There was little sign of the celebrated Tuscan sun in late February as I made my way through the rain-swept narrow streets of Florence towards Palazzo Antinori, to meet Italian wine scion Piero Antinori.
Not only was I going to taste the latest vintages of Antinori’s famed Super Tuscans – Tignanello and Solaia – I was also going to ask him his views on the latest happenings in Chianti Classico.
Tignanello was instrumental in the Italian wine renaissance, forcing producers to institute fundamental improvements in their vineyards and cellars if they wanted to make quality wines. It was the first sangiovese-based wine to be aged in barriques, and the first to be blended with non-traditional grapes.
In the palazzo's small and homely tasting room, Antinori explains that the rules governing Chianti production not so long ago weren't up to scratch. “When the Chianti formula was created, red wines were particularly harsh because the whole bunches – including the stalks – were used, and no one knew about malolactic fermentation," he says.
"Adding a percentage of white grape malvasia helped soften the wines. But then it proved cheaper and easier to add the hardier trebbiano, and by the 1960's, Chianti Classico was made with 30 percent trebbiano grapes – even though it’s impossible to make great red wine when a third of it consists of white grapes."
The resulting wines – acidic and diluted – damaged Chianti Classico’s reputation, and the denomination still suffers from a lingering image problem despite the improvements of the past two decades.
Antinori, whose family have long possessed holdings in Chianti Classico, decided early on to focus on making great red wine, despite the rules that governed the zone.
In 1970, he separately vinified the grapes from his prime Tignanello vineyard at the family’s estate in the heart of the denomination to produce a superior wine.
Marchesi Antinori Tignanello initially made its debut as "Chianti Classico Riserva Vigneto Tignanello," but in 1971, Antinori dropped the use of white grapes and traded in large casks for new barriques.
“By eliminating white grapes that were mandatory at the time and aging in new barriques, Tignanello couldn’t be called Chianti Classico," Antinori explains.
But encouraged by Italian wine critic Luigi Veronelli, he labeled Tignanello as a table wine.
Tignanello’s lowly table wine status, coupled with a hefty price tag that exceeded contemporary Chianti Classicos, generated intense interest in Italy and abroad. The wine’s debut as a table wine created a brouhaha, thanks to its rich fruit and abundant yet round tannins – in stark contrast to the weedy Chianti Classicos of the day.
“Tignanello’s release coincided with the evolution of consumer tastes,” recalls Antinori, who despite his title of Marchese (the aristocratic rank between a count and a prince) is more down to earth than most winemakers of his stature around the world.
“Consumers and critics wholeheartedly welcomed Tignanello, and not just in international markets, but even here in Tuscany. We weren’t expecting that."
Spurred on by the positive response, Antinori started experimenting with cabernet – unheard of in the Chianti Classico zone of the early 1970's. By 1982, he had perfected what has become Tignanello’s standard blend of 80 percent sangiovese, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent cabernet franc. Other estates followed suit, and plantings of international vines took off in the heart of Italy’s oldest wine denomination.
In the late 1970's, the Marchese had also created Solaia, originally a pure cabernet sauvignon from Tignanello's neigboring vineyard, Solaia but he wanted it to speak of its place. "People make great cabernets all over the world so I wanted to give Solaia a more Tuscan identity,” says Antinori.
He began blending in the sangiovese grape but cabernet remained the major player. Today, the Solaia blend is almost a mirror image of Tignanello: 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent sangiovese and 5 percent cabernet franc.
Like Tignanello, the yield for Solaia is restricted to 50-60 quintals or 5000-6000kg of fruit per hectare. The grape's are sorted twice before processing: sorters at the first table select the best bunches. The best individual grapes are then selected at the second sorting table. Neither is now classified as a table wine; instead, both wines carry the IGT designation, which is more flexible than Chianti Classico’s DOCG.
By the early 1980's, as more Chianti Classico producers followed Antinori’s lead and made superior reds that broke with the outdated regulations, the denomination – once the flagship of Tuscan wine – was shamed into making drastic changes. It began by reducing the mandatory quantity of white grapes, although it would take decades to eliminate them altogether. Classico’s regulations, modified several times in the past three decades, now allow 80–100 percent sangiovese, and up to 20 percent red grapes, including international varieties.
The local growers’ consortium also embarked on extensive clonal research into sangiovese. Thanks to these improvements, quality in Chianti Classicos has improved greatly since the birth of Tignanello. And Antinori, who had quit the growers’ consorzio in 1975 in protest over the status quo, took notice. Last year, having always made Marchesi Antinori Chianti Classicos alongside his Super Tuscans, he rejoined the consortium after a 37-year absence.
“We’ve always believed in the future and great potential of Chianti Classico and are convinced there are areas here that can produce extraordinary wines,” says Antinori, who admits that the denomination still faces challenges.
He explains that since 2010, Chianti Classico producers can no longer declassify fruit from Chianti Classico down to Chianti, which was previously permissible. "For some producers [this] safeguarded the quality of their Classicos," he notes, in much the same way as Brunello di Montalcino producers can declassify their wines to Rosso di Montalcino or Barolo can be downgraded to Langhe Nebbiolo if the wines don't measure up.
The new Chianti Classico ruling takes away the quality safeguard for Chianti Classico producers, who would declassify wines that weren't up to standard. The result? "Classico needs much stricter quality controls now."
However, Antinori is very optimistic that the recently announced new category for Chianti Classico, "Gran Selezione," heralds a major improvement.
The new classification sits at the top of the Chianti Classico quality pyramid, above riserva. The designation requires producers to restrict yields to 52.5 hectoliters per hectares, the same as the riserva category, but it must also age its wines for 30 months in total - six months longer than riserva.
Antinori adds: “Chianti Classico Gran Selezione will also have to be made exclusively from estate grapes, and the wine’s origin will be rigidly overseen. So Chianti Classico bought in bulk and bottled by wine merchants won’t be permitted to use ‘Gran Selezione’ on the label.”
Although Antinori is supportive of Chianti Classico’s future and has invested millions in the new Chianti Classico cellars he will soon open to the public, he is still very attached to Tignanello and Solaia – his pioneering Super Tuscans that ignited change across Italy. And he has no intention of reining in Tignanello.
“Even though Tignanello now meets all the Chianti Classico requirements, it’s a symbolic wine and will always remain simply Tignanello."
A selection of Marchesi Antinori wines on Wine-Searcher (worldwide prices, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):