Chardonnay 2.0

Marchesi Antinori’s Castello della Sala estate in Umbria

Marchesi Antinori’s Castello della Sala estate in Umbria

Antinori. A noble Tuscan family and a producer of wine for twenty-six generations. I can count on my fingers the number of other families or estates whose winemaking history dates back to 1180, but longevity is far from the only reason that Marchesi Antinori is worthy of note.

Marchesi Piero Antinori, the honorary president of the eponymous company now run by his three daughters, is descended from a long line of passionate and diligent winemakers, many of whom also had a keen eye for marketing and innovation. From joining the Florentine Winemakers Guild in 1385 and courting the favour of the ruling Medici family, to cannily beginning to export its wines abroad from as early as 1753, to producing Italy’s first Metodo Classico sparkling wine in 1905, his Antinori antecedents left Piero big shoes to fill and a substantial reputation to uphold.

In 1930, Marchese Nicoló Incisa della Rocchetta’s father, Mario, received by way of a dowry from his wife’s family the 3,000 hectare Tenuta San Guido estate in Bolgheri. A lover of the wines of Bordeaux with a desire to one day plant his own vineyards, he noted the similarity of the gravelly soils of this coastal Tuscan estate to those of Graves and soon planted a number of cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

From his first vintage in 1948 until sometime in the early 1960s, the tiny quantity of firmly structured wine he produced each year was solely for family consumption and much of it lay forgotten in their cellar. It wasn’t until some of his knowledgeable colleagues tasted bottles of the early vintages and were extremely impressed that he resumed his project and planted a further 12 hectares of vines in 1965. This second vineyard would give the wine its name - Sassicaia, meaning the place of many stones – and the first commercial vintage was 1968. Mario Incisa’s insurgent use of Cabernet varieties in Tuscany, compounded by his use of barriques, meant that his wine was relegated to the humblest "vino da tavola" status according to appellation law. In 1970, with his cousin Piero Antinori, Nicoló convinced his father to allow the commercialisation of Sassicaia and teamed up with consultant Giacomo Tachis, who also helped to modernise the production methods.

Thus was born the phenomenon of the "Super Tuscan", along with Piero Antinori’s nascent role as one of the great modernisers of the Italian wine industry. In those days it was illegal to incorporate Bordeaux or other unsanctioned grape varieties into a Chianti Classico, even if it improved the wine. Equally, it was also illegal under the existing rules to produce a 100% Sangiovese wine. Consequently, rebellious producers who created these new styles of wine had to classify them merely as “vini di tavola”, despite their anything-but-humble prices. For many years these expensive, high quality, yet lowly classified wines were a thorn in the side of Italian wine regulations as they inhabited a realm outside of the system whilst garnering huge critical acclaim and fomenting a revolution in the quality and style of Italian winemaking. It was only in 1992 that the legal system caught up with the reality of Italian wine production, creating the experimental Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) designation to house these wines.

Around the same time as he was helping his cousin in Bolgheri, Piero launched arguably the most famous Super Tuscan of all – the Sangiovese-based Tignanello. In 1978 he followed this with the Cabernet-based Solaia from the same estate, and with his own Bolgheri wine, Guado al Tasso, in 1990.

And what does all of this have to do with the title of this post? From his family’s home just outside Firenze, across Toscana, into Umbria, up to Piemonte and Lombardia and down to Puglia, Piero has continued to be an influential and progressive force in Italian wine. Over the last forty years, as well as adding estates to the family’s portfolio, Piero and his daughters have consciously modernised – globalised, if you will – the style of their wines. I have commented upon this trend before (see my post Far From A Fiasco) and I won’t go into it again here, but international grape varieties now play major roles across the range, blended either with local varieties or with each other. Chardonnay is responsible for two of Antinori’s highest profile white wines.

As a grape variety Chardonnay is something of a blank canvas. It can be made in various styles in many different parts of the world, reflecting both its terroir and its vinification with equal ease. Its moderate acidity, its bright fruit and its affinity for all types of oak ageing give it timeless appeal whilst enabling it to successfully blend with several other grape varieties. A small percentage of another grape can substantially influence and enhance the wine, a technique used to great effect by Antinori at opposite ends of Italy. Here are my thoughts on these two upgraded Chardonnays:

Tormaresca, Pietrabianca

Tormaresca, Pietrabianca

Tormaresca, Pietrabianca Castel del Monte DOC 2016
(13.5% ABV, contact Berkmann Wine Cellars for price and availability)
90% Chardonnay, 10% Fiano

Antinori founded Tormaresca in 1998, bringing together two estates with extensive vineyards in two of Puglia’s finest wine producing regions. Tenuta Bocca di Lupo, in the Castel del Monte DOC, occupies 100 hectares of chalky soil at 245 metres above sea level in Murgia, near Monte Vulture, and Masseria Maìme in Salento with 250 hectares of vineyards extending over half a mile along the Adriatic coast. Pietrabianca is produced from selected bunches of grapes grown at Bocca di Lupo’s vineyards around the town of Minervino Murge. Its name – which translates as “White Stone” – refers to the white karst stones of the Altopiano delle Murge that have been crushed into the soil by farmers ploughing their fields. Even the etymology of the region’s name, Murgia, refers to sharp stones or rocks and specifically to the dry stone walls that criss-cross the countryside.

The Chardonnay was fermented in new Hungarian and French barriques, and it remained there as it went through malolactic fermentation and a period of time resting on its lees. After a few months the Chardonnay was racked, blended with the stainless steel-fermented Fiano, and then bottled. The finished wine was given six months of bottle age prior to release.

Pithy, lemon fruit, laced with rich, sweet aromas of peardrop and fresh almonds from the Fiano, checked by subtle coffee and smokey oak notes and a touch of sea air salinity. The citrus and lemon pith fruit notes and the almond/peardrop aromatic elements are echoed in the palate, enriched by nicely integrated new oak that enhances without overwhelming. Well-judged acidity keeps the ripeness of the fruit in check, and there is a pleasing balance of flavours that lasts the full length of the finish. A streak of saline minerality adds a classy element of linear tension not always found in such a warm climate wine. An interesting and very enjoyable oaked Chardonnay-based blend that does actually speak of Southern Italy, thanks to the distinctive character of the autochthonous Fiano. At approximately one third of the price of Cervaro, what’s not to like?

Castello della Sala, Cervaro della Sala

Castello della Sala, Cervaro della Sala

Castello della Sala, Cervaro della Sala Umbria IGT 2015
(12.5% ABV, £55 Majestic)
90% Chardonnay, 10% Grechetto

Although he introduced the Trebbiano-based Villa Antinori Bianco to his stable of Tuscan reds in 1931, Marchesi Piero Antinori’s father, Niccolò, had a desire to produce great white wines and thus turned his attention from his native Toscana to neighbouring Umbria. In 1940, he purchased Castello della Sala near Orvieto, with its 15th century castle, its 29 farms and its 483 hectares of woods and fields, which at that time included 52 hectares of vineyards and olive groves. Today, although there are only 8 hectares of olive groves, there are 140 hectares of vineyards planted in the fossil rich, clay soils of the Umbrian Apennines at altitudes ranging from 200-450 metres above sea level. The name Cervaro is derived from that of the feuding noble family who founded the estate in 1350, and who reached a truce in 1480 when Pietro Antonio Monaldeschi della Vipera della Sala married his cousin Giovanna Monaldeschi della Cervara.

Not for nothing is Pietrabianca dubbed “the Cervaro of the south”; the winemaking method at Tormaresca is very much the same as at Castello della Sala, only with Grechetto taking the place of Fiano in the blend.

Lemon citrus and sweet toffee-scented oak, with a gentle smokey/toasty nuttiness under. The impression given by the nose is reaffirmed by the initial attack of the palate, namely the sweet, vanillin-laden new oak influence that momentarily one fears might be overwhelming. I have been fortunate to have tasted numerous vintages of Cervaro since the first release in 1987 at various stages of their evolution and, although it is always a decidedly oaky wine, the youthful exuberance of the barriques does assimilate over time.

The lens flare of new oak quickly gives way to bright, focussed, lemony, Chardonnay flavours, showing careful extraction and balanced by a little tannin from the wood. The aspect of Cervaro that has always appealed to me most is the 10% of stainless steel fermented Grechetto that makes up its blend. The grape’s delicate, nutty notes harmonise with the oaked Chardonnay, its very slight bitterness and fresh acidity add an extra dimension of complexity, and provide a great contrast to the creamy textured richness. Deeper, more concentrated and certainly oakier than the Pietrabianca, it’s undoubtedly very well made but for me it has always lacked a distinct, regional identity that differentiates a truly exceptional wine.