King Of Italian Wine Families: Marchese Piero Antinori
Reprinted from John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet Newsletter (www.johnmariani.com):
“When Marchese Piero Antinori first produced a single vineyard blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc in 1978, it was a wine that deliberately diverted from government regulations as to what grapes could and could not go into traditional Tuscan appellations like Chianti Classico. As a result, Solaia and other renegade Tuscan wines like Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Antinori’s own Tignanello were only allowed to be labeled as “vino da tavola,” later “IGT” (Typical Geographic Indication).Yet it was clear from the start that these non-traditional wines were far superior to Chianti Classico and, with the exception of the great Brunello di Montalcino, most other Tuscan reds. In the trade they were dubbed “Super Tuscans.”
“Solaia coincided with the incredible revolution in Italian wine when vintners began focusing on quality rather than quantity,” said Antinori at a wine media tasting and luncheon at New York’s Le Cirque restaurant, where Solaia was first introduced in the U.S. back in 1979.
“It has now been 30 years we have been making Solaia,” he said, “and it has evolved over that period depending on what we’ve learned and what we want to express about elegance and finesse. The first two vintages were blends of only cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, but eventually we began to add sangiovese, and each year adjusted the amounts of the varietals in the blend.”
Imperially slim and impeccably dressed in a dark gray suit and blue tie, the Marchese, 69, whose family has been making wine for more than 600 years, epitomizes Tuscan nobility in the 21st century. Together with his daughters Albiera, Allegra, and Alessia (right), he is intimately involved with the business of Antinori wines and tirelessly promotes them throughout the world, along with the company’s other labels, which include holdings in Piedmont, Puglia, and Umbria, as well as in California, Washington State, Hungary, Chile, and Malta.
Antinori reeled off his own stipulations for a wine to be great: “First, it needs complexity; it cannot be a simple wine; next it must have consistency: it should be at least as good 30 minutes after you drink the first glass. Third, it must have aging potential, and last, a great wine should give you both intellectual and mystic pleasure.”
All these attributes were amply on display at Le Cirque that afternoon, with 10 different vintages poured, from the first, 1978, to the yet-unreleased 2005. One vintage, the 1985 ($380), had lost all appeal and showed oxidation; others, like the 2001 ($170), tasted delicious right now, with silky tannins and layers of flavor, though Antinori insisted “one must be patient for four or five years with this vintage.” The 1978 ($520)was remarkably sound, with enormous depth, while the 1988 ($260), from a very small vintage, had lively vegetal and spice notes, with semi-firm tannins. The 1990 ($400) was richly masculine, a wine of brawn, with years to go; Antinori declared it a “great vintage, though not as elegant as we first thought.” One of his own favorites was the 1994 ($200), a more feminine wine with brilliant color, vibrancy, and freshness. The 1997 ($450), once considered the greatest vintage of the last century in Tuscany, was thinner than I expected, its tannins mellowed out. The 1999 ($220) clearly needs at least two more years to open up and to mellow out the oak and tannins. The 2005, which should be released next year, had a medium body and backbone, having spent 24 months in new oak and then being bottled last December. “Solaia absolutely needs bottle aging to realize its potential,” declared Antinori.
At the luncheon the estate’s delicately fruity white wine from Umbria, Cervaro della Sala 2005 ($40), a blend of 85 percent chardonnay and 15 percent grechetto, was served with a lustrous lobster risotto. Then, with a succulent roasted loin of veal in morel cream sauce, the 1997 Solaia was poured, and with the Italian cheese course the 2004 ($170), whose youth was a virtue with strong cheeses like gorgonzola cremificato, piave, and robiola bosina.
By day’s end I came away convinced that Solaia is indeed one of the greatest red wines of Italy or anywhere else, and that, despite so many variations and adjustments over the years, the wine has kept its essential Tuscan character of velvety elegance and complexity. I can hardly wait for its 40th birthday. The prices quoted above are an average of listings at wine-searchers.com for various vintages of Solaia.