The sprawling and largely subterranean winery was conceived as an invisible building that folds into the surrounding countryside. Photograph by David Celdran
Food & Drink Features

This Tuscan winery has an “invisible building” where the roof is a vineyard

No other local family is as entwined with the long history of Chianti Classico as the Antinoris of Tuscany, the tenth oldest family owned company in the world. David Celdran visits the winery and sits down with the Marchesa Allegra over wine to talk about history and the future 
David Celdran | Nov 03 2019

Few wine regions of the world are as beautiful as Tuscany in northern Italy. The story-book landscape of rolling hills crowned by walled towns, vineyards and cypress-lined dust roads has defined the countryside surrounding the great Tuscan cities of Siena and Florence for centuries. This is Chianto Classico country: the historic wine-producing area where the indigenous sangiovese grape is grown and transformed into one of Italy’s most iconic reds — the eponymously named Chianti Classico, a full-blooded Tuscan wine that’s been cultivated since the 13th century.

No other local family is as entwined with the long history of Chianti Classico as the Antinoris of Tuscany. Currently on its 26th generation, the tenth oldest family owned company in the world continues to produce some of Italy’s most highly regarded Chianti Classico, including a superior selection of so-called Super Tuscans like Tignanello and Solaia. The family which still carries the noble title of marchesi is largely responsible for single-handedly reviving the prestige of Tuscan wines and viticulture after the local variety fell from grace in the second half of the last century—and I’ve booked an appointment with the Marchesa Allegra Antinori, one of the female heirs of the current patriarch, Piero Antinori, in their new winery in Chianti Classico. I aim to understand how the family’s connection to their land, and passion for good food and drink, have given the world some of the best Italian wines ever made.  

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The drive from Florence to the new Antinori nel Chianto Classico winery and corporate headquarters in Bargino takes you through the historic vineyards and castle towns of Tuscany enshrined in calendars and postcards sold in souvenir shops everywhere. The Antinoris have been cultivating the hillsides of Chianti Classico since 1385 and each generation since has left its imprint on the land. None more so than the 26th generation which recently built a state of the art winery that’s already regarded as an architectural landmark in Italy.

The sprawling and largely subterranean winery was conceived as an invisible building that folds into the surrounding countryside. Indeed, visitors are often surprised to realize that the vineyards they’re standing on are actually part of the tiered roofline of the winery. Covered in farmland and built largely with terracotta, the earth, wood and brick materials provide the natural insulation required to produce a constant indoor climate that cools the cellars deep within.

Marchesa Allegra Antinori with the author.

The Antinori family is particularly proud of how their new winery has come to symbolize their past and present: their profound respect for their ancestral land and their passion for innovation and modern vinification techniques. The underground winery is ideal for the new trend in gravity flow vinification which does away with pumps and motors which have a tendency to bruise the fruit and reduce the fragrance and flavor of the grapes. This, along with soft-pressing, naturally-lit cellars, and other environment-friendly and sustainable techniques in wine-making are part of a long tradition of innovations that have earned awards and global respect for the Antinori family.  

With my quick tour of the cellars over, I finally get to join Allegra Antinori for a walk through the vineyards of the property. I begin our conversation by reminding her of a painting of her family tree which hangs prominently in the museum on the upper level of the winery — and of the weight of tradition that the 26th generation must be feeling. “Its a matter of pride most of all that you're really grateful for whoever has done things before to pass it on to you,” she tells me. “It's also a matter of knowing that there are some values as well that are transferred generation after generation.” 

Though Allegra and her two sisters, Albiera and Alessia, can be credited for expanding the business, she never fails to credit their father, Piero, for his tireless vision. “My father was really the one that really built the company to how it is today. And turned it all around. So he was the one who had a vision. He was really the one that believed that different wines can be made, international wines can be made, better wines can be made. And it became the big moment for Italian wines, but my father was really the first one who had this braveness and the sense of vision.”

The Antinori family tree.

Her remark reminds me of another interesting display in the museum. Taking pride of place on the winery’s museum floor is a bottle of the family’s legendary 1971 Tignanello amidst older bottles of Chianti Classico wrapped in quaint straw baskets — as they were once packaged and sold. Before Piero Antinori revolutionized wine production in Tuscany, the reputation of Chianti Classico was already in free-fall. The first thing he did was to disregard the centuries-old tradition of using Sangiovese grapes and other local varieties exclusively. Instead, Piero Antinori began experimenting with French Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in the blend. Thus, Tignanello was born, but since it couldn’t classify as a traditional Chianti Classico under the existing rules, a new term had to be invented: the Super Tuscan. Antinori’s radical Tignanello was an instant hit among wine critics and its phenomenal success started a renaissance in Tuscan wine making and forced the authorities to relax the regulations on Chianti Classico production ever since.

Tignanello’s triumph on the global stage likewise provided the financial resources needed to improve the quality of the rest of the family’s wine portfolio, its flagship Chianti Classico, Villa Antinori Riserva, especially. Allegra takes me to the tasting room 15 meters below ground where bottles of the family’s Villa Antinori is matured among rows of oak barriques. The use of French oak for ageing the wine is yet another one of the radical innovations introduced by her father — a practice now accepted and adopted by more progressive estates across Tuscany. “This is really the expression of what we think is a real Chianti Classico. A reinterpretation of the Chianti Classico with a modern style,” says Allegra after opening a bottle of Villa Antinori Riserva she shares with me.

The Villa Antinori Riserva

Still made primarily with the local Sangiovese as the rules dictate, it took decades to produce wine of this quality, and to my liking, a highly drinkable vibrant ruby colored wine with hints of red berries. “We started to be very soft with the way of pressing the wine. We started to know better our grape variety which is very important because there are so many different clones in Tuscany. We did a lot of work in the vineyards, work in the harvest, work in the cellars, it became slowly much more of a drinkable wine that’s less acidic. Sangiovese a very nervous grape variety. Temperamental, yes like Tuscan people as well,” Allegra explains with a slight giggle in between sips.

To fully appreciate Chianto Classico, however, one needs to understand that the Tuscans rarely enjoy it alone, even in a tasting room as beautiful as the one built by Antinori for its guests. Allegra, who is also in charge of the family’s growing portfolio of restaurants, understands this more than anyone else and invites me for a typical Tuscan meal on the terrace of Rinuccio 1180, the outdoor restaurant named after the 12th century founder of the Antinori dynasty.  

To fully appreciate Chianto Classico, however, one needs to understand that the Tuscans rarely enjoy it alone, even in a tasting room as beautiful as the one built by Antinori for its guests.

Over glasses of Péppoli, another Chianti Classico produced on the estate, and a generous serving of Tuscan salumi, prosciutto Toscana, and seasonal vegetables, our conversation turns to the future of the company and diversification into the food and hospitality business. Under Allegra, Antinori currently operates a number of agriturismo hotels in their wine estates and a growing number of restaurants and bars across Italy. The extra virgin olive oil served with the focaccia and salad is also one of the new businesses she’s ventured into.

Despite Allegra’s food and hospitality business taking off, and the family’s expansive footprint of wine estates all over the world, the 26th generation of Antinoris isn’t about to take it easy and continue to look for ways to further the family’s legacy. “There is a big potential to make maybe another great Italian white wine, maybe in Champagne, maybe somewhere where we want to really take also a lot of our experience but also learn from the other ones also.”

Clearly, Allegra is imbued with her father’s pioneering spirit, as Piero himself was by a long line of Antinoris driven by a similar love for craft and passion for the land. And with her generation preparing to take the helm of what has become a global company, and the largest producer of premium Italian wines today, she will, no doubt, remember the advice handed down by her father to her and her two sisters: “He always says there are 4 Ps that made the company what it is: passion, patience, prudence, and people. And product, so five, actually. So you know, he believes that the product—and this we know very well—is the most important thing so we have an obsession with making a product which represents Antinori and which represents that specific territory and character of a certain place.” 

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Cellar with French oak barriques. 

A selection that includes one of the highly regarded Chianti Classico by the Antinoris, a 1971 Tignanello. 

Chianti in straw baskets. 

The landscape of the Chianto Classico. 

The logo of the Marchesi Antonori in the winery's headquarters. 

At the underground winery, modern vinification techniques include the doing away with pumps and motors. 

The Rinuccio 1180, the outdoor restaurant named after the 12th century founder of the Antinori dynasty. 

The tasting room was built by the Antinoris for guests. 

Another view of the tasting room. 

The state of the art winery is considered an architectural landmark in Italy.  

Visitors are often surprised to realize that the vineyards they’re standing on are actually part of the tiered roofline of the winery.