Antinori comes to Canberra

In 1385 Tuscany’s Antinori family commenced winemaking, Giovanni di Bicci de Medici, founder of the famous dynasty, turned 25 and Columbus hadn’t been born, let alone set sail. And given the squabbles on the peninsula, the notion of a unified Italy might’ve been less imaginable to a fourteenth century Florentine than a fabulous new world across the sea.

Indeed, the new world came and flourished long before Italy united. By the time Tuscany escaped Austrian rule and joined a united Italy in 1860, the American republic was 84 years old and Europe’s winemaking traditions, mainly French and German, had taken root on the planet’s oldest continent.

In 1849, as Antinori celebrated 464 years in the wine trade, an Englishman, Samuel Smith, founded Yalumba wines in the Barossa Valley. One hundred and thirty five years later, Robert Hill-Smith, Smith’s fifth generation descendent, established Negociants Australia – Yalumba’s import and wholesale arm. Hill-Smith included Antinori in his list of imports (now managed by 26th generation Piero Antinori).

Hill-Smith was Yalumba’s marketing manager at the time and driving the company’s modernisation. A year later he became managing director and five years later, with his brother Sam, bought out the other family shareholders.

It was a time of great turmoil in the industry. The end of retail price maintenance ten years earlier had unleashed a competitive wave that drove industry consolidation as producers struggled for market share and margin in a glutted market.

Producer consolidation in turn drove retail consolidation, a process that continues today, delivering Coles and Woolworths ever-greater market power. Retail consolidation then forced more producer consolidation. In conjunction with a currency-driven collapse in exports and overproduction, this consolidation continues to destroy value across the Australian wine industry.

Across these turbulent years, though, Hill-Smith focussed on his brands and along with other larger family owned companies, including Tyrrell’s, Brown Brothers, McWilliams and De Bortoli, gained market share as once-great brand names languished.

In this stable environment, with the long-term focus essential in the wine industry, Yalumba’s wine quality increased steadily. In every market segment they occupy, their quality is as good as it gets – and this includes traditional styles as well the alternative varieties now being pursued.

The Antinori story may be older, but its modern achievements share much with Yalumba’s – patience, innovation and a focus on quality, built from the vineyard up. As trading partners they’re a good match.

Antinori’s modern reputation intertwines with the creation of the so-called ‘super Tuscans’ in the early seventies. In 1971 Antinori thumbed its nose at Italy’s wine classification system. It voluntarily downgraded its flagship Tignanello from “Chianti Classico Riserva” to mere “table wine”.

By adding cabernet to the blend, they’d breached the Chianti Classico rules. However, Tignanello proved to be a great wine and word-of-mouth marketing quickly took it to the world, creating a new genre of Chianti spin-offs – blending classic Bordeaux varieties with the indigenous sangiovese grape. (In 1991 I enjoyed a bottle of the original 1971 Tignanello at a restaurant in the Tuscan town of Tavernelle. It was still drinking beautifully).

But the Antinoris didn’t drop “Chianti Classico” altogether. Indeed, they’ve polished the quality to extraordinary heights – and expanded their range into the nearby appellation of Brunello di Montalcino and to the coastal Bolgheri region.

Twenty-six years after Robert Hill-Smith established Negociants Australia, Piero Antinori’s godson, Jacopo Pandolini, arrived in Canberra, pulling the corks on the latest Antinori vintages for a trade tasting at Italian and Sons, Braddon.

They were jaw dropping, thrillingly good. Few single-maker lines ups in the world could match this range for drinking pleasure.

Peppoli Chianti Classico 2006 $32.90
This is the modern face of Chianti and a salute to the fruity wines of the new world. A little syrah (shiraz) and merlot in the blend, a touch of American oak, sweetens the aroma and fattens out the palate a little (sangiovese, the base wines, can be very austere). An enjoyable wine, but if you’re used to traditional Chianti, you might find Peppoli a little too “new world”.

Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2005 $62
This is a single-vineyard wine from the 325-hectare Badia a Passignano estate, purchased by the Antinoris in 1987. Rare for Chianti, it’s 100 per cent sangiovese. – a selection of the best berries, picked late in the season at full ripeness. It’s a beautiful Chianti Classico, austere, bone dry and elegant, with a delicious core of ripe, sweet fruit.

Pian delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino 2001 $92
This is another 100 per cent sangiovese, sourced from Antinori’s Pian delle Vigne estate, six kilometres south of the town of Montalcino. In a word, it’s stunning – elegant, fine, ethereal. A great wine from a great vintage.

Tignanello 2006 $125
This blend of 85 per cent sangiovese, 10 per cent cabernet sauvignon and five per cent cabernet franc from the Tignanello estate seems soft and juicy in comparison to the straight sangioveses. The cabernets have a big impact on the aroma, flavour and structure – a wine that’s still firm in the scheme of things, but elegant and refined. A distinctive and utterly seductive wine.

Tenuta Guado al Tasso Bolgheri $115
This is a cabernet sauvignon, merlot syrah blend from Bolgheri, on the Tuscan coast. It’s fragrant and sweet fruited, driven by cabernet’s ripe-berry character, and elegantly structured. The sweet fruit flavour lingers on and on.

Solaia 2004 $420
Solaia combines cabernet sauvignon (75 per cent) and cabernet franc (five per cent) and sangiovese (20 per cent) sourced from the top blocks of the Tignanello vineyard. It reverses the Tignanello blend, putting cabernet to the fore, although it doesn’t dominate. This is a powerful, taut wine. But the solid tannins work harmoniously with the intense, fine fruit flavours. It’s another great wine ¬and built for long-term cellaring.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010