The Dievole in the detail

The work being done at Villa Dievole in Chianti Classico shows the path to the future. Felicity Carter paid a visit.

The view from Dievole
The view from Dievole

Alberto Antonini sits in the bright dining room of Villa Dievole, in the southern-most part of Chianti Classico. “This property was purchased in 2012,” says the globetrotting wine consultant of the 600 ha estate, which includes vineyards, olive groves and an historic villa. “The family who used to own it were not very happy with the economic results.”

From the ground up

The first thing the new owner, Argentine petrochemicals billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, wanted Antonini to do was look at the vineyard soil. “The vineyards are very good terroir, but they had conventional management with a lot of chemicals,” says Antonini. “We moved more towards traditional vineyard management and achieved a deeper root system and a lot more biodiversity. It has resulted in more interesting wine.”

He pours the Dievole 2013, his first vintage. It has savoury notes and fine acidity, the best Chianti Classico can offer. The 2015 vintage, fermented in concrete and aged in cask, is even more structured and complex. “Too many oak barrels is an insecurity,” says Antonini. “We need to recover our long, historic tradition, lost during the time when the market was telling you what to do. We don’t want to copy France.”

Dievole’s broad wine range has slimmed down, too. Now there are Chianti Classico, Riserva, a Gran Selezione and a yet-to-be-released premium IGT white. The Le Due Arbie second tier is simply labelled as “bianco”, “rosato”, “rosso” and Chianti Superiore. Over time, there will be more terroir-specific wines.

“We are not interested in growing grapes that don’t belong to Chianti,” says Antonini. With the help of specialist Pedro Parra, he is also analysing the estate’s micro-terroir. In Italy, he says, this aspect does not receive enough attention.

The old blue and gold label is also gone, replaced by one celebrating Dievole’s 1,000-year history. It was originally founded “as a contract between two farmers and the Church,” explains marketing and export sales director Giovanni Mazzoni. “The rent was two chickens, three pieces of bread and six dinars.” The rent is slightly higher today: guests who come to enjoy the now-luxurious amenities pay well over €200.00 a night.

What’s happening here is a microcosm of what’s happening across Italy: a move back to autochthonous grapes, historic winemaking, more attention to detail and premiumisation. Paradoxically, however, while focusing on the local conditions at Dievole, Antonini is helping Bulgheroni to develop an international winemaking portfolio.

Global portfolio

Antonini says he met Bulgheroni — whose deep interest in sustainability came from years of working in oil — after he was asked to see the magnate’s 2,200 ha estate in Uruguay.

Since buying his first winery in 1999, Bulgheroni has acquired properties in Argentina, Tuscany — Dievole, Podere Brizio, Poggio Landi and a vineyard in Bolgheri — Bordeaux, California and the Barossa Valley. Yet as Elin McCoy from Bloomberg notes, none of them “qualify as the kind of high-status estates most billionaires invest in”. Dievole was apparently “very rundown”.

Each property is being revitalised to the highest standards. According to McCoy, Bodega Garzón in Uruguay, opened in 2016, cost $85m to build and includes a luxury hotel and a wine club that costs $180,000 to join. 

Everywhere, Bulgheroni’s and Antonini’s ambition is to be transformative. The property at Bolgheri is a good example. The region’s wines have long been associated with simplicity, intensity and power. The new winemaking team want to focus instead on drinkability, although they will continue to use international grapes. “We don’t make wines for the market. We want to find a market for the wines that we make,” says Antonini.

This raises the question of how the business works commercially. Without a market-oriented approach, it will take a while before wine sales alone produce a healthy return on the 156 ha of restored vineyards at Dievole and the 200 ha newly planted ones at Garzón, or the other investments such as Podere Brizio in Montalcino. 

Except that the bottom line doesn’t rely solely on wine. According to Forbes, the 74-year-old Argentine not only has a net worth of $3bn, but has also stated publicly that he believes in agritourism. Hotels such as Villa Dievole, or the one at Podere Brizio, run by a mother-and-son team who treat guests like family, are a significant part of his vision. 

He seems to be on to something: according to Reuters, Italian agritourism is booming, with a 15 percent boost in tourists from the US alone in 2017. More than 5m tourists a year flock to Italy solely to experience its famous food and hospitality. The trend is global: in 2017 the UN’s World Tourism Organisation wrote that “gastronomy and wine have become key components for experiencing the culture and lifestyle of any destination”. 

If anything, this ancient property signposts the way to the future — caring ever more about the details of wine production, while giving people a chance to experience  where the wine comes from.  

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