The northern approach to Castiglion del Bosco is along one of the strade bianche, the famous unfinished white roads of this part of Tuscany. It’s really very democratic – Porsches and hired Fiats alike have to navigate the potholes. Gleaming blacktop starts just as you pass through a stone gateway on to private land. Suddenly you’re on familiar ground as you step out of your dust-coated car and a uniformed concierge ushers you into a dim, cool reception area. You’ve arrived at one of Tuscany’s most exclusive resorts, a paradise of cypress-shaded paths and diligently restored ancient buildings. The fact that you’ve navigated two miles of rutted gravel to get here adds to the sense that you’re in an enchanted enclave.
Massimo Ferragamo came to Tuscany in 2003 on the lookout for a modest Brunello vineyard and ended up buying a town. It was as much of a surprise to him as it was to everyone else – ‘a moment of weakness’, he says. A friend was showing him around, and they visited the Capanna vineyard, a particularly fine slate hillside, certified Brunello di Montalcino and part of the 1,800ha Castiglion del Bosco estate.
‘I looked at Castiglion with curiosity but not with interest,’ Ferragamo tells me. ‘I wanted eight to 10 hectares, and this was nearly 60 and it came with 1,800ha of land, so I definitely thought it wasn’t for me.’
But then they visited the steep, exposed Capanna and looked down over the thickly wooded hills, with the dilapidated stone buildings of the town nestled among them. Castiglion had been derelict for more than a decade, and many of the buildings were roofless. But the vineyard was in good condition. ‘I had a moment of weakness, and then I started thinking, “How can I make this work?”’
It’s like falling in love; it’s a moment of realisation that you can’t step back from.
And of course, once you’ve crossed that line, there’s no going back. ‘It’s like falling in love; it’s a moment of realisation that you can’t step back from. You can’t plan for that sort of thing.’
So, Ferragamo – the youngest son of Salvatore Ferragamo, founder of the international shoe-to-luxury-leathers-goods empire – bought a deserted feudal town. Castiglion del Bosco comprised the ruined castle dating from 1100, 20 farms and their attendant buildings, a police station and – the jewel in the crown – the 14th-century chapel of San Michele Arcangelo, with its 1345 mural by Pietro Lorenzetti. The borgo, previously the centre of the community, now forms the main body of the resort, a cluster of buildings on the side of the hill, shaded by cypresses and Italian oaks. The azure blue of a swimming pool shimmers on a terrace overlooking the vast Tuscan landscape.
Today, Castiglion del Bosco consists of the winery, a 23-room hotel, two restaurants, a spa, a Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course, and 11 villas. In 2015, the international hotel group Rosewood came in as Ferragamo’s partner in the venture.
When I first meet Ferragamo, in one of the small, comfortable sitting rooms that you come upon in this sort of place, he’s chatting to Matteo Temperini, his executive chef, whose forefinger is extravagantly bandaged. ‘Nine stitches,’ he tells me with rueful pride. ‘He offended me, you see, and this is what happens,’ his boss says, and Temperini starts chuckling. Ferragamo is an easy and genial host. He obviously loves Castiglion – he spends more than half his time here, since his day job as chairman of Ferragamo USA does not demand all of his attention – and as we walk around, he’s constantly pointing out details. ‘See this swallow’s nest? They were dropping on the guests. We couldn’t move it, so we had to build this shelf underneath it.’
He has the easy confidence of the youngest of a big family. Salvatore died when Massimo was an infant, and it was his indomitable mother Wanda who brought up the six children and carried on the thriving shoe business. ‘My father died in August , and in September the factory reopened, with my mother there at her desk. She held the company and the family together. She died last year, aged 97, and three days before that she was in her office. She never even used a walking stick.’
He didn’t know his father, but Salvatore – ‘he came to America with $10 in his pocket’ – was nevertheless a powerful presence. I ask Massimo what he has inherited from him. He looks slightly uncomfortable. ‘He was an incredible man, a genius, and the sons of men like that never inherit that talent. You get a Lionel Messi or a Ronaldo once every 100 generations.’
He thinks for a moment. ‘Sometimes I have a feeling for what is right. I don’t want to say “vision”, because I admire people who have vision and I don’t know if I have it. My skill, maybe, is to see the whole ensemble. When I took on Castiglion del Bosco, I saw it as it is today.’
The Ferragamos – Massimo’s wife Chiara is in charge of every detail of interior design – have looked after their purchase with an obsessive attention to detail. From the fine parquet on the floors of the (€1,800/$2,000-a-night) rooms, to the heavy little brass golf-ball key fobs of the golf house lockers; from the decorated walls, to the hand-woven carpets and the warp and weft of the table linen, nothing is there by chance. At lunch in the trattoria, which is the former priest’s house (his bread oven is now used for wood-fired pizza), Chiara tells me how she goes about selecting tablecloths. She generally orders around 50 samples of varying weight, shade and weave. She tests these against different types of light – morning, noon and evening – and different types of table, and with selections of tableware. ‘I have to think, “Does that plate work with that cloth?”’ The variables quickly become dizzying. And that’s just the tablecloths. I don’t ask about napkins.
The key, Massimo says, is authenticity. ‘You don’t want to restore anything too much. We always try to be true to the region. Almost all the materials we use are from here.’ When a wall needed to be rebuilt, as it was dismantled the old stones were numbered, so that each could be put back in its original position. Houses that had crumbled were restored and extended, but faithfully. The Lorenzetti fresco had thankfully escaped damage, but the chapel’s roof was rebuilt using local wood.
The fact that the estate is in the middle of the Unesco World Heritage Site of Val d’Orcia must concentrate the mind – the bunkers on the golf course have to be filled with dark sand, not white, for example – but Ferragamo’s instinct is to preserve, not change. When he took over, some houses were in fair condition, and some were ruins. Of one (which is now the central hotel building) he says, ‘We had to renovate the whole thing, but you can destroy things that are centuries old by renovation. I remember seeing it and seeing its character, and I said to the team of designers and architects, “When we are finished, it has to look exactly the way it does today.”’
So, the golf clubhouse – from the outside, at least – looks just like a rather well-kept Tuscan farmhouse. (Inside, it’s the acme of luxury.) ‘It’s important to be elegant, but it doesn’t have to be lavish,’ Ferragamo says. You might be forgiven for looking about you and wondering, ‘If this isn’t lavish, what is?’ But he is choosing his words to convey a certain tastefulness. After a while, you notice it: how the material of a chair cover is echoed in a lampshade; how a particular shade of green is prevalent in the rooms, on the walls and on the artfully placed cushions on a porch bench. Then you see the greens are there because they echo the tailored box hedges and the native cacti, and your eye travels to the densely forested hills that make up 70% of the estate.
The beauty of Tuscany always makes you catch your breath. As we stand in the Capanna vineyard and gaze over the Castiglion estate (its borders seem infinitely far in the hazy July heat), Ferragamo’s decision seems perfectly logical. What other response could there be to such a landscape than an urge to possess it and cherish it? So, Ferragamo found himself owner of 58ha of fine Brunello di Montalcino, the fifth-largest holding in the appellation. The vineyards were in good condition when he took over. They are high and steep (‘I like ventilated, windy, fresh terroir’), with wonderful views over the ocean to the west, the vines small and robust in a soil that, at the top, in the Campo del Drago parcel, is pure, rock-studded schist.
Ferragamo’s ambition is to produce world-class Brunello. ‘The first thing I found out before I bought it was whether you could make one of the best Brunellos in the region.’ There is no reason why he shouldn’t: he has the terroir. The wines at the moment (see tasting notes) are fresh and bright, with a nice directness. They are not yet competing with the giants of the appellation, but there’s a down-to-earth honesty about them that is very attractive. The Brunello 2014, for example, was a cool and difficult vintage that many considered not good enough. Winemaker Cecilia Leoneschi rejects this view. ‘I have no patience with people who say they won’t produce Brunello in a mediocre year. You have to recognise the vintage; you have to witness it.’
This attitude towards vintage strikes me as appealingly humble. Vignerons (especially Burgundians, I find) love to refer to themselves as mere farmers, quite at the mercy of the weather. But farmers have to get their corn in, come what may; deciding to forgo the harvest is a luxury they can’t afford. Ferragamo (a ‘clear and patient owner who wants to do the best for the wines’, according to Leoneschi) sees himself as a guiding hand rather than a hands-on owner. ‘I don’t get involved in the blending, but I spend time tasting and looking at the different styles. In every great wine, there is always the character of someone. But that’s easier said than done – it’s all interpretation.’
When it comes to the wider estate, Ferragamo’s interpretation of his role is simply ‘to bring Castiglion del Bosco back to where it belongs’. So, while we are certainly strolling the grounds of an ultra-luxurious country estate (when I arrive there’s a Ferrari being tended to in the forecourt), it does have the slightly surreal calm of a sun-drenched Tuscan village. This feeling is intensified as we come out of the brightness into the cool of the chapel. Ferragamo points out the date on the mural – CCCXLV (1345; damaged plaster has led to the loss of the initial M, for 1000) – and to his evident delight discovers a detail that he hasn’t seen before. It’s obvious that he feels not so much that he owns this lovely piece of history but that he’s been entrusted with it.
Houses rise and fall. There are abandoned villages all over Italy (and Spain, for that matter); it takes a certain vision, and financial clout, to see not only new life but profit in caved-in walls and rotting roofs. Ferragamo – and Rosewood – have created something enduring in this corner of Tuscany. On one level, Castiglion del Bosco is a hotel run to the most exacting of international standards. At the same time, it’s also an exercise in conservation.
‘We bought an estate with centuries of history behind it,’ he says. Some of it is ancient indeed, but even the 20th-century part of it seems impossibly remote; it’s hard to imagine the €5,000-a-night Villa Chiusa was a police station not much more than a generation ago. But then he tells me that there are people working on the estate who were farmhands in the olden days – and the nuns of Buonconvento, at the bottom of the hill, have been up to thank Ferragamo for restoring the cemetery. History is closer than we think.