As the saying goes, if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, then the mountain will have to come to Mohammed. The past weekend not only offered not only the ending of the English domestic football season with the showpiece of the FA Cup final, but also a Tuscan wine tasting in Hungerford, Berkshire and Decanter’s Great Italian Fine Wine Encounter in Marylebone in central London. Apparently the Chelsea team were staying at the Landmark Hotel for the final, venue of the tasting, but we saw no sign of them except for a large police presence.
The evening tasting at the wine merchant Caviste’s new Hungerford branch was a great opportunity to learn about Tuscany’s smallest fine wine area, Carmignano. What it lacks in size (only 14 producers), it makes up for in history, location and interest. 10 miles NW from Florence, the area is marked by the presence of the Tuscan nobility and especially their hunting villas and lodges. While the Medici are critical to the history of wine in the area, recent research has found documentary evidence of winemaking in 804, a remarkably early date. The Etruscan presence in the area makes it highly like that winemaking was going on centuries before the Christian period.
What really marks Carmignano out in wine terms is the custom of growing at least some Cabernet Sauvignon alongside Tuscany’s Sangiovese. This has become commonplace in Tuscany since the success of the so-called Super Tuscans in the 1970s and 1980s, often to the detriment of the lighter, more characteristic, local grape. However, in this area the Cabernet was introduced by the Medici in the 1700s from Bordeaux – aristocrats were talking to each other and wanting to be like each other back then, just as the Super Tuscan classic, Sassicaia was the result of an aristocrat wanting to ‘grow his own’ Bordeaux after the second world war.
I approached these wines with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. They have a great history but I rarely like the Sangiovese ‘plus French grape variety’ wines. You have to agree that Sangiovese is normally not a big, bold wine, but if you want big and bold there is no shortage of them either from Italy or from other countries. The recent increase of allowed ‘other grapes’ in Chianti Classico is a case in point – there comes a critical tipping point, certainly above 15%, at which the more imposing French varieties drown out the particular charm of fresh, acidic, sour cherry Sangiovese.
But I have to say that Carmignano has got this more or less right. The quality appellation (DOCG) calls for at least 50% Sangiovese, 10-20% of Cabernet Sauvignon or Franc, up to 20% Canaiolo Nero (another local grape) plus other minor varieties. Leading this tasting, Beatrice Contini Bonacossi explained that her family wines at the largest of the Carmignano estates, Capezzana, have stuck to the rule of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon (the twentieth-century ones from Ch. Lafite no less) and 10% Canaiolo, or an 80/20 split between the two main varieties in the top wine.
We start by tasting a good rosé, Vin Ruspo 2009 with a sweet, juicy nose, rounded with good fruit in the mouth, quite weighty and very food-friendly. Particularly good is the wine made for everyday drinking, Barco Reale 2007, named by Beatrice’s father after the noble hunting enclosure. Here the Cabernet contributes to a wine of mid ruby colour, darker than if it were just Sangiovese, but still clearly Tuscan in style. A good nose of violets, plum and cherry is followed by dense plummy fruit, a little bitterness and typical, if by Tuscan standards, mild acidity. Beatrice says this her everyday bottle and you really could not complain about that!
The premium wine is Villa di Capezzana, in this case, 2006. The wine, 80% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, is aged in tonneaux for 12-15 months, a compromise between the larger traditional barrel and the smaller French barriques. Only 30% are new each year, so the new oak aromas are not pronounced. It is a more powerful wine, which comes at you out of the glass, with aromas of darker red fruits and some toast and perhaps even a chocolate note. It has superb acidity and dense fruit, but the wine, even at this young age, is balanced and drinkable. It has a long, long life ahead of it; from this great vintage, it would be outstanding in 10 years time and long after that.
The penultimate wine is a proper modern Super Tuscan, ‘pebbles of the stream’ or Ghiaie della Furba, 2006, now 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Syrah, aged in small French barriques. It has great fruit, from blackcurrant to plum, and an intriguing bitter, tannic finish, very Italian, the land battling back against the non-Tuscan grapes.
After a light supper, we taste another great treasure of the estate, its Vin Santo, 2003. It is made in the traditional manner by drying of the grapes on racks for months before making wine and then long slow fermentation and maturation in very small barrels (caratelli) of a range of woods for five years. The anticipation/anxiety must be something when you finally open those barrels with their much-diminished content – is it going to be the nectar of the gods or is it going to be five years leading to nothing? This example was definitely the former, on the drier side, one of the subtlest I have ever tasted with very grown-up chestnut, raisin and even herby dimensions. Very refined, it coats the mouth and lasts and lasts and lasts.
Capezzana has fairly recently introduced a top-quality Trebbiano – not a combination of words you can often use in Tuscany! The old warhorse, the peasant’s favourite for its productivity, rarely produces anything more than a basic white accompaniment to food. I am looking forward to tasting it, hopefully at the estate.
This was a great introduction to Carmignano, to Capezzana, and a fine start to the Italian weekend.