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Decanter interview: Lamberto Frescobaldi & Tim Mondavi

The Mondavis of California are no longer involved in Luce, the SuperTuscan they created with Italy’s Frescobaldi family. But the sons of the men whose vision it was still share a warm friendship. Stephen Brook met them at the estate in Montalcino.

Tim Mondavi and Lamberto Frescobaldi

Quick links:

The joint vent ure that would result in the creation of Luce in 1995 got off to an auspicious start. First, Robert Mondavi’s wife Margrit Beaver came up with the name. On a visit to Italy, she watched the clouds part and as the sunlight pierced through, she exclaimed ‘Luce!’ Light! Some of the marketing team were aghast – Americans will call it Lucy, they feared – but the name stuck.

Then, when the Frescobaldis were looking for a logo for the label, all they had to do was visit the church of Santo Spirito near their palace in Florence. There on the altar is a design – a sun surrounded by tongues of flame – that would serve as the prototype. Even better, in the 15th century the Frescobaldis had donated to the church the land on which Santo Spirito stands. The link was complete.

Mondavi first conceived of a joint venture in Italy in 1973. His younger son Tim recalls: ‘In that year my dad took us (the children) on a tour of some of Europe’s main wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Germany and Italy. After we’d toured in Italy, he said to us: “One day we’ll make wine here”.’ Since 1968 Mondavi had already been talking to Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Mouton Rothschild about what would become Opus One, so such notions were more than whimsical reflection.

‘Twenty years later, in 1993, my father asked the American wine writer Burton Anderson to scout Italian regions for the ideal place for us to invest in and produce wine. Piedmont and Tuscany were the obvious choices, and I was more drawn to Tuscany. When we met Vittorio Frescobaldi, we were impressed by the range of great vineyards he showed us.

‘My father soon sensed that in Vittorio he had the ideal partner, as he was open to new ideas and to the possibility of working together. By then we already had experience of such ventures, having developed Opus One in Napa and also Seña in Chile. The concept was always the same: to create a great wine that nonetheless reflected its origin.’

Magic of Merlot and Sangiovese

Both men had their eye on the vast Castelgiocondo estate in Montalcino, which the Frescobaldis had bought in 1989. There were already extensive vineyards planted, as Lamberto Frescobaldi, Vittorio’s son, explained: ‘In the 1970s Castelgiocondo was owned by a French group, then by a Milanese finance house, and we were the managers of the estate. The French asked us to plant varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. We soon discovered that neither Sauvignon Blanc nor Cabernet worked well here, and in the early 1990s we pulled them out. But the Merlot gave excellent results.’

(I recall a tasting at that time, at the Italian embassy in London, with many of the great names among Italian wine producers present. Vittorio’s brother Leonardo showed the 1991 Lamaione, a pure Merlot. It was so good, and so inexpensive, that some of the wine writers present, myself included, dashed to our local branches of Oddbins and cleaned out their stock.)

Clearly this Merlot also impressed the Mondavis. Tim says it never made sense for the result of the joint venture to be another Brunello. ‘The idea was to create a new wine in the style of a SuperTuscan, which also happened to be in vogue at that time. We also felt that Merlot was a far better partner for Sangiovese than Cabernet Sauvignon, which didn’t always ripen fully in the Tuscan hills. That Sangiovese had to be part of the blend was a no-brainer. I always loved its fragrance and bright fruit, clearly linked in Montalcino to elevation and well-drained soils.

‘We always conceived of Luce as a harmonisation of the Old and New Worlds, but it had to be faithful to its site. We loved the Merlot here. It had fragrance and opulence, while Sangiovese gave finesse and structure. The Merlot used for Lamaione isn’t the same as the Merlot used for Luce – Luce’s Merlot comes from a higher elevation.’

Lamberto agrees: ‘Yes, the two varieties were in harmony. Sangiovese is leaner, but gives elegance and lift, but sometimes at the expense of structure. It blended with the opulence of Merlot, but gave the wine length. Luce’s typicity is richness and power but, unlike Lamaione, it’s cut by the Sangiovese.’

The two families were already working together in 1993 and 1994, vintages that were released simultaneously, but the formal agreement between them for Tenute Luce della Vite was only signed in 1995. Although that agreement had been forged between Robert and Vittorio, it was their sons – Lamberto and Tim – that produced Luce and defined its blend, together with the Frescobaldis’ long-term consultant oenologist, Nicolò D’Afflitto. At first the wine was aged both in traditional casks (botti) as well as barriques, but after some years the botti were replaced by one-year barriques.

Robert Mondavi tasted the first fruits of his brainchild from cask in the form of the 1993 vintage. ‘He sang its praises,’ Tim remembers, ‘and then he added, “But I know you can do better”.’

End of an era

The new wine was a success. ‘It was always intended as a wine for export, notably for the American market,’ says Lamberto, ‘yet it proved more popular in Italy, Japan and Switzerland than the US, despite the Mondavi connection. Each vintage tended to sell out within nine months, so we were very happy.’ Initially production of Luce was limited – only 29,000 bottles were made in 1994 – but by 2000 it had climbed to 130,000 bottles.

In 2004 the relationship between the families changed dramatically. Robert Mondavi became a public company, and by the end of the year it had been acquired by Constellation Brands, and that put an end to the family’s involvement. It also spelled the end of their joint ventures. Henceforth the Frescobaldis would be sole proprietors of Luce and Ornellaia, in which Mondavi also had a large stake.

Talking to the two men as we walked among the vines (77 hectares of the 192ha estate is planted), it is clear that there had been initial disagreements about the direction Luce should take. Neither was willing to elaborate, on the grounds that all those discussions were far in the past. It is also clear that a return to the Luce vineyards after a long absence was not easy for Tim. ‘Yes,’ he admitted, ‘it’s a bittersweet experience.’ Would he ever contemplate becoming involved in a fresh joint venture? ‘Perhaps. It’s certainly stimulating to have that kind of international collaboration. But for the moment I’m too involved in getting my own Continuum label in Napa established.’

Yet as we walked and later dined, the chemistry between the two men seemed warm. Tim’s good humour, courtesy and fine manners were as evident as in the days when he was chief winemaker at Robert Mondavi. And Lamberto is relaxed and at ease with himself, showing self-deprecating humour and none of the pomposity one might associate with the 30th generation of an immensely distinguished family. (As a student at UC Davis, Lamberto politely asked Darrel Corti, a celebrated wine merchant in Sacramento, why there were unsold cases of Frescobaldi wine in the shop. ‘“You think it’s easy to sell this crap?” he joked. When I identified myself, he responded by asking me to present the wines at a tasting and to work for him at weekends. Which I did.’)

New direction

After the Mondavis bowed out, Constellation was happy to continue working with the Frescobaldis. But the family had doubts, as Lamberto explained: ‘Although Robert Mondavi was 10 times larger than Frescobaldi, we never had to worry about Robert and Tim showing muscle. With Constellation we were less sure! So we were happier continuing on our own.’ After the partnership ended, Lamberto fine-tuned production and converted the estate to organic farming, which Tim had been fully behind. By 2011 they were farming the estate biodynamically. Lamberto also reduced volumes to about 80,000 bottles. ‘I have no plans to expand Luce. The wines have been well received from the start, and my goal now is to reposition them on even better wine lists.’

He has also refined the oak-ageing. ‘We never wanted too much new oak. It gives those strong vanilla aromas. If you want vanilla, go out and buy an ice cream. It’s true we use about 85% new oak, but mostly to have a clean environment for the wine and to avoid brettanomyces. We also find that the oak integrates well after bottling.’ That does seem to be the case, as very young vintages of Luce can be dominated by wood aromas.

Lamberto also introduced a Luce Brunello with the 2003 vintage. Wouldn’t this prove confusing for consumers? ‘We did it because we wanted to reinforce the link between Luce and Montalcino. Consumers were often unclear about Luce’s origin. It’s an IGT wine, so we couldn’t print the word Montalcino prominently on the label. The Brunello is a very small production, around 18,000 bottles, and we sell it at the same price as Luce.’

The whole notion of the SuperTuscan is less appealing than it was, say, 20 years ago, apart from such icons as Sassicaia and Ornellaia and a handful of others, Luce included. Does that concern Lamberto? ‘The problem in the 1990s was that SuperTuscans started to be produced by formula. Flying winemakers would dash around assembling wines that were impressive yet also rather dull. Soon the market was turning them down – there were just too many. Fortunately Luce had its own brand identity, though I admit that starting Luce now would be much more difficult. Nor were we affected by the declining lustre of Merlot after the (2004) film Sideways. That was really an American phenomenon. Fortunately for us, by then Luce had become a brand, and not everyone realised it contained a lot of Merlot.’

Quality seems better than ever. Some early vintages suffered from fierce tannins and traces of over-extraction, and even a fine vintage such as 2004 remains quite austere. Recent vintages show more integrated tannins. It’s surely significant that Luce and just a few other similarly composed blends, such as Oreno from Sette Ponti and Siepi from Fonterutoli in Chianti Classico, have stood the test of time. If Luce was based essentially on a hunch shared by the two families, with their very different backgrounds, it proved a shrewd one.

Stephen Brook is an awarded wine writer and author, and has been a Decanter contributing editor since 1996.

Written by Stephen Brook

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