The Pied Piper of Franc

Before Lodovico Antinori sold Ornellaia to Robert Mondavi in 2002, he was already well into his next big idea, Biserno. Today, Roger Morris reports, Antinori is helping make Cabernet Franc the top red grape of Maremma.

Biserno, in the Maremma
Biserno, in the Maremma

If Tim Mondavi didn’t actually give Lodovico Antinori the idea, then at least the California winemaker helped to validate it.  

The year 1999 was a hectic and exciting time in Antinori’s life, as the final days of the old century ebbed away. The year found Antinori perched atop the wine-producing pyramid, not only in Italy, but also in the world – yet major changes were already well underway.

Antinori’s ascent had begun 18 years earlier, in 1981, when he founded Ornellaia in the Bolgheri region along Tuscany’s Maremma coast and made it into one of Italy’s greatest wine estates. He even created a second iconic wine, the Merlot-based Masseto. Some in the wine trade speculated that the driving force for Piero Antinori’s younger brother was to show the world what he was capable of doing. 

And 1981 was also the year Lodovico and his sister asked to be bought out of the family business, Marchesi Antinori Srl, founded in1385 and run by Piero, who, with  his siblings, was the company’s 26th generation. But to raise the buyout money, Piero first had to enter into a partnership with the British-based Whitbread PLC, which proved to be a contentious relationship that lasted 10 years, when Piero re-purchased the business.

The birth of Biserno

In 1997, a site north of Ornellaia in the neighboring Bibbona region had become available, and Lodovico wanted it badly. “We decided immediately to lease it,” he says. “It was a great property, and I knew we could eventually use it one way or another.”

Two years later, and Antinori had just sold a minority stake in Ornellaia to Robert Mondavi, the California entrepreneur who was expanding his empire into Italy, Chile and, briefly, France. It was then that he met Tim Mondavi, Robert’s younger son. “Tim is a nice fellow,” Antinori recalls, “more interested in the vineyards than his older brother [Michael], who was the businessman. Tim saw my new property and said, ‘I think if it were me, I would plant Cabernet Franc here. Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Maremma is too herbal’. ”

Antinori kept that in mind. “I had visited Cheval Blanc [which is planted to 49% Cabernet Franc],” Antinori says, “and I fell in love. I knew this is what I wanted to plant.” He also had in the back of his mind that he might even ask Piero to be a partner in his new estate in-the-making. He and Piero had never been enemies, but as brothers, they were naturally competitive. Besides, each now had shown the world – and each other – their winemaking acumen and their manly mettle. 

But all this business activity wasn’t the biggest thing in Antinori’s life. At 56, he was a father to a baby daughter,  Sophia.

By 2002, Ornellaia was gone, sold to a partnership between the Mondavis and the Frescobaldi family, the Antinoris’ centuries-old competitor in Tuscan winemaking. A year earlier, Antinori had begun planting grapes in his new estate – Tenuta di Biserno – in partnership with Pierro, who was serving as a more-or-less silent partner. Lodovico was looking forward to creating a new Bordeaux blend that, unlike the Super Tuscan Ornellaia, would be Cabernet Franc-dominant.

Today, Antinori is 74. In the 16 years since the first vines were planted on slopes overlooking the Tyrhennian Sea, Biserno has taken its place as newest of the great estates of Tuscany, alongside Ornellaia and Sassicaia, the pioneer.

“We have forty five hectares, separated into a higher and lower estate,” he says. At the higher elevation, where the estate wine is made, the soil is a combination of former seabed, clay and stones that provide good drainage. Here, Cabernet Franc is the lead grape, with lesser amounts of Merlot, a little Cabernet Sauvignon and some Petit Verdot, a variety that is increasingly of interest to Antinori. The lower part, called Campo di Sasso, produces another wine, the entry-level Insoglio del Cinghiale. “The soil here is sandier, and the weather a little warmer,” he says, “so we have planted a lot of Syrah.”

Like most estate owners and directors in Europe, Antinori does not do the day-to-day winemaking. That falls to Swedish-born Helena Lindberg, who received her wine education in France before being hired at Biserno in 2004. Ranieri Orsini oversees the vineyards. Michel Rolland has been the longtime consultant. 

“Michel is my friend,” Antinori says. “He comes the first Monday of November to taste the wines.” The current vintage was a difficult one, Antinori says, because of the August heat. “At Biserno, we were the only one who waited for the rains,” he explains, which he believes were necessary to complete the wine.

Altogether, the upper Biserno estate produces three wines. The estate wine, Biserno, is at about 30,000 bottles annually, Antinori says, while the second wine, Il Pino di Biserno, yields about 110,000 bottles in an average vintage. The third wine, Lodovico – “the wine they decided to name after me” – produces about 6,000 bottles and is not made every vintage. Biserno Lodovico’s current vintage, 2013, sells for around €296.00 ($350.00) a bottle. Fittingly, it is primarily Cabernet Franc.

Working with Cabernet Franc

But, like most love affairs, the one between Antinori and Franc has not been without difficulty. “I’m convinced that Cabernet Franc cannot make a good wine here in its early years,” he says. “With Cabernet Sauvignon, you can get good grapes in three or four years, but, at Biserno it took us seven vintages before it made great wine. It’s known as a capricious variety, and it’s a big financial difficulty to wait seven years to get the grapes you want.” Additionally, he says, the quality of Franc varies more than other Bordeaux red varieties from vintage to vintage.

But when the vintage is right, Antinori says, Franc produces the best wine in the northern Maremma. It’s a discovery that other elite estates in the region are making as well, with selections that are mostly or 100% Cabernet Franc. These wines include Casadei “Filare 18,” a joint project of two winemaking families, the Casadeis of Italy and the Clines of California; Duemani “Duemani,” which is neither filtered nor fined; Le Macchiole “Paleo” Rosso, which began in 1989 as a Bordeaux blend but evolved into a Franc varietal; Poggio al Tesoro “Dedicato a Walter,” an homage to the estate’s first winemaker, Walter Allegrini, and Guado al Tasso “Matarocchio,” made on an estate that is part of Marchesi Antinori empire. Incidentally, Piero has now turned over running the business to his eldest daughter, Albiero, the 27th generation and first woman to run the company.

Although there were hurt feelings when Lodivico’s father chose Piero to run the family business, Lodovico used his time wisely, travelling the world in various roles, including representing the family wines in the U.S. He is a particular fan of California winemaking culture.

“The California experience gave me the incentive for starting Ornellaia,” Antinori says. “The people there are more relaxed and less secretive than we are in Italy.” Through the years, he also developed skills as a journalist and photographer and gained somewhat of a reputation as a playboy in contrast to the more conservative older brother.

In addition to Biserno, Antinori’s company also produces wine in Tokaji and New Zealand. “I love Sauvignon Blanc, but the way they make it in Marlborough is to sell it at a low price,” he says,, which he believes hurts quality. In fact, looking ahead, Antinori says he would love to produce a quality Sauvignon Blanc in Italy more in the style of that made in Bordeaux. He is also enamored by the possibilities of Petit Verdot, not that he would abandon Cabernet Franc. “Paul Pontallier [the late estate director at Château Margaux] recommended Petit Verdot to me,” he says, “although we use it differently in Biserno than they do in Bordeaux. There, they pick it earlier to help age their blends. At Biserno, we use it for taste and complexity, and pick it later.” 

In the vineyards, Antinori has mixed feelings about biodynamics – interested but not yet convinced. “We’re testing bio in five hectares, still trying to understand it,” he says. As far as expanding the estate’s size is concerned, he is negotiating for an adjacent five hectares, “Then that is it – no more.”

But mostly, he is looking to the family legacy and the daughter who was born in 1999, that pivotal year for Antinori. “Sophia is living in London right now. She’s 18 years old, and I think she is more interested in the marketing and PR part of the business than in winemaking.” He thinks – and hopes – that she will spend some time, as he did, in California. “I would like to see her next go to Napa Valley,” he says. “I think she would love that whole California mentality. Europe is too conservative for her, and starting there could turn her off.” 

Antinori hopes Sophia’s youth and experimental approach would be a good jolt to the business. “For some reason a minority of drinkers prefer Cabernet Franc,” he says, “although the ones who do are real fanatics.” Perhaps Sophia can match in the marketplace what her father has done in the vineyard and winery.  



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