About 15 years ago, I interviewed the renowned wine consultant Michel Rolland, shadowing him in Bordeaux for a couple of days. Arriving in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes, the impeccably dressed, cheroot-smoking Frenchman – I said at the time – was more like an old-fashioned Mayfair physician than a winemaker. Alberto Antonini, by contrast, tends to wear jeans and an untucked shirt, and he actually looks like a winemaker. You couldn’t really imagine Rolland spending much time in the vineyard; Antonini usually looks as if he’s just stepped out of one.
I make the comparison because these two men (they are friends – Antonini has great respect for Rolland) occupy the same exalted position in the international wine world. Antonini’s list of consultancies covers wine regions from Argentinian Patagonia to his native Italy, and it includes Israel, Armenia, Crimea, California, Virginia and almost all points in between. His first degree was at the University of Florence, followed by postgraduate studies at Bordeaux and UC Davis. As soon as he graduated, in 1986, he joined the Frescobaldi group, moved on to be technical director at Tuscany’s Col d’Orcia and from there took over from Giacomo Tachis as head of winemaking at Antinori; in California he worked at Au Bon Climat, Robert Mondavi and Qupé. These days, about half of his time is spent in Italy, where he works with some 20 properties from north to south; he is also very active in South America. In 2015 a jury of his peers voted him one of the five best winemakers in the world.
On a Zoom call from Sonoma, where Antonini is visiting Seghesio Family Vineyards (one of his two consultancies in the appellation), I ask him how the job of consultant has changed over the years. I mention how American journalists used to joke that the California super-consultants of the early 2000s simply had to drive by a vineyard to imbue it with their aura and win those magic 100 points. Antonini, who is 64 and has the dry, precise, slightly academic delivery of one who knows exactly what he’s talking about, has no patience with that – he hates being called a ‘flying winemaker’, for example. ‘I don’t believe in magicians. To achieve excellence, you need a team of professionals. You need a soil specialist, you need a microbiologist, you need vineyard specialists, pruning specialists, an entomologist, market specialists… I believe in teamwork.’
Gruppo Matura, which he helped found in 1997 and which he describes as ‘an association of agronomists and winemakers’, services a huge range of clients, from multinational operations like Sogrape, Luis Felipe Edwards and Concha y Toro, to much smaller producers – the Italian list, which includes his family domain Poggiotondo in Chianti (which Antonini runs with his wife Alessandra), has far more modest properties. During the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that what fascinates him is opening up new territories. It’s not about finding more extreme terroirs, but unleashing potential. He reckons that we are using ‘only about 30%’ of the world’s prospective wine lands and grape varieties. ‘Look at the 500 native varieties in Georgia, or the 200 in Armenia. It’s crazy.’ He gets equally animated by the potential of soil: at Alkina, Argentinian billionaire businessman Alejandro Bulgheroni’s old-vine Shiraz and Grenache project in Barossa, ‘you can find pure schist and clay in one soil pit, then you go 30m and dig another pit to find schist and limestone mixed together in different layers. It’s incredible, the difference.’
Developing these new terroirs – in Chubut in Argentinian Patagonia, for example, or in Punta del Este in Uruguay, both under the patronage of Bulgheroni – is made faster with technology. What took the Burgundians 500 years of observation and experiment takes Antonini and his friend and collaborator Pedro Parra, a soil expert, a couple of seasons. They measure the electrical conductivity of the soil with a specially adapted tractor and dig soil pits to understand individual parcels. (Every serious winemaker the world over is obsessed with soil pits.) The team then classifies the vineyards as potential grand cru, premier cru or village. Antonini believes this to be the most useful shorthand for demonstrating quality – and he reckons to be right ‘in 70% of cases’.
This all sounds like an exact science, but in wine there’s always the unknown, and that’s the sweet spot for Antonini; in this, he’s lucky to have a wealthy patron like Bulgheroni, who ventured into Uruguay with Bodega Garzón, and who has commissioned Antonini and Parra to explore Chubut. Here in 2011, ‘in the southernmost vineyard in the southern hemisphere’, where the winds can reach 100km/h and penguins patter amid the vines, they planted red and white varieties, centred on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The first vintage to come to market is the 2017. ‘When I got there, I was very impressed. My adrenaline was very high because I didn’t know if it was going to be a success or not. You can try to guess, you can measure the climate and the soil, you can have all the weather data, but you never know until you plant. And this is exciting.’
I imagine that what Bulgheroni values in Antonini is his mix of scientific precision, long experience and the cool confidence of the adventurer. For many (if not all) of his clients, it’s the latter that means most: the consultant allows the client to sleep better at night. There’s the old line that the job is ‘10% winemaking and 90% psychology’. Is that still true? ‘I think it is. It’s true because the most difficult part is to help the guy to gain confidence in what they have.’
It’s important that whatever you do in life, you have the ability to evolve. I never say that I change, but I evolve
John Hamel, of Hamel Family Wines in the Moon Mountain District AVA in Sonoma, agrees. He started working with Antonini in 2018, and he finds the Italian’s ‘philosophical’ approach particularly useful. ‘He’s a very refined, cerebral, philosophical guy. He’s had a huge influence over our growth and progression to making wines of terroir. He helps you put your decisions into context. He never says, “Do this, or that”, but he’ll say, “I think we can get more depth, or vibrancy, if we think about x, y or z.”’ How important is it that he comes from an Old World tradition of winemaking? ‘It helps that he’s seen a lot of contexts, but it’s far more important that he has an open mind.’
Open-mindedness is very important to Antonini. He goes out of his way to taste with young consumers, ‘to just listen to them, to understand how they approach wine, what type of things they give importance to’. Similarly, he disdains any notion of bringing an Italian winemaking style to his clients’ wines – this would be a form of ‘colonisation’, he suggests. ‘I always try to bring my experience, my knowledge, my understanding to my clients, but I always encourage them to do their own thing.’
Surely, though, the fact that he’s Italian, Tuscan-born (his father Carlo, a teacher and beekeeper with a passion for viticulture, bought Poggiotondo in 1968), informs his style? Possibly, he concedes. ‘Italians are always a bit conservative. There’s the culture, the tradition, the structure of the family, the way you grew up, the principles you grew up with. We will never be free spirits, not 100%. The more I travel, the closer I feel to my roots.’ But travelling is also about suppressing your ego and becoming ‘more humble at the end. When you don’t travel and don’t expose yourself to other situations, you begin to feel you’re the best. Travelling and seeing and listening, you feel that you’re not the best at all. You’re just learning.’
The thirst for knowledge usually comes with a radical streak. Travel might be a journey to self-discovery but it’s also an escape, and I’m sure the innate Italian conservatism would drive him mad if he couldn’t get away. Antonini respects tradition (he loves jazz, and we digress for a minute or two into the joys of collecting vinyl), but evolution is far more important. Back in 1995, he launched Altos Los Hormigas in Mendoza and quickly saw the potential of Malbec when none of his neighbours had confidence in it. It’s not so much about breaking with tradition, but evolving: ‘It’s important that whatever you do in life, you have the ability to evolve. I never say that I change, but I evolve. It’s different, you know.’
This is why he sets so much store by listening to the younger generation. ‘They don’t see wine as something to have at every meal, like my parents did, and as I do. They see it as an experience, so they are curious, and the most unknown parts of the world, the wines with the most unknown grapes, are super-exciting for them.’ So he’s drawn to the New World, not only because of the opportunities of virgin terroirs, but also because winemakers there tend to be more advanced in terms of soil knowledge – they’re not hidebound by hundreds of years of tradition. For ‘real scientific knowledge of the site’ you need to go to ‘Argentina, to Chile, to California’.
Antonini’s like one of those explorer-scientist-philosophers of old (I can picture him in a frock coat and buckled shoes, tramping across some uncharted desert), for whom science was a tool for discovery, not a means of production. Of course, he can talk about soil types and electroconductivity till the cows come home, but he uses the word ‘exciting’ and its derivatives far more than any technician. It’s not really about wine, in the end. ‘It’s also a need to explore new places, and that’s exciting’ – that word again – ‘[the idea] that I can contribute a little to making this world a wider, more diverse and more interesting place.’