For an industry as exciting as wine there sure a lot of defections. People leave, families grow apart, and children refuse to take on the mantle handed down by their parents. It is a big problem in many parts of the world and with good reason: The world of wine can be a cruel mistress. The days are long, the work is hard, and often your entire livelihood is tied into something as unpredictable as Mother Nature. The hailstorms that devastated the vines of Alsace this summer are proof enough that the hold on profits in this industry can be as tenuous as the hold of a grape to the cluster.
So it is refreshing to find a family such as the Castagnedi family of Tenuta Sant'Antonio. Located in the hills of the Valpolicella zone of Northern Italy, just to the north of Verona and a smidge west of Lago di Garda, Tenuta Sant'Antonio is a delightful mix of old world and new. The winery prizes quality above all else and implements tradition and experience with modern technique and technology. The resulting wines are highly regarded both at home and abroad, with the credit being shared by four brothers.
Armando, Tiziano, Massimo and Paulo Castagnedi started Tenuta Sant'Antonio in the late 1980s with one foot pointed towards the past and the other to the future. At the time the wines of Valpolicella weren't as highly regarded as they are today. The wines of Italy did not have the international recognition that they enjoy now, and much of the Italian wine world was still mired in antiquated ways of thinking and production. The barrels and cellars were old. The vineyards were neglected, and winemaking was more in tune with the 19th century than the twentieth. As a result much of the wine tasted antiquated as well.
The brothers Castagnedi had spent years working as consultants on everything from vineyard management to barrel programs for the local co-op. They had learned a passion for the vine from their father Antonio who spent more than fifty years tending the vines in San Zeno di Colognola ai Colli, a sub-zone within the Valpolicella area. Even to this day many of the younger generation in Europe have decided to walk away from the world of wine, choosing instead to move to the city in search of more consistent work and better pay. But instead of drifting away from their past the Castegnadi brothers have embraced it.
And so in 1989 the four brothers purchased 30 hectares (about 75 acres) of land not far from the 20 hectares of land their father owned. From the start though, Sant'Antonio was not like other wineries. The vines were planted very close together to promote competition for the nutrients in the soil. Each branch of each vine was trained in the more modern Guyot system. Green harvesting, low yields and meticulous canopy management were the norm. New French oak barrels were employed in the winery. Only the very best grapes were used for each wine. Though these methods are common today, at the time they were quite the departure from the norm.
In 1995 the first wines were produced. Success came quickly and awards poured in from some of the most respected sources in Italy: Gambero Rosso, Duemilavini, Espresso. The list goes on and on.
And so has the success. Today Tenuta Sant'Antonio has expanded to cover 120 acres of vines at this juncture between the Soave and Valpolicella regions. The rolling hills provide high elevations for the grapes to cling to. The soil is generally very thin and high in calcium deposits, limestone and chalk- a perfect environment for growing grapes. Even the name of the region stems from the Latin root of Vallis-Polis-Cellae or "the valley with many cellars."
Each of the four brothers brings a different mindset and quality to the table, and it is in this spirit that they share in all duties at the winery. Overall the philosophy is to combine "passion, enthusiasm, business skills and experience." Another way they put it was that "Tenuta Sant'Antonio with loving dedication and sophisticated technology takes care of the manual work involved throughout the entire life of the grape, from seed to bottle." Not a bad philosophy, if you ask me.
The Castagnedi brothers work tirelessly to produce fine wines that are harmonious in nature, pure and varietally correct, no matter what grape they are sourced from. They produce a wide array of wines, mostly from the traditional varieties that have grown here for centuries.
They produce two Soaves, the first of which was the 2006 Soave which was a clean and balanced expression of the lemon, apples and almondy finish that is a hallmark of the Garganega varietal.
The 2005 Soave Monti Ceriani is sourced from vineyards located on the slopes of the mountain by the same name. The grapes are harvested at two separate times to preserve both the fresh acidity in this wine as well as the broad structure and richness. Grassy, brassy and fresh, the aromas ranged from orange peel and grapefruit to spring rain. The palate was rich, with ample citrus notes leading to a finish that crossed from marzipan to roasted almonds.
The 2001 La Bandina Valpolicella was a fantastic example of how fine a classic Valpolicella can be. Only select bunches of grapes are used, which are then air-dried Amarone-style for two to three weeks. A long fermentation and maceration follows, and then two years in classic French tonneaux. Broad, generous and open, with licorice, red fruits, baking spices and just a little oakiness to round things out. Though Amarone will always be king in this region, to overlook this style of wine would be a crime.
The 2004 Monti Garbi Valpolicella is done in the ripasso method where the wine is pumped over macerated Amarone grapes, thus starting a second, mini fermentation. Though this wine was marked by firm tannins and ample fruit, the high level of alcohol made it less appealing to me than the other wines. The grapes were sourced from the Mountain of the same name on which the winery sits.
More enjoyable was the 2002 Amarone Selezione Antonio Castagnedi which brought an accessibility and easy style to the table that is not often found in young Amarone. Aromas of dark red fruits, smoke, caramel and dried leather led to a palate that was filled with black plums, dark chocolate and spices. Though a touch oaky at this point, the chewy tannins proclaim a wine built for the cellar.
Tenuta Sant'Antonio also produces excellent Cabernet-based wines as well. The 2004 Cabernet Torre Mellotti is a great alternative to the everyday Cabernet. Fragrant and soft, with a nice mix of classic Cab cassis along with more of a perfumed note than one usually finds in this grape variety, it was also priced to sell at only $15.99.
Though I did not get a chance to taste the Cabernet Capitel del Monte, this wine sounds quite intriguing as the grapes are air dried for up to a month before they are pressed, thus concentrating all the aromas, acids, sugars and flavors- a Cabernet in the Amarone-style, if you will.
In my research for this article I stumbled across many times an underlying theme about the brothers Castagnedi and Tenuta Sant'Antonio: Despite all the successes, they remain rooted to the region and to their family. They are committed just as much to the soil, and nature, and to the grapes of both the Valpolicella and Soave regions as they are to each other. In a day and age when it is easy to take the short cut, they do everything the proper way.