This week, I welcome back Rodney Ouzts, a wonderful friend and fellow travel enthusiast with a special passion for Italy so who better then to write on a vineyard and other delights in and around Florence? Come evening, open a Super Tuscan or some other luscious big red, pour yourself a glass and then enjoy a wonderful little mini-visit to Tuscany, all courtesy of Rodney and his charming and transporting post...
600 Years of Winemaking: Linking History with the Future.
When visiting Florence for the first or second time, most visitors who enjoy traditional Tuscan cuisine and a fine chianti usually make a pilgrimage to the exquisite Cantinetta Antinori, a small elegant restaurant located on Via Tornabuoni right in the heart of the high end shopping district and located in the Palazzo Antinori.
Here, diners may start the meal with a glass of sparkling wine from their estate in the Franciacorta region of Italy and continue with a Pinot Nero from their vineyard in Umbria. Most come for a glass or bottle of one of their most famous Tuscan wines, Tignanello, a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes. After all, this is the family who can be credited for creating one of the first Super Tuscan blends.
Slowly, the visitor begins to realize the reaches of this family’s wine production spread far and wide. Just in Italy, the Antinori own eight estates producing wines from the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Piemonte, Puglia and Franciacorta. Beyond Italy, the family owns vineyards in Hungary, Malta, Romania and Chile and the United States. In the United States, one of their vineyards in Napa Valley produces the highly regarded Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, now well known for the famous 1976 blind-tasting called the “Judgement of “Paris” in which the judges rated the best California Cabernet and Chardonnay over the best red Bordeaux and white Burgundy submitted by the French. This contest changed California winemaking forever. The other Napa Valley estate produces the highly regarded “Antica” Cabernet Sauvignon and “Antica” Chardonnay. In the state of Washington’s Columbia River Valley, their joint effort with Chateau St. Michelle produces some of the finest red wines in the region.
The family began producing wine in 1385 when Giovanni di Piero Antinori became a member of the Florentine Vintners’ Guild. Now, 26 generations later, they are still making wine, still searching for new vineyards, still looking for new techniques and technologies to improve the process and still taking risks. In 2012, the Antinori opened a new winery in the Chianti Classico area called Antinori nel Chianti Classico. The result is a culmination of years of research and building. The structure itself took over five years to build. Located about 45 minutes outside Florence in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, the winery is a blend of modern and traditional. As with most new Italian architecture, great respect is given to the surrounding countryside. Since this is Chianti Classico, the architect, Marco Casamonti, used only brown-colored materials in order to harmonize with the surrounding landscape. He based the idea of “cutting into the hillside” on the spatial concepts of Lucio Fontana, the great Italian 20th-century artist known for his sliced canvases.
In fact, when you arrive at the winery, you barely see the structure. It rises from the hill like a bunker. You wind around the entrance drive and there it is, tucked into the hillside. One of our fellow visitors stated it felt like a scene from a James Bond film. The Marquis Antinori said he wanted the structure to be “monumental and invisible.” There is no doubt, he succeeded.
Once inside, the tour begins with a visit to a room filled with family artifacts followed by an interesting film on the family’s history and their massive holdings. Our tour was provided by a very kind and engaging young local woman. She was able to explain the complicated intricacies of winemaking so well and thoroughly that even this amateur (and lousy chemistry student) remained attentive. We were then invited to sample various wines and to tour the library/tasting room. Located on top of the structure is a beautiful modern restaurant with stunning views of the countryside.
One of the striking features of the entire facility is the incorporation of modern art work and sculpture inside and outside the structure. Wherever you go whether in stairwells, hallways, or rooms, monumental sculptures surround you. This is the work and intention of the family in what they call the “Antinori Art Project”. Four years ago, they invited artists from around the world to create new projects linked to the specific characteristics of the site. Among the artists represented in these installations are French artist-architect Yona Friedman, Patrick Tuffofuoco known for his multi colored neons and sculptor Rosa Barba. One of the most striking works is by Tomas Saraceno, an Argentianian artist who works in Berlin. His “biospheres” are spheres of transparent synthetic materials suspended in mid-air some even with plant materials. His work is well known to visitors to the Venice Biennial having exhibited there three times. Recently, his work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Barbican Art Centre in London, Hangar Bicocca in Milan, among many other venues. He has collaborated with both NASA and the MIT Center for Art and Technology on various projects.
After our tasting and tour, it is short drive to the nearby Osteria di Passignano, a beautiful restaurant where you can enjoy a bit little more Antinori wine or something else from the extensive wine list. We decided on a light lunch, some wine by the glass and were not disappointed. My choice was their version of a shrimp salad with greens and fresh shrimp. This was followed by agnolotti stuffed with pork. I decided not to have dessert but that decision changed when a perfectly beautiful silver basket was brought to the table filled with almond cream, miniature panatonne and small pastries.
After so much indulgence, we felt the need for a little spiritual inspiration and a walk so we wandered up the hill to the abbey, Badia a Passignano. A local priest provided a tour. Our main reason for the visit was to view the recently restored “Last Supper” by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It was created around 1476 and is the first of a series. Later, Ghirlandaio would create another “Last Supper” in refectory of the Convent of Ognissanti and in San Marco in Florence. I have viewed the others and do believe this is the most moving and beautiful. Having originated as a monastery before 1000 and later ruled by the Vallombrosan order, the Badia is a wonderful complex and still in use. We were given a full tour by the kind priest including a visit to the chapel, kitchen and gardens.
The vine cultivation at the abbey goes as far back as the 11th century. It is located in a protected area and in keeping with tradition, the Antinori family purchased 325 hectares of land around the abbey in 1987 and soon after started producing their Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva. They even use the ancient cellars located on the property to age and store the wine.
With respect to history and a look to the future, the Antinori family continues an Italian tradition of wine production, preservation, innovation and building. Marquis Piero is still involved in the business, but now most of the operation is run by the three daughters, Albiera, Allegra and Alessia, three competent talented women. Isn’t it a wonderful twist that after 600 years in a historically male-dominated business these women run the operation; yet, it is also fitting for this family of innovators and creative risk-takers in the winemaking world.
Rodney Ouzts and his spouse and partner for life, Massimo, reside in Greensboro, North Carolina and spend as much time as they can in Italy.