by Bruce Schoenfeld
The literature-and even the logo-of Marchesi Antinori boasts of 26 generations of continuous wine production since Giovanni di Piero Antinori was inducted into Italy's enologists' guild in 1385. In many ways, though, only the last two have mattered.
In 1966, Niccolò Antinori retired and was succeeded by his son Piero. On Piero Antinori's watch, he and his three daughters have grown a modestsized family business into Italy's most important winery-one that produces more than 20 million bottles annually. Along the way, they've altered the shape and scope of Italian wine.
At MGM's Aria resort in Las Vegas's CityCenter development in October 2010, I attended a multivintage tasting encompassing the four proprietary blends from Central Italy-each including French grape varieties-that have been created during Piero Antinori's tenure. We sampled two vintages of Umbria's Cervaro della Sala and four each of Guado al Tasso, Tignanello, and Solaia from Tuscany.
The two-hour event was conducted by Renzo Cotarella, who met Piero Antinori while an enology student in the 1970s and has faithfully served the company ever since, rising to his current position of CEO, head of enology, and de facto son to Piero. Even without including Antinori's Brunello di Montalcino (Pian delle Vigne) or Chianti Classici (Pèppoli and Badia a Passignano), not to mention the wines from its properties in Piemonte and southern Italy, the tasting revealed the breadth and depth of its portfolio. One may consider these modern blends to be firmly rooted in Italian tradition or wholly invented, representative of their geographical areas or facelessly international. But it is difficult to argue that, taken as a group, they're anything but well made, stylistically singular, and usually quite enjoyable to drink.
The wines below were sourced from Antinori and the library cellars of Washington State's Ste Michelle Wine Estates, which handles the US distribution, and were opened and poured shortly before the event. All appeared to be in perfect condition. The event was attended by about 100 sommeliers and many other miscellaneous wine professionals.
Cervaro della Sala
Cervaro della Sala is a blend of Chardonnay and indigenous Grechetto grapes grown near a medieval castle north of Orvieto. The first vintage of the wine was the 1985, and Cotarella has managed the property from the start. The Grechetto is fermented in stainless steel, so it adds not merely a different flavor profile but also a textural counterpoint to the Chardonnay, which is fermented in barrel. Together, they produce a white wine of uncommon complexity. "The idea is not just to make a Chardonnay," Cotarella says. "We want to make Cervaro, which is why we add the Grechetto." In its best vintages, Cervaro della Sala has the zing of a northern Italian white and the richness and elegance of a Burgundy.
Cervaro della Sala 1996 An astoundingly fresh 14-year-old white. A brilliant yellowgold, it benefits from the high proportion of Grechetto-20%, as much as this wine ever gets-which gives it its vibrancy. Multidimensional, with butterscotch flavors giving way to higher-toned minerality, it's a compelling advertisement for aged white wine under cork. 17
Cervaro della Sala 2006 There's only 5% less Grechetto here than in the 1996, yet the Chardonnay attributes are fully dominant- from the intense nose that seems more New World than European, to a rich, mouthcoating flavor with notes of butter and vanilla. It's a huskier, less-refined wine than the '96-and not merely because it's a decade younger-but it is still nicely balanced and pleasurable enough in its way. 15
Guado al Tasso
This is Antinori's Maremma wine, first produced in 1990. The grapes are grown on a 2,500-acre (1,000ha) estate that stretches from the Tuscan coast to the Bolgheri hills. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah for its first 17 years, it changed course with the 2007 vintage, when Cabernet Franc and a lower portion of Petit Verdot replaced the Syrah-a successful transition that has made for better wine. "Syrah sometimes can be a bit vulgar," Cotarella explains. "A little bit aggressive, a little bit simple. Cabernet Franc is more refined, and that's the kind of wine we want to make."
Guado al Tasso 1997 A tannic, muscular wine dominated by the Cabernet Sauvignon, though there's only 60% in the blend. There's an appealing leafiness to the nose, and in the mouth it's brash and simple. The Syrah (10%) adds a bite on the finish. Still primary and unevolved, there's nothing remotely Italian about it. 15
Guado al Tasso 1998 Some orange on the rim reveals signs of aging. A softer, fruitier wine than the 1997, with Merlot in the same proportion (30%) but taking a larger role on the palate. Syrah lurks in the background, casting a shadow on the sweet fruit. 16.5
Guado al Tasso 2001 There's a lot going on here, much of it good. But it's more a rock song than a symphony; and with the Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah all shouting to be heard, the result is cacophonous. There's freshness on the nose; firm, lively flavors framed by evident tannin; and an extended finish, with Syrah lingering again at the back. Old World flavors but a decidedly New-World style. 16
Guado al Tasso 2007 The finest Guado al Tasso I've tasted; it's a harmonious young wine firmly anchored in the Tuscan coast. The Cabernet Franc adds a fragrant, almost floral quality missing in previous vintages, and the fine tannins hold ripe but restrained fruit in place. Will get better with time. 17
Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia started production several years earlier, but Tignanello-which debuted in 1971 from grapes grown inside the boundaries of Chianti Classico-can be considered the first true Super-Tuscan, a wine purposefully declassified into basic vino da tavola by the inclusion of grape varieties disallowed by its DOC. In this case, the grapes were Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Added to the predominant Sangiovese, they produced a wine unlike Chianti or Brunello yet tasting unmistakably of the Tuscan hills.
Tignanello was the first Sangiovese to be aged in small barriques, like Bordeaux, and despite its proportion of 80-85% Sangiovese, it can sometimes be mistaken for a wine from the Médoc-more often, in my experience, than Solaia, which is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. Other Super-Tuscans such as Masseto and Redigaffi may typically score higher in blind tastings or be considered more unctuously delicious, but in its finest vintages Tignanello competes against Sassicaia and Ornellaia as the most intellectually engaging wine from this part of the world.
Tignanello 1997 A reddish-orange sunset on the rim offers the first hint that this wine has reached a plateau of maturity. Cherry compote on the nose, tangy cherry pie on the palate, and a firm, long, elegant, absolutely delicious wine. Has there been a better Tignanello? 19
Tignanello 1999 The cool vintage created a unique but far from unappealing menthol nose that wouldn't be out of place in the Barossa. In general, this '99 shows more super than Tuscan. The Cabernet Sauvignon-15% here-pokes through the Sangiovese to create a chewy, spicy, tasty wine that might be a restrained Napa Cabernet, a Spottswoode or a Heitz, or even a Cullen or Vasse Felix from Margaret River. 17.5
Tignanello 2004 Dense and deep, all black cherry and rhubarb, this adolescent Tignanello is velvety and full in the mouth, yet still brisk. This was the first vintage in which the Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese were blended just before bottling, but the effect on the finished product is uncertain even to Cotarella. Both varieties assert themselves on the palate-but harmoniously. Delicious now and for a long time to come. 18
Tignanello 2007 Magenta-colored, still utterly primary, this shows almost nothing on the nose. But on the palate it's already beautifully textured, all the way to an extended finish. Clearly Italian-vibrant, minerally-yet modern and accessible, it's a great expression of what a Super-Tuscan can be. Shows some real elegance, despite its youth. I envisage a small Italian boy, his hair combed in place, dressed up for a wedding in a three-piece suit. 18.5
Marchese Piero Antinori, the 26th generation of his family to sell wine, has grown his company into the most important producer in Italy since taking over in 1966
Solaia is Tignanello's inverse: a wine made mostly from Cabernet Sauvignon, augmented by 20% Sangiovese and a bit of Cabernet Franc. The grapes are grown in their own 25-acre (10ha) vineyard in the vicinity of Tignanello. Solaia was first produced from the 1978 vintage and since then only in what are deemed by Cotarella and the Antinoris to be exceptional years, though in reality it has been made in every vintage since 1992. The grape proportions haven't changed, but the wine remains something of a work in progress; by experimenting in the vineyard and the winery, Cotarella and his team continue to search for what he describes as a "perfection of personality." Recent vintages suggest they may have found it.
Solaia 1997 A splash of high-toned Sangiovese atop the velvety Cabernet makes this an intriguing wine. Some age shows on the rim, which goes from orange to red, and there are bright raspberries and dark cherries on the palate, finishing long. Still evolving. 17
Solaia 1999 There's a lack of depth here that's disappointing in a wine of this stature. Perhaps that isn't technically volatile acidity on the nose, but it smells like nail-polish remover, and there's not enough fullness to carry the fruit all the way to the finish. The cool vintage worked far better for Tignanello, which aims for elegance, than for a wine that depends on full ripeness to showcase its virtues. 15.5
Solaia 2004 The antithesis of the '99, this shows coffee and dark berries on the nose and a deep well of ripe Cabernet flavors on the palate. The alcohol stays in balance, and the Sangiovese adds a layer of interest. Gorgeous, long finish. 18
Solaia 2007 With its glossy rim, deep red color, and a nose like a barrel sample, this is reminiscent of a top Washington Cabernet. It is bright, viscous, full (but not heavy), and seamless. There's 20% Sangiovese here somewhere, evidently, but I can't find it-and don't miss it, either. A hugely enjoyable, internationally styled wine. 18