Transforming Tuscany

Four consulting winemakers are making their marks on Italy
Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: October 31, 2005

In 1983, Italian enologist Carlo Ferrini was working for the Consorzio Chianti Classico, giving winemakers in the appellation technical advice. Mostly, he focused on the haphazard state of their vineyards.

"I saw everything, every different problem you can imagine," he says. "It was an unforgettable experience."

Grape yields were too high, the particular clones of Sangiovese that had been planted didn't suit their sites and identical viticultural techniques were being used on wildly different soils and terrains within a single estate. On a visit to a producer in Castellina-in-Chianti, Ferrini suggested crop thinning, a standard viticultural practice that lowers yields in order to increase the quality of the remaining harvest. The proprietor was incredulous. "Cut these vines and drop the grapes on the ground?" he said. "I'd sooner kill my own daughter."

Now Ferrini uncorks a bottle of the 2001 Oreno he made for Sette Ponti, an estate lying an hour's drive east of Chianti Classico near Arezzo, and pours the bluish-purple wine into a glass. More Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon than Sangiovese, it might possibly be mistaken for a California bottling—but never for one of those old Chiantis.

"This is the result of the past 20 years of experience in Tuscany," Ferrini says. "This is how far we've come. It says a lot about Sette Ponti as a producer. It doesn't say a lot about Tuscany, or perhaps it is the base for a new Tuscany, a different Tuscany."

Ferrini is one of a handful of consulting viticulturists and winemakers who are helping to build this new Tuscany. While he is following in the footsteps of illustrious predecessors such as Vittorio Fiore and Giacomo Tachis—pioneering enologists of the 1970s and '80s—he is a leader of a younger generation now making its mark.

Among the most influential of Ferrini's Tuscany-based peers are Stefano Chioccioli, Alberto Antonini and Luca d'Attoma. The roster of wines they and Ferrini make includes now-established standouts such as Tua Rita's stunning Merlot Redigaffi (2003, 95 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) and Le Macchiole's ultramodern Messorio and Scrio, but also more recent arrivals in the upper echelon, such as Baldassarre Filippo Fanti's Brunello di Montalcino, Castello di Bossi's Corbaia and the Sette Ponti Oreno.

These wines are powerful, distinctive and wildly successful on the world market. So much so that these enologists have been accused of blurring the wines' Tuscan identities in favor of a more commercial and homogenous style. Defining these new wines by what they are not, some critics have honed in on how unlike the Chiantis and Brunellos of the previous generation they taste. Arguments are made that these so-called "consultant wines" bear a certain similarity to one another.

Give it time, Ferrini responds. As these new ventures mature, the differences of technique among the consultants, and even among various projects from the same consultant, will become plain for all to see, even as the personalities of the specific sites continue to show themselves.

In Ferrini's mind, the most profound changes in Tuscan wine have yet to occur. The Sangiovese plantings of the late 1980s and early '90s that he and others helped to engineer are only now reaching maturity, while this newer generation of Sangiovese and a range of different grapes—some, like those at Sette Ponti, planted in unorthodox regions and terroirs throughout Tuscany—are just starting to come on line.

Ferrini sips the 2001 Oreno. "This wine," he says, "is only the beginning."

In a glassed-in room at Barone Ricasoli's Castello di Brolio in Chianti Classico, Ferrini fills a table with wines he makes or helps to make. At 50, the oldest of this generation of consultants, he has moved into a position of prominence, working for some of Italy's best-funded producers. He makes Lupicaia and Tassinaia for Tenuta del Terriccio, Castello di Brolio's line of Chiantis and blends, Fonterutoli's Siepi, Poliziano's Asinone and similarly strong-flavored wines throughout Tuscany and beyond.

While this trim, precise man with a trim, precise mustache is far from being solely responsible for the profound change in Tuscan wines over the past two decades, his career helps explain how this regional revolution happened.

Much of it took place in the vineyards. Like the others, Ferrini is proud to call himself an agronomist, who happens to make wine from the grapes he grows. He proselytizes for a more sophisticated viticulture, telling client after client that his greatest contributions will come at the beginning of the process, long before the grapes are harvested, let alone fermented.

If this emphasis means that the renaissance will develop slowly, over decades instead of years, well, agriculture cannot be rushed. "It's much easier to change the cellar than the vineyard," Ferrini says. "To do a new cellar, all you need is a year. To revamp a vineyard, you probably need 10."

As a result of his work, decades-old plantings of Sangiovese, much of it diseased, have been replaced, either with new Sangiovese clones (at least 120 different types of Sangiovese have been identified, many with distinct personalities) or with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or even Syrah, often planted in an almost Burgundian density. Green harvests are now commonplace. Pruning is severe. The wines, such as the several dozen bottles Ferrini has lined up on the tasting table, can't help but be cleaner, fresher and richer.

Ferrini discovered such wines while still working at the Consorzio, traveling at every opportunity, tasting everything that came his way. On a trip to Bordeaux in 1993, he tried the 1990 Cos-d'Estournel, and his outlook on wine was altered. "When I tasted that wine, I thought, 'I don't want to copy this wine, but I do want to imitate it in a new territory,'" he says. "Sangiovese is the grape of Tuscany, and I've spent much of my career figuring out the best way to produce it. But the model in my mind was Bordeaux."

He left the Consorzio in 1992 to spend more time on the vineyards of estates such as Fonterutoli, one of his first clients. Over time, he convinced the estate-owning families and entrepreneurs who had contracted him to break with the disorganized muddle of viticultural techniques that had been sanctified in Tuscany in the name of tradition.

Lately, with the success of high-end wines such as Sette Ponti's Oreno and Fonterutoli's Siepi, Ferrini has been in great demand. Still, he is careful not to take on more clients than he can handle. With the exception of his work in Sicily (Tasca d'Almerita), nearly everything he does is within easy driving distance of his Tuscan home.

"He's no flying winemaker, going here and there," comments Fonterutoli's Filippo Mazzei. "He wants to know absolutely everything, especially about what's happening in the vineyard. In Italy, this is the new way."

Stefano Chioccioli sits in a borrowed office at Fanti in Montalcino wearing an ill-fitting jacket. Before going to dinner, he will add a mismatched tie—a not unusual state of affairs for a traveling enologist who often works out of his car. His wines, however, are decidedly fashionable.

Chioccioli, 47, earned a degree in agricultural science at the University of Florence in 1984. He put in seven years at the Ruffino estate, absorbing generations' worth of tradition in how to make Chianti in the classic style. Then something clicked. He had always disdained underripe grapes that made green, vegetal wines. Now he had the epiphany that ripeness was the single most crucial component of winemaking. With grapes that were truly ripe, he believed, the wine would all but make itself. And no sleight of hand could disguise their lack.

These days, Chioccioli makes some of Italy's most renowned wines to that template, harvesting as late as possible and microoxidizing when necessary. The latest vintages of Tua Rita's Redigaffi and Giusto di Notri, cult wines from the Tuscan coast, are Chioccioli's. So are the Brunellos of Fanti, including the blockbuster 1998, which earned 95 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. So is the ripe Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah blend called Ghiaie della Furba bottled under the Capezzana label.

What these varietally diverse wines have in common is a dense ripeness, less like grape juice than liquid blackberry jam, and an intensely dark color. "Judge a wine by its color," Chioccioli says, bucking conventional widsom. "Ripeness doesn't hide."

Chioccioli's wines teeter on the edge of being unbalanced, but they offer the intense fruit flavors that an increasing number of consumers around the world are seeking. "That sweet, fat, ripe sensation is crucial," Chioccioli says. "No unripe tannins! No pepper! If you don't have ripeness, you don't have sweetness, and it is the sweetness balanced against acidity that puts the tension in a wine."

In that sense, this agriculturist has taken Tuscan wines even further afield than has Ferrini. He worked with Franco Bernabei and Vittorio Fiore, and he learned at the feet of Giacomo Tachis, who was the first to blend Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the first to replace the old chestnut casks with oak barrels and the first to understand the latent greatness of Tuscan wine. He appreciates what his enological forefathers accomplished in the context of their time, but he'd still rather drink his wines.

"Tachis is our grandfather," he says. "A very important grandfather, but a grandfather nonetheless."

On a cool Tuesday evening, Chioccioli leaves Fanti with an armful of wine bottles, heading for dinner at Castello di Bossi in Chianti Classico, where his friend Alberto Antonini is the winemaker. Proprietor Marco Bacci is roasting a wild boar he has hunted on his vast holdings of uncultivated land. The dinner is a chance for all of them to taste wines and compare notes.

Bossi is a good hour's drive from Montalcino, a long way to go for an informal dinner, but Chioccioli is accustomed to spending entire days in his car. On this night, he arrives at Bossi long after dark, driving past vineyards where Tachis planted Merlot and Cabernet as long ago as 1969.

In those days, Castello di Bossi was supplying Piero Antinori with grapes. Three decades later, Bacci completed the circle by hiring Antonini, who had previously been a winemaker for Antinori, to make his wine.

Bacci himself represents an important part of the equation: a proprietor willing to take a gamble on new methods and new wines. Francesco Ricasoli, who hired Ferrini at Castello di Brolio, is another such visionary; so is Rita Tua, who hired Luca d'Attoma and then Chioccioli at Tua Rita. With consulting enologists rapidly becoming the rock stars of the wine industry, it is easy to overlook the contributions of the winery owners who sign their paychecks.

"Carlo and the others would have done nothing without entrepreneurs who believed in the future and put their money behind it," Ricasoli says of Ferrini, "and vice versa. It takes both sides."

In Antonini, Bacci found a winemaker who wanted to make Chianti Classico in a modern style but without losing the fundamental sense of the region. In Bacci, Antonini found the ultimate patron. "Someone who is fully committed to improving his product every day," is how Antonini describes him. To Antonini, such commitment is not just a necessity, it is a duty. "Historically, this is one of the great wine regions of the world," he says. "But if you tasted the wine we [were] producing, you'd never know that. We have a responsibility to do better."

Antonini, 46, is tall, blond and athletic. The son of a school teacher, he grew up in Vinci, Leonardo's hometown. Like Chioccioli, he studied in Florence, leaving with the same agronomy degree and the taste of Antinori super Tuscan Tignanello lingering in his mouth. "When I tasted that wine, I realized it was time to make changes in Italy," he says.

He worked at Frescobaldi, then in Montalcino as technical director at Col d'Orcia, but yearned to cast a wider net. In 1991, he took English lessons at the University of California, Davis, and then spent part of 1992 working with Jim Clendenen at Santa Barbara's Au Bon Climat. The following year, he spent six months at Robert Mondavi. He had an agreeable personality, and now could talk California, the new language of the enological world. But as Antonini was about to hang a shingle as a consultant, Antinori offered him a job he couln't refuse.

From 1993 to 1996, Antonini helped craft many of Antinori's Tuscan reds, implementing the strategies of lead enologist Renzo Cotarella with tactics of his own. He was treated like an artist and given every consideration. He realized that he would be working there forever if he didn't make a break.

So he set up shop as a full-service consultant, offering help with everything from vineyard work to marketing. Before long, his Gruppo Matura had clients throughout Tuscany, then Italy, then the world. He began to ply the Southern Hemisphere during the Italian winter, jetting between South America, where he works with Chile's Concha y Toro and is a partner in the Argentinean winery Altos Las Hormigas, and South Africa, where he works with Hartenberg Estate.

He has more recently added Australia and Spain to a workload that also includes contracts with Seghesio in Napa Valley and the Stolpman Vineyard near Santa Barbara, as well as various projects around Italy. "I'm gone half the time," he admits.

The idea of Americans and Australians hiring Tuscan consultants would have seemed silly as recently as a decade ago, but that's how far the wines have come. It never hurts to have Antinori on your résumé, but newer wines like Castello di Bossi's all-Merlot Girolamo, made from those 35-year-old Tachis-planted vines, have earned Antonini his own reputation.

"Tuscan wines have become so popular, so famous," Antonini says. "Now, in the New World, they feel comfortable having a Tuscan consultant in the same way that they used to feel comfortable with a consultant from Bordeaux. Amazing, isn't it?"

The wild boar has been polished off; a dinner table's worth of wine has been drunk. Antonini sleeps in a guest bedroom, and that's the extent of his visit to Bossi. Wednesday morning, he drives two hours to the Mediterranean coast.

He's scheduled to fly to Valencia, Spain, for a two-day consultation in the appellation of Jumilla before heading off to the Australian harvest. But first, he will have lunch in Bolgheri with Marilisa Allegrini, whose family winery, near the Lombardy Lakes hundreds of miles to the north, is one of the best in the Veneto region.

In conjunction with American-based importer Leonardo LoCascio, Allegrini and Antonini are working on a 100-acre joint venture on a property called Poggio al Tesoro, not far from Tenuta San Guido's storied Sassicaia estate. The wine produced there will be named Le Sondraie. Allegrini first hired Antonini seven years ago to revamp its Valpolicella winery's pergola system. When the time came to start a Bolgheri property, he was the natural choice. There are no indigenous grape varieties on the coast, she points out, so Antonini's international approach is perfect. "He has a view of what's going on all over the world," says Allegrini. And yet, he's a Tuscan, which will help mitigate the stigma of her being a northerner.

Even as Antonini and Allegrini plot their future with Le Sondraie, Cinzia Merli sits directly across the street and struggles with the aftermath of the death of her husband, Eugenio Campolmi, three years ago. Campolmi's Le Macchiole winery has been one of Italy's most impressive in the years since 1990, when Eugenio hired a young consultant named Luca d'Attoma to supervise the winemaking. Le Macchiole's all-Syrah Scrio and Merlot-based Messorio became two of Tuscany's most impressive boutique wines. Merli wants to keep it that way.

D'Attoma, 40, can handle the pressure; he's nothing if not intense. Born in the Tuscan countryside near Pisa, he chose viticulture over cooking school. Since 1985, he has bounced from property to property, working as both winemaker and consultant, crafting wines throughout Tuscany and the Veneto. "I have only a few opinions about winemaking, but they're very clear and strong," he says. "I'm a very direct person, without curtains. In the past few years I've become more diplomatic, but not much."

His lack of diplomacy caused him to be fired by Tua Rita and several other properties, but it has also accounted for his success at Le Macchiole and elsewhere. D'Attoma turns the employer-employee relationship on its head, making demands on the property owner. He must do that, he believes, in order to make the wine of which he and the property are capable. If the commitment is not there, he will not hesitate to walk away.

His is a mindset that could not have existed had Ferrini and Chioccioli not come before, just as Le Macchiole wouldn't be making world-class wine in Bolgheri if not for antecedents such as Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia and Tenuta dell'Ornellaia. These days, small but ambitious producers in Tuscany often go looking for consulting enologists even before they plant their vines. If they don't, the likes of d'Attoma may well come in and order them to rip out what they've planted. And since d'Attoma knows how to make wines like Redigaffi, Scrio and Messorio—wines that any new proprietor would be overjoyed to sell—they have every incentive to listen.

Based on the force of his personality, you'd think d'Attoma would make brutish wines. A decade ago, those were exactly the wines he admired. "Strong wines, with muscles," he says now. "Lots of alcohol. Ripe fruit." Yet d'Attoma says he was never comfortable putting wines like that in the market. "I always felt that something was wrong. They didn't convince me."

He says that when he tastes some of his older wines now, he gasps at their alcohol level. Merli is nonplussed to hear that the '98 Le Macchiole Paleo and Messorio—both triumphs when they hit the market—are now considered by d'Attoma too ripe. "You can produce a low-alcohol wine that is very elegant," he cautions her, "but not a very ripe wine that's very elegant."

As of this summer, d'Attoma has a flock of new clients who are willing to go along wherever he takes them. At estates such as Poggio San Polo in Montalcino and Podere La Cappella in Chianti Classico, he preaches balance, restraint and elegance. "There's no such thing as a Luca d'Attoma wine," he says. "But these are the qualities I have come to admire."

Like the other consultants, d'Attoma isn't in one place for long. He handles the demands of constant travel by driving his SUV like a maniac. The destination on this night is a restaurant where d'Attoma is showing more than a dozen of his wines. The audience of winery owners and critics arrives with notebooks and smiles. D'Attoma opens bottles, swirls wine, examines corks and fills glasses.

The wines bear scant stylistic similarity to each other, rebutting charges of homogeneity. But each shows balance and an essential richness that comes from low yields. The wines are all full of flavor without being overly ripe. And yet, as d'Attoma tastes them and garners compliments from around the table, he appears restless. Near the end of the three-hour dinner, he confides that he remains dissatisfied with what he has created. He looks so forlorn that it seems he will never be happy again.

His problem, it turns out, is that he was born in the wrong place. "In the end, I prefer Burgundy," he says. "What really makes me excited would be to work with great Pinot Noir in a great single vineyard. Those wines have hidden qualities."

Tuscany hasn't come so far that a consultant who has never made wine outside Italy could find work at Burgundy's top domaines. But listening to d'Attoma, it is almost possible to believe that it could happen, especially now that a Tuscan enologist can fill an entire shelf with his seductive creations.

Ferrini, Chioccioli, Antonini, d'Attoma and others like them have altered Tuscany's place in the world in the span of a single generation. What happens next, both in Tuscany and farther afield, depends on how and where they want to concentrate their efforts and on whom they can convince to listen.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a Wine Spectator contributing editor.

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