For the Love of Land
A driveway lined by soaring cedars, flanked by horses grazing on fine Tuscan vegetation, provides a welcoming entrance as I travel along Il Borro’s long and pristine drive. Owned by Salvatore Ferragamo, the grandson of the famous luxury designer, the 700 hectare estate, situated in the heart of Tuscany between Florence, Siena, and Cortona, remains a hidden treasure surrounded by unspoiled nature and beauty. Since 2012, it has held the prestigious honor of being a Relais & Chateaux property, recognized for its sumptuous accommodations and fine amenities that elevate the experiences on offer, such as horseback riding, cooking classes, dining, and golf and spa treatments, among others.
But today, I was here to uncover Il Borro’s agriculture enterprise, and to do this with fervent vigor requires good shoes and a ride in a classic Land Rover Defender with Leonardo Cistullo, the agronomist who oversees the entire agriculture sector of Ferragamo’s Tuscan village, luxury resort, and winery. The Ferragamo family envisioned a completely sustainable property when, in 1993, they purchased the thousand year old hamlet that needed serious renovation. With great effort, they’ve turned Il Borro into a microcosm of vineyards – from which they make award-winning wines – olive oil, honey, and organic produce, not to mention a luxury resort with all the finer details. But beyond the luxurious suites and quaint strolls through the village, to understand the true beauty of Il Borro is to discover the “strength of this land” and their no-nonsense vision for sustainability.
I gathered myself into the 4x4 and with one slight turn, the quaint village paths quickly turned into a precipitous off-road climb. Gears lowered, clutch engaged, in moments we were on the back side of Il Borro, surrounded by a forest of trees, knee-high grass, and blocks of vineyards opening to clear meadows. It’s the part that hardly anybody ever sees, but immediately it gives the feeling that this is the heart of Ferragamo’s paradise.
Salvatore Ferragamo’s father Ferruccio fell in love with this land when he often came here to hunt. The untamed beauty continues to exist, as they’ve kept it as raw as they found it – original stone structures covered in intertwining vines, forested areas of chestnut, birch, and pines, unpaved roads, even a pheasant sighting because hunting is still game here. The only major difference is the addition of vineyards and major restoration and upgrading of the Medieval village.
“Il Borro is more than a hotel and winery. It’s a farm,” says Ferragamo. “We produce everything here and are big believers in sustainability.” He jokingly describes himself as “the farmer of the family” who, unlike other family members including his twin brother, followed their grandfather’s lead into the glamorous world of fashion. Instead, he was drawn to the wine industry at an early age.
At the vegetable farm, we drive slowly to keep the dust low. The flat and vast land is fertile and productive, with rows upon rows of organic produce, most of which is served at Il Borro’s dining spots Osteria del Borro and Il Borro Tuscan Bistro, while the rest is packaged with farm fresh eggs then sold and delivered to neighboring villages.
We pass a mare and her filly, apparently in training for field work. Soon, Cistullo asks us to close the windows. In minutes we enter a heavily canopied area and arrive at the apiary. Honey production is strong here, as is olive oil. Resources are used to their fullest. And waste, especially, is treated like gold.
Finally, a wide-open pasture emerges and meets the rolling green hills. In the distance, 35 strikingly large, white cattle graze. These are Chianinas, of Italian bloodlines and formerly a draft breed, they are now famous for the area’s Florentine steaks.
“Before tractors, these powerful cows were used for their strong, long legs,” says Ferragamo. “Our cows are very happy. We take their manure and use it to fill horns that we buy from the butcher and they are buried underground then resumed later and made into a powder and sprayed into the vineyard.”
Technically, in biodynamic terms, this is called Preparation 500 and it is created through the transformation of high-quality cow dung that has been put into cow horns and buried under the earth for the winter period. Once removed from the horn, the contents are placed in water that is vigorously stirred, then applied in homeopathic quantities to the soil, resulting in superior soil quality, microbial richness, crop vitality, and complete elimination of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
A stroll through the vineyard with careful observation, and I notice a tiny capsule hanging from a wire, which Ferragamo refers to as a “tea bag.” It’s a form of organic pest control that utilizes a predatory spider.
“It’s a hundred percent effective,” says Ferragamo. “The spider comes out of the tea bag and kills the red spider of Tuscany. He’s the pest, small but he can really damage the grapes.”
Clearly, the Ferragamo family values sustainable agriculture and strives to preserve the environment, leading by example with every aspect of this place. The property stretches into the Valdarno mountains at the foot of the Pratomango Mountains where a great lake once covered the valley during the Pliocene epoch. This left a rich and diverse patchwork of soils and a bedrock of sandstone topped with a layer of loam-rich soil and sandy clay matrix, which provides ideal growing conditions for making wine. Il Borro’s philosophy is to match the terroir of the property to the wines they produce.
“The more rocky area is ideal for Sangiovese,” says Ferragamo. “And as you come down to the valley floor to more sandy, pebbly soil from the run-off, you’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah wants more warmth and in the deeper parts of the valley, where there is compact clay soil, we plant Merlot.” In all, there are 45 hectares under vine. It is the diversity in soil that is the beauty of this area and the Ferragamos embrace this with equal love and respect.
Ferragamo stresses that organic farming can be done and realizes that there lies some skepticism in the world about biodynamic practices, but Il Borro’s principles have always favored organic pesticides and fertilizers over chemicals. Whatever they can do to encourage a healthy planet and maintain fully-sustainable village, they do, including producing their own electricity from their biomass power plant.
“We produce three times as much energy as we consume at Il Borro,” says Ferragamo. “If you take a gas car and drive it around the world, you can drive around it 225 times. That is the amount of CO2 emissions we actually save per year by using solar panels.”
Hotel key cards remind guests that they are in a negative carbon footprint area, indicating Il Borro’s energy autonomy. Exclusive use of natural substances of their vineyards, farms to feed the village and beyond, olive groves and bee hives, ethical and eco-sustainable cuisine, “zero-energy bills” powered exclusively by renewable energy. What more?
A visit to the nearby art gallery drives the message home with exhibits celebrating nature and the environment and contributes to a sound and cyclic earth. Among the many works of art, the gallery showcases Ferruccio Ferragamo’s private collection of 111 hand water-colored works from Saverio Manetti, (Florence 1723-1785). At the center lies an oversized bird nest, symbolizing the idea that life unleashed by a nest will go back to being part of the land, and the land will germinate again to renew life. A life-size sculpture of a Chianina cow stands curiously displayed with a bust of a man tied near her udders. And around the corner, in spatial arrangement, a collection of soil types that emerge from this land.
“Il Borro is not a hotel, Il Borro is a very authentic experience,” insists Ferragamo. It’s a special place – a lot of passion from me and my family.” Theirs is a tangible commitment to creating wine that reflects the real expression of their territory and maintaining a land for future generations, all while sharing it with the world as a world-class destination.
Ferruccio and Salvatore Ferragamo walk the vineyards
One of the estates 35 Chianinas cows and one of the estate’s vineyards