Tasting a Tuscan Icon

A vertical of all 39 vintages of Antinori’s Tignanello underscores the pedigree of this modern classic

Tasting a Tuscan Icon
Piero Antinori (left) and Renzo Cotarella (Liz Clayman for Marchesi Antinori)
From the Oct 31, 2020, issue

When Tignanello debuted with the 1971 vintage, it ignited a revolution in the wines of Tuscany. Piero Antinori's decision a few vintages later to blend Cabernet Sauvignon into his indigenous Sangiovese upended traditional ideas about the wines of the Chianti region and was a primary impetus for the emergence of the super Tuscan category.

With time, however, Italian wine regulations embraced and absorbed Tignanello and its rebellious cohorts of the era. Today, the wine sits comfortably within the range of contemporary Tuscan reds. From unorthodox roots, it has become a benchmark.

What changed more——the wine or the region? And how has Tignanello fared against the test of time, the ultimate measure for classic red wines?

In late 2019, I had the opportunity to taste a complete retrospective of Tignanello: 39 vintages from the 1971 through the 2016. Better yet, both Piero Antinori and his veteran winemaker Renzo Cotarella attended the tasting, which was held at Del Posto in New York. The Grand Award-winning restaurant matched the wines with an eight-couse meal prepared by chef Melissa Rodriguez.

From a historical perspective, Tignanello played an important role in the renaissance of Tuscan wine specifically, Italian wine in general, and helped raise global awareness of Italy as a producer of worldclass wines.

From a personal standpoint, Tignanello is a cornerstone of Piero Antinori's 50-plus year legacy at the helm of the Antinori juggernaut. This was the first time he had tasted together all the vintages of the wine he created back in the late 1960s with his enologist at the time, the late Giacomo Tachis.

"You can imagine how excited I am to be here, because to taste all the vintages of Tignanello is really very unique, very special for me," Antinori announced to the guests. "It really represents an important part of my working life. Maybe one other wine, Sassicaia, along with Tignanello, started the renaissance of Italian wine."

Tiganello was the fruit of an idea Piero had soon after he succeeded his father, Niccolò, in running the Antinori company, building on the work of the elder Antinori and his own desire to develop a wine that evolved from "mere fuel for working in the fields to a substance that provides an emotional experience."

The late 1960s represented the end of an era, with the cessation of mezzadria, or sharecropping, a system that had shaped Tuscan agriculture for centuries, yet one in which there was no incentive for innovation or improving quality. Piero Antinori recognized the need to improve quality and to create a new wine from the Chianti landscape.

"I wanted something more refined, better structured, more recognizable and with greater personality," Piero Antinori wrote in The Hills of Chianti (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2014).

The Antinoris had blended Cabernet Sauvignon with Sangiovese as early as 1924. Niccolò had sought advice in Bordeaux; so too, did Piero and Giacomo Tachis. Tachis had been corresponding with enologist Émile Peynaud, who was modernizing fermentation and aging practices in Bordeaux. Peynaud recommended changing the existing principles for making Chianti Classico.

Antinori witnessed firsthand the success achieved by his uncle, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, with the Cabernet-based Sassicaia from Bolgheri, on the Tuscan coast. If a great red could be made there, surely Antinori could produce something special from Tenuta Tignanello, where the brand's best Sangiovese grew.

Located in the northwestern part of the Chianti Classico zone, the Tignanello vineyard sits at between 1,155 and 1,485 feet of elevation, exposed southwest. Its 141 acres of poor, stony, schistous and limestone soils sit on a bed of clay, ideal to provide moisture to the vine roots during the hot Tuscan summers. Fresh breezes keep the grapes generally healthy from disease; the warm days and cool nights are ideal for ripening Sangiovese slowly.

After taking control of the family firm in 1966, Antinori began replanting the Sangiovese with a selection of the vineyard's best vines. (A further replanting occurred beginning in the 1990s, using an even stricter selection of eight different biotypes of Sangiovese, prized for their small, compact bunches and tiny berries.) Across the new plantings, new rootstocks were chosen and higher planting density to reduce the vines' natural vigor.

But Antinori and his team didn't stop there. They gained roughly an extra week of ripening in the Tignanello vineyard by redistributing the site's limestone albarese rocks to beneath the vines to reflect heat. This is an important factor not only for growing quality Sangiovese, but to delay maturity in warmer years.

Though Niccolò had experimented with Cabernet Sauvignon, new plantings of the grape, along with new plantings of Cab Franc, were undertaken between 1969 and 1971 in a section of the vineyard with southeast exposure.

The 1971 Tignanello was almost pure Sangiovese, with a little Malvasia Nera and Caniaolo. The 1975 combined Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) for the first time.

In 1978, there was excess Cabernet Sauvignon harvested. Antinori and his team vinified this separately to create Solaia. Over time, additional Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were planted for the production of Solaia. (Today, Solaia has its own 50-acre vineyard adjacent to Tignanello.)

Since the 1979 vintage, the proportion between Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese in the Tignanello blend has remained more or less the same: 80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. Occasionally the blend will change based on the vintage in order to maintain the style, according to Cotarella. For example, in the 2014 vintage, one that was challenging for Sangiovese, the proportion of combined Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc increased to 25%, while in 2015, a great vintage for Sangiovese, the presence of the Cabs Sauvignon and Franc totaled 15%.

The vertical tasting was arranged into eight flights; each flight was organized according to similar vintage characteristics as identified by Antinori and Cotarella.

The first flight——1971, 1975, 1982, 1983 and 1985——consisted of the best vintages of the first 15 years. The second flight centered on the more challenging vintages in the early years——1977, 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981. Flight three grouped challenging vintages from an era of replanting: 1986, 1987, 1989, 1991 and 2003.

Flight four, taking in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1998, focused on the decade when Cotarella began making the wine.

"I started making Tignanello with the 1990 vintage but the first real Tignanello I made starting from the grapes was 1993," explained Cotarella. "These five vintages together with the 1997 were very helpful to me to really try to understand the soul and the potential of the grapes in the Tignanello vineyard. In a few words, from these vintages I learned, at least I hope, the potential of the place and consequently how to interpret it."

Flight five presented some of the greatest vintages: 1988, 1990, 1997, 2000 and 2001. The sixth flight consisted of what Antinori and Cotarella consider the cooler, refined years of 1999, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2014.

In the first decade or so of the aughts, the style of Tignanello evolved, incorporating the new plantings of Sangiovese. This flight, the seventh to be tasted, comprised 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012. "With these vintages we were able to put together the energy of Sangiovese without allowing Cabernet to shade it," Cotarella said. "This is again the reason why I consider these vintages classic and stylistically closer to my idea of Tignanello."

The final flight brought the recent great vintages of 2010, 2013, 2015 and 2016. No Tignanello was made in 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1984, 1992 and 2002.

What impressed me about the retrospective was the consistency of the character of the wines, which I attribute to the vineyard. Even in the most challenging vintages, Tignanello displays balance, vigor and harmony, if some wines are lighter in weight and intensity. There is an evolution in style, due in part to the replanting and in part to the winemaking, split roughly between Tachis and, later, Cotarella.

My favorites among the Tignanello history will come as no surprise—they are from some of the best harvests in the past generation: 1985 (96 points), 1990 (97 points), 1997 (96 points), 2001 (95 points), 2004 (98 points), 2007 (97 points), 2013 (95 points), 2015 (96 points) and 2016 (97 points). For a chart of all wines tasted in this non-blind retrospective, see below.

The Tignanello 2004 is a very complete wine, still balancing its youthful vigor with some developing maturity. The 1990 is absolutely beautiful to enjoy now and should continue to hold over the next decade. Impressive for its velvety texture, complexity and length, the 2007 has yet to reach its peak. It's approachable now, but should be at its best in another few years. The 2016 represents the future. Give it at least another five years before pulling the cork.

However, it was the unheralded vintages that to me reveal the soul, character and consistency of the Tiganello vineyard. Vintages such as 1979, 1982, 1987, 1989 and 1993 are lighter in weight, yet balanced. Any one of these bottles would be enjoyable alone and enhance the right food pairing.

Not least, the debut 1971, almost pure Sangiovese, was delightful even after nearly 50 years. Its bouquet evoked tobacco, burnished leather and autumn woods along with smoky tea flavors. Though in its descending phase, it's still balanced and elegant.

The tasting also revealed that Tignanello, with its vineyard origins, has been more consistent over time than the region of Tuscany overall. Antinori's Tignanello may be overshadowed by other super Tuscans today, including its stablemate Solaia. But it's hard to find any wine more rooted in Tuscan soil and culture.

TASTING ANTINORI TIGNANELLO 1971 TO 2016

The reviews below represent Bruce Sanderson's non-blind tasting of 39 vintages of the wine at a historic event late last year. The notes are organized according to the flights in which the wines were served.

FLIGHT 1

Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1971

Score: 90

WS Review: Brick-colored, this is in its descending phase, yet remains balanced and elegant. The bouquet evokes tobacco, burnished leather and autumn woods, with smoky tea flavors. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1975

Score: 95

WS Review: A gorgeous bouquet of rose petal, strawberry, cherry and spices introduces this ethereal Tignanello. Ripe and full of sweet fruit, this is still vigorous, with a terrific finish. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1982

Score: 92

WS Review: Fluid, with cherry, iron, earth and tobacco flavors. Consistent from start to lingering finish. Balanced. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1983

Score: 93

WS Review: Evoking kirsch, black currant, macerated cherry and leather flavors, this expresses the Cabernet in the blend. Still intense, with a long aftertaste. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1985

Score: 96

WS Review: Floral, berry, tea and cigar box notes on the nose. There's a lovely harmony of Sangiovese and Cabernet, with plenty of fruit allied to a complex profile. Excellent length. Drink now through 2028.


  

FLIGHT 2

Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1977

Score: 84

WS Review: Smells and tastes like roasted fruit and tar, with a hint of amaro. Fading. Past its prime.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1978

Score: 82

WS Review: A nutty bouquet leads to vestiges of cherry fruit. Balanced on the acidic side. Past its prime.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1979

Score: 88

WS Review: Still fruity, displaying flavors of cherry. Balanced and moderately long, with a smoky finish. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1980

Score: 85

WS Review: Light, offering cherry and currant flavors, but a bit simple overall. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1981

Score: 79

WS Review: Oxidized and nutty, with a Sherry-accented finish. Past its prime.


  

FLIGHT 3

Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1986

Score: 92

WS Review: Very Cabernetlike, this displays black currant and tobacco flavors that are intensely fruity, with fine density, balance and length. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1987

Score: 89

WS Review: Offers a lovely bouquet, with complex black currant, cherry and wild herb flavors. A lighter vintage. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1989

Score: 89

WS Review: A lighter style, this is harmonious, featuring cherry and currant flavors. A light dusting of tannins graces the moderately long finish. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1991

Score: 88

WS Review: A bouquet of graphite, tar and plum gives way to black cherry and black currant fruit, with noticeable tannins on the back end. Drink now.


Toscana Tignanello 2003

Score: 91

WS Review: Distinctly minty, this reveals black cherry and plum. Concentrated, with a vibrant feel and dense tannins. Drink now through 2025.


  

FLIGHT 4

Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1993

Score: 90

WS Review: A bouquet of black cherry, smoke, iron and tobacco notes leads to flavors of pomegranate. Firm and tannic, this is balanced overall, with fine length. Drink now.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1994

Score: 90

WS Review: Marked by earth, iron and savory flavors, this is firm, emphasizing the Cabernet Sauvignon component. A layer of tannins lines the lingering finish. Drink now.


Toscana Tignanello 1995

Score: 93

WS Review: Full of ripe cherry, black currant and spice flavors, this is still youthful and balanced. Shows more power than many of the vintages of the 1990s. Drink now through 2026.


Toscana Tignanello 1996

Score: 94

WS Review: An intense and vibrant Tignanello, exuding black currant and black cherry fruit. All the components are balanced, and this finishes long. Drink now through 2030.


Toscana Tignanello 1998

Score: 89

WS Review: A dense and very tannic version, with a smoky, tarry bouquet. Ripe, rich and plummy, this is an altogether more extracted style of Tignanello, finishing a bit blunt. Drink now through 2025.


  

FLIGHT 5

Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1988

Score: 94

WS Review: Still vigorous, this combines density and intensity, offering cherry and strawberry flavors, accented by tobacco notes. Complex, finishing long. Drink now through 2025.


Vino da Tavola-Tuscany Tignanello 1990

Score: 97

WS Review: Offers an enticing bouquet of black cherry, black currant and cedar, with a hint of licorice. Smooth, harmonious and long, this combines the best of Bordeaux and Tuscany. Drink now through 2027.


Toscana Tignanello 1997

Score: 96

WS Review: Exhibiting black currant, black cherry and cedar notes, this is reminiscent of the 1990 but with greater density. Very fresh, this echoes the fruit, woodsy and spice elements on the long aftertaste. Drink now through 2032.


Toscana Tignanello 2000

Score: 92

WS Review: A big, concentrated Tignanello, showing plenty of tannins but lacking the flesh and complexity of the best vintages. Cherry and plum fruit fill the dense frame. Drink now through 2030.


Toscana Tignanello 2001

Score: 95

WS Review: Dense and rich, with black currant, cherry and licorice. Mouthcoating and complex, lingering beautifully. Drink now through 2033.


  

FLIGHT 6

Toscana Tignanello 1999

Score: 93

WS Review: A gorgeous nose reveals black currant, cherry, licorice and mineral notes. On the palate, this is vibrant and long, with a finish that echoes the fruit and mineral elements. Drink now through 2035.


Toscana Tignanello 2005

Score: 94

WS Review: Still youthful and assertive, offering cherry and currant flavors matched to velvety tannins. Lacks the length of the best Tignanellos, but remains intense. Drink now through 2035.


Toscana Tignanello 2006

Score: 92

WS Review: Still rigid and dense, this is packed with plum, cherry, leather and licorice flavors. Structured and on the austere side in the end, bolstered by firm tannins. Best from 2022 through 2037.


Toscana Tignanello 2009

Score: 93

WS Review: Very elegant, this shows the soul of Tignanello, with red fruit and savory notes. Focused and harmonious. Drink now through 2030.


Toscana Tignanello 2014

Score: 91

WS Review: A fresh, linear style, displaying cherry, iron, earth and spice flavors on a slim frame. Fine length. Best from 2021 through 2035.


  

FLIGHT 7

Toscana Tignanello 2004

Score: 98

WS Review: Rich and still young, boasting cherry and strawberry fruit flavors, along with savory and minerally elements. Beautifully balanced, complex and long on the finish. Drink now through 2032.


Toscana Tignanello 2007

Score: 97

WS Review: Big, rich and dense, this is still a bit closed despite being integrated, with the velvety texture embracing cherry, plum, tobacco, iron and spice flavors. Long, with a terrific aftertaste. Best from 2023 through 2040.


Toscana Tignanello 2008

Score: 93

WS Review: Compact, linear and very pure, revealing cherry, tobacco and subtle iron flavors. Drink now through 2030.


Toscana Tignanello 2011

Score: 93

WS Review: Well-defined by lively acidity, with densely woven cherry and plum fruit. The serious tannins are matched by a long, savory finish. Best from 2022 through 2038.


Toscana Tignanello 2012

Score: 92

WS Review: A rich, cherry-laced red, showing a slightly jammy character before shutting down in a grip of tannins. A bit awkward now, but should come around once the tannins are integrated. Best from 2022 through 2040.


  

FLIGHT 8

Toscana Tignanello 2010

Score: 94

WS Review: Intense, fresh and taut, with an underlying mineral element buoying the cherry and currant flavors. Shows fine balance and length. Best from 2023 through 2040.


Toscana Tignanello 2013

Score: 95

WS Review: Defined by licorice and black currant flavors, this is intense and harmonious. A crisp, vibrant feel pervades as this winds down, with excellent length and a minerally element. Best from 2023 through 2043.


Toscana Tignanello 2015

Score: 96

WS Review: Rich and dense, with cherry and blackberry fruit, verging on plummy, with graphite and tar notes. A powerhouse, with beautifully integrated tannins. Shows terrific balance and length. Best from 2023 through 2040.


Toscana Tignanello 2016

Score: 97

WS Review: There's something extra in the black cherry and black currant fruit, accented by violet, mineral and oak spice. Shows superb energy and a refined structure. Intense, complex and long. Best from 2024 through 2043.

Italy Tuscany Tasting Reports Red Wines

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