The Antinori family has been in the wine business for over six hundred years and they can document this back to 1385 across 26 generations. It is an interesting question whether anyone has done more in raising the profile of Italian wines than the current head of the family, Marchese Piero Antinori. Back in the seventies he created the SuperTuscan category with Tignanello, which is arguably still the greatest example, and followed that up with another, the sensational Solaia.
The family business is still led by Piero, now with his three daughters; Albiera, Allegra and Alessia. Under his leadership the business has become a vinous superpower and there are many estates and joint ventures in the portfolio, not just in Italy but spread around the world.
As an aside, Piero’s relations are hardly slouches, being responsible for two of Italy’s most sought-after SuperTuscans; brother Lodovico created Ornellaia while cousin Niccolò owns Sassicaia, both estates being in the Bolgheri region down on the Tuscan coast.
Back to Marchese Piero Antinori; Le Mortelle is one of his most recent ventures, establishing a new organic wine estate from scratch in Tuscany’s southern Maremma. This is immediately south of the Bolgheri, on a virgin coastal site near the town of Grossetto. Here there is still plenty of room to create brand new wine ventures, using land that is cheaper than in more established and famous wine areas.
This Maremma remains Tuscany’s New World, still frontier land without a long tradition of winemaking. This coastal strip is still unspoiled, a once pestilential marsh and swamp until it was drained for pasture in the twentieth century. The farms here are on flat plains and rolling low hills, still mainly devoted to cattle, olives and fruit.
Le Mortelle is named after a shrub that is commonly found in these parts, the Wild Myrtle. It was a fruit farm until it was bought in 1999 from the Barabino family. The creation of a sizable wine estate takes years and considerable investment that will not pay back for decades, so such projects need patience and a faith in the future as well as deep pockets.
The entire estate spans some 270 ha. The Le Mortelle vineyards themselves are an impressive sight, 160 ha in total, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese for red grapes. In these parts the Bordeaux red grapes rule rather than the native Sangiovese. It is interesting however that Merlot, so successful in the Bolgheri, is not grown here – the local sandy loam soils are much better matched by the other varieties.
Vermentino and Ansonica (aka Inzolia) are the local white varieties planted. Besides these, Viognier is also grown – this French variety is an unusual choice but was selected after considerable experimentation.
Antinori has also retained 15 ha of olive groves, fruit trees (peaches, plums, apricots, pears) and blueberries. Two small lakes have also been created which are now a haven for wildlife.
The farming is organic, helped by the mild coastal microclimate. Indeed, the ability to grow and harvest ripe healthy fruit before the Tuscan autumn rains in most years is a big factor in these parts.
While the vines are now of an age to produce quality wine, building the accompanying winery came later – there is little point in creating an expensive winery before there are grapes ready to vinify. The winery is, by any standards, breathtaking. It is designed to impress and it succeeds admirably.
Like a number of new wineries constructed in this area, (for example Gaja’s Ca’Marcanda), the Le Mortelle winery is built largely underground to minimise environmental impact, so there is less obvious footprint on the landscape and little sign of it on your approach from the coast road. From this direction Le Mortelle forms a small hill, the entrance door an unassuming hobbit-hole that leaves you unprepared for what is inside.
Within is a vast circular cavern excavated out of solid rock, a 60 metre diameter, cylindrical cathedral of steel and concrete that burrows down three stories into the solid bedrock. The entrance is therefore on the top floor. Opposite, on the far side, is the grape reception. Below this, the second floor is ringed with stainless steel fermenters and storage tanks, many double-height to maximise the best use of their footprint. I counted fifty-six of these before I gave up.
It is immediately obvious that the winery is designed to use gravity to move the wine; this is gentle, efficient and uses little energy – no need for pumps. The winery has a huge potential capacity but also is able to vinify individual plots, enabling rigorous selection for the top wines.
Look again, this time all the way down to the third, base level. Here, five concentric rings of French oak barriques are ready to mature the top wines. In this circular barrel hall you find yourself some 25 metres underground, deep enough for constant humidity and temperature, so requiring no energy input. The walls down here are left naked, revealing the attractive brown sandstone bedrock, an admirable demonstration of terroir as well as being a design feature.
These three floors are linked centrally by an elegant yet imposing helical spiral staircase – this showpiece architecture turns Le Mortelle into a single atrium. Look up and the roof can be seen, a vast cupola made of laminated wood supported by wood and steel girders. A single central lantern aids the ingress of natural light. It is then that you notice that though most of this building is underground, the artificial lighting is minimal.
From the far side of the winery there are panoramic views over the estate through glass panes that seem to float in their thin metal frames. This area acts as the Bridge, immediately overlooking the grape reception area outside while giving a clear view of activity inside. Everything on this mothership looks as if it is ready to take off for a Close Encounter in another galaxy.
Le Mortelle also demonstrates sound environmental credentials right through the production chain, complementing the organic viticulture. As well as low energy usage, everything is designed to be carbon neutral. All wineries use large amounts of fresh water and here this is recycled naturally by phtyo-remediation, a patented process where the water is filtered through porous volcanic rock and by plants, bacteria and algae. Packaging is recyclable and those heavyweight glass bottles, still beloved of too many premium wine producers, have been consciously avoided.
I am rarely impressed by wineries and the world of flagship winery architecture has plenty of examples to jade the palate. You don’t need architecture to make wine and some of these are merely symbols of power and wealth, both extravagant and disproportionate. Instead, Le Mortelle demonstrates clarity of environmental purpose and form follows function. That it is also beautiful is a bonus. However, there is no forgetting the financial investment. The winery was designed and built by AEI Progetti of Florence between 2007 and 2009, quoting the cost at €11 million.
This project is already twelve years in the making but this is only the end of the beginning – the Le Mortelle wines are now emerging. The first wine to be released was a white wine, Vivia in 2008. It was joined by the Botrosecco red. The flagship red, Poggio alle Nane was being prepared for first release when I visited in February 2012. Can they live up to the investment and the expectation?
Vivia. IGT Maremma Toscana Bianco, 2011. 12.5%
This is a white blend of equal parts Vermentino, Ansonica and Viognier. The juice is given a slow, cool fermentation with wild yeasts and is then matured on the lees for three months in stainless steel before bottling and sale. My expectation was that the Viognier would add fat, volume and tropical notes, and so it does. However, it doesn’t dominate in this a clever blend. It is made in a bone dry style and has a good length and balance, with welcome moderate alcohol and peach and citrus fruit. On the way there’s minerals on the nose and palate and a morish salinity on the finish which will make it food friendly. Very good early drinking. Retail price in Italy is about €10.
Botrosecco. IGT Maremma Toscana Rosso, 2009. 13.5%
60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cabernet Franc. Designed to show fruit rather than any overt wood influence, in a smooth and approachable style for younger drinking. Fruit destemmed, given a cold maceration and then fermented with wild yeasts in stainless steel. Subsequent maturation in second fill barrique for 12 months. Attractive deep ruby colour. Nose has red berry fruit with hints of herbs and pencil shavings. Very good red berry expression and persistence on the palate. A smooth texture with well controlled alcohol. Opened up in the glass to show some herbal and balsamic character and an Italianate slightly bitter finish. Recognisably a Bordeaux blend but one with clear Italian character. This is the first release of the “volume” red wine of Le Mortelle, accessibly priced at under €15 retail in Italy. Very good quality at this price point. If I may borrow from Montepulciano, a kind of “Rosso” to the “Nobile” of the flagship red, Poggio alle Nane.
Poggio alle Nane. IGT Maremma Toscana Rosso, 2009. 14%
This is the wine upon whose shoulders the reputation of Le Mortelle will rest, the cru of the estate.This wine is 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon given the de luxe treatment; hand picked, fermented in stainless steel with wild yeasts, racked into predominantly new French oak barriques. After 14 months in barrel it is blended and given another 10 months aging in bottle. A much deeper ruby, the nose is a softly wafting perfume hinting at the complexity of the palate, with tobacco and herbs mixed in with red berry fruit. The palate has concentration and intensity, red berry, blackcurrant and plum fruit. There are hints of juniper and an attractive balsamic edge, both of which get stronger as the wine sits in the glass. The tannins are fine grained but still have some edges to wear off, unsurprising given this is a wine designed for further aging. Very long length, mouth filling, juicy acidity and a touch dry on the finish given the tannic backbone, but there is nothing hot given the extra alcohol. There is great potential here over at least the next 5 years, possibly longer. It needs to fill out, still a little austere and tight. Given the provenance and the Antinori icon wines it is designed to join (say Guado al Tasso from the Bolgheri, Tignanello and Solaia from Chianti-shire) I think that premium pricing will be around €50, though Antinori refused to be drawn when asked.
Will Poggio alle Nane come to the UK? I’m told eventually, but not straight away – production is too small. Will it be on sale in the USA? Here Antinori remained reticent. However, some post-visit sleuthing found that the Poggio alle Nane name was registered in the USA as a trademark in early April 2012. What will become of the Sangiovese that is planted here? Perhaps another wine will appear in time.
Will Le Mortelle join the top table of SuperTuscan wines? The potential is certainly there and over time production will expand, the vines will mature further and Le Mortelle will simply become better known. On the other hand, the southern Maremma has not yet become an Eldorado in the way the neighbouring Bolgheri did a few years back and the top table is now a much more crowded place. Overnight wine sensations seem rare these days but Poggio alle Nane has to be a contender, so this is one to watch.
The Antinori’s are here for the long term…and they have patience.
Fattoria Le Mortelle
Castiglione della Pescia (Gr)