I’m peering into an iron grate set into the floor of an ancient cellar on a Tuscan wine estate. Through it, far below, I glimpse something extraordinary: a female nude in pink marble, kneeling in a pool of her own making, as water oozes from the tip of the fleshy flower that springs from her torso. In another cellar, a mysterious glass basin catches the light that enters from a single window, while in one of the estate’s two private chapels, a red disc glows intensely on the dark floor. It seems like a portal to the underworld, especially when, reaching down to touch it, you can see your hand pass right through what had seemed to be a flat surface.
By Louise Bourgeois, Roni Horn and Anish Kapoor, respectively, these are just three of the 16 site-specific art pieces that have been commissioned by Lorenza Sebasti and Marco Pallanti, owners of leading Chianti Classico estate Castello di Ama, since 1999. Originally arising from a collaboration with Tuscany’s influential Galleria Continua, the collection has been managed since 2015 by independent curator Philip Larratt-Smith.
It’s not as if Castello di Ama needs the art to boost the reputation of its wines. Singled out for praise as long ago as 1773 by Pietro Leopoldo, the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, the vineyards around what appears more a fortified village than a castle were rescued from neglect in the early 1980s with the help of Pallanti, a Tuscan winemaker who had studied in Bordeaux. Today, Castello di Ama is at the forefront of the renaissance of Chianti Classico, the top level of wine from the Chianti appellation, which now competes with Brunello as one of the great wines of Tuscany. Meanwhile, the estate’s Merlot, L’Apparita – whose 2016 vintage was awarded a perfect 100 points by the critic Antonio Galloni – is one of the region’s most spectacular and sought-after IGT wines.
The artist needs to be inspired by the genius loci, just as the winemaker has to be possessed by terroir in order to create something masterful and unrepeatable
At an October event to present the latest addition to the collection – a delicate, mystic installation by Polish artist Mirosław Bałka – Sebasti and Pallanti entertained around 50 guests, including some of the world’s leading museum directors and curators. Over a glass of L’Apparita 2008, Pallanti explained that Castello di Ama ‘has three legs: landscape, wine and art, each one intimately connected with the other two’. So intimate, indeed, that Bałka’s work was installed amid the steel blending vats in the working part of the winery. As Frances Morris, director of London’s Tate Modern, commented when we emerged from the hidden barrel-vaulted cellar where Korean artist Lee Ufan created his captivating, winehued work Topos (Excavated) in 2016, ‘The lovely thing about this collection is that you have to seek the works out. It’s the opposite of a sculpture park.’
Sebasti and Pallanti work closely with the artists on the pieces and their location within the estate: Balka visited seven times before his work was finally installed. ‘The artist needs to be inspired by the genius loci,’ Sebasti said, ‘just as the winemaker has to be possessed by terroir in order to create something masterful and unrepeatable.’
Castello di Ama isn’t the only vineyard with an art collection: A Sonoma vineyard is also a vast sculpture garden, the vines punctuated by dramatic works from some of the world’s most renowned artists, and in the high desert valleys of Argentina, Bodega Colomé is home to the intense and vibrant light installations of James Turrell.