When it comes to the history and tradition of winemaking it would be hard to top Tuscany, whose well-earned reputation as Italy’s answer to Bordeaux precedes it. Any discussion of fine Italian wine usually begins with the green valleys of a region whose vineyards were prized by the Romans.
Tuscany’s rise to pre-eminence began in the 12th century, when the self-ruling cities of central Italy periodically battled for control of the fertile hills of Chianti. It is a story of three prominent aristocratic families who still have an influential role in Italian wine.
The Ricasoli had been granted feudal rights over their lands by Charlemagne and were defenders of Florence in its conflict with Siena. They have been connected to winemaking since 1141, leading the way even then in in promoting improvements in their vineyards and agriculture in general. The Ricasoli estate is the largest and oldest in Italy, and one of the oldest continuous businesses in the world. By the late 1600s they were exporting wine to England and the Netherlands.
The imposing Castello di Brolio is situated near Gaiole. It was here that Baron Bettino Ricasoli codified the grapes to be used for making Chianti Classico, a recipe that has undergone modifications over time. Today his descendants produce highly regarded Chianti Classicos such as “Barone Ricasoli,” “Colledila Gran Selezione,” “Casalfero,” “Brolio Bettino,” and “CeniPrimo Gran Selezione,” as well as Vin Santo.
Not far from there, the borgo (small rural settlement) of Fonterutoli became the border that Siena and Florence agreed upon as the 13th century unfolded. In 1398 Ser Lapo Mazzei penned the first document using the term “Chianti” to recognize the vineyard areas near Siena. The Mazzei family was making wine by 1435, some 57 years before Columbus set sail for parts unknown. The 24th generation continues the tradition from the same soil that slopes from the borgo.
They bought the hamlet centuries ago, including the church of San Miniato and the medieval castello. It has remained unchanged and inhabited ever since. The family library contains hundreds of leather-bound albums of papers and records, including a complimentary review of their wine from Leonardo di Vinci.
Their top-of-the-line bottles are three Chianti Classico Gran Selezione labels – “Vicoregio 36,” “Castello Fonterutoli,” and “Badiolo.” In addition, they make Chianti Classicos “Fonterutoli” and “Ser Lapo” to honor the founder. The two IGT wines would be considered Super Tuscans – “Concerto,” a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet, and “Siepi,” Sangiovese and Merlot that has been credited as being one of the wines that changed the style of Italian wine.
From a historical standpoint, their most interesting label is “Philip,” dedicated to the Mazzei who was a friend of Franklin, John Adams, Washington, and Jefferson, who invited him to Monticello. During the visit he encouraged the wine-loving Jefferson to plant vineyards on the property. He was alleged to have remarked to the future statesman that “All men are by nature equally free and independent.” The words apparently struck a chord. John F. Kennedy cited them as the ideal that Jefferson paraphrased in our Declaration of Independence.
On the timeline of Tuscan winemaking, when Pinaccio di Antinoro made wine at Calenzano in 1180 he wasn’t far behind the original Ricasoli vintners. A few generations later, they bought a palazzo from another wealthy family and rechristened it with their surname. By then, they had been producing wine commercially for 75 years. Fast forward to 1900 when Piero Antinori bought several vineyards in Chianti Classico, including 115 acres at Tignanello that would prove to be fortuitous.
Piero’s son Niccolo caused a minor scandal by making “Chianti” that included French grapes. Ironically, he inadvertently created the first Super Tuscan wine, the type the family would some day lead the way in producing. Undeterred, he forged ahead with innovative ideas until he retired in 1966, succeeded by his son Piero, who implemented the vineyard and cellar techniques then coming into use.
The most renowned Antinori wine, “Tignanello,” debuted in 1971. Made only with Sangiovese and none of the white grapes that were part of Bettino Ricasoli’s century-old standard, it had to be designated a Toscana IGT instead of a Chianti Classico. No matter. In 1975, the head winemaker added Cabernet and Cabernet Franc, the same ‘foreign” grapes that had been cultivated at the estate since the 1920s. Somewhere Niccolo must have been shaking his head with an “I told you so” grin.
In the 1980s, like the Gallos in America, the Antinoris invested in wineries and vine-yards worldwide. In Italy they bought up land in Puglia and Piemonte. They expanded their Tuscan portfolio to include, among others, Peppoli; La Braccesca in theVino Nobile di Montepulciano area; Pian del Vigne of Monta-leiro: Montealoro north of Florence for white grapes: Castello della Salla, a small holding near Orvieto; and most notably, a mammoth 2200 acres at Guado al Tasso in Bolgheri.
With so many properties it’s obvious that their roster of wines is lengthy. A random sampling would include Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico: Baddia a Passignano Chianti Classico “Gran Selezione;” “Vinaferrovia” Brunello do Montalcino and Rosso di Montal-cino at Pian della Vigne; white wines from Castello dell Sala; and from their Bolgheri vineyards, the Super Tuscan blend “Matarocchio,” “Conte’ Ugo” Merlot, “Il Brucciato” made from familiar French grapes, and the coastal white wine Vermentino.