The Wine That Changed Tuscany Forever

New York's Del Posto recently hosted a once-in-a-lifetime tasting of every vintage of Tignanello ever produced.

Tignanello Tasting
Photo: Liz Clayman for Marchesi Antinori

Winemaking icon Marchese Piero Antinori walked into Del Posto's bar straight from his flight from Florence. He was in New York CIty to do something extraordinary: relive his entire career in one evening. Last Tuesday night, Antinori was present for a comprehensive tasting of every vintage of Tignanello, which put an international spotlight on Tuscan wines when it launched in the early 1970s.

"I've never participated in a complete tasting of Tignanello, with all the vintages," Antinori said. "Tignanello represents, in a way, my whole working life."

The inaugural vintage was 1971, but that wasn't the year Antinori was most excited to taste. That would be the 1975, which many consider one of the greatest Italian vintages of the last century—a wine he wasn't sure he would ever get to taste again.

"We produced a small amount of wine that year. It was the second vintage of Tignanello after 1971, and the wine was very successful," Antinori said. "Without even realizing, very shortly, we ran out of this vintage. Now the 1975 is even more rare than the 1971."

Tignanello Tasting
Liz Clayman for Marchesi Antinori

Del Posto Wine Director Evan Clagnaz spent seven months trying to track down every single vintage in order to make this dinner happen. And his work paid off: the historic dinner sold out in less than 24 hours.

"It's such an iconic wine. It's a gateway wine, in a way, especially in the Super Tuscan category," Clagnaz said. "And it's really a fairly affordable wine. Something that everybody really recognizes. It was important for Italy, it transformed a region, and it changed winemaking."

So, in a small dining room at Del Posto, with all 39 bottles lit by candlelight, Antinori and longtime winemaker Renzo Cotarella sat at a large dining table surrounded by an intimate group of collectors and Tignanello lovers. The staff had prepared 39 glasses for every diner, each marked with a vintage.

Clagnaz had the task of creating the pairings for the dinner. He knew it was important to group the wines based on how he thought they would show Tuesday night, with thematic flights to keep palates fresh. Antinori entered the tasting from a historical perspective, viewing the wines as an evolution within two major eras of Tignanello. The first 20 vintages were made with Giacomo Tachis, and the second period with his right-hand man, Cotarella, who kept diners very entertained throughout the five-hour, eight-course dinner. Cotarella shared very specific memories he had about every single vintage, which he joked he knows better than someone knows their own children. He didn't think the purpose of the tasting was to choose favorites among the vintages, but rather to gain a deeper understanding of the place.

Everyone was curious to see how the style of the wines changed over time. "Although the basic character of the wine remains the same because of the terroir, the soil, the climate, I think there has been and evolution in style," Antinori said. "It's going to be very interesting to see the evolution in the style of the wines in these two periods."

Tignanello Tasting
Liz Clayman for Marchesi Antinori

It's fair to say that Piero Antinori spearheaded a renaissance in Italian wine. Though the Antinori Family has been in the wine industry more than 600 years, the situation wasn't great in Italy when Piero Antinori was preparing to start running the family business in the 1960s. Italian wines, including Tuscan wines and the wines of Chianti Classico, weren't highly regarded, especially in the United States.

Once Antinori took over, he decided to start playing around with different grape varieties, looking for ways to improve winemaking in the region. As the reputation and prices of these wines continued to drop, he knew something had to change to avoid this downward spiral.

"I started to make experiments," Antinori said, "especially in one vineyard. The name of the vineyard was Tignanello, which is a historical name; it was our best vineyard." That vineyard proved to be the epicenter of the experiment that would forever change the Antinori story and, subsequently, Italian wine.

Antinori's relationship with French winemaker and University of Bordeaux professor Émile Peynaud, who suggested changes that would soon become innovations in the region, also affected Tignanello as we know it today. He suggested that Antinori stop using white grapes in the production of the wine—a requirement at the time for Chianti Classico's DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) regulations. By breaking those rules, Tignanello would be demoted to mere table-wine status, but Antinori accepted that. Peynaud also pushed Antinori to consider aging the wine in new oak, specifically the barriques traditionally used in Bordeaux, rather than in the large, old barrels traditional in the region at that time.

"By making these changes vis-à-vis the tradition we used to have, the results were very promising," Antinori said. "But unfortunately, we couldn't call it Chianti Classico."

Despite that, and despite a fair amount of controversy in the region at the time, Antinori released the first of the 39 vintages that were tasted last week.

And that was the start of the Super Tuscan revolution. By breaking these rules, and by incorporating non-traditional varieties together with Sangiovese in its blend, Tignanello effectively created the Super Tuscan category; dozens of other wines followed. Though over time this revolution lost some of its shock value, as regulations for Chianti Classico followed by example and evolved as well, this hasn't affected the labeling of Tignanello. It is still named for the place, and everyone knows exactly where it is coming from.

Tignanello Tasting Notes

Tignanello Tasting
Liz Clayman for Marchesi Antinori

1975: The 1975 remains a lively wine over 40 years later. Being so rare, the excitement was built up, and luckily, the wine performed. The Sangiovese blend with 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon is meaty and herbal and still shows red fruit with noticeable signs of age in the form of dried earth, old leather, and prunes. An elegant wine with an age that is hard to believe. The first flight of wines, from the early years, had a common thread of dried earth and herbs, yet each one remained unique.

1979: This wine tastes more mature than the '75, but still maintains a freshness and is a much lighter style of Sangiovese, blended with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. Again, it's hard to believe this wine is approaching half a century. It has a character of herbal tea, mulling spices, and leather. Antinori shared that they were a bit concerned due to the large quantity produced and delicate quality to the wine that it would be able to age so well and maintain its integrity.

1993: By the time we reached the wines from the mid-1980s, the complexity of increased and the fruit character became evermore present. Renzo Cotarella said the 1993 has the "soul of Tignanello" and "tastes as Tignanello should." The wine (85% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc) is fresh, with noticeable acidity, an herbal quality, red fruit, dried flowers, and notes of mint, cocoa, vanilla, and licorice. This wine marked the shift into the second part of the tasting in which Tignanello evolved stylistically towards how it is known today, a wine of grace and finesse and not one that overpowers.

2015: The 2015 (85% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon) remained one of my favorites of the night. It is such an elegant and perfumed Tignanello at such a young age. Mouth-watering acidity with notes of red cherry, blackberries, rose water, and ripe raspberries. This is completely ready to drink now, though it will age very well. The fresh herbs were there, though slightly more faint, and more noticeable was the ripe fruit, fresh leather, and spices. This had my mouth watering, and I am still thinking about it.

2016: "These last four glasses are probably the best vintages of Tignanello ever made," Cotarella said. 2016 was a slightly cooler vintage and, like 2015, is now thought of as one of the great Tuscan vintages. It has the elegance and expressiveness that Antinori looks for, with notes of juicy black and red cherries, autumn spices, fresh herbs, wet earth, and red apple skin. Though this is very drinkable now, I look forward to seeing how this one tastes 40 years down the road. (80% Sangiovese, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc.)

Other favorites from the evening: 1986, 1997, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2011.

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