Hoary Antinori Does it Again. And Again… And…

A cardinal difference between the outlook of Italians and Americans is that in Italy, a hundred miles is a long way while in the USA, a hundred years is a long time.

I think the Antinori family will confirm this.

Portuguese people

These venerable Tuscans have been pumping out wine for twenty-six generations, since 1385, the year that Great25Nonno Giovanni di Piero Antinori became part of the Arte Fiorentina dei Vinattieri.  Here’s a few other things that also happened that year:

  • Richard II, who became King of England at the age of ten, invades Scotland.  Epic fail.
  • France’s Charles VI marries Isabeau of Bavaria.  Charles, who thought he was made out of glass and frequently forgot his own name, was called ‘Charles the Mad’.  Isabeau wasn’t too happy about it either.
  • Portugal becomes an independent nation, and the world has had to contend with Portuguese people ever since.
  • Jan van Eyck, the Flemish painter is born; Xu Da, Chinese military leader and co-founder of the Ming Dynasty, who was allergic to goose meat, dies after eating goose meat.  Another epic fail.

Marchese Piero and daughters, not King Lear.

A lot of Chianti has passed beneath the bridge since then, but the ancient clan still sports an Antinori at the tiller.  Marchese Piero Antinori is the winery’s current director, with plenty of support from his trio of lyrically-named daughters, Albiera, Allegra and Alessia.

The passion and predisposition that have driven the Marchesi Antinoris for these six centuries have secured them a spot as one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished wine families, but as Marchese Piero loves to remind us:

“Ancient roots play an important role in our philosophy, but they have never held back our spirit of innovation…”

That’s ‘innovation’ with a capital ‘C’, my friends:  Controversy has been at the heart of many of Piero’s decisions, and if the gleam in his eye appears to have a slight purplish tint, it’s probably cabernet sauvignon.  Italian DOC laws are stricter than anything Hammurabi scribbled down on his crankiest day ever, and if you are going to make, say, a Chianti Classico, the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico grower’s union warns that you’d better not stray from legally mandated varietals—80% sangiovese, with an allowance of six other clones to make up the remaining 20%.  Flout these rules and you won’t just get your wrist slapped, you’ll get cold-cocked in the money clip.  You will not be permitted to wear the locality-defining black rooster on your bottle neck nor stamp your wine DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)—Italy’s highest quality designation.  Screw with the Consorzio, even by a grape or two, and you may not be sleeping with the fish, but you’ll definitely be sleeping with vino di tavola—Italy’s lowest status designation—on your wine label.

Fallen Angel

Well, with Piero, it wasn’t just a grape or two, it was a quarter of the crop.   Back in the 60’s, Chianti Classico went through a major choke—a collapse of purpose more disgraceful than the 1995 California Angels’ late-August, 9-game wild card lead over the Rangers, following which, despite odds of 8000 to 1 that they’d miss the playoffs, they missed the playoffs.  You’ll have to ask S.I. editors about the Angels, but Marchese Piero Antinori can explain what happened in Tuscany:

“When the Chianti formula was created, the red wines were particularly harsh because the whole grape bunch was utilized, even stalks, and no one knew about malolactic fermentation. This made it necessary to use a percentage of white grapes—originally malvasia—to soften the wine. Then it proved convenient and useful to add white grapes all the time so the more productive and hardy trebbiano became the white grape of choice. Over time, Chianti came to be made with 30 percent trebbiano and this radically altered the nature of Chianti. By the late 1960s, it was lighter in color with a simple structure and, worse still, it was unsuitable for aging.”

'71 Tignanello: You can still pick up a bottle for around $500

Inspired by a few local heretics like Azienda Agricola San Felice, Antinori began to radically reduce the amount of trebbiano in his Chianti, and in 1971, released Tignanello, a treb-free blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon.  It proved over-the-top opulent; seductive and elegant with an essence that seemed almost intrinsically Italian—it became a cult wine icon virtually overnight.  But it strayed from from the prescribed production code, and thus, the Consorzio would not classify the wine as DOCG but instead condemned it to the lowest rung on the wine ladder, VdT—a designation that indicates nothing more than that the wine was made in Italy—it may be mass produced or cobbled together from bulk-market juice.

Piero’s rejoinder?  A very cultured nobleman’s paraphrase of the gutter yawp: “Andate tutti a fanculo!”

And they hadn’t seen anything yet.

Tignanello’s comprehensive success among consumers and critics galvanized Tuscany, and more producers began to release non-traditional blends, mostly using Bordeaux varietals—and far from sweating their demeaning VdT classification, they soon found that these remarkable, rich and often expensive wines were being referred to by the cognoscenti as ‘Super Tuscans’.

And as prices continued to skyrocket, other Tuscan enologists, still making clunky and sub-standard Chiantis, realized that a lot of the egg that they use for fining was winding up on their faces.

Fiascos were a fiasco

Antinori’s bold defiance of regulations and subsequent triumphs (Cervaro della Sala, Gualdo al Tasso, Solaia) ultimately inspired a Chianti overhaul, first of the psyche, then of the psystem.  Classico producers began to clean up their act and then to embark upon the long road of convincing patrons (Americans especially) that Chianti Classico was not to be confused with cheap red wine bottled in straw-covered fiascos and plunked down on checkered tablecloths in generic paisano restaurants.  As a vital part of the renaissance, Chianti Classico was able to break its ties with Chianti, of which it had previously been a mere sub-zone, and in 1996, was awarded its own autonomous DOCG with a new and rigorous production code.  Among the tenets was the complete elimination of white wine grapes beginning in vintage 2006.  Ultimately, the Consorzio blinked, and in an attempt to bring the Super Tuscan winemakers back into the fold, created a whole new class for them: Indicazione Geografica Tipica,  or IGT.  Of course, that came with a new bunch of restrictions, and some Tuscan vintners (and a few winemakers in Piedmont and Veneto also, as the damn-the-torpedoes trend spread) continue to do exactly what they want, and accept the declassified ranking with a certain offbeat pride.  Viva L’Italia!

Atlas Peak: Some tough rows to hoe.

An Altitude Attitude

Meanwhile, Marchese Piero Antinori was not looking back, but over the ocean toward California.  In 1985, doing a survey of available acres in Napa, he found a boulder-and-chaparral-strewn pocket above Foss Valley in a little-known, high-elevation appellation called Atlas Peak.  Unlike Napa’s other, dominant mountain AVA’s—Veeder, Howell, Spring and Diamond—Atlas Peak was at the periphery of most  of the wine world’s California dreamin’.  As the consensus went, it was too cold, too rocky and too scraggy for wine grapes.  One brave pioneer, Bill Hill, had managed a raise a handful of vines there, but that was about it.  Still, with six hundred years of wine instinct coursing through his veins, the Marchese recognized that the area was above the fog, had well-drained soil and good exposures; and best of all, it looked like Tuscany.  Obviously, based on his family history, he had no problems with long-term strategies, and at the time, he said, “When I saw this property, I must say I immediately fell in love.”

Atlas Peak Shrugged

Except that, for a long time after that, it looked like love’s labors lost.  Vineyard manager Glenn Salva now admits to some classic winemaking missteps: Planting the wrong clone of cabernet on the wrong slope, planting much more sangiovese than was supportable, market-wise, and then, to satisfy investors, going for large crop loads—high yields equated to high-acid sangiovese without much character.   Plus, the grapes were picked too soon, resulting in hard green wines—the antithesis of the (then) growing consumer taste for lush, heavily-extracted, fruit-focused reds.

Glenn Salva

“Were we bad farmers?” Salva asks, somewhat rhetorically.  “ In hindsight, yeah. But at the time, we didn’t know.”

By 2004, they’d worked the bulk of the issues through, but by then most of the original investors had bailed, including Christian Bizot of Bollinger and Whitbread, the British brewer and hotelier.  Antinori gutted it out, and finally, in 2007, released 2004 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  Which says ‘Atlas Peak AVA’ a grand total of no times on the label, just in case the appellation had become, like Chianti in the 60’s and 70’s, indelibly associated with sour, plonky wine.

Antinori says, “My feeling is that the appellation Atlas Peak has not really gained a reputation that can give an added value to the wine.”

A Leap of Faith

Another Napa concern, one that’s indelibly associated with unsour, non-plonky wine, is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (the winery whose cab kicked French derrière at the now-infamous 1976 ‘Judgment of Paris’). In 1995, Antinori send Richter-scale shock waves through a fairly jaded industry by teaming up with Washington’s biggest winery, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and buying it.  Despite the shivery-cool $185 million that exchanged hands, former Stag’s Leap major domo Warren Winiarski claimed that his only true interest in cashing out was if he could his sell to his old pal the Marchese.

Separated at birth: Dabney Coleman and Michael Mondavi

The Marchese, in the interim, has continued to tweak his properties.  Beside the streamlined, ranch-style, patently un-Tuscan house he built on a ridgeline called Cougar Rock, and beside Col Solare—the Washington cabernet joint venture with Ste. Michelle—he set Glenn Silva to the task of buying up all the Atlas Peak property that came up on the block—for which he occasionally competed with such Napanese luminaries as Jan Krupp (Stagecoach Vineyard), Kerner Rombauer, John Kongsgaard (who Eric Asimov of the NY Times claims ‘makes the best chardonnay in California) and Michael Mondavi.  Also, his massive plantings of sangiovese have not survived, 80 acres pared down to ten: Antinori readily admits that his dream of producing a California Tenute Marchese or Badia a Passignano had become a prolonged nightmare, and the vines are being replaced by cabernet and chardonnay.

It’s a painstaking process, without question.  Now well into his seventies, you’d think that the snail’s pace of establishing a new label from a new vineyard in a new appellation would give Antinori a touch of agita, but no—things will be ready when he says they’re ready, and he’ll be finished when he wants to be finished.  Try to rush him and he’ll call you some aristocratic version of the street-level dis, cetriolo.

After all, the Marchese has the patience and perspicuity of someone who, when he gazes into the rearview mirror, can see all the way back to the 14th century.  I have no doubt that when the angels come a-calling, he’ll have some nice, polite Italian invectives for them too.

Tasting Notes:

An Antinori Sampler:

Villa Antinori Bianco, Toscana IGT, 2010, around $14:  Excellent drainage and volcanic soil makes for a clean, nicely-weighted, firmly acidic white; built around the titanic Tuscan two, trebbiano and malvasia, it has 35% pinot bianco and 15% riesling blended in to lend structure.   The wine displays a nice core of minerality that’s shored up by grapefruit flavors, pear scents and an elusive depth that seemingly plumbs (to a surprising depth) fruit rinds, almonds and exotic flowers; orchids especially.  An excellent value wine, ideal for light fish dishes and chicken breast.

Antinori Villa Toscana Rosso IGT, 2007, about $18:  A stylish and extracted red for the price point, which, for all of Antinori’s flavor dividends, can at times be sort of stratospheric.  First released in 1928, Toscana Rosso was the first of the estate’s wine specifically bottled for aging, and it’s make up—55% sangiovese, 25% cabernet and 15% merlot with the remainder being syrah—does not fit the Chianti formula, so the wine has been wearing the IGT hallmark since 2001.  A lively ruby in color which has just begun to brick-out at the rim, the wine flaunts a persistent bouquet of dried black cherry, wood spice and  a hint of chocolate.  It’s rich, but remains soft and supple on the palate.  A value red to counteract the Bianco on Prince Spaghetti Day… Wednesday, wasn’t it, Anthony?

Antinori Chianti Classico, Pèppoli DOCG, 2008, around $22:  Sangiovese’s muscular frame bellies forward; batting clean-up is a scant 10% blend of merlot and syrah, and they’re all managed by a 14-month stay in small French barrels.  A gorgeous nose and an aggressive, if still tightly-knit body are the result of the estate’s unique northeast-facing exposure, and the microclimate of the small, heat-retaining valley packed with mineral-rich soils.  A bit austere and chewy—something that cellar age should see to.

The Badia

Antinori Badia a Passignano, Chianti Classico Reserva DOCG, 2006, around $50:  They’ve been making wine at the abbey Badia a Passignano for a thousand years, and in 1983, a vine from that distant era was discovered, alive.  The Badia has been a center for learning as well as winemaking—Galileo Galilee taught mathematics here in the 16th century. Situated a couple of miles south of Tenuta Tignanello in one of the prettiest, most productive areas of Tuscany, Antinori only purchased the land in 1987.  But this generous garnet gem—the only wine that the estate produces—represents its illustrious history as proudly as a  wellspring of modern technique—newer sangiovese clones, severe grape bunch selection and often, delayed and cluster harvests.  Supremely expressive, Badia shows an intense nose of raspberry and violet, a palate juicy with cherry and black currant with some smoke, anise, mineral and hazelnut in the background.  Should continue to mature and improve until the mid-teens.

Antinori Family Antica, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2007, around $55:  It’s been nearly half a century since Marchese Piero first visited Napa, and now, his dream of making a Napa wine with his family’s imprimatur is no longer of the pipe variety.  First released in 2007, Antica has met with critical kudos, and has been reviewed as an amalgamation of Italian technique and California flavors  ‘Antica’, in fact, is a portmanteau combining ‘Antinori’ and ‘California’.  Fittingly, it’s also Italian for ‘ancient’, which is what Marchese Piero will be when ’08 Antica finally peaks in the wine cellar.  Not to say that it isn’t drinkable now, but the fruit/oak is has not yet melded into anything close to a seamless whole.  Obvious is rich black fruit, coffee, some foresty notes and a generally powerful sensory overload—something that Antinori was supposed to be eschewing in this label in favor of finesse and elegance.  In any case, it’s a wine that Californians should love provided it matures before their tastes change.

Col Solare, Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, 2007, about $70: Dio santos, remember the days when even the best Washington wines were cheap? Even so, $70 is pushing the limit—you’ll find many more top-rated Washington reds priced below this figure than above it. Nonetheless, Col Solare—a joint venture between Antinori and Chateau Ste. Michelle—is a full-throttle cab intended to be an amalgamation of Italy and Washington taste and technique.  The first thousand cases released in 1995 contained a percentage of syrah, but these days, the Rhônish workhorse has been replaced by cabernet franc.  And yet, if you were bent on Bordeaux’s profile, $70 would put you in the saddle of a Chateau Leoville Poyferre 2004 (2nd Cru Classé), a Chateau Ferriere Margaux 2008 (3rd Cru Classé), a Smith Haut Lafite Blanc 2006 (Premiers Cru Classé) or a Château La Couspaude 2010 (Grand Cru Classé.  Which is not to suggest that Col Solare is not a remarkable sip; it is, without question.  It’s redolent of blackberry liqueur, cassis, cinnamon, nutmeg and mocha it shows a gorgeous, mouth-coating density and a finish that’s nearly willing to overstay its welcome.  But unless you tack on the Antinori legacy as a rider, the winery is too new to have much of a backstory, and frankly, it doesn’t rank all that highly in Washington wine ratings.  In 2010, the ’07 vintage came in 33rd on the Seattle Times list of the top 100 Washington wines, 32nd  in The Washington Wine Report and in the Top 25 Washington Reds by Northwest Wines, it didn’t even appear.  Consider that it’s still early days, though; building a loyal and vocal following is often a customer-by-customer struggle.  If you’ll recall, Leonetti founder Gary Figgins spent his first few years making wine in a horse’s tack room where he raised rabbits.

Tignanello, Toscana IGT, 2007, about $80:  Pure ‘wow’ factor; a thrilling lady-in-waiting since waiting is what you’ll need to do for at least another half decade—as it stands, drinking a 2007 Tig now is as inappropriate as dating Emma Watson—they’re too darn young.  Make no mistake, the dusty tannins, super-ripe plums, the licorice, rosemary and chocolate will meld and marry—the wine is destined to become a colossus.

But not yet, grasshopper—not yet.

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