Wine writing

Great Story of Tignanello

Once upon a time, I got my hands on 1981 Antinori Tignanello magnum coming from a trusted source. For a few more years, it was sitting in my cellar impatiently waiting to be uncorked. Since its vintage was my birth year, I had a couple of occasions to pull it out, but each time I found a convincing reason to put it back until a better happening arrives. On the past weekend, stars have finally aligned.

I used Durand corkscrew to make sure I don’t screw up when removing a fragile cork. It came out wet almost all the way through and its poor appearance justified all the hard work it had been doing over decades protecting the wine with a good seal and allowing it to slowly evolve in the bottle. The first pour in the glass revealed a seductive perfume reassuring this forty-years-old wine was alive and shined gracefully.

This made me think of the history of this emblematic Super Tuscan wine. In 1981, Tignanello were celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first ever vintage of 1971. In 1970 they released the experimental wine Chianti Classico Riserva Vigneto Tignanello vinified as a single-vineyard. That was the tipping point that marked the beginning of the Renaissance of Toscana. In the next three-four decades there have been more changes and developments than in prior three-four centuries.

Tenuta Tignanello vineyards.
Tenuta Tignanello vineyards. Courtesy of

Antinori is a well-known family owning Marchesi Antinori, one of the biggest wine companies in Italy, which traces its history back to 1385. Throughout twenty-six generations, the Antinori family has been committed to the winemaking business in a beautiful land of Tuscany. Piero Antinori took over the family wine company from his father, Niccolò Antinori, in 1966. Just married and with a newborn first daughter Albiera, Piero now had to deal with a declining business which had suffered from an awkward image of a mass producer of a mediocre Chianti packaged in hay-wrapped flasks. That same year Robert Mondavi, together with his two sons, founded the winery in Napa Valley with the goal of producing wines that would compete with the finest wines from Europe. Piero travelled to California to meet the legendary winemaker. Got inspired by Mondavi’s dreams, he returned home charged with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.
In search of an experimental ground and research laboratory for his future endeavours, Piero Antinori looked at the Tuscan estate his family often used to retreat for the summer. Antinori acquired this property (originally called Santa Cristina) in mid-1800s from the cadet branch of the Medici family.

View from the manor house over the Tuscan landscape.
View from the manor house over the Tuscan landscape. Courtesy of

This large 319 ha estate with a 16th century manor house is located in the heart of Chianti Classico, a quintessential Tuscan place with picturesque localities and the dynamism of the surrounding landscape. Within its 130 ha dedicated to the vines, there are two best vineyards on the same hillside (350–400 meters above the sea level): Tignanello and Solaia. Tenuta Tignanello was destined to become the cornerstone where Antinori would create a landmark wine.

Émile Peynaud, the forefather of modern oenology, favoured Piero and happily agreed to consult a young man and his team. Peynaud was not only a highly respected professor at the University of Bordeaux, but he was an avid practitioner and influenced the winemaking around the world. There are several ground-breaking ideas that Antinori picked up from Peynaud.

Emile insisted to remove any white grapes from the Tignanello blend. What seems obvious today was totally radical back then. Piero even declassified the wine to vino da tavola (table wine denomination used for bulk wines mostly) as Chianti DOC regulations at the time demanded the inclusion of 10 to 30% of the white varieties like Malvasia Bianca Lunga and Trebbiano Toscano. Basically, the appellation followed the recipe invented by Bettino Ricasoli: blending white wines with Sangiovese to round its sharp acidity and soften the astringent tannins. This illustrates how little did they know in the 1900s what the most important indigenous red grape of Tuscany was capable of when it’s managed properly. Over the years, a higher yielding Trebbiano increased its share in the Chianti blends up to 30% and superseded most of other white grapes. The debut wine from Tenuta Tignanello in 1970 had a reduced proportion of white grapes, only six percent.

Peynaud also helped to understand and control malolactic fermentation — a natural chemical reaction that softens wines by converting the stronger malic acid that is present in new wine into weaker lactic acid. He also taught Antinori team how to make age-worthy wines by using barriques — smaller Bordeaux size (225l) oak barrels. This winemaking technique, imported from Bordeaux, also revolutionized other classic wine regions of the Old World. Such avantgarde was often seen as nonconformism and painfully divided the producers into Modernists and Traditionalists, like in Piemonte and Rioja. Similar rebellion occurred in Tuscany when few pioneers, like Piero Antinori, deliberately broke the rules in pursuit of better wines and many others followed the suit. This resulted in creation of some outstanding wines in the region, and soon a term Super Tuscans was coined to translate the superiority of emerging wines over the traditional ones. Beware that today Super Tuscans term depreciated as it has been widely overused calling so any Toscana IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) wine produced in the region. I would recommend diligent wine enthusiasts to know a list of prestige Super Tuscans, which comprises about fifty names, to avoid any confusion.

The first name on this list would be the wine Sassicaia by Tenuta San Guido. This was the first bottling labeled Vino da Tavola because it was made entirely from Cabernet grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%, Cabernet Franc 15%). Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the founder of San Guido, got in love with Bordeaux and dreamt of creating wine of his own. In 1942 he started planting French varieties and until 1968 he made the wine for the family private consumption. Convinced by his son Nicolò and nephew Piero Antinori, he released Sassicaia commercially in 1968. It was an overwhelming success. Sassicaia was welcomed on par with Bordeaux Premier Cru. Through Piero, Mario hired oenologist Giacomo Tachis and Émile Peynaud as a consultant to further improve the wine.

Triumph of Sassicaia encouraged Piero Antinori to completely eliminate white grapes and include Cabernets to the blend. Luckily, his father Niccolò Antinori planted these varieties in Tignanello estate vineyards decades ago. He got them from his friend in the Northern Piemonte.
The core of Tignanello blend is Sangiovese. It accounts for 80% of 47-ha Tignanello vineyard planting. The key person behind the creation of the best quality Sangiovese grown in Tuscany was Giacomo Tachis, a renowned Sangiovese expert. Giacomo was responsible for the overall execution of Tignanello. He started with the careful renewal of the vineyards. That was a large scale and ongoing process of selection and replanting vines, innovation concerning density or pruning techniques to obtain grapes with concentrated fruit and soft tannins.

A few years later, Marchesi Antinori team released a sister wine from 20-ha Solaia vineyard. The initial vintages of 1978 and 1979 were all Cabernets (80/20 CS/CF). Since the third vintage of 1985, the blend has been 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Sangiovese. The formula of Tignanello blend remains 80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc with seldom vintage variations. Funny enough, but now it fully complies with new Chianti Clasico DOCG regulations which have been significantly upgraded with hope for Super Tuscans to return. That doesn’t seem to be the case for Tignanello in the foreseen future.

Production volumes of Tignanello increased with time from 150,000 to now reaching 350,000 bottles per year, making it widely available wine. What I find most remarkable is that it always achieves stunning quality at a such high level of production. Tignanello is a strong and widely recognisable brand. In its early years, highly influential Italian gastronome and wine critic Luigi (Gino) Veronelli helped Piero Antinori to articulate the philosophy of Tignanello. A prominent Italian artist and designer Silvio Coppola created a label with family attributes and stylized “Sun” which became classic.

What is even more important for us, for wine lovers, apart from the appealing bottle, is its contents.

Small white stones in Tignanello vineyard.
Small white stones in Tignanello vineyard. Courtesy of

I admire the hard work of Marchesi Antinori team, now led by Managing Director Renzo Cotarella, on continuous improvement. In the beginning of 00s they covered the whole vineyard with Alberese limestone crushed into smaller white pebbles with a cement grinder for even ripening of the grapes. White color reflects the heat during the day and reflects the light back up onto the grapes. Stones help the drainage and protect from erosion.

Tignanello's aging cellar.
Tignanello's aging cellar. Courtesy of

In the winemaking they strive for perfection. Harvested grapes undergo double sorting: at clusters level and after full destemming to make sure only the best and healthy berries go into the press. Not only each variety, but also different lots are vinified and matured separately. Previously the blending occurred right after the finish of malolactic fermentation. Now the team is able to exclude from the blend the barrels which don’t qualify. Antinori avoid deep black colour of their wine as high quality Sangiovese doesn’t need high extraction. Since that Tignanello use most of the new oak, they transfer the wines to the barriques after the first alcoholic fermentation is over so that wines undergo the malolactic fermentation there and thus don’t get over-oaky. Wines age for about 12–14 months in barrels made of French and Hungarian oak. After the final blending and bottling, they spend an additional year in the winery cellars before being released in the market.
The end result is always utterly satisfying. Piero Antinori claims Tignanello a very Tuscan wine, the wine of place with enjoyable purity. Looking through my tasting notes across different vintages, I notice the stylistic evolution. Early wines and those from 80s have softened with bottle aging and seem lighter. 90s and 00s are expressive and marked with power. 2010s are back to elegance and finesse with accessible tannins in their youth. Throughout the years Tignanello signature are black cherries, chocolate, coffee, tobacco and leather notes.

Unlike many fine wines with French grape varieties which are great on their own, Tignanello is surprisingly good with food. Sangiovese with its fresh acidity makes it a great gastronomic fine wine.

1981 Tignanello from magnum with satin texture very well matched a tender rack of a New Zealand lamb cooked sous vide. This was a highly emotional wine and very worth writing this article.

Tignanello 1981 magnum with rack of lamb
Tignanello 1981 magnum with rack of lamb

Made on