Hubert Burda Media

Upping the Ante

Can a humble glass of wine bridge centuries past and present, and yet speak of the future? Perhaps, thinks Lauren Tan, after meeting Marchesi Antinori's 26th generation vintner ALBIERA ANTINORI

Upping the Ante

Perhaps it's that saying, the one about family wealth being squandered by the third generation, or the fact that even as a nation, we're all of 48-years-young, because meeting with Albiera Antinori and learning that her family trade has endured six centuries is absolutely bewildering. At least there's a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why their wines are so darn irresistible. How can they not be when winemaking artistry has been honed over 26 generations?
Best known for their Chianti, Marchesi Antinori was founded when Giovanni di Piero Antinori joined the Winemakers Guild of Florence in 1385. Over the years, successive generations expanded the fame of their wines, growing the family endeavour into one of the biggest wine companies in Italy, with wineries in Chile, Hungary, Malta, Romania and in Washington state and Napa Valley in the US today. Porticciole (portholes), from which bottles used to be sold by wine merchants of yore are, in fact, still evident in the facade of the family home, the 50-room Antinori palace in Florence — purchased by Niccolò Antinori in 1506 — after which Piazza Antinori in the centre of the city was named.
Apart from the inherent cool factor of having seen through the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, what makes Marchesi Antinori so interesting is that for the first time in its history, women are actually playing a significant role in the business. While Albiera's 74-year-old father Marchese Piero Antinori, the man who helped popularise the Bordeaux-style Super Tuscan revolution in the 1970s with his barrique-aged Tignanello, is still very much steward of the family firm, Albiera and younger sisters Allegra and Alessia have been stamping their mark all over the male-dominated Italian wine industry.
The firm's Vice-President Albiera oversees the family's real estate and the building of new wineries. Allegra takes charge of the group's growing restaurant empire, of which Cantinetta Antinori, with outposts in Zurich, Vienna and Moscow, is their flagship culinary brand. And Alessia, the youngest, is developing a new vineyard in Rome.
Late last year, seven years after the project was first conceived, the family unveiled its new state-of-the-art winery in the heart of Chianti Classico, which for the first time in 600 years was designed to welcome the public. An architectural masterpiece that blends into the Tuscan country side, it houses an expansive underground cellar, a restaurant and fittingly, a recently inaugurated museum dedicated to showcasing the wealth of Florentine culture.
The museum was inaugurated recently. Why did the family decide to formally establish one at the new winery?
Italian wines, particularly Tuscan wines, are so tied together with culture, art, architecture and food that we thought this was the moment that we could show people that there is a whole entire world behind wine. We could no longer fit into the old palazzo, having lived and worked there since 1506 and were building a new winery anyway, so there was an opportunity to construct the new cellars, a restaurant and museum in a way we thought represents Italy and Tuscan wine. As a family with a six-century lineage, we were in the position to bring together all the different bits and pieces of the puzzle.
Have there been a lot of visitors?
There has been, although we haven't publicised it much. When you are not used to being open to the public, you need to take a little bit of time to get things perfect. We're not entirely done yet. Not all of the vineyards [which sit on top of the underground cellars] have been planted, but we're finishing up. The perfect time to visit will be next spring.
Is wine tourism becoming a big thing in Europe?
In Italy, I'd say it's coming along and I get the feeling that it will become very important. Italian wines are very difficult to understand because there aren't clear classifications, appellations and varieties like French wines. But more and more appreciate the Italian lifestyle in general, so they are coming to visit and will learn more about wine.
The company has expanded around the world. What's it like working in different regions, climates and cultures?
That's the interesting part. Apart from the Napa Valley vineyards (Antica and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars), the others aren't big operations. We started them more to understand the culture, vines and wine of the regions rather than as just a pure monetary investment. They are all doing fine and we have learnt a lot, especially about the local varieties: Carménère in Chile, Feteasca Neagra in Romania, Kékfrankos in Hungary. So it's all very interesting to see how wines reflect the variety of the soil, people and kind of food there.
Did you always want to be a vintner?
In a certain sense, it was natural having grown up in a family that has its roots in the countryside. But there was never any pressure. When I first started out, I never even got the impression that I was going to work; it was just an extension of normal life. So it was all very smooth. After high school, rather than going straight to university, I did my first harvest just to test it out. Directly after that, I followed my father as he travelled the world to introduce our wines, then on my return, I worked in the vineyards and with our sales people to learn how the wines are sold. Before I knew it, it was the next harvest and now it's been 25 years.
How would you describe this connection you feel with the land?
The land is part of our heritage. Our life and wealth depends on what the land gives us — through a plant, the land gives us fruit and then it's our job to transform it, but leaving the essence of what the land gave.
What's it like being one of the first women to have a major role in the company?
We have no brothers. So gender was never an issue. Rather, the pressure I felt was from being young when I first started. On the other hand, being young also means that your outlook is for the future so things even out. And then once you have children, the challenge then is how to balance everything because family comes first, but yet the job is linked to the family and so it also comes first. It was complicated for a few years. Now it's better because my children are older, they are 20 and 18.
Is your father Marchese Piero Antinori even considering retirement?
I don't think so and I don't hope so. He is 74 and he loves his job. He brings a perspective shaped by many, many years of experience.
His innovations were pivotal to the Super Tuscan revolution. Is experimentation still an emphasis for the company?
We're always experimenting and innovating. But what he did in those years is hardly replicable. What we have to pursue in the next years is an improvement of quality and concentration of local varieties in our wines. That means we're looking to make wine with a higher percentage of Sangiovese in Tuscany and Nebbiolo in Piedmont. Italy has a patrimony of historical varieties that when grown in its regional land can really produce wines that are different from any other place. People these days want something different from the typical French varieties, such as Cabernet or Chardonnay. So that's the direction we're heading to.
Of the wines that you produce, do you have any favourites?
There's no such thing as a favourite; just the perfect wine for the perfect moment. I like our Tignanello, one of our flagships (made from Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc), because it represents my own personal tastes. For white, I like the Cervaro, which is the one we make at Castello della Sala (from Chardonnay and Grechetto). On special occasions, I go for the Guado al Tasso, a Cabernet-based wine we make by the coast at Bolgheri, a new appellation that is already famous around the world, or the Donna Cora, our sparkling wine.
The family is a member of Primum Familiae Vinae (PFV). When you meet the Drouhins, and Rothschilds, what do you all chat about?
Wine and children. We all face similar issues and it's interesting to see how people in other countries have solved these issues be it human resource-related or about regulations, taxation or logistics. It's a very friendly group. We meet for three days, we talk business over one morning, and the rest of the time we are sitting at a table and eating well or visiting beautiful properties.
Any friendly rivalries?
No, because we're not from the same region. The only other Italian wine producer [Tenuta San Guido, which makes Sassicaia] in the PFV are our cousins. The wine world is so big, you don't need to be rivals among peers. You need to be a rival to other drinks rather than wine.
What does wine mean to you?
Wine is life. It means family, emotions, memories, projections of hopes and dreams. It means the countryside and represents the variable — you can drink a wine now but six months down the road, it can be different.