Top wines from Antinori
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2018)
All that is visible from afar is a deep, narrow incision in the slope of a Tuscan hillside – however, a large building soon becomes apparent. An extraordinary building, hidden between the olive groves, the vineyards and the oak forests. Here, wine is the very essence of every thought, of all work and of welcoming guests and visitors. This is a temple to wine and, above all, an homage to the Tuscan landscape and its vineyards. We are in Bargino, just half an hour by car from Florence, and today home to the new headquarters of Marchesi Antinori and the Chianti Classico wine estate.
Antinori is one of Italy’s most important wine families. Whenever people mention the name Antinori, they are referring to a wine family whose history is punctuated by innovation and care. It looks back at more than 600 years of viticulture and Antinori’s significance in Italian wine-making is inestimable. The best known location is the Tignanello Estate, home to Tignanello and Solaia wines, which both home to eponymous wines, which – under the auspices of Marchese Piero Antinori – have over the last decades written wine-making history: world-famous today as ‘Super-Tuscans’.
All throughout its history, the Antinori family has managed the business directly making innovative and sometimes bold decisions while upholding the utmost respect for traditions and the environment. The three daughters assumed the day-to-day running of the business from their father a few years ago. We spoke to Albiera Antinori about the generational changeover and how she will be managing the company in collaboration with her sisters in the future.
Ms Antinori, you and your two sisters took over the running of Antinori from your father two years ago. What was this generational changeover like?
It wasn’t really a changeover at all. Well, that’s not what I would call it. It was a process that occurred very naturally, as my sisters and I are still doing precisely those things we did before. And, of course, we can still consult our father in all matters – as I said, it was a completely natural process.
How do you divide the work? Are there clear responsibilities?
I wouldn’t say that there is any strict distribution of tasks. Each of us has a very clear sense of responsibility when it comes to continuing the family business. We are very well aware of what was achieved before we came along and what we have to do for the people who work with us. It is our responsibility to look after the property, to improve it and to preserve it for the next generation – just like those before us did for us. It is fantastic that you can bring your own personal passion to a family company and make your own mark; Alessia, for example, adores modern art. She looks after the collection of contemporary art at the Antinori Chianti Classico wine estate. This goes hand in hand with the works of art and documents collected by my ancestors over centuries, including our family’s coat of arms, designed by Giovanni della Robbia at the beginning of the 19th century. Thanks to her love of food and cooking, Allegra, in contrast, focusses on gastronomy projects – including the restaurants and wine bars. Conversely, I have always been interested in architecture and interior design. To this end, the development and construction of the Antinori Chianti Classico wine estate – which commenced in 2005 and was unveiled in 2012 – was my area of responsibility. It was a very challenging project in terms of time and also costs. However, I have to say that we have achieved an outstanding result – one that is functionally, aesthetically and also personally very exciting.
How do you jointly make decisions?
We speak about everything on a daily basis. We all believe that good internal communication is the basis for all successful business processes and that it is therefore absolutely essential. The only important question that we always ask ourselves before making definitive decisions for new projects, ventures or new ideas is: will these decisions have a positive impact on the state of the winery – both now and for future generations? Are they commercially and ethically sustainable?
Your father created the so-called ‘Super-Tuscans’. How did these come about?
Understanding the origins of the Super-Tuscans means going back to the 1960s. When Niccolò Antinori, my grandfather, handed the company over to his son Piero, Italian wine production, and Chianti Classico production in particular, was in deep crisis, a consequence of the post-war period and migration from the countryside to the cities. Many areas were left to their own devices. Most wineries were producing light and rather poor wines comprising up to 30 percent white Trebbiano grapes. People wanted cheap wine. Wine’s reputation was at an all-time low and prices had reached rock bottom. However, my father Piero was always convinced that there was a treasure that was simply waiting to be discovered. With our former vintner Giacomo Tachis, he followed the advice of French expert Émile Peynaud, together laying the foundations for transforming Tuscan wines. They opened the door to new, modern methods: Trebbiano was dropped and Sangiovese was combined with Cabernet. This was revolutionary – and not only for Chianti Classico, but for all Italian wines. The challenges lay in harmonising the French grapes with Sangiovese so as not to compromise the identity of the Tuscan wines, but to strengthen it. For this, my father successfully introduced French barriques and fermentation and ageing methods. In 1970, this newly-created wine was not permitted to call itself ‘Chianti Classico Riserva’. Instead, it has been distributed under the name Tignanello and the description ‘Vino da Tavola’ since 1971. Nevertheless, Tignanello swiftly became a cult wine and is considered to be one of the first Super-Tuscans.
What makes these wines so special?
All Antinori wines are the ambassadors of their country of origin; they are the expression of authenticity and terroir. The commitment to developing precision local viticulture is of fundamental importance. We want to create wines with a well-defined varietal character: differences must not be minimised, they must be highlighted. Each growing region has its own character and its own identity. As our chief winemaker Renzo Cotarella says: “It is not about making the best wine, it is more about understanding its soul – that is the common thread that runs through all vintages.”
The early days of the Super-Tuscans now lie many decades in the past. Consumers’ tastes and demands have meanwhile changed. What is important today?
The market has indeed changed, there is no denying that. Today, grand wines are being produced and aggressively marketed everywhere – above all, in the so-called New World. 20 years ago, producing a further Cabernet or Chardonnay was sufficient, that was all you needed to do. But this was not a long-term solution. Today, consumers are looking for wines that reflect the region and the properties of the grape. For this reason, our wines have to be very unique and stand out. And conveying the heritage of our wine is also becoming increasingly important.
So, how have your wines adapted in this respect?
As already mentioned, simply producing a new Cabernet no longer suffices. The wine has to be created as a pact with its growing region. It basically has to be the concentrated essence of its land, with its soul having been extracted. This soul can be bottled and dispatched around the world, where it tells the story of the place and its inhabitants. Producing wine in a new area necessitates the consideration of several aspects, including the physical make-up of the land, such as exposure and gradient, the soil composition, the microorganisms, the microclimate, for example. And there must be no pollution. Further important aspects relate to the cultural landscape and the way in which this has been cultivated and shaped by generations of farmers. Today, all these aspects can be summarised using a single term: terroir.
How has digitalisation changed Antinori and your wine business?
Although the wine industry only discovered the Internet for itself very late on, it has become increasingly important with regards to both procuring information and sales. We are becoming ever more involved – which is a huge opportunity for us. This ‘new world’ has undoubtedly brought many changes, but probably more for consumers than it has for us. On the one hand, the possibility of communicating with consumers is a huge benefit for us. On the other hand, people today know so much more about wines than they used to. You only need to check your smartphone to see how much rain fell here on April 3 and which vineyard benefited. But this expertise remains ethereal. Wine is a sensual product, and there is a growing number of people who want to experience how we make wine. This is why – after 628 years – we as a family have decided to open our business to the public, for whom we specifically built the new winery in 2012.
You can trace your family history back over more than six centuries, with the Antinori name synonymous with one of the most famous wines even today. Successfully continuing this tradition has to be a huge responsibility?
My family has been actively involved in trading wine for more than 600 years – since 1385 and across 26 generations. This is fairly unique among family businesses. And this does indeed come with a huge sense of responsibility. But this is not a burden for us, it is an honour. The success of Marchesi Antinori can probably be explained through the ability of each generation passing the immaterial heritage of values to the respective next generation – the very foundation for business continuity. In viticulture, everything we do is done for future generations – the whole thing would otherwise be pointless. Our values are based on our deep-rooted traditions. But traditions alone are not enough: we also need innovative spirit. The balance between tradition and innovation has always been Marchesi Antinori’s leitmotiv and is probably the key to our success: traditions are essential when they serve as foundations for the future.
Let us talk about your values and the Antinori philosophy. What vision do you derive from this – both for the wine estate and your family?
I would sum up the company’s culture and philosophy with three words that define our values. Firstly, the passion for what we do and for the product. Secondly, having the patience to be completely uncompromising and, finally, approaching things with a cautiousness or care that is atypical for farmers. These specific values have enabled us to build Antinori nel Chianti Classico winery and to achieve everything we have today. As mentioned, we have a responsibility for the land we cultivate and for the people who work with us. And we have a responsibility to pass these values on to the next generation. This is really important to us. We want to run the company in a way that generates sustainable growth and treats the land we are cultivating and the environment with respect. This requires sincerity, honesty and commitment. We hope that opening the new wine estate will also be a possibility of familiarising future generations with these virtues.
Let’s talk about the new wine estate, a highly-modern building nestling among gentle hills of the Chianti region. Why did you choose such a futuristic design? What statement are you trying to make?
For us, the wine estate is an homage to Chianti: a region that has given our family so much over the centuries. The wine estate is a ‘masterpiece of architectural invisibility’. From the outside, all you can see are two incisions in the hills. It practically integrates itself completely into the Chianti landscape, as it has been constructed exclusively using natural and local materials, such as corten steel, which blends perfectly with the colours of the surrounding earth. The interior walls are clad in Italian oak and the paths and canopies of the barricaia, where we store the wine, are made from terracotta tiles that come from Impruneta, a small town just ten minutes from the wine estate. The wine estate is also home to various contemporary art installations. We wanted to create an environment in which various elements can be combined with each other. And we want to give the land something back with this wine estate, while simultaneously creating a legacy for future generations.
Christmas is just around the corner. How do you and your family celebrate, and what wines do you drink?
We always have a grand family dinner at Christmas. It is a fantastic opportunity to see all our relatives, exchange gifts and open wonderful old bottles of wines that we have collected over the years – including, as always, an amazing bottle of Tignanello.
Today, President Albiera Antinori runs the Marchesi Antinori S.p.A wine empire in collaboration with her sisters Allegra and Alessia. The aristocratic Italian Antinori family from Tuscany has been dedicated to viticulture for 26 generations now and is one of Italy’s oldest and most important wine families. It was founded by Giovanni di Piero Antinori in 1385.
Picture credit © Marchesi Antinori