By Frank Cipparone
Their names roll off the tongue. Sassicaia . . . Tignanello . . . Guado al Tasso . . . Ornellaia. Highly regarded and sought-after wines that captured the hearts and wallets of aficionados in the 1980s and brought notoriety to the maritime hills of Bolgheri. That decade saw the emergence of trendy “Super Tuscans” that blended Sangiovese with French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The hype that accompanied them made rock stars of winemakers as writers trumpeted a new era in Italian wine.
Had they done their homework, they would have realized that everything old was new again. Long before all the hoopla over Bolgheri, there was Carmignano. In the early 18th century the small town on the slopes of Monte Albano not far from Florence was recognized by Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici as one of four officially sanctioned Tuscan wine areas along with Chianti, Pomino and Valdarno. Precise rules for winemaking, similar to those in place since the 1960s for all Italian wine, unofficially made Carmignano the first DOC.
People caught up in the Super Tuscan mania assumed that Cabernets, as well as Merlot and Syrah, were relative newcomers to Italy’s vineyards. Carmignano’s winemakers were using Cabernet Sauvignon almost 500 years ago. It is believed that Catharine de Medici, Queen of France in the mid-16th century, introduced it to the plains between the Arno and Ombrone Rivers. There is apparently no record of what grapes were used for Carmignano as far back as the year 800. Given the proximity to Chianti and its widespread planting, Sangiovese seems a likely conclusion.
During Mussolini’s regime, Carmignano was incorporated into the Chianti Montalbano designation. Not until 1975 was it separated and awarded DOC status. Significantly, at that time it was the only area allowed to blend Cabernet with Sangiovese, a nod to Carmignano’s centuries of tradition. Ironically, early Super Tuscans using the same grapes had to be labeled as vini di tavola.
The 270 acres of vines around Carmignano and the neighboring commune of Poggio a Caino yield 360,000 bottles a year. When Carmignano was elevated to a DOCG in 1990, the original DOC was renamed Barco Reale. The relationship of the two is similar to that of Rosso di Montalcino to Brunello. Barco Reale follows the same production codes but has a lower level of alcohol and no minimum aging requirements. It’s sort of Carmignano’s little brother, easy drinking and meant to enjoy sooner. Like a younger sibling’s hand-me downs, it gets grapes that aren’t from the most highly prized, naturally superior vineyards.
Blending percentages are strictly monitored: a minimum of 50 percent Sangiovese; 10-20 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Cabernet Franc; a maximum of 20 percent Canaiolo Nero; and up to 10 percent of Canaiolo Bianco, Colorino and white grapes like Trebbiano and Malvasia. It’s worth noting that if the two Cabernets are removed the recipe is almost identical to pre-1990s Chianti, which may be the reason Carmignano wineries are slowly replacing lesser- known native grapes with more familiar French entries such as Merlot and Syrah.
The main thing that sets Carmignano apart from Chianti and other Sangiovese- based Tuscan wines is an absence of variations in style. Of course, differences exist from one producer to the next, as they do in any wine region. Generally, there are no surprises with Carmignano — it is what it is. By comparison, in the seven Chianti zones, including Chianti Classico, there are so many differences in geography, methodology and the grapes themselves that it can be difficult to pinpoint with certainty where the wine is from or what to expect from the bottle.
Like any fine blend, Carmignano’s whole is greater than the sum of the parts: Sangiovese is darker, has more body and is more aromatic than Chianti; Cabernet Sauvignon lends a tannic backbone that promotes aging; Cabernet Franc adds spice and green herbs to the mix. Whether made by Capezzana, Fattoria di Ambra or smaller estates, the result is a historically unique, truly Tuscan wine.