Wine notes

Sunday 28 September 2008

Pleasing the masses - the 80th anniversary of Villa Antinori

Renzo Cotarella explains how, after more than 73 vintages, a historical Chianti Classico was turned into a modest IGT.

A wine of which more than 3 million bottles are produced annually and which Sainsbury’s has stocked since the mid 1980s you wouldn’t expect to be the centre of attention of a vertical tasting going back to 1974 presented in the sumptuous surroundings of the posh Lanesborough Hotel in Knightsbridge. This treatment is almost always exclusively reserved for what are considered Premier and Grand Cru wines only, but exactly this was the case last Tuesday. What made the invitation irresistible was the fact that I consider Antinori’s Chianti Classico Riserva “Villa Antinori” to be a “supermarket wine”, albeit in the higher echelons. This wine is one of the very few vinous offerings in large retailers to demand a retail price of well over £10.00, staggeringly high compared to the depressingly low average spent of £3.99 for a bottle of wine in the UK. I was curious to find out why such lavish marketing exercise was rolled out for this modest wine.
As if that was not enough, the stylish invitation sent out by Antinori’s UK importer, Berkmann Wine Cellars, seem to promise a huge flight of wines presented by Renzo Cotarella, the estate’s CEO and senior wine consultant himself. I was therefore somewhat surprised to see only 6 wines in front of me.

Cotarella started by explaining that the wine represents the flagship to the Antinoris, a Florentine Wine Merchant and Banking Dynasty, and one of the oldest independent wine producers in the world. Their history goes back to the 13th century and “Villa Antinori”, established in 1928 by Nicolo Antinori, it is the only wine that actually bears the family name, and this tasting had been organised to commemorate its 80th vintage. The Antinori portfolio, however, includes much more illustrious wines, like Tignanello, one of the first Super Tuscans, consisting of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and Solaia, a blend which is the exact opposite, this time with Sangiovese in the minority. Villa Antinori can’t keep up with this league, not least due to its enormous production.

Cotarello goes on to explain that Villa Antinori used to be firmly Tuscan as the grapes in the blend were indigenous, the main part being played by Sangiovese, and the balance made up of the red Canaiolo and the white Trebbiano. Until very recent the inclusion of white grape varieties in Chianti Classico was stipulated by law. With the 2006 vintage this at last has been reversed for all the obvious diluting reasons.
While tasting the first two vintages of the flight, 1974 and 1987, it became immediately clear that the elevated acidity in both wines have helped them survive. Cotarella explains that this is due to the inclusion of the white Trebbiano, and this controversial comment is only one of many to follow throughout the tasting.
According to me, Trebbiano historically played the role of softening agent to counteract the tart and sometimes tannic Sangiovese. I am supported in that view by Barone Ricasoli, a proprietor of an estate in the Classico area in the 19th century, who was the author of an afterwards often cited letter from 1872 stating that Sangiovese would be more palatable if blended with softening white grape varieties. However, the Barone only recommended this blend to produce wines for immediate consumption, and that Riserva qualities, destined for long cellaring, should never include white grapes. To me it seems much more likely that the high acidity in either the 1974 or 1987 originates from the late ripening Sangiovese and not from the usually high yielding and therefore flabby and dilute Trebbiano. Also, the main reason why Trebbiano ended up together with Sangiovese in the fermentation vat was the fact that vineyards were not as systematically organised as is the case today. Therefore, one could find both red and white grape varieties in a single plot. That white grapes could add longevity to Chianti Classico is highly unlikely.

Cotarella of course is right when he claims that it was legally impossible to make a Chianti Classico without the inclusion of white grapes (Malvasia being another one). Any producer interested in quality, therefore had to opt out of the DOC, the Denominazione d’Origine Controllata, Italy’s law of controlled designated origin, as its regulations wouldn’t allow for 100% Sangiovese wines, nor the use of French oak casks, as this was considered “untraditional.” These wines, which could only be labelled Vino da Tavola, became the true flagbearers of Italy’s new dawn of quality wine making. In this climate, wines like Tignanello could achieve cult status matched by high prices, indeed three times as high as the market would pay for Chianti Classico, which, until 10 years ago, was rightfully considered mediocre. It wasn’t until 1994 that wine laws were amended, and white grapes were no longer mandatory, although not forbidden either. The law went further: it also allowed the inclusion of what was euphemistically called “ameliorating varieties”. It is thus how Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to name but a few, could legally make their way into a wine that was previously firmly Tuscan. Although a generous margin of 20% of these foreign intruders were now legally allowed in the Chianti blend, for Antinori, who had shown great enthusiasm for Cabernet & co in the past, this was not enough and they decided in 2001 to no longer market the Villa Antinori under the DOCG Chianti Classico Riserva. In doing so they upset quite a few producers, who, driven by quality and a fascination for Sangiovese, wanted to strengthen the appellation’s reputation, but consequently saw one of the most famous Tuscan estates turn its back on it. Speculations went that Antinori, with the high volumes it produces, didn’t want to pay the obligatory fee per bottle to the Consorzio of Chianti Classico, but instead wanted to spend the money on marketing devoted solely to their own products.

Villa Antinori in the meantime had gone from a 90% Sangiovese blend to 60% in 2001 (the balance being Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah), sliding even further to 55% in 2005. Cotarella explains that Antinori used to consider themselves negociants instead of wine producers. As more and more producers started to bottle their own produce, Antinori not only saw the volume needed to sustain its production dwindle, but the wines they were offered were the batches producers considered unfit to be included in their own wine. This situation forced Antinori to start buying vineyards, which proved difficult and expensive within the Chianti Classico area, where, due to recent quality improvements, prices for vineyard land had shot up. They therefore expanded their vineyard holdings outside of the Chianti Classico area, like the Maremma and Cortona, where prices were, until recent, considerably lower. They now possess a total of more than 1750 hectares of vines spread throughout Italy.
Although Sangiovese dominates the blend in order for the wine to keep its Tuscan character, the international grape varieties help produce a more international style of wine, and at the same time they are much easier to grow. It took until 2001 for most of the new acquisitions to come on stream, and from that vintage on Villa Antinori was reborn as IGT Toscana, and de facto the cheapest Super Tuscan in the Family’s portfolio. According to Cotarella, Villa Antinori needs to be Tuscan but at the same time needs to be produced in large volumes to satisfy a global demand. In order to do so, it is of the utmost importance to maintain a constant quality, while promising an easier and more approachable style. “Toscana is not based on Sangiovese”, he proclaims, “and to offer a better and more approachable wine to people is not a crime”. And although I hardly ever heard the word “terroir” mentioned during the entire tasting by someone who started off stating he doesn’t consider himself a wine maker but a vineyard manager who makes wine, who would argue with that.

The wines

The below flight consists of vintages, which Cotarella calls “very particular”. 1974 is “nice, but not the best of the decade”. Apparently 1971 as well as 1975 were superior, but this became clear only after the 1975 had been bottled and one could properly compare the two. 1987 Cotarella calls “average”, while 1994 is “controversial”, with the vintage initially looking very promising until at the beginning of the harvest rain set in. Cabernet fared better, and Cotarella considers 1994 Solaia one of the greatest vintages ever. 2001 is described as a “great vintage, with lots of body and rich, ripe tannins, if perhaps not very elegant”, while 2004 Cotarella considers even superior, due to a very long, even ripening season. 2005 proved to be more challenging due to rains at the end of the ripening season. It is especially this vintage that elicits the remark from Cotarella, that “technology is important in order to produce a good wine, especially in bad vintages”.

1974 Chianti Classico Riserva Villa Antinori, 12.5% vol.
Completely mature ruby with amber rim. Wonderful nose of forest floor, cherry and herbal notes, with a touch of leather and hung game. Still alive and pronounced on the palate, with the first signs of oxidation. Less complex than the nose, but refined tannins.

It is at this stage that Cotarella claims that Trebbiano was added to give the wine ageing potential, comparing the practice to that of France’s Cote Rotie. This statement struck me as extraordinarily ambitious and creative.

1987 Chianti Classico Riserva Villa Antinori, 12.5% vol.
Fully mature with brickstone rim. At first notes of dried fruit, tar and hints of mushroom. Soft and somewhat one dimensional on the palate, with soft, astringent tannins. Acidic backbone well integrated in the finish. Ends alcoholic, due to fading fruit.

1994 Chianti Classico Riserva Villa Antinori 12.5% vol.
Very dark with very small rim. Powerful, savoury and meaty nose, with notes of cherry, licorice and cigar box. Much more understated on the palate, tired even, with high acidity and firm, astringent tannins.

2001 IGT Toscana Villa Antinori, 13% vol.
The grapes for this wine came from Cortona (Syrah), Bolgheri (Merlot), Maremma (Cabernet Sauvignon), Montalcino and Montepulciano (both Sangiovese).
Very dark, impenetrable, with orange reflexes. Still youthful, with a pronounced sweet cassis nose with notes of garden herbs and spice. Lively succulent fruit on the palate, with sweet, somewhat unsettled (oak) tannins. Quite closed on the finish with dried fruit notes. Rustic.

2004 IGT Toscana Villa Antinori, 13.5% vol.
Very dark, with first signs of age. Soft, and less focused on the nose than 2001 and somewhat monotonous on the palate without a lot of tension or interest. Restraint on the finish. Big tannins seem to suggest further ageing.

Cotarella remarks that this wine lacks minerality apparently due to the young age of the vineyards. He also tells us it is not easy to “fine tune” this wine, as it is not clear which blending approach will be right. According to him it takes a long time to find out how to make an elegant wine…

2005 IGT Toscana Villa Antinori 13.5% vol.
Impenetrable, almost black. Nose dominated by leather notes, almost horse saddle, and notes of dark, sweet fruit, nutmeg and oak. Vegetal too. Lively acidity at first, which quickly dissolves in dark fruits hinting at fruit cake underlined by astringent tannins.
The blend seems to take away all the edges, only saved by acidity. Alcoholic too.