Antinori: kick-starting the Italian quality revolution

Decanter’s vertical tasting of the Antinori Super Tuscan wines was a remarkable chance to compare five vintages of Tignanello and Solaia going back thirty years.  But more than that, in Marchese Piero Antinori’s presence, it became a fascinating cross section through the quality revolution in Italian wine making over the last forty years.  As Antinori explained, in the 1960s the quantity of wine produced was all, nobody expected Italian wine to be of high quality.  His new wine Tignanello, 80% Sangiovese beefed up with 20% Cabernet (of which 5% is Cabernet Franc), was an attempt to break that mould. In addition to the French grape varieties – full of colour, blackcurrant fruit and weight in the mouth – the wines were made in a French, now international, style, especially by being aged in the smaller French oak barrels. The use of barriques not only fixes the colour but conveys quite powerful vanilla, spice and smoke flavours and some further tannins of their own.  The end result is a darker, denser wine, intended for ageing, and with the substance which makes an impact in Paris, London, New York and, nowadays, Beijing. 

Solaia was a further development on this theme.  Here the proportions of the grape varieties are the other way around, 80% Cabernet and just 20% Sangiovese, with the latter only being present at all from the fourth vintage in 1981.  The wine came about through an experiment in 1978 when there were more Cabernet grapes than were required for IMG_0194Tignanello. The resulting 100% Cabernet showed so much potential that Solaia was born. As Antinori states credibly: in the 1980s, in order to be taken seriously as a wine producer, you had to have a successful Cabernet to show.  Mercifully things have now changed and he is convinced that the future of Italian viticulture is in its native varieties – but the platform had be created by the success of Tignanello, Bolgheri’s Sassicaia and the like. In response to a question I put, the Marchese indicated that the Tuscan character of Tignanello is very important to him and that they are moving to using larger barrels for the Sangiovese element of the wine – which is very welcome.  Larger barrels means less new oak influence and therefore more chance for the distinctive Sangiovese fruit to be the star.  I should have also asked whether they would now reduce the Cabernet element markedly as well … but having established Tignanello as a successful, profitable Super Tuscan, they are not going to turn it in to Chianti Classico riserva! 

En passant, Antinori gives the key factors which define these wines:

  • the two named vineyards are dedicated to these two wines, Tignanello (an old name reflecting a family who owned it) the larger at 57 hectares and Solaia, with a new and obvious name (‘sunny’) and less than 20 hectares
  • both are located in the Chianti Classico area, at an average elevation of 450m above sea level which in turn gives cool nights and an excellent variation in day/night temperature, moderating growth and preserving acidity, which in turn leads to freshness in the glass.  All the fruit grown in the area (eg peaches) is smaller than from plants grown at low attitudes but full of taste and concentration.
  • shallow, infertile soils; a mixture of limestone (‘alberese’) and calcareous (‘galestra’) soils with vineyards oriented to the south west with steep, fast draining, inclines – ideal for quality and lower yields, if more demanding to work
  • a stony soil with large rocks. The latter used to be removed but now are crushed and used as a mulch between vineyard rows, reflecting light and controlling the weeds
  • massal selection to propagate replacement vines from their own best vines, ensuring distinctive stock and preserving some diversity in the vineyard
  • strict selection of the bunches in the vineyard and on reception at the winery both before and after destemming the grapes.  In other words they now remove individual berries that are not up to standard – which should raise quality further.

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But as always, what matters is the taste of the wine in the glass and in this case, how these wines develop over three decades. 

The young wines, from the very good 2007 vintage, are just that: very young.  Tignanello 2007 is a deep ruby with an intense nose of oak, herbs and more than a hint of chocolate. The palate is intense and substantial with dense fruit. At this age the Cabernet dominates with its black fruit character and the fruit comes over as rather raw – it is just to young to drink without food and needs time.  It is concentrated but not that big in the mouth – a real contribution of the Sangiovese.  By contrast the Solaia 2007 is darker still, not yet very expressive on the nose but the rich fruit is striking, plus some bitter chocolate and olive notes – we are in Tuscany if only just!  In the picture to the right, the wine at the top is the young Solaia, the bigger glass at the bottom the aged wine.  At five years old neither wine is really expressing its potential yet but if you must, of these two the Solaia would be the one to drink earlier. 

The 2004 pair are a testament to development in the bottle.  Also from a very good year (‘close to ideal’), they are still youthful but now the Tignanello has shaken off its jagged edges with a pronounced and rich array of aromas including the first hints of pleasant farmyard and medicinal notes. Of the two principal grape varieties it was a Sangiovese year with its superb acidity and supple fruit showing through.  Solaia was also impressive with its rounded plum, blackcurrant and chocolate flavours and quite prominent tannins.  But at this point, eight years on the difference of fruit is really beginning to show.  The 1999 pair, while still very worthwhile, are from a less good vintage and at this point in their development probably as good as they are going to get.  The tannins are quite soft in Tignanello while the Solaia has the richer, better fruit. Cabernet with its greater resistance to disease can do better in a poorer year. In the only really wet vintage of the last decade, 2002, Antinori made no Tignanello at all, while Solaia was made from 100% Cabernet and sold as annata diversa, a different year.

The final pair came from very good or at least good years.  1997 was a great year if a small production.  Tignanello by now has a broad garnet rim and is noticeably paler than its Cabernet-heavy sibling.  The nose is beautifully perfumed with complex elements of red fruit, herbs, and some toffee notes, followed by a sumptuous texture IMG_0195on the palate, fine tannins, fresh, delicate and intense.  Solaia shows great balance, with lovely mature fruit and balsamic notes on the nose nose, but with fine rounded fruit as its greatest strength. And finally, for a great treat, thirty year old versions of the two wines from 1982, a famous year in Bordeaux and good one in Chianti Classico.   This may seem a long time ago now but, to put in some perspective,  was Piero Antinori’s 15th vintage. The two wines are quite different from each other now:  For me the Tignanello was remarkable – pronounced tertiary notes of leather and fruit on the nose and even more so on the palate; refined bitter cherry fruit (it may not be a blockbuster but Sangiovese has staying power), good acidity and fine tannins which have kept it going, excellent length, superb and subtle.  The Solaia was more interesting than pleasurable – powerfully medicinal on the nose (which some will like), a luxurious palate with sweet fruit and caramel notes and, how can I put this, some rotting fruit notes but in a good way …

As regular readers of this website will know, I have a strong preference for quality wines made from local grape varieties. I admire Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah in Tuscany but I like to drink great Sangiovese.  What this splendid tasting showed is how the Antinori contribution to wine making in Tuscany raised the game so that now Tuscan growers can complete with the best – while now drawing on their own viticulture heritage.   

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