Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi: A History of Innovation

by Jeff Harding with Will Blunt, photos by Autumn Stein and Marchesi de' Frescobaldi
August, 2012

With 700 years (that's 30 generations) of winemaking experience, and clients including King Henry VIII, the artist Donatello, and numerous popes, you'd think that the Frescobaldi family might be content with just passing the torch to a new generation. But with a tradition of historic primi, Marchesi de' Frescobaldi embraces their past and continues to place an emphasis on innovation and quality.

Back in 1716, the family's vineyards in Pomino were named as one of the four most respected wine areas in Tuscany in a proclamation by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. (Remember, the Bordeaux Grand Cru classification wasn't developed until 1855.)

The family also built the first cellar in Italy that used a gravity system in 1894. And the construction orders came at the insistence of the Signora Marchesa Leonia Frescobaldi—which was historic in its own way since women weren't traditionally involved in Old World wine production until the late 20th century.

Leonardo Frescobaldi, president of the company, explains the history, values, and mission of the Marchesi de' Frescobaldi, and the typicity and character of their wines, due to the unique terroir of the vineyards.

Cultivating Change

In 1855, the Marchese Vittorio degli Albizzi, ancestor of the Frescobaldi family, rocked the boat in Pomino by planting early-ripening grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Albizzi had inherited the properties in Tuscany from the Florentine branch of the family, and upon visiting the region found the perfect conditions for grapes from his native Burgundy.

Lamberto Frescobaldi, current Vice President and Director of Production, explains that although much further south than Burgundy, the altitude of Pomino provides such a cool climate that hardly anyone has an air conditioner in the region. (Pomino comes from the Latin word for apple, pomo, only grown in cool climates.) And of his ancestor, Senore Frescobaldi told us, "He was not happy with the local variety of grape. It was not a question of tradition but of making good wine."

Also in 1855, degli Albizzi planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot in Nipozzano, whose diverse soils are ideally suited for these grapes. The Mormoreto IGT is the finest expression of this estate, which has been producing what we now call Super Tuscan wine more than 100 years before the term was coined in the 1970s. The 2007 vintage is considered to be the greatest wine of the estate.

Ups and Downs

Although the international varietals are still produced, an economic downturn in the first half of the 20th century in Italy spurred a change in focus to production of more traditional grapes like Sangiovese, Trebbiano, and Vermentino. These hardier grapes are less expensive to grow and produce more fruit than the international varieties.

Evolving with the times continued with Vittorio Frescobaldi's turn at the helm in the 1960s. Specialized vineyards dedicated to high-quality grapes and a search for the best-suited terroir resulted in more than 500 hectares of new vineyards. Lamberto Frescobaldi continues this pursuit of great wine, refining cellar techniques, judicious trimming and trellising, and sometimes cutting back production to achieve the best grapes possible.

Ornellaia and Mondavi

Another first for the family was its relationship with Robert Mondavi. A partnership between the two international wine producers, the first in Italy, combined their resources and talents to produce Luce della Vite in 1995. This Super Tuscan blend is generally 50 percent Merlot and 50 percent Sangiovese, from the some of the best vineyards in Montalcino. Today the winemaking is solely the responsibility of Lamberto Frescobaldi, but the Mondavi clan still has a financial interest.

In 2002, the Frescobaldi family joined Mondavi in purchasing 50 percent of the famed Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, and in 2005 gained full shareholder control over the estate. Ornellaia still independently produces the wine, but takes advantage of Frescobaldi's distribution system.

Sustainable and Tourist Friendly

Better known for it's cattle than for wine, the Maremma region in the southern tip of Tuscany is the site of the latest innovation from the Frescobaldi family. Tenuta dell' Ammiraglia was designed by famed architects Piero Sartogo and Nathalie Grenon, and officially opened in 2011. This stunning winery is completely sustainable and was built with materials extracted during the excavation. A pond of catchwater uses rainfall for irrigation when necessary, native plants and trees complete the landscape, and the roof incorporates vegetation to keep the cellar and winery cool. Designed to follow the lines of the landscape, the cellar and tasting room seem to disappear from the hillside from certain vantage points.

For many Old World wineries, opening to the public is often an afterthought, with tastings held in quiet cellars. Marchesi de' Frescobaldi wanted to change that, especially after commissioning a review of tourism trends that revealed the importance of gastronomy to the region's visitors. Ammiraglia, whose wines will be available in the United States later this year, is one of the first oeno-tourist-friendly cellars in Italy and well on its way to becoming one of the most popular wine destinations in Tuscany.

Nipozzano Countryside

Nipozzano Countryside

Facebook and Beyond

Long on history, the Frescobaldi family appreciates the need to stay relevant. But moving with the times does not mean ignoring the vines, or letting quality slip. Taking advantage of technology doesn't end in the field, either.

With a significant presence on the web and in social media, Frescobaldi continues innovating into the 21st century. Their website is both interactive and engaging in contrast with many European wineries that don't have a web presence except in reviews. Thriving communities on Facebook and Twitter, Youtube video tastings and tours, Flickr image galleries, and a Facebook app, Wine Emotions are all evidence of a historic Tuscan family with a firm grasp on the future.

Lamberto Frescobaldi's main goal, though, is producing the finest wines possible and honoring the historic region. He tells us, "Having a number of estates [to oversee], I never have a heavy hand in winemaking. I plant and develop wines to recognize the place where it's from, and I don't like over-mature fruit, long maceration, or much pump over. [The wines should] retain the character of the soil and the place, so I am discreet in management of the vines and the cellar."

In other words, he lets the land speak for itself, through the wines. And with 700 years of history, this land has a lot to say.