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La Vita Frescobaldi

For 30 generations, the Frescobaldis of Florence have been making some of the world’s finest wines. Martin Filler reports from Tuscany on Italy’s still dynamic dynasty.

One night in Florence last April, dinner had just ended at Palazzo Frescobaldi, a huge stone Renaissance complex in the city’s Oltrarno ("Across the Arno") section, home for centuries to Italy’s most venerable winemaking dynasty. We repaired to the library in the vast apartment of Marchese Vittorio Frescobaldi, the 78-year-old head of the clan and president of the family business, Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi.

The room’s glowing paneling was hung with paintings by Old Masters, and scattered about were framed snapshots—of the marchese’s brother with Bill Clinton, and of Marchesa Bona, Vittorio’s internationally sociable wife, with Mikhail Gorbachev. As we sank into velvet sofas the size of aircraft carriers, conversation turned to the man once deemed the uncrowned king of Italy, the late Gianni Agnelli.

What a pity, we agreed, about the downfall of Fiat, the onetime automotive giant founded by Agnelli’s grandfather, and worse yet, about the human tragedy of the once envied family itself, which within just four generations rose and declined in a parabola reminiscent of that in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. But to Marchese Vittorio, this reversal of fortune seemed less a matter of cruel fate than wanton neglect of the most basic business principle. "The trouble with Gianni," Frescobaldi said, "is that he fell out of love with his product. After a while he was no longer interested in making automobiles but only in making deals, moving money from here to there. That was his biggest mistake."

Forget factors perhaps beyond Agnelli’s control, from globalization to demographics. It’s easy to understand why Frescobaldi, present patriarch of Italian winemaking, sees complex developments in simple terms, because over the past 700 years neither he nor the 28 preceding generations of Frescobaldis took their eye off the vine.

True, his ancestors did more than stomp grapes. During the Renaissance, the Frescobaldis were the major financiers to the kings of England. Henry VIII signed receipts for their wine, which no doubt was poured at some of his six wed- ding banquets. Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I recommended the Frescobaldis to the Pope. And they weren’t lacking in culture either. The 17th-century composer and organist Girolamo Frescobaldi has been called "the world’s first superstar virtuoso."

Such history cannot help but give a family uncommon perspective. Yet no dynasty can prosper as long as the Frescobaldis have without adapting to changing times. "Yes, we have a story that sets us apart from all the others," acknowledges Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi, Vittorio’s 43-year-old son and the firm’s director of viticulture and oenology. "But that is not enough in today’s world. We must be constantly improving and expanding without compromising what makes us unique."

The road the family has charted for their future can seem like a tightrope. In Jonathan Nossiter’s contro- versial 2004 documentary Mondovino, Lamberto’s uncle Leonardo, vice president of sales and marketing, personifies that sometimes uneasy balancing act. Leonardo is depicted as something of a stalking horse in the deal his firm brokered to buy one of Italy’s most prestigious wine estates, Ornellaia. The Frescobaldis’ less visible partner was Michael Mondavi, of the legendary American winemaking clan, with whom they joined forces in 1995 to create Luce della Vite, a new Tuscan blend with broader international appeal than the traditional Italian cuvées.

Mondovino suggests that rampant globalization is prompting vintners everywhere to change the style of their wines to conform to the tastes of such powerful arbiters as Robert M. Parker, who goes for big, fruity reds. High ratings from him and other critics boost sales. When Wine Spectator lauded Ornellaia’s 2001 Masseto, its price quickly quadrupled.

"There is no question that we must take into account tremendous international competition," says Lamberto Frescobaldi. "There is too much wine being made in too many places and not everyone will survive. But there will always be a market for the best, and that is why we are never satisfied and keep pushing and pushing to raise our standards all the time."

The flagship Frescobaldi cuvée, Brunello di Montalcino Castelgiocondo Riserva, un-questionably ranks among the finest Italian wines. Its dark purple-red hue promises—and delivers—a concentration and depth of flavor equal to the premiers crus of Bordeaux. But like those top clarets, Castelgiocondo is also very tannic and thus takes years before it is ready to drink. Today’s consumers, even high-end connoisseurs, don’t always have the patience to cellar bottles for a decade, as many reds require. They want wines they can drink right away, and to some extent Luce della Vite was con- ceived to counterbalance the Frescobaldis’ sublime but slow-to- mature classics.

All told, Frescobaldi cultivates 2,500 acres of vineyards on nine estates in various regions of Italy (mainly in the hills around Florence and Siena) and produces almost eight million bottles annually, making it one of the biggest winemak- ing businesses in Europe, on a par with Mouton-Rothschild, whose diversified class-to-mass business model Frescobaldi closely resembles. Apart from its wines, one of the best-selling products is Laudemio olive oil, the superpremium brand made on a consortium basis by several of Italy’s best vintners, as olive trees share an ecological affinity with grapevines and have been grown in close proximity for ages.

Laudemio, adhering to the strictest standards in an industry regularly plagued by fraudulent labeling and adulteration scandals, is produced from olives harvested and pressed on the same day to guarantee maximum freshness. And to prevent the bottles from being recycled with inferior oil, the group commissioned an ingeniously engineered spout that cannot be refilled.

Only about 35 percent of Frescobaldi’s wine output remains in Italy; the rest is exported to more than 65 countries. The company’s labels have not been easy to find at retail in the United States. Marketing here has focused instead on top-tier restaurants, a number of which have made strong commitments to Frescobaldi—and not just expected venues like Babbo in New York, an incomparable trove of Italy’s best wines. At Ristorante Bartolotta in the unlikely outpost of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, an $85-a-head tasting dinner showcasing Frescobaldi was a sellout this September.

When I met Lamberto in the spring to tour the wine estates, my first impression of him was how astoundingly he embodies both his family’s past and future. On one hand he is the living image of Teglia Frescobaldi, an ancestor painted by Lorenzo Lippi in 1655. On the other, when he bounded out of his gray Volkswagen Passat station wagon wearing a gray quilted vest, checked shirt, khakis, and Timberlands, he looked more like an English gentleman farmer, with his thinning blond hair and fair complexion. But his courtliness, cultivation, and warmth confirm my belief that the Italian aristocracy can make British nobility—even royalty—seem like parvenu boors.

As his VW chugged up the hillside to-ward Castello di Nipozzano, the Frescobaldi spread located northeast of Florence, Lamberto pointed out the substantial stone farmhouse where he spent much of his boyhood. Was he pressured to take up the family profession? I asked. "No, my par-ents were very nice about that," he replied. "There was never any pressure. But you do have a sense of the family—a lot—and from the time I was thirteen, fourteen years old, I knew this is what I would do."

In modern times, such once automatic dynastic successions are not taken for granted so Marchese Vittorio was understandably re-lieved by young Lamberto’s decision. But as a family friend told the father: "You are very lucky that your son is as you wanted. But it’s not because of you, it’s because of the way he is." Aware of the advanced winemaking techniques being taught in America, Lamberto studied agricultural science and management at the University of California at Davis, the country’s—some say the world’s—top viticultural program.

The Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi is a family affair that reminds you the word "nepotism" comes from the Italian nipote (nephew), referring to the ancient tradition of the popes who, lacking direct descendants (or legitimate ones, anyway), promoted their brothers’ sons. Lamberto’s scholarly uncle Dino traces the clan’s rich history in The Frescobaldi: A Florentine Family, which also illustrates their impressive art collection, including Simone Martini’s St. Catherine, a Gothic-framed gold-ground masterpiece circa 1315 that would be the envy of any museum in the world.

The family’s solidarity is reinforced by their unusual housing arrangements: Most of them live in the Palazzo Frescobaldi, which, in the noble Florentine tradition, also incorporates their place of business and house of worship. The Frescobaldi "chapel" is actually the Church of Santo Spirito, built between 1444 and 1481. "Ah, you are interested in architecture!" says Lamberto when my eyes brighten at a connection I had never suspected. "Then perhaps you have heard of our chapel’s architect? His name was Brunelleschi."

The rear of the Santo Spirito forms one side of the enormous inner courtyard— a private park, really—at the core of the palazzo. It’s a refuge so verdant and silent that you forget you’re only a few yards away from deafening traffic. "We don’t really feel we need our own country house," says Marchesa Eleonora, Lamberto’s beautiful blonde wife and mother of their two small sons and one daughter. "The children can run around here safely, and when the doors are closed to pedestrians on the weekend we have it all to ourselves."

Because the Frescobaldis donated the land for and partially financed the construction of Santo Spirito, they enjoy extraordinary privileges. Only their children can be married in the sanctuary, which a Frescobaldi bride or groom enters through the portal in the courtyard. A rarer benefice is the family’s private screened loggia overlooking the interior of the church. A kind of holy skybox, this secluded vantage point allows them to attend Mass without the bother of leaving home.

Family members occupy flats the size of mansions and interact as much or as little as they choose. Meeting several of them over drinks before dinner, I found them genuinely cordial. Though the majestic proportions of their various apartments are similar, each one displays the distinctive style of its tenants.

Marchese Vittorio and Marchesa Bona’s interiors are classic gran lusso in the Rothschild–Agnelli manner: unapologetically sumptuous and seductively comfortable. The spirit of Marchese Lamberto and Marchesa Eleonora’s quarters is much different, even though in the foyer you are greeted by a large Della Robbia ceramic plaque of the Frescobaldi coat of arms (discovered by Marchesa Bona in an antiques shop in Fiesole during the eighties). In contrast, the young couple’s art collection is boldly contemporary, with superb paintings by Francesco Clemente, Jannis Kounellis, and David Salle, among many others. Most touching of all is a large watercolor by Alighiero e Boetti, an art world cult figure since his death in 1994 and such a good friend of the family that this wedding gift to Eleonora and Lamberto combines the letters of their names mostly in radiant orange and yellow.

The couple’s keen eye for contempo-rary art reminds you that the Frescobaldis have always been innovators. In 1863 Angiolo Frescobaldi, Lamberto’s great-great-grandfather, married the heiress of another aristocratic Florentine wine family, the Albizis. Angiolo’s new brother-in-law had recently become the first grower to introduce foreign grape varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot—to Tuscany, where Sangiovese had always reigned supreme along with Malvasia and Trebbiano. The estates that his sister brought into the Frescobaldis’ holdings after his early death, among them Castello di Pomino and Castello di Nipozzano, encouraged the development of blended wines with more character and finesse than most single-variety crus.

Thus their Mondavi collaboration, Luce della Vite, is both an echo of that pioneering tradition as well as a departure from it. For the first time Luce combined the structured stateliness of Sangiovese with the plummy softness of Merlot. The result is a powerful but decidedly modern red that nonetheless retains the unmistakable characteristics of Tuscan tradition.

"Every generation has to express itself," Lamberto insisted to me, "but also to add something. You have to look ahead but also to the past—not to feel nostalgia but to learn from it.

"It is a great responsibility, of course," he continued. "But we are well prepared to face the challenges of the future. Frescobaldi makes wines that are not only good but also tell a story—the feelings and emotions that go beyond the everyday and remind us we do not eat and drink only to survive but also for the pleasure of it."

Martin Filler wrote about Piero Fornasetti in the September issue.

Vino Divino: A Frescobaldi Mosaic

Among the many offerings from the nine Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi wine estates throughout Italy—and the various crus produced by each—here is a selection of their most outstanding output of the last decade, all of which are available at retail or online.

1997 Frescobaldi Brunello di Montalcino CastelGiocondo Riserva In an epic year throughout Italy, this Brunello—made on the Castel Giocondo estate near Siena, acquired by Frescobaldi in 1989—is a majestic exemplar of the vintage. It’s a big, dense, dark blockbuster, with hints of bing cherry and anise and a long, flourishing finish. $110 for a magnum

1997 Luce della Vite A joint venture between Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi be-gun in 1995, this was the first Montalcino wine to blend Sangiovese with Merlot. It took a few years to work out the kinks, but by the miracle vintage of ’97, the stars were in perfect alignment. This 50-50 mix is sheer magic, and makes for stupendous drinking right now. $80

1999 Frescobaldi Giramonte The Tenuta di Castiglioni property, southwest of Florence, makes four wines, among which this rare, single-vineyard cru is exceptional. Produced in small quantities, it’s a gorgeously well-rounded Sangiovese, expressing the clay-rich terroir of the estate with stunning immediacy, especially in this outstanding vintage. $75

1999 Frescobaldi Merlot Lamaione Another gem of the Castel Giocondo estate, this Super-Tuscan is 100 percent Merlot grown in the eponymous vineyard. The combination of warm, dry climate, clay soil, and proximity to cooling sea breezes adds up to rich, complex, architecturally structured wines, of which this one-grape wonder is a paragon. $60

2001 Luce della Vite Another Super-Tuscan hit from the Frescobaldi-Mondavi collaboration, this half-and-half Merlot–Sangiovese blend is as deeply purple as it is alcoholic—a heady 14.5 percent. More overwhelming than most Frescobaldi crus, it is better savored as a wine in its own right with nuts or cheese than as a food wine. $80

2001 Chianti Rufina Montesodi This single-vineyard wine is produced on the Nipozzano estate northeast of Florence; although the family pioneered the introduction of new grape varieties to Tuscany in the 19th century, the old-style 100 percent Sangiovese is a welcome exception. Spicy and tannic, it could take a few more years in the cellar. $45

2002 Chianti Rufina Castello di Nipozzano Riserva This not-to-be-missed bargain makes an ideal introduction to the Frescobaldi style: elegant, full-bodied but smooth, and deeply saturated with fruit backed up with good tannin. Wine Spectator justly named it a wine of the year, yet it’s still widely available. $20