How the Antinori sisters are adapting their wine business, which has been in the family for hundreds of years, to withstand global warming.
Under the Tuscan sun, Allegra Antinori’s hands were sticky with freshly crushed grapes. The region’s vineyards were awash with activity as ripe Sangiovese bunches were snipped from vines, landing softly in attendant baskets. In the warm autumn of 1979, the Antinori sisters Albiera, Allegra and Alessia wanted to emulate the adults around them. Their father, Piero, acquiesced, allowing his young daughters to create a few bottles of their own wine to be shared with family the following Christmas. That year, there was not only wine fermenting in the cellar, but also a previously unthinkable question: could the next leaders of this Florentine wine family be women, for the first time in its 600-year history?
The die was cast for the three Antinori daughters to succeed their visionary father. But the family’s hold over the business was far from assured when Piero’s father Niccolò handed him the reins in 1966. Chianti – and Tuscan wine, in general – was still perceived as a cheap wine packaged in a novelty straw basket known as a fiasco. To make matters worse, the Italian wine industry was rocked by a methanol scandal in the mid-1980s, when a series of producers in northwest Italy were found to be adding the substance to their wine, leading to as many as 26 deaths. In this bleak context, Antinori was a shining light. British hospitality company Whitbread became partners in the business to local headlines that ‘foreigners were invading’, writes Piero in his book about his family history, The Hills of Chianti. It turned out to be an unpalatable blend for the Tuscan vintner, who surprised his investors by raising the funds to take back control of the business in 1992, paving the way for his daughters to succeed him.
How Antinori is adapting to climate change with innovation
Today, the business faces a different set of threats. Although its brand is now firmly established as a jewel in the increasingly respected Italian wine community, Antinori’s 26th generation has to contend with the already-evident challenges presented by climate change. Since the late 1970s, when the Antinori sisters made their first wines, summer day temperatures have increased by up to 36˚F (2˚C), meaning that the grapes ripen faster, and the harvest is more likely to start in September rather than October. While an earlier harvest can be beneficial to avoid the autumn rains that sometimes lead to rotten grapes, a long, slow ripening period creates wines with greater complexity and freshness. What is more, an increase in lengthy dry spells throughout spring and summer stresses vines and reduces crop levels, resulting in less wine to sell.
The changing climate means the Antinoris now need to reconsider the way grapes have been grown by their ancestors. “The biggest challenge for our generation is obviously global warming and we have to deal with it now,” says Allegra. “The harvest is always earlier than it was when I was a child.” In search of cooler sites, the Antinori team is heading to the hills, where altitude brings lower temperatures. “We like areas that produce fresh and fruity white wines,” she explains. “For example, on our Monteloro estate in the hills behind Florence, we grow Riesling and Pinot Bianco at altitude [1,640ft; 500 meters].” In vineyards from the bottom of Italy’s heel to the top of its thigh and beyond the boot (the Antinoris also have sites overseas in the US and Chile), trials are under way to adapt the vines to warmer, drier conditions now and in the future. The current work includes experimenting with varieties better suited to hot conditions, grafting vines onto drought-resistant rootstocks and adapting techniques to prevent vine leaves from shutting down in the hottest of temperatures.
Breaking convention, respecting tradition: how the Antinori sisters are shaking up the family business
The Antinori women are not only changing the way the company grows its wine, but also the perception of the industry as a man’s world. The company’s President, eldest daughter Albiera, is one of a growing number of women steering successful Italian wine businesses in the 21st century. The trio’s ascendancy to the head of the Antinori boardroom could not be timed better. In 2011, Italy followed Norway’s lead in creating board gender quotas for stock exchange-listed companies. In 2007, women accounted for just over one in 20 board positions in Italy’s listed companies; a decade later, women represented nearly one-third of all board members – a figure that Antinori, a resolutely non-listed company, can also boast. “Italy is a very old, laid-back country, but things are really changing,” says Allegra. “There are many more women working in the wine business today – the biggest problem is that in Italy at the moment there is not a lot of work.”
Unemployment in Italy exceeded more than 10 percent at the start of 2019. Yet Antinori employs about 450 people across its estates, with another 400-odd seasonal workers pruning, picking and pressing the grapes as the rhythms of the vine dictate. From 741 acres (300 hectares) of vines at the start of their father’s reign to 6,178 acres (2,500 hectares) today across Italy, California’s Napa Valley and Chile, the company’s heart remains in its Tuscan birthplace – and that is the home of its most coveted wines, including Solaia and Tignanello. These wines embody the company’s philosophy of blending innovation with tradition, challenging the status quo in Tuscany’s most famous region, Chianti.
The Antinoris are carrying on the family’s innovative approach. Inspired by the Bordeaux region in France and travels to California, their father had introduced new varieties to the Tuscan soil, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and also incorporated new techniques, including aging the wines in French barrels. In nearby Bolgheri, his uncle, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, worked on a Bordeaux-inspired blend, too – Sassicaia. The straitjacket of Italian wine law meant that these nonconformist wines had to be classified as vino da tavola – a category used for lowly table wines. But it soon became clear these rebellious reds were superior to the vast majority of law-abiding Tuscan wines, forcing Italy’s lawmakers to change the rulebook to embrace them.
The range of wines produced by the Antinoris is not solely for well-heeled collectors and Michelin-starred restaurants. The Santa Cristina brand, which is often seen gracing supermarket shelves, accounts for around 30 percent of the company’s total production, with Tuscan red blends and Umbrian whites starting at around $8 (€7) a bottle. Unlike the prestigious estate wines such as Tignanello, Pèppoli and Pian delle Vigne, the Marchesi Antinori name and family crest do not appear on its front label. “We own different estates and every estate has its own identity. They have their own structure, their own team,” explains Allegra. “What’s more, within each estate there are different wine styles of varying quality. It’s like a cow – you don’t only have fillet, you have the ribs, the other cuts.” However, with certain wines, such as Tignanello, which can only be made from the Tignanello vineyard, if it is a bad season and the wine that is produced is not of a high enough quality, no Tignanello will be made.
The Antinori family are in a unique position: with more than 600 years of experience and a long-term vision that does not rely on thirsty shareholders, it is easier to make the brave decisions to safeguard your brand – and family name – or to break the rules of traditional Italian winemaking. However, the family realize that 26 generations of making and selling wine does not guarantee the future of the business. Mother Nature is threatening the viability of many of the world’s vineyards and the three Antinori sisters understand that they need to find solutions to ensure that their children, too, can inherit their beloved Tuscan earth.
Twenty-six generations: how Antinori became one of the world's oldest family businesses
The Antinoris have produced wine in the Tuscan countryside for 600 years, as revealed here in the company’s colorful timeline:
1385: Silk trading family the Antinoris join the Florentine Winemakers Guild.
1685: Poet, royal doctor and wine reviewer Francesco Redi praises the Antinori wines in his poem ‘Bacchus in Tuscany’.
1716: The first official borders forming the Chianti region are created.
1850: The Antinoris add to their landholdings with the purchase of the Tignanello estate.
1898: Birth of the modern era for Antinori wines with the founding of the company Marchesi Antinori, providing a formal structure to their wine business.
1931: Niccolò Antinori marries Carlotta Della Gherardesca. Her dowry includes the land that becomes the family’s Guado al Tasso wine estate in Bolgheri.
1940: In addition to reds in Tuscany, Niccolò Antinori decides to produce white wines and purchases the Castello della Sala property in Umbria.
1943: During World War Two, the family’s main residence, Villa Antinori, is bombed, forcing the family to move to Tignanello. The cellars in nearby San Casciano are damaged by the retreating German army and then occupied by American liberation forces.
1957: The Antinoris open Cantinetta Antinori, a restaurant and wine bar where customers can enjoy the family’s wines. (It has since opened restaurants in Vienna, Zurich, Moscow and Monte Carlo.)
1966: Niccolò Antinori retires and his son Piero (Albiera, Allegra and Alessia’s father) becomes President of the business.
1971: The first Tignanello wine is born.
1978: Produced at the Tignanello estate, the Antinoris release a second flagship wine, Solaia.
1980s: Piero’s daughters Albiera, Allegra and Alessia join the family business. 1985: The family marks 600 years of winemaking by purchasing Pèppoli, a 247-acre (100-hectare) estate three miles (5km) from Tignanello.
1995: The Antinoris purchase the Pian delle Vigne estate in Tuscany’s Montalcino region, releasing their first Brunello in 2000.
2012: The Antinori nel Chianti Classico Winery opens. Home to more than 100 staff, it also welcomes 45,000 visitors each year. 2016: Albiera Antinori is officially handed the reins as the company’s first female President.
Rebecca Gibb is a wine journalist and Master of Wine based in the north-east of England.
This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of WERTE, the client magazine of Deutsche Bank Wealth Management.
Read this article in Italian.