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Fiorano

The New York Times

The Pour by Eric Asimov

December 22, 2004


An Italian Prince & His Magic Cellar

Once upon a time there was a prince. By most accounts he was not so much charming as eccentric. His name was Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, prince of Venosa, and his family, which can be traced back at least 1,000 years, includes two popes.

The prince lived on an estate, Fiorano, on the outskirts of Rome near the Via Appia Antica, the ancient Appian Way. There he grew wheat, raised dairy cows and made three wines, one red and two whites, from a small vineyard. The vineyard had been planted with the local grapes that make the sort of nondescript wines typical of Latium, the region centered on Rome.


But in 1946, when the prince inherited Fiorano, he replanted the vineyard with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, long before these Bordeaux grapes became familiar in Italy, and malvasia and sémillon. The prince practiced organic agriculture in an era when others embraced chemical sprays. He kept his yields ridiculously low, resulting in minute quantities of intense, concentrated wines, and he did not filter them. He aged the wine in large numbered barrels, which he reused year after year. A fine white mold grew naturally in his cellar, covering the barrels and the bottles that he stored in neat stacks. The prince did nothing to remove it; he believed it was beneficial.

Few people knew of the wines, but their reputation was excellent.

" The greatness of Fiorano is a secret shared by a few," wrote Burton Anderson in "Vino," his 1980 guide to Italian wine.


The red made the most profound impression. Italian white wines were thought to be inconsequential, and few paid attention to the prince's whites, though Mr. Anderson called the sémillon "the most refined wine of its type and a rarity in Italy."


One who was in on the Fiorano secret was Luigi Veronelli, a leading Italian wine writer who regularly rhapsodized about the wines. He liked the reds well enough, comparing them to Sassicaia, the Tuscan Bordeaux blend that became famous in the 1970's. But he loved the whites. He was among the first to note their potential for aging, and he bemoaned their scarcity. "To obtain his cru is practically impossible," Mr. Veronelli once wrote. "If I lived in Rome, I’d beg for them at the prince's door every morning."


By all reports the prince was strong-willed and stubborn. He was elusive and rarely spoke to business associates. Mr. Anderson said he never met him. Neil Empson, who exported Fiorano wines to the United States in the 1970's, also never met him or saw the winery. He dealt only with a secretary.

" He was a rather strange person to do business with," Mr. Empson said in a telephone interview. "You had to pay him when you made the order, and he would ship whatever he wanted to ship, not what you ordered."

Mr. Empson said this caused him to stop doing business with the prince, and eventually he lost track of the wines. The aging prince continued to make his wines until 1995, although he had stopped selling the bottles. After the '95 harvest he pulled out all the vines in his vineyard, except for a small plot of cabernet and merlot. He offered no explanation, and at the time none was asked.


The prince is now 86 years old, in ill health and living in a hotel in Rome. He had one child, Francesca, who married Piero Antinori, the eminent Tuscan winemaker, at the Fiorano estate in 1966. Mr. Antinori suggests today that the prince was unable to bear the thought of anybody else making his wines when he could no longer do it.


" He is so in love with this estate, and when you are very much in love, you are also a bit jealous," Mr. Antinori said by phone. "When he was not able to do it himself in the old way, probably he preferred to give up."


And so the vineyards lie fallow. And 14,000 bottles remained in the prince's cellar, slowly becoming engulfed by the white mold, until 2000, when Mr. Veronelli, seeking to publicize some Roman wines in connection with a bicycle race, sought an audience with the prince. It was then, Mr. Veronelli said, that he learned of the destruction of the vines.


Mr. Veronelli requested a sample of one of the remaining bottles and sent an emissary, Filippo Polidori, a restaurateur and television personality, to pick it up. After being kept waiting for 90 minutes, Mr. Polidori said at the tasting in Rome, a secretary told him that Mr. Veronelli could not have one bottle, but he could have all 14,000 — 9,500 of the malvasia and 4,500 of the sémillon — if he could disperse them properly.


Mr. Polidori said the prince wanted the bottles to be treated as a legacy, and not consumed right away. But first the bottles, mostly from the 1985 to '95 vintages, which had lain untended in the cellar for years, needed to be cleaned and cataloged. It took two people almost a year to complete the task.


Mr. Veronelli and Mr. Polidori then held a series of tastings, looking for the right people to disperse the wines. They eventually settled on three: Andrea Carelli, an Italian wine broker, who would handle the European and Asian markets; Paolo Domeneghetti, an importer in New York, who will handle American restaurant sales; and Sergio Esposito, managing partner of Italian Wine Merchants near Union Square, who will handle American retail sales.

Mr. Esposito, who was invited to a tasting, said he had never heard of the wines, and could only find vague references in old catalogs. "At the tasting I was completely overtaken by the wines and fell in love with them," he said. "To me, they are treasures. They're wines made from grapes that nobody knew could make wines like that. They had no history. It was one person's devotion."

Highlights from the Rome tasting stand out: a 1982 malvasia with flavors of apples, minerals and pears; a 1980 sémillon that tasted of hazelnuts and wax and seemed impossibly young. As the wines aged, the youthful acidity seemed to give way to mineral, earthy flavors. Yet unaccountably, in contrast to most white wines, which get darker with age, the golden colors of the young wines turned pale as they got older. How to explain this?


Mr. Esposito suggests that the prince was correct about the white mold. "He was so in tune with his surroundings that he had confidence the mold was O.K.," he said. "I think it was much like how blue cheese was discovered. It's blue and you're eating it and it's O.K."


Mr. Esposito said he plans to sell his allocation slowly over the course of five years, aiming for collectors who allow them to age. He is also planning to hold back bottles from each vintage for charity tastings. "I want to participate in these tastings for the next 20 or 30 years and see how they develop," he said.


As much as these wines are a legacy of the prince, they are too a legacy of Mr. Veronelli, who died in November at 78. Of these wines, which will never be produced again, he wrote, "They enchant you with the first taste, burrow in your memory and make you forever better."

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Fiorano No. 25 Bianco 1993 750ml Fiorano No. 26 Bianco 1992 750ml
Price: $124.00
Price: $124.00
Fiorano No. 25 Bianco 1993 Fiorano No. 26 Bianco 1992
Fiorano No. 26 Bianco 1994 750ml Fiorano No. 32 Bianco 1993 750ml
Price: $124.00
Price: $124.00
Fiorano No. 26 Bianco 1994 Fiorano No. 32 Bianco 1993
Fiorano No. 32 Bianco 1995, 750ml Fiorano No. 44 Bianco 1994 750ml
Price: $124.00
Price: $124.00
Fiorano No. 32 Bianco 1995 Fiorano No. 44 Bianco 1994
Fiorano No. 45 Bianco 1995, 750ml Fiorano No. 47 Bianco 1992 750ml
Price: $124.00
Price: $124.00
Fiorano No. 45 Bianco 1995 Fiorano No. 47 Bianco 1992
Fiorano No. 47 Semillon 1994, 750ml Fiorano No. 48 Semillon 1995 750ml
Price: $124.00
Price: $124.00
Fiorano No. 47 Semillon 1994 Fiorano No. 48 Semillon 1995
Fiorano No. 39 Semillon 1985, 750ml Fiorano No. 42 Semillon 1987, 750ml
Price: $149.00
Price: $149.00
Fiorano No. 39 Semillon 1985 Fiorano No. 42 Semillon 1987
Fiorano No. 48 Semillon 1987, 750ml Fiorano No. 22 Semillon 1993, 750ml
Price: $149.00
Price: $149.00
Fiorano No. 48 Semillon 1987 Fiorano No. 22 Semillon 1993
Fiorano No. 47 Semillon 1988 750ml
Price: $149.00
Fiorano No. 47 Semillon 1988
   
 
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