The Feud Over Italy’s Most Mysterious Wine Estate

The Fiorano wines, created by the eccentric Prince Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, have been elevated to near mythical status in the wine world. Now, nearly a decade after his death, his estate and legacy are at the center of a complicated family feud.

It’s hard not to contemplate the notions of death, myth and legacy while approaching Tenuta di Fiorano, a sprawling noble estate southeast of Rome and bordered by the Via Appia Antica. The ancient consular road, which stretches 350 miles from central Rome to the Adriatic port of Brindisi, was prime funeral real estate during the Republic and Empire. Powerful families invested huge sums in mausoleums that showcased their achievements and perpetuated their own mythology for posterity. Just mere yards from the Via Appia Antica’s basalt pavement and crumbling funerary ruins sprawls the former estate of the late, legendary winemaker and papal descendant, Prince Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi.

His land, which encompassed hundreds of acres of farmland, vineyards, buildings, olive groves and quarries, is now divided among several owners, including two rivaling relatives, both of whom claim to be fulfilling Prince Alberico’s enological legacy through their own vineyards, Tenuta di Fiorano and Fattoria di Fiorano.

Prince Alberico inherited the estate from his father in 1946. He began making wine there under the guidance of a nearby winemaker, Dr. Giuseppe Palieri, and replaced the existing local grape varieties with cabernet, merlot, malvasia di candia and semillon. For five decades, the Prince and his team of local farmers produced stunning, age-worthy wines in a region known for its conventional (some would even say undrinkable) swill.

The wines of Fiorano were made with a deep reverence for nature. The Prince eschewed chemical fertilizers and planted based on lunar cycles. He insisted on low yields, relied on indigenous yeasts for fermentation, left his wines unfiltered, aged them in large old barrels and embraced the pillowy white mold that naturally grew in his cellar.

During his five decades as a winemaker, Prince Alberico made wines that he himself wanted to drink, and though they remained obscure to most, they garnered a cult following.

His whites, with their complexity and minerality, were suitable for long periods of aging and raised the profile for their genre across Italy and beyond. He saw these wines as his legacy and jealously guarded them during his lifetime. Even when they were available—today they have nearly vanished from the market—the Prince shunned distributors, insisting that customers come to his estate to purchase the wines in a building called “L’Amministrazione”—the office building.

Of course, the historic Fiorano wines can never be replicated. The land—and even a few old vines—might be the same, but for reasons that are both tangible (a changing climate) and intangible (the spirit of Alberico’s winemaking), the magical, mythical Fiorano cannot be reproduced. But as long as Fiorano is being evoked by two vineyards, the lovers of those old wines have the right to decide which more faithfully mirrors the Prince’s approach.

The name hardly seemed fitting as the structure near the corner of Via Appia Antica and Via di Fioranello was centuries old and the entrance was topped with the Prince’s noble coat of arms. Once inside, clients would conduct the transaction through a secretary who would only accept exact change. Bottles were brought up from the cellar below, dusted off and labeled to order.

On a recent visit to Tenuta di Fiorano, I visited the infamous room where so many eager buyers had patiently awaited the Prince’s wines. Today, boxes of Tenuta di Fiorano’s wines are stacked on the tables inside the room. The Tenuta, the vineyard of Prince Alberico’s heir and cousin, Prince Alessandrojacopo Boncompagni Ludovisi, uses the same office building and cellars Alberico used, which are maintained in the same state in which he left them. In the fields below, the same farmers who aided in Alberico’s harvest now guide Alessandrojacopo’s plantings, prunings and harvests. It would seem Alberico’s legacy is intact.

But the progression between Alberico’s and Alessandrojacopo’s vineyards wasn’t seamless. After the 1995 harvest, Alberico tore out nearly all his vines, citing poor health and advanced age. But others, including Alessandrojacopo, acknowledge the motivation was likely linked to legacy. “He tore the vines out because he didn’t think anyone could continue his work,” explained the Prince at his home at Tenuta di Fiorano.

But after a change of heart, Alberico reconsidered and from the hotel room where he would live out his final years, he counseled his younger cousin, who had purchased plots of land around the historic vineyard between 1999-2004. At Alberico’s behest, Alessandrojacopo planted grechetto and viognier, as well as merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Following his older cousin’s methods, Alessandrojacopo began bottling and selling his own wines under the label Tenuta di Fiorano. Though still young, the wines show great promise and are made in the methods and spirit of Alberico’s historic wines.

But the story of Fiorano hardly ends here. Just across Via di Fioranello, a meandering country lane, Prince Alberico’s granddaughters—Albiera, Allegra and Alessia Antinori—have begun making wine on their organic farm, Fattoria di Fiorano. The property’s immaculate cellar and its fragrant new barrels, stylish restaurant and neatly planted garden seem at odds with their grandfather’s anti-commercial approach to wine. Yet a parade of well-placed articles in the Italian media have already declared that the Antinori’s new vineyard is the reincarnation of their grandfather’s mythical vineyard.

But both his actions and own words suggest he didn’t intend for the Antinori’s modern and commercial approach to winemaking to enter his estate in the first place. In a 2001 interview with Luigi Veronelli, Prince Alberico said, “My three granddaughters [Albiera, Allegra, and Alessia] have inherited their interest in wine not from me but from their father Piero [Antinori], an eminent producer of fine wine.” That same year, the Prince was assisting the development of Alessandrojacopo’s vineyard across the street.

Though Prince Alberico isn’t around to speak for himself, Alessandrojacopo and Alessia have plenty to say about their competing estates. Alessia, who characterizes Alessandrojacopo as a “far-away cousin,” says she is in talks to merge the two wineries under a single Bordeaux-style label depicting the Antinori’s Appia Antica villa, a claim that is vehemently denied by the Tenuta di Fiorano camp. Exacerbating the apparent tension is the arrival of Fattoria di Fiorano’s wine Fioranello, a ready-to-drink blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. But the name, “Fioranello,” happens to be registered already to Alessandrojacopo and it is also the name of an existing wine made by his Tenuta di Fiorano.

There is clearly a lot to gain from the Fiorano name, and what seems like deliberate brand confusion on the part of Fattoria di Fiorano begs the question of whether or not Prince Alberico’s legacy is being exploited for commercial gain without actually fulfilling the promise of Fiorano’s name.

It’s true that trying to replicate the wines is futile. The land—and even a few old vines—might be the same, but for reasons that are both tangible (a changing climate) and intangible (the spirit of Alberico’s winemaking), the magical, mythical Fiorano will never be the same. But as long as Fiorano is being evoked by two vineyards, the lovers of those old wines have the right to decide which more faithfully mirrors the Prince’s approach. And while it will be decades before we can properly judge the wines of both estates, standing outside “L’Aministrazione” at Tenuta di Fiorano, just steps from the Prince’s rock-hewn cellar where his former staff continues to work, his legacy felt safe.