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Carmignano: The Original Super Tuscan
By Michael Apstein
May 3, 2016
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No doubt the producers in Carmignano, the smallest DOCG of Tuscany and located just northwest of Florence, bristle when they hear praise lavished on the so-called “Super Tuscan” wines…and are envious of the prices they command. Although the term Super Tuscan became popular about 35 years ago as a way to describe wines that were made either from Bordeaux grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (or a mix of those grapes with Sangiovese, the traditional grape of Tuscany), the concept has been around a lot longer--a whole lot longer.

Cabernet Franc has been in Tuscany, not for 35, but for 500 years. Catherine de’ Medici brought it back from France in the 16th century and planted it in Carmignano where it was--as still is--called Uva Francesca (i.e., “the French grape”). Indeed, 300 years ago this year, on September 24, 1716, Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici included Carmignano in his proclamation that identified and regulated four distinct wine growing areas--the precursor to the modern day system of DOCs. (In addition to Carmignano, the other three areas were Valdarno, Chianti Classico, and Pomino, the last of which is now incorporated into Chianti Rufinà.) Historically, Carmignano was a separate area as delineated by Medici until Mussolini incorporated it into the greater Chianti area as part of Chianti Montalbano. Its identity only reemerged in 1975 when it received DOC status and thus became the first area sanctioned for blending Cabernet with Sangiovese. The Italian wine authorities recognized Carmignano’s stature by granting it DOCG status in 1990.

Current regulations require Cabernet--either Franc or Sauvignon--to comprise at least ten percent but no more than 20 percent of the blend. Other red grapes, such as Merlot, Canaiolo, Malvasia Nero and even Syrah are allowed, but less commonly used. In fact, most producers today favor Cabernet Sauvignon over Cabernet Franc.

Fabrizio Pratesi, from the eponymous estate, shows his annoyance with what he refers to as the “new” Super Tuscan producers, when he proudly proclaims that Carmignano’s blend, “Stems from tradition, not from fashion.”

Carmignano Riserva is made from the best grapes in the vineyard, must be declared at the time of harvest, and aged for three years as opposed to two years for Carmignano before release, according to Paolo Valdastri, a representative of the Carmignano Consorzio. He contrasts these strict requirements with those of areas where the declaration can be declared at any time before the wine is released, thus allowing unscrupulous producers to “reclassify” unsold wine two or three years later as “Riserva,” hoping to sell it under a new moniker. Typically, Carmignano Riservas are bigger wines, with more structure and more apparent wood influences. In short, they need more bottle aging to show their grandeur and hence, are good candidates for the cellar.

At the other end of the spectrum from Carmignano Riserva is Barco Reale di Carmignano (sometimes just called Barco Reale), which received DOC status in 1994. Think of it as the equivalent of another prestigious DOCGs’ earlier drinking versions--Rosso di Montalcino. Barco Reale is a terrific introduction to the style of Carmignano and, because it’s meant to be enjoyed young, it’s a great option in restaurants.

Barco Reale must conform to the same blending regulations as Carmignano, but is released sooner after the harvest. As with other top DOCGs and their earlier drinking DOC brothers, Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino, some vineyards in the Carmignano DOCG will always produce grapes destined for Barco Reale, while better-situated vineyards will always produce Carmignano. Some vineyards are capable of either, depending on the year.

One of the many virtues of Carmignano is that its relatively narrow spectrum of wine styles means that consumers generally know what they’re getting. Take the range of Chianti Classico for comparison. In Chianti Classico, some top producers make so-called “traditional” wines from indigenous grapes and age them in older barrels, while other equally talented winemakers make “modern” versions with hefty amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and age them in small French barrels. Both are labeled Chianti Classico, both can be excellent, but unless consumers know the producer, they can’t predict the style of wine they’re buying. Carmignano, on the other hand, has a far narrower range as a group, with bright cherry-like flavors of Sangiovese marrying nicely with the herbal nuances and structure that comes from Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. Of course, that doesn’t mean there is no different among producers--there is.

Speaking of producers, my favorites in Carmignano are Capezzana and Piaggia, followed closely by Fattoria Ambra, Artimino, and Le Farnete. Here are notes on some particular wines for you to try; a few are not yet available, but should arrive in the USA before long:

Capezzana, Barco Reale di Carmignano 2014 ($14): This immediately accessible mid-weight wine combines fruit and earth with just the right amount of structure. It has extraordinary complexity for the price. Buy it by the case for this summer’s grilling season. 90

Capezzana, Carmignano 2013 ($30): This stunning wine has the structure—firm without be hard or aggressive—you’d expect for an excellent young wine. With a “not just fruit” quality, it delivers a gorgeous combination of cherry-like fruit, herbal notes and earthy flavors. Drink their Barco Reale while this stays in the cellar for five or so years. 93

Fattoria Ambra, Carmignano “Santa Cristina in Pilli” 2013 ($20): Santa Cristina in Pilli is one of two single vineyard (“crus”) Carmignano. (Ambra also produces two Carmignano Riservas from two other single vineyards.) This is another prime example of how Carmignano is underpriced. It’s a seamless combination conveying fruitiness and savory notes. The tannins are suave. Nothing is out of place here. You don’t often find this harmony at this price. It’s an outstanding buy. It just needs a few more years of bottle age. 93

Piaggia, Carmignano “Il Sasso” 2013 ($26): Piaggia’s Il Sasso another wine that over delivers and demonstrates the value of Carmignano. A blend of Sangiovese (70%), Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc (20%) and Merlot, it is a sophisticated wine, delivering a bit of everything--black fruit, earthy and savory notes--and not too much of anything. Its velvety texture just reinforces the sophistication of this wine. As good as it is now, it’s a good choice for the cellar for at least five years. 94

Villa Artimino, Carmignano 2012 ($20): If you need another example of how Carmignano over delivers, look no further than this one from Villa Artimino. Very fragrant, it has a touch more concentration without being overdone or sacrificing any elegance. It, too, has an engaging texture and a welcome firmness balanced by plenty of energy. Keep it in he cellar for another five years. You’ll be happy you did. 94

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E-mail me your thoughts about Carmignano at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 4, 2016