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Italy’s Winemakers Barrel Ahead With Chestnut

A new generation of Italian winemakers discovers the benefits of chestnut wood

Sarah May Grunwald By June 2, 2021
Alfredo Sannibale, a chestnut barrel maker, in his workshop.
Alfredo Sannibale, chestnut barrel maker. Photo courtesy of Sarah May Grunwald.

Alfredo Sannibale’s workshop is packed with metal hoops, wooden staves, saws, and old Italian machinery, and filled with the smell of sawdust and motor oil. 

It’s the only chestnut barrel workshop still in existence in Lazio. When he started working there in the 1950s, there were nine other workshops in the area. But things had already begun to change after World War II and today, only one remains — and Sannibale is semi-retired.

“This workshop has been here since 1860,” says Sannibale. “My great-grandfather started this workshop. He had two sons, including my grandfather, who had four sons, and two became barrel makers. I am the youngest son and the only one who joined the workshop. I have two children, and neither are interested in this work.” 

Now, though, a new group of winemakers is interested and Sannibale has, much to his own surprise, become a mentor to a new generation keen to continue his craft.

The wood of Castanea sativa

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact date that wooden barrels appeared in Italy, it’s known that barrels became increasingly important as the Roman Empire expanded. Wine was paramount to Roman identity, and to transport a large amount of wine across an empire, merchants needed a more efficient system than the fragile amphorae they were using. Romans likely adopted the use of wooden barrels from the Celts sometime in the third century BCE. Barrels were larger and wouldn’t break like clay vessels. They could be rolled during transport, and used as a vessel for both fermentation and refining. 

Oak was not always the primary wood. Throughout wine history, vintners and merchants have often used wood from locally available species. In Italy, this usually meant chestnut, cherry, and acacia, because Italian oak was not good for wine production and storage.  

In the Castelli Romani, a group of towns perched atop two volcanic crater lakes southeast of Rome, chestnut (Castanea sativa) was the most commonly-used wood. The forests were planted in the 19th century for food and wine production, providing wood for barrels and stakes in the vineyards. They created a circular, localized economy. The town Albano Laziale was the center of barrel-making activity. Before 1960, it was home to at least ten workshops busily making barrels for local winemakers.

“Albano was the center of barrel making in Castelli Romani because it is the most central, and it is right on the Appian Way,” says Sannibale. “It was a fork in the road to wine-producing areas like Genzano and Marino or Frascati and Grottaferrata.”

It is really neutral compared to oak with its vanilla tannins. It’s certainly also more neutral than acacia, which gives the wine sweetness. This exceptional wood for wine has been forgotten.

By the 1960s, however, the use of chestnut became rare as industrial winemakers started to favor steel, resin, and large oak barrels, along with international grape varieties. 

“Before, producers had small plots of one to three acres and made a small amount of wine,” says Sannibale. “Then the industrial producers moved in and planted huge acreages of vines. The small producers could not hold on.” 

With his barrels no longer in demand, Sannibale retired from barrel making in the 1970s and joined the local fire brigade. He kept his workshop open for other carpentry projects, but his heart remained true to the barrels. In 2014, Daniele Presuti and Chiara Bianchi of Cantina Ribelà bought their vineyards and started building their cantina and home, hoping to make good wine informed by deep and meaningful anthropological research into the area’s wine. They came across a book by Simona Soprano and learned about Sannibale. They ordered their first barrel from him in 2016. Soon, other interested winemakers started commissioning work from him.

Newcomers to chestnut

Most winemakers say they like what chestnut does to their wines. It promotes micro-oxygenation that helps the wines breathe, and also imparts an elegant tannic structure that allows the wine to age. The element of using local wood and respecting tradition is also key to this chestnut revival. 

“Using a living material like wood allows the wine to have a natural micro-oxygenation, which you must take care of manually,” explains Presuti. “It was fundamental to have found Alfredo, a craftsman from our area who takes care of the whole process, from the seasoning of the wood to delivery to the cellar. He reflected the coherence of making wine in an artisanal way and with local material and knowledge.”

Cantine Riccardi Reale’s Piero Riccardi, whose grandfather made barrels for winemakers in Olevano Romano, says that if the chestnut comes from poor, siliceous, or volcanic soils, it’s perfect for wine barrels. 

“It is not true that it has rough or inelegant tannins,” he says. “It is really neutral compared to oak with its vanilla tannins. It’s certainly also more neutral than acacia, which gives the wine sweetness. This exceptional wood for wine has been forgotten.”

For Antonio and Daniela de Gruttola of Campania-based Cantina Giardino, using chestnut barrels is a matter of tradition. They work with old vines and a local barrel maker. There is a long tradition of using chestnut barrels in the area, and they wanted to respect this. They look to the past to make their wines, and they agree that chestnut barrels offer a perfect level of micro-oxygenation and elegant tannic structure other vessels cannot, including the terracotta amphorae they also use. 

A new generation is reviving a tradition that was almost lost to history. Hopefully, Sannibale will have the opportunity to teach his skills to a new generation of barrel makers. Until then, he is happily getting his calloused, working hands on new projects — but only until 1 p.m., when he goes home to have lunch with his wife.  

3 chestnut barrel-aged wines to try:

bottle of Cantine Riccardi Reale Tucuca Rosato Lazio 2019

Cantine Riccardi Reale Tucuca Rosato Lazio 2019 ($23)

A gorgeous rosé made from the Cesanese grape, this wine is pink with orange hues and evokes strawberries, pomegranates, sweet spices, and dried roses. It’s juicy and easy to drink, with lively acidity, a hint of pepper, and a warm, long finish. 

bottle of Cantina Giardino Gaia Fiano Campania 2018

Cantina Giardino Gaia Fiano Campania 2018 ($33)

This white wine is very bold, with aromas of ripe stone fruit with a hint of sour yellow plum, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Quite fleshy, with refreshing acidity, it has just the slightest touch of funk and evolves quite nicely while drinking. 

bottle of Cantina Ribelà Saittole Bianco Lazio 2016

Cantina Ribelà Saittole Bianco Lazio 2016 ($39)

A typical Lazio blend of Malvasia and Trebbiano, this wine has a very light amber color due to several days of maceration. Stone fruit, grapefruit, and lemon aromas; green apples, orange peel, white flowers, honey, and a hint of earthiness. The wine is vibrant and saline, with a bit of grippy tannic structure in the finish. Well-balanced.