Nicolas Belfrage MW meets the younger family members of Tuscany’s historic wine houses, whose modernising influence is tempered by tradition.
Even in a country with the world’s longest continuous wine tradition, few regions can boast producers that have been around for six or seven centuries or more and are still making wine, but Tuscany can. Generally seen as the engine room of the Italian wine rinascimento or renaissance, Tuscany is the epitome of wine modernity, with products that have thrown off tired old tradition and presented consumers with some of the brightest new smells and tastes of our time. Yet it is here that the longest traditions have prevailed, so what part have the ancient houses played in this transformation and, specifically, what has been the role of the up-and-coming generation in these houses?
No one would deny that the big name in Tuscan wine today is Antinori, a family which traces its origins as vintners back to 1385. And Marchese Piero Antinori is the man rightly credited with leading the long march out of the land of oxidation and attenuation into the land of intensity of fruit and complexity of flavour. Although Antinori has properties all over Tuscany now, not to mention in various other parts of Italy and the world, Piero still lives ‘above the shop’ in the superb 15th-century Palazzo Antinori in Piazza Antinori in the heart of Florence, and he is still very much the spiritual and political leader of the clan and the living symbol of Tuscan wine today.
The Antinori sisters
Piero, now in his early 60s, has to think of the next six centuries as well as the short- and medium-term future and, little by little, he is passing the mantle of leadership down to his daughters, Albiera (34), Allegra (30) and Alessia (25). Alessia’s work is the most obviously wine-oriented. She qualified as an oenologist at the University of Milan and is currently involved in the family project in Franciacorta, as well as being in charge of the Bolgheri estate of Guado al Tasso. Allegra, though principally concerned in recent times with maternal matters, specialises in PR and catering activities, such as operations at the Cantinetta Antinori in the Florence Palazzo.
It is Albiera, though, who is being groomed to ultimately take charge of the business. Her duties involve the presidency of the important Piemontese subsiduary, Prunotto; responsibility across the group for packaging and branding; and a variety of special projects, including the construction and organisation of an agriturismo at the Santa Cristina property and the building of cellars in places like Puglia, with more to come in the Maremma and at Montalcino. Albiera is also mother of two, including the male heir that eluded Piero, eight-year-old Vittorio Rimbotti. Recalling an occasion in 1986 when Albiera, not yet 20, was thrown by Piero into making a speech on behalf of the company to a press gathering at Castello della Sala, after she had just stepped off an exhausting flight from the Pacific American coast and was no doubt feeling jet-lagged and petrified, I ask her whether she ever felt, when young, that she and her sisters were being steered into the wine business. ‘Not consciously,’ she replies, in her near-impeccable English, ‘though I suppose it was taking place on a subtle level, without our knowing what was happening. In that respect our father and mother did a good job. ’But it’s easy to fall in love with this business’, she continues. ‘I’m sure that’s one reason it has survived so long in our family. We live in beautiful houses in beautiful places, where the land is good and the wine is good. Centuries ago we were bankers and silk traders, which earned us the money to buy the estates, to which a younger member of the family would be assigned. Somewhere along the line agriculture, then wine, entered our DNA, and we stopped being bankers and became full-time vintners.’ Her sisters agree. ‘Wine is not only our work,’ says Allegra, ‘it’s our life.’ ‘Wine becomes a passion,’ adds Alessia. They all seem to work harmoniously together and follow their father faithfully, presumably believing that since he clearly knows what he’s doing, it would make little sense to change it. But what part does that daunting concept – tradition – play in their thinking? Not a particularly important one, it seems. ‘Tradition is something that helps only in teaching patience,’ observes Albiera. ‘Technically, tradition can be limiting, but it does teach you not to panic in difficult situations. You know you have many generations behind you and you work on the assumption that there are many more to come.’ However, what about blending with non- traditional grape varieties or using small French oak barrels rather than the traditional large botti from Slavonia? Readers will be aware that Antinori’s policy has generally been to base its wines on local varieties, especially Sangiovese, while reserving the right to improve the final result through judicious blending. ‘The important thing is to go towards new ideas without losing contact with the traditional varieties,’ says Alessia. Where indigenous grapes are not customary, they are perfectly happy to use international varieties, as in Guado al Tasso and, largely, Solaia and Cervaro della Sala. ‘As for barriques, I acknowledge that there is a tendency towards internationalisation in wines today through the use of wood,’ she says, ‘but I think that wood should be regarded as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. Oak should not cover the character of the wine.’
And how do they get on with the other ancient families of Tuscany? ‘Extremely well,’ says Albiera. ‘We are delighted, for example, that Francesco Ricasoli bought his winery back from the Australians. It is important for all of us that the historic families are seen in the best possible light. As for Frescobaldi, my husband went to school with Lamberto and our children are of similar age. We often go out together to eat pizza.’ Lamberto Frescobaldi warmly agrees. ‘We are very grateful to Antinori for having started making internationally recognised wines. What is good for Tuscany is good for us. As for Piero, he is a “Gran Signore”, but always very modest.’
Aged 38, Lamberto Frescobaldi is the son of Vittorio, the second of four brothers of the older Frescobaldi generation. His work is primarily on the viticultural side, having taken degrees in agrarian studies at the University of Florence and in viticulture at Davis, California, and his restrained enthusiasm and knowledge are impressive. If anything, when it comes to tradition, Lamberto is even more dismissive than Albiera. ‘We are an azienda modernissima [a highly modern establishment]. We renew ourselves on a daily basis,’ he maintains. On oak, he says, ‘We are getting rid of all large oak for our top wines. The quality wine of the past – pre 1960s – was generally aged in small barrels, the big ones being for storage only. In a small barrel, wine lives. This is not the case with botti grandi.’ He admits that his principal interest is vineyards, though working with Tim Mondavi, in the joint venture, Luce, and Frescobaldi’s oenological consultant, Nicolo d’Afflitto, has fired his enthusiasm for winemaking in recent years. His passion for viticulture shows, though, when he discusses grape varieties in Tuscany, about which he has firm and distinctly non-traditional ideas. ‘Sangiovese is an exhausting and very difficult grape to work with. It is highly demanding in terms of exposition, soil and drainage. Over half the Sangiovese vineyards in Tuscany today are wrongly sited. If you don’t give Sangiovese the right site, you are wasting your time. Forget about it in clay, for example – far better to plant Merlot.
’We need to get from our land what grows best in our land, so if Merlot grows best, you plant Merlot. Tuscany is a zone, not a recipe. The important thing is to capture the unique character of the terroir. Frankly, you can do that better with Merlot or Cabernet in the right place than you can with Sangiovese in the wrong place. Our Merlot is different from that of Bordeaux or California. The idea of fixing varieties is just that – a fixed idea.’ For all that, and despite the fact that Lamberto refuses to nominate a favourite wine (‘I have three sons, and I wouldn’t choose between them’), Frescobaldi’s most complex, most interesting and undoubtedly most terroir-driven wine remains the 100% Sangiovese Chianti Rufina Montesodi.
Son of Bettino Ricasoli of Castello di Brolio and great-great-grandson through the female line of the ‘Iron Baron’ Bettino Ricasoli, 19th-century premier of Italy and originator of the ‘recipe’ to which Lamberto refers, Francesco Ricasoli, at 45, is the oldest of the younger generation of ancients. However, although born and brought up at Brolio, he had nothing at all to do with grape or wine production until the early 1990s. The Ricasoli in Brolio date back to 1141. A feudal family, they were never bankers or silk merchants like the Frescobaldi and Antinori clans, but farmers and grape growers ‘da sempre’ (since forever). ‘Bettino Ricasoli,’ says Francesco, obviously an admirer of his famous ancestor, ‘was a revolutionary who modernised agriculture and specifically viticulture in Tuscany, visiting various parts of Europe and importing the latest in agricultural machinery, as well as grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Alicante.’ He worked with Pisa University to improve viticulture through, for example, higher density planting, and proposed his Chianti ‘recipe’ not as a rigid rule but as a suggestion to improve the drinkability of young wines. It was only the ignorant lawmakers of the following century who imposed the inclusion of white grapes even in riserva, in which Bettino specifically said they were not appropriate.
The zenith of the Ricasoli fortune was reached around the turn of the century, but after World War II the situation generally deteriorated and, in 1960, the wine side of the business was sold. Disaster followed disaster and the Ricasoli name sank lower and lower until, in the early 1990s, Francesco realised that if he didn’t take drastic and immediate action the family stood to lose everything. ’I had three advantages,’ says the former photographer. ‘I had no experience and could take decisions that no wine person would take; I found a fabulous team, including Carlo Ferrini as winemaker; and though I gambled everything – and some of the family were against me – I was lucky.’
The whole story is a long one, but Francesco’s views are essentially similar to those of his colleagues, in that he considers the challenge to be the making not of traditional wine, as such, but of Tuscan wine. ‘We must seek personality, the uniqueness. We must make not just good wine, but wine that brings to mind the hills of Chianti. You should be able to close your eyes and think of Tuscany – cypresses, olives, vines. If we can use Cabernet in achieving that – and Cabernet was here in my ancestor’s time, remember – so be it. We are investing heavily to ensure we keep improving, and the future is good, provided we make no mistakes.’ That sentiment, reflecting a deep-seated confidence in the future based on the experiences of a long and illustrious past, seems to sum it up for the ancient families of Tuscany.
Nicolas Belfrage MW is an Italian wine expert.
Written by NICOLAS BELFRAGE