Close up with: Piero Antinori

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Piero Antinori’s space age winery represents a new high for Chianti. But, as he tells Matthew Wilcox, things haven’t always been smooth sailing

For a man who has borne the burden of being the public face of Italian wine for the past 50 years, the impeccably dressed Marchese Antinori is remarkably unlined for his 76 years. Of late though, he has had reason to form a few worry lines. He is telling me about the construction of his new subterranean winery, something he describes with characteristic frankness as a “nightmare”.

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The ambitious scheme, completed two years ago, presented a number of challenges, including the excavation of a 90-acre hillside, followed by the subsequent failure of one of the retaining walls. The whole project is estimated to have cost $180 million. As the Marchese explains, “We had a number of problems, including the fact that we changed contractor halfway through construction after the first builder went broke.”

As everybody knows, Antinori is the mastermind behind the ‘Super Tuscan’ revolution of the 1970s which almost single handedly re-established the reputation of Chianti for quality wine after a disastrous few decades.

The Antinoris have been making wine in Tuscany since 1385, and, as the Marchese concedes, occasional problems are unavoidable over that length of time. In the 16th century they were almost bankrupted by the influx of New World gold into Europe, and ruin struck again in 1944, when German forces machine-gunned the entire vintage in the cellars. But when Antinori took control of the company in 1966, the 25th generation of his family to do so, the region as a whole was at a low ebb.

After the war, the rural population left for the booming cities. On top of this, in 1964, the state outlawed the ancient mezzadria (sharecropping) system. It meant that land-owners were forced to oversee their estates directly for the first time in centuries. And Antinori believes that Tuscan wine is still catching up from the mistakes made during this initial transition.

“At that time it was almost medieval. The people in the countryside didn’t have vineyards so much as hundreds of individual vines mixed in with their olive trees, chickens and cows. It was subsistence farming. I remember the men in the fields with bottles at their side would stop for a glass every half an hour.” He adds, “Maybe for energy.”

“For centuries in Italy the focus was on quantity rather than quality. The average consumption was something like 120 liters per head – including children and the elderly.”

“The new vineyards were planted in a very short period of time, and in the wrong way. We didn’t really have the experience. Even the universities of agriculture weren’t familiar with specialized vineyard management.” The problems caused by this knowledge gap, he says, were compounded by a lack of infrastructure. “The nurseries didn’t have the stock to meet such big demands in such a short period of time. The consequence was that we planted the wrong type of sangiovese. The quality of the wines produced went down, soon followed by the reputation and the prices. It was a very difficult period.”

To fix these problems, Antinori hired the legendary French wine scientist Émile Peynaud, who, along with the house wine maker Giacomo Tachis, came up with a solution that has since become a standardized international blueprint for fine wine: denser vineyards, riper grapes, and shorter aging in small French oak barrels to reduce the effect of oxidation on the wine.

Antinori credits Peynaud as one of the foremost influences in his working life. “He was a great wine man, firstly, because he was a scientist, and at the same time, a practical winemaker. But most of all because he was a man who loved wine, even emotionally.”

It is Peynaud’s emphasis on the importance of the science behind wine that is most visible in Antinori’s futuristic new winery. From the roadside the complex is only visible as two delicate terracotta slashes midway up a west facing hillside; like a scaled-up Fontana painting cut into a canvas of vineyards, olive trees and cypress groves.

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The effect is something of a trompe l’oeil. At close quarters, the winery feels monumental and palpably high tech; the sinusoidal cellars and corridors made from Tuscan brick glow with light emanating from the floors. There’s a touch of a Bond villain lair about it. The final project took seven years to complete, and it will be a number of years more before the vineyards crowning the facility have fully grown in to complete the effect.

“At the moment we are only using half the capacity of the winery. We wanted more space than was needed right now – even the offices are bigger than we currently need, but we were thinking in terms of hundreds of years.”

It is this long term view that has inspired the launch of the Antinori Art Project, a series of conferences to be held at the winery’s new museum born out of a collaboration with the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation. The family has a long held interest in fine art – the Marchese’s palazzo in Florence contains a number of fine works by artists such as Tintoretto and Della Robbia, while his youngest daughter Alessia sits on MoMA’s international board in New York. As Antinori says, “There is a connection between art and wine. To produce a great wine you need an artistic approach. We don’t pretend to compete with the Mouton museum, but the important thing is to give a direction from which the next generation can build something. These things take time.”

Matthew Wilcox is Deputy Editor of Bonhams Magazine.