Tenuta Castelbuono: Carapace, corkscrew stairs down into the heart of the matter
Red stairs lead into the barrel room and the inner sanctum

Architecture & Italian wine: a turtle’s glory

Wine is alive inside Pomodoro’s living sculpture

The Carapace, a winery designed by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro for Tenuta Castelbuono near Montefalco, is a rarity, for it is everything an architectural masterpiece and working winery should be. Quite simply, I fell in love with it once I got past the first impression of looking at an Umbrian turtle shell and began to drift through the building as a sensual experience.

Visually, from the outside it offers a liquid flow of hard materials — concrete walls, cracked copper roof, wooden voussoirs (although technically it is a dome with supporting arches) and supporting beams — in rich and varied hues that are comforting reminders of the Earth and solidity. Inside, these are punctuated by bright to dark cherry tones, so appropriate given that the great wine of Montefalco is Sagrantino DOCG. When aged for 10 years this dry wine is a deep ruby colour with violet and garnet highlights. The nose is a symphony of dark cherry, blackberry, blueberry, leather, liquorice, spices and chocolate notes that vary depending on vintage and the terroir.

Left, my hermit’s room. Right, natural light filters down and mingles with artificial. Lighting by Barbara Balestreri

Light play is an extraordinary feature, coming from the sky at odd angles thanks to the dome structure, andfrom ingeniously recessed lighting, filtering down to an appropriate level of brightness for each layer until you reach the inner sanctum hermit’s room (my term for it) and the slightly dimmer, softer barrel room that surrounds it. I dream of being a hermit here.

I’ve visited several wineries designed by noted architects, including some in California, Spain and Portugal. Many are in Italy, particularly in Tuscany. A Swiss lineup comes to mind, too — Mario Botta’s Petra winery in Tuscany or the smaller scale Moncucchetto in Ticino, Switzerland, the simpler contemporary Colle Massari winery in Tuscay that belongs to the Tipo/Bertarelli family of biotechnology and sailing fame.

I’m a winelover, and for me the wine always seemed to be a sideshow in these otherwise magnificent buildings. Yes, wine is made in them, but the soul of the work seems to take refuge in appearances rather than functionality.

Wine doesn’t happen in a space: it is made, created, given life and room to breathe, and the space for that work should focus on this process.

The Carapace, built between 2006 and 2012, is architecturally pleasing but wine — o joy! — is very much at the centre of it, in every sense. Details are rooted in the landscape that is home to the vines. The cracks in the copper roof with its young patina are like the furrows in Umbria’s hills. The space lends itself to gentle breathing and I tease myself for pausing to listen for wine quietly maturing in amphores and barrels.

Not surprising then, that the Lunelli wines made here are some of the finest produced in Montefalco, particularly the Sagrantino DOCGs.

Back to the wine. Standing on the corkscrew staircase, where light filters from the cracks in the rooftop copper plates, and into the cellar, wine at work teases my nose.

Pioneering work to make Sagrantino DOCG wines, dry reds, includes testing ceramic amphores, concrete eggs

Pomodoro, in a discussion about his inspiration for the work, says

“I wanted to replace the rules and values of conventional architecture with a new invention and I had the idea of a large animal, a tortoise, which sends out messages about this historical landscape’s archaic durability. The problem was that the cellar, which was designed to be below ground level, was intended not only to welcome people who go there to taste the wine, but also to house the process of completing the wine by storing it in wooden barrique casks. It may have been the structure of the casks themselves (arched over like the tortoise shell) that stimulated me, together with the fact that the tortoise is a cosmopolitan animal (the coldest regions are the only places on Earth where you don’t find any tortoises) and is a symbol of longevity and stability. Moreover, with a carapace that is convex on the back and flat on the belly, the tortoise represents the union between sky and Earth.”

A red arrow sculpture by Pomodoro pierces the land just outside the building, drawing attention to it from afar. Sky and Earth.

The ribcage of the tortoise, or structure and ceiling of the dome, is built of reticular laminated wood.

Functional, beautiful, and rare: the Carapace is a living sculpture, one you can walk into and move around in, feel the shift of light and textures, breathe in aromas that are finding their way in the dark and, ultimately, taste the wine that comes to life here — if you’re lucky, from an in-the-works barrel sample, for fine wines from great grapes are living, evolving products.

This is a place where wine is at work, in a building that works for the wine. A bow to the Lunelli family, best known for making Ferrari sparkling wines in Trentino, for this larger vision, and to artist Pomodoro, now 91 years old, who obliges us to rethink sculptured space.

Further reading, the Carapace and Sagrantino

Domus magazine, 2012

New Atlas, 2012

Arnaldo Pomodoro video interview (Italian), 2 min 53, Vimeo

Ellen’s wine world: 4-part series, Umbrian good karma: the rebirth of Sagrantino; Best of Sagrantino; Sagrantino’s technical tamers, Photo gallery, Italy’s Carapace succeeds