The New York
The Pour by
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
" 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
" 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."