting.
This rock is the secret of the quality and identity of our wines, but it is also a natural substitute for the air conditioning system, which is absent here. It guarantees constant temperature and humidity, I just added the ventilation chimneys. All the excavated material has been recycled, flowing into many streets in the surrounding area. We are currently building a solar panel system”.
Designing spaces for Italy's most famous wine
In 2008, the project for Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri, temple of Sassicaia. What does it mean for a wine-architect to design spaces for Italy's most famous wine?
“Sassicaia is an amazing name, a beautiful story, a production of absolute excellence”, explains Mazzei. “I was commissioned by the Marquis Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta, an extraordinary man who gave me a sense of beauty and from whom I learned a lot.
A low profile person, he didn't care at all about giving visibility to the cellar, on the contrary. It was for less appearance and a lot of substance: I want a quiet thing, he told me. The place, along the famous avenue of cypresses, had an incredible charm, typical of a still very traditional farm. But he needed a separate space for the refinement of Sassicaia, an organized and articulated environment that could welcome a few selected visitors".
Recovering the volume of an old greenhouse, demolished, Agnese Mazzei designed a new building orthogonal to the existing winery. It develops in two wings connected by a central body, on two levels, and houses the barrique cellar, tasting room, reception, services and warehouse.
“I have not felt the 'weight' of working around an iconic wine, precisely because of the marquis' lesson in understatement.
I understood it later, between amusement and embarrassment, when during a trip to America, presented as 'the architect who designed the Sassicaia cellar', they suddenly started treating me like a personality!”.
How do you approach the project of a cellar? Is there a method?
Agnese Mazzei: "It's essential to have interlocutors who can tell you what exactly they want from that cellar. The first step is to sit down at a table with the client and the oenologist, whose presence is essential, because he has such specific ideas on the number, type and size of the vinification and aging tanks, on the routes, the organization of work and the movements, which you start building around the spaces you need.
The heights, which depend on the type of tanks used, and the width of the corridors are defined immediately. Then the routes: many cellars are open to the public, so it is necessary to differentiate the itineraries of visitors and operators.
The phenomenon of signature cellars
What does Agnese Mazzei think of the phenomenon of designer cellars? How important is it for a producer to have a branded office?
“A great architectural leap has taken place in Tuscany since the mid-1990s”, he says, “with the incentives of the European community for production activities added to those of the new regional law on business plans, which have allowed to renew the structures of the farms, still traditional, pre-war. We were among the first to use them”.
“When I visit a winery, I immediately understand the identity of the client. In some you immediately breathe the passion, the philosophy of the winemaker, in others you see the architect more. The Fonterutoli cellar has been fundamental to our growth. Since we started making wine there, the quality of the wines has changed a lot, and they have recognized this. A great satisfaction for me".
What are the affinities between making wine and making architecture?
“Wine requires complex work, first in the vineyard and then in the cellar.
Architecture too is a complicated, tiring, methodical profession. They certainly have in common the aspect of being rooted in places, in the territory.
They also share the search for elegance: what you are looking for in wine you also pursue in the harmony of shapes and colors, in the atmosphere. And then time, understood as waiting, evolution, duration.
When you design, you must aim for the validity over time of your work, just like a wine must aim for constant quality".