Everything Italy’s Marchese Piero Antinori and his winemaking family touches seemingly turns to gold: Chianti from Tuscany, the "Super Tuscan" Tignanello and Solaia wines, Pian delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino, Guado al Tasso in Bolgheri, Castello della Sala in Umbria, Tormaresca in Puglia, and Montenisa sparkling wine in Franciacorta.
Antinori also co-owns the Col Solare estate in the Red Mountain appellation of Washington state, with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and partnered with that same company in 2007 to purchase Napa Valley’s iconic Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars from Warren Winiarski.
So it is no surprise that the Antinoris, who have achieved phenomenal success in the 26 generations they have made wine, have yet another winning brand, one that debuted only in 2007, yet is as solid as the volcanic rock blasted to smithereens two decades ago to make way for the vineyards which supply it.
That Piero Antinori waited 15 years between dynamiting boulders during the installation of Atlas Peak Vineyards in southeastern Napa Valley, and delivering the first bottles of his family’s Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in September 2007, speaks to his patience and persistence during the complicated series of events that led to the establishment of Antica.
The name is a combination of "Antinori" and "California," and in Italian it means ancient, which is appropriate, since Giovanni di Piero Antinori joined the Florentine Guild of Vintners in 1385. The story of how Antica came into being is also an old one to some wine insiders, yet most consumers have no idea of the machinations that went into Atlas Peak Vineyards becoming Antica Napa Valley. For those, here goes:
The saga began when William Hill developed 30 acres of Atlas Peak Vineyards on a 1,200-acre site in the early 1980s. He sold the property to British brewer Whitbread in 1984, with minority-interest partners climbing aboard: Antinori and Champagne Bollinger.
Yet by 1993, the partners, save Piero Antinori, had lost interest, pulled out, and Antinori became sole owner of the land, which by then had approximately 450 acres of vines, 100 of them Sangiovese. Allied Lyons (which became Allied Domecq) took the Atlas Peak brand and began producing wines from the estate under a 15-year lease agreement with Antinori. So while the Marchese owned the land, he didn’t have access to its fruit, nor to the winery that was later constructed there.
During those 15 years, ownership of the Atlas Peak brand bounced from Allied Domecq to Pernod Ricard to Fortune Brands to Constellation, in a confusing series of sales and consolidations. Then Constellation sold Atlas Peak to Ascentia Wine Estates in June 2008; five months later, the lease for Antinori’s grapes and winery expired, Atlas Peak moved out, and Piero and his daughters, Albiera, Allegra and Alessia, moved in.
In hindsight, the 15-year lease period was a blessing, because it gave the Antinoris some separation from a vineyard and brand that at first focused on Sangiovese and Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blends (a la Super Tuscans). Yet Americans weren’t much interested in Cal-Ital wines in the 1990s, and wondered why they should spend $20 for an Atlas Peak Sangiovese (or any other from California) when an Andrew Jackson greenback bought two bottles of quality Tuscan Chianti -- including Antinori’s.
Atlas Peak’s Sangioveses were good but not exceptional; the property simply wasn’t as suited for Sangiovese as it was for Cabernet Sauvignon, and Piero Antinori recognized this. The various companies that leased the vineyards converted much of the Sangiovese to other varieties; meanwhile, the Antinoris began planning for the day when they could start over, with Antica Napa Valley, at the Atlas Peak site.
It’s a spectacularly wild and beautiful property, located 12 miles east of the Silverado Trail and the Stags Leap District, on rugged Soda Canyon Road. Vines are planted on hillsides, at elevations of between 1,500 and 1,800 feet, in rocky volcanic soils. The area, known as Foss Valley, is a bowl surrounded by mountains, where it can be as many as 15 degrees cooler than in Rutherford on the valley floor. In summer, the temperatures hover at an agreeable 80 to 85 degrees around noon, then drop substantially at night, creating more tannin and acidity in the grapes, and more structure in the wines.
Spring frost is a concern, yet a 70-foot-deep reservoir provides three years’ worth of frost protection, which can be applied via sprinklers.
The estate is currently 600 acres, with 543 of them under vines. The Antinoris are replanting various sections, and when that’s finished, the varietal mix will be approximately 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Chardonnay and 25% other Bordeaux varieties, plus small plots of Sangiovese, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. A majority of the grapes are sold to other producers; Antica keeps only what it needs to make superior wines in its quality-over-quantity scheme.
Overseeing winemaking is Renzo Cotarella, Antinori’s Tuscany-based chief enologist. He works with on-site winemaker Nate Weis (son of Groth winemaker Michael Weis), bringing a European mindset/experience to California. The result, at this early stage, is Antica wines that have the best of both worlds.
The soon-to-be-completed 2009 harvest is the first in which all Antica production occurs on the estate. However, the Antinoris didn’t sit idly by, waiting for the lease to run out. Instead, in 1998 they purchased a 100-acre parcel adjoining Atlas Peak Vineyards and planted 24 acres of grapes there, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. From this Townsend Vineyard, Antica produced a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, which debuted in the market in September 2007.
Does Napa Valley need another Cabernet Sauvignon? Yes, if it’s distinctive and fairly priced. The current-release 2006 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is both -- stylish and elegant, with a savory character to go with the fresh black cherry and currant fruit, rounded tannins, yet with the backbone that suggests improvement with cellaring. The suggested retail price, $55, it’s a relative bargain in the sea of $100-and-up Napa Cabs.
Does California need another Chardonnay? You bet, if it’s anything like the 2008 Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay. At $35, it’s a bit pricey, yet with its stunning richness, countered with vibrant acidity, layered flavors and subtle resemblance to fine white Burgundy, it’s worth the price -- no assembly line Chardonnay, this one.
Alessia Antinori, like her older sisters, is deeply involved in the business, having overseen winemaking at Montenisa in Franciacorta, and now working in global sales, from a base in New York. Last week, she poured the 2008 Antica Chardonnay and 2006 Antica Cabernet Sauvignon at the estate, during a break from taking part in Antica’s first crush on the property.
Alessia pointed out that there is no mention of Antinori on Antica’s labels, only a small “AAA” logo, for the three sisters’ names. She also likes to pour the Cabernet Sauvignon blind at trade tastings, to judge the reaction. “No one recognizes it as a Napa Valley wine,” she says.
That’s because, as Antica general manager Glenn Salva says, the wine is powerful in a New World style, yet with the elegance and finesse of Old World Cabernet Sauvignon.
“It takes mountain power and harnesses it,” he says. “We’ve taken the California approach and tempered that to make wines of freshness and purity.” Salva has been with Atlas Peak/Antica since 1986, and knows it better than anyone, except for, perhaps, Piero Antinori.
The tempering comes in various ways, including clonal diversity in the vineyard, high-density planting to control vine vigor, removing young leaves and keeping older ones in order to slow fruit maturation and get ripeness at lower alcohol levels, and putting the Cabernet Sauvignon through malolactic fermentation in new French oak barrels, which allows for a finer integration of characteristics than tanks. The know-how of Cotarella doesn’t hurt, either.
I tasted the 2008 Chardonnay and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon -- not blind, yet before Salva made his comments about purity and freshness -- and had similar impressions. These are beautiful wines, perfectly balanced, not at all flamboyant as some Napa wines can be, yet with all the flavor and weight one could want. These wines are worth the 15 years the Antinoris invested in them.
By the way, the Atlas Peak brand (the “Vineyards” part has been dropped) is alive and seemingly well, with winemaker Darren Procsal using purchased grapes from several mountain vineyards in Napa Valley, including on Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder. Procsal makes only Cabernet Sauvignon for Atlas Peak … and not a drop of Sangiovese.