There is a rather good description of what is now the Capezzana estate in the legal document of 803. And no, that is not a typo, we are talking about the early ninth century. In the document, Dardano, who describes himself as ‘venerable priest …. guardian of the Church of the Most Holy Peter in this city of Pistoia’, grants the leasehold to a certain Martin, son of the late John. He describes the property as:
a house and part of the property of the same Church in a place called Capezzana, which was inhabited by the farmer Petruccio, with the house and its buildings and land, the courtyard, the gardens, the vineyards, the woods, the olive groves, the cultivated and uncultivated fields.
The document sets out the terms of the deal. In return for the use of the property, Martin must give back in rent half the wine and olives, pay the duties and, intriguingly, when the acorns are good, a pig of a certain value. If the acorns are not good, an animal of a quarter of the value will do. On this basis, Martin was never going to be rich but he could have had a decent living.
For today’s visitor, 1200 years later, the Villa Capezzana appears to have everything: the villa with Renaissance origins and very hospitable owners; a history which goes back long before the document of 803 to Etruscan times; the commendation by Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1716 as being one of the four best areas for wine growing in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany; 80 plus hectares of vineyards on the rolling hills north west of Florence and south of Pistoia and Prato; the splendid old house with spectacular cellars and tunnels; fine wine ageing in those cellars for decades; a great kitchen with a cooking school; and the recent development of an agriturismo for visitors.
But from the family’s point of view, Carmignano is the smallest quality designated wine area (DOCG) in Italy with a handful of producers. It has none of the instant recognition in the market which comes with the name of a Chianti, a Montalcino or a Bolgheri. For some of the family, despite its proximity, Florence is a world away. All in all, with regard to the wine, they are very aware that if you are going to continue to succeed you need wines of real quality and distinctive character and the brand name will have to be that of the Villa itself. Four brothers/sisters of the current generation of Contini Bonacossi work here – Vittorio, in the vineyards, describes his job quite simply as ‘grapes’; Benedetta, equally straightforwardly, makes wine; Beatrice promotes the wines effectively and tirelessly, and Filippo, whom we didn’t meet.
The only place to start is in the vineyards. The Villa Capezzana’s holdings are in a favourable setting, 200 metres above sea level, lower than much of nearby Chianti. The climate is rather warmer, with grapes ripening up to two weeks ahead of Chianti, but there is still the benefit of cooling breezes from the much higher Apennines. Vittorio’s interest in the vineyards is endless – the varieties are discussed liked much loved children - their strengths praised, their weaknesses carefully dealt with. The machines are a constant source of frustration. Of one recently acquired expensive spraying machine, he says that it would have been better to spend the money on a Ferrari because at least there would have been some fun in that – despite all its computerised sophistication, it seems to spend more time awaiting repair than in use. Even the stones in the vineyard are a problem. The tractor with the ploughing attachment shown above have just had a tine replaced before setting off on its maiden row. But through persistence he and his workers will get the job done.
Vittorio is an expert tutor in grape identification and in diseases . For the sake of its centrality in the history of white wine making in Tuscany, Trebbiano is first in line. Here it is showing off its magnificent productivity. Usually it’s been made into a rather dull table wine, and it’s not difficult to see why it was the peasant’s favourite: robust, covered with bunches, healthy, undemanding. Here it produces not one but two outstanding wines, but more of that later.
Next up is identifying the variety from the leaves. The easy one is the Tuscan blender, Cannaiolo with its unusual felting on the back of its leaves, far right. The other two are Sangiovese (left) and the import from Abruzzo, Montepulciano (the grape variety, not the Tuscan city; centre), increasingly valued in Tuscany for its long growing season, outstanding colour and dense plummy fruit.
Finally, we get an introduction to the diseases around at this time of year. There is nothing on a large scale but there is some unwelcome Botrytis attacking a few bunches of Chardonnay and some signs of peronospera. So small a problem is probably not going to be any threat to the ripening grapes. But vigilance is all.
But for the most part the vines are very healthy with the reds just beginning to change colour. The leader of the pack is the Syrah, while the long ripening Montepulciano, which in the end will be a dark purply red, is still decidedly green. Further south in the warmer Maremma, the Syrah has already turned and the Sangiovese is on the turn too.
The unusual feature of the Carmignano area is the longstanding presence of Cabernet Sauvignon in the area. Tuscan reds are overwhelmingly made from Sangiovese with a supporting cast of Cannaiolo, Ciliegiolo, Colorino, Mammolo (all local grapes) or Alicante, a Tuscan version of Grenache which has been around long enough almost to be regarded as indigenous. The Super Tuscan phenomenon of the 1970s on – Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Tignanello – changed both the aspiration of growers and the grape varieties grown. Suddenly, ordinary growers, not just a few big estates, started to aim for quality, not quantity; and, alongside the local varieties, French accents were to be heard everywhere: Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and latterly, Syrah and the varieties of the south, Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre. But in Carmignano Cabernet has been around for at least two hundred years, no doubt the product of aristorcratic exchange. In fact the quality designation, DOC/DOCG, requires the presence of Cabernet. So long before Cabernet became fashionable on the Tuscan coast, Carmignese were using it to give colour, fruit and structure to their Sangiovese.
Before dinner Benedetta, the wine maker, gives us a tour of the cellars, both the ones that are literally under the villa and the Vinsantaia, ie where the Vin Santo is matured. The former is cool, dim and pleasantly mouldy, the latter oscillates wildly and intentionally between high and low temperatures. Particlularly impressive is the family’s own cellar:
Many of the vintages of the twentieth century are well represented. The tunnels would inspire the most complicated Agatha Christie plot.
The Vinsantaia is an extraordinary treasure store. Vin Santo breaks all the wine making rules. The grapes are mainly the unfashionable Tuscan variety, Trebbiano, which usually makes simple, even dull, table wines. But in this style it undergoes a transformation … slowly … into a sweet or off-dry nectar. Perfect grapes are selected and then allowed to dry for months indoors with plenty of ventilation until they lose a good deal of water but gain concentration. A long slow fermentation and maturation in small barrels (caratelli) follows, here for seven years, sealed under either sealing wax or, in this case, cement plugs. These barrels are not new and smart; rather, the older the better, many show signs of loving repairs or of slow seepage. And the temperature fluctuates daily as they are kept under the roof of the house. Eventually, the level of the wine has dropped by a third and the resulting wine is complex, nutty, pleasantly oxidized.
As we go around, Benedetta does the nightly routine throughout the summer of opening the windows to give a couple of hours of breeze to refresh the air.
A third cellar is devoted to a special project which Janet and I were particularly keen to see. As mentioned above, the fate of the two key Tuscan varieties has been completely different. Sangiovese has if anything made a great come back in the last couple of decades to be valued as the source of unique, edgy wines of real character in Chianti, Montalcino and beyond. By contrast, Trebbiano, its white counterpart as the historic grape of the region, has increasingly been replaced with all manner of fashionable Italian and non Italian varieties. The type of Trebbiano located further south in Abruzzo is occasionally made into great wines which can be aged. Villa Capezzana has set itself the challenge of making the first great white wine from Trebbiano toscano (= Ugni blanc), usually consigned to be a cheap accompaniment to pasta or to be made into brandy. The route the family has taken is demanding – all the usual modern tricks of low yields, long maturation, strict selection have been added to fermentation in new oak and repeated battonage (that’s stirring of the dead yeasts to you and me). There are only 3,000 bottles a year but it could just start something, once the fashion in Tuscany for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier has abated. After all, Trebbiano toscano is plentiful, easy to grow and ‘anything but Chardonnay’.
Tasting over dinner is such a tough assignment. OK, it’s not as analytical as cellar tasting but wine is supposed to be drunk with food, shared and, occasionally, talked about. The simple Trebbiano 2009 of the Villa is just that – pleasant, some herbaceous complexity, good acidity. The Riserva 2007, as described above is something else, structured and full bodied, excellent complexity on the nose deriving from the new wood, the yeast and the fruit (melon, herbs). This would really be worth keeping to see how it develops.
At this point, Vittorio remembered that he had a a very unusual bottle left over from lunch – a 100% Cannaiolo from 1990. You occasionally see Cannaiolo on its own but it’s usually used in a blend and made for quick drinking. By contrast, this grower’s bottle, with a hand-written label, was still alive and well – some rather modest fruit, still lively, some development of leather and spiciness after all these years. Two bottles of the top wine, Villa Capezzana followed, one the current vintages, 2005, and because of all the talk about 1990, a quick sortie to the cellar produced that year’s vintage. As we know, 1990 was an excellent year and this was no exception.
The top wine is 80% Sangiovese which gives it freshness, perfume and acidity, while 20% Cabernet brings a depth of fruit, structure and robustness. But the wine is more than the sum of its parts. The individual components of two grape varieties and of the ageing in barriques have long gone – 1990 is fully knitted together, both substantial and with some delicacy, velvety in texture, with a long further life ahead of it. By contrast, 2005 is full of fruit, wonderfully assertive, sharp and ascerbic, indeed perfect for drinking now with rich meat dishes. We concentrated on these wines to such an extent that the excellent, vibrant, Super Tuscan, Ghiaie della Furba 2006 (the two Cabernets, Merlot, Syrah), barely got a look in.
Many thanks to Beatrice for arranging this memorable visit and to Vittorio and Benedetta for both time, expertise and hospitality. ‘A place called Capezzana’ continues to be a very special place.
Next: the flag ship of natural wines: Massa Vecchia