A Frescobaldi Suite

Girolamo Frescobaldi of Ferrara was famous in his lifetime (1583-1643) for his keyboard music, publishing the first-known collections of variations on a single musical theme. The modern Tuscan Frescobaldis do similar things with wine, as a recent vertical tasting of 12 vintages of their prized cru Mormoreto demonstrated. (Most people assume Girolamo was an ancestor of the Tuscan clan, but he probably wasn’t, though no writer can let a mere fact get in the way of a good introduction.)

Leonardo Frescobaldi, the current Marchese and patriarch of the family, presented the wines, running from 2007 back to 1985, at a dinner at the Columbus Circle restaurant A Voce. Ian d’Agata provided what sportscasters would call the color commentary, but in fact the wines spoke for themselves – and what they said, loudly and clearly, was Rufina.

Leonardo Frescobaldi

Say Rufina to most winos, and the majority will think you’re mispronouncing Ruffino. Ruffino is a family name and a Chianti Classico brand. Rufina (accent on the first syllable: ROO feen uh) is one of the non-Classico Chianti zones – the best and most distinctive of them. It lies east-northeast of Florence, and it constitutes a totally different world, microclimatically speaking, from all the rest of Chianti. This is rugged country, high and cool, with precipitous slopes, pronouncedly limestone soils, and a different, wilder look than the other Chianti zones’ castellated and cypress-lined hillsides. Its vegetation even differs: no Mediterranean macchia here, but evergreens and rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Once seen, there’s no mistaking the difference.

Different soil, different climate, different wines. Chiantis produced in the Rufina zone taste different from the Chiantis of the other zones – earthier, more mushroomy, more mineral. The Rufina leaves a distinctive mark on its children. Taste Bucerchiale, Selvapiana’s brilliant Chianti riserva, or the Chianti riserva Frescobaldi produces at its Castello di Nipozzano estate, and the difference between these and what you’re used to in Chianti, no matter how good, is immediately apparent. The Castello di Nipozzano Chianti riserva offers one of the most distinctive and consistent values in Tuscan wine, vintage after vintage.

Castello di Nipozzano

The Frescobaldis have been cultivating vineyards at Nipozzano for hundreds of years, and in that time have tried their hand at a large variety of grapes. Back in the mid-1800s, one family member thought to import some French varieties – Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc – which did well and adapted themselves happily to the cool Rufina climate. (They also put in some Chardonnay and Pinot noir, which for years have been the backbone of their fine Pomino bianco and rosso – but that is another story.) The grapes have been there so long that they no longer count as foreign, and the Frescobaldis’ use of them is firmly rooted in family tradition.

In 1976, the two Cabernets and the Merlot were planted in the Nipozzano estate’s Mormoreto vineyard, a relatively low-lying, slightly warm (for Rufina) single vineyard with highly diverse soils that provided ideal plots for the differing requirements of those three varieties – as well as, later on, for Petit verdot. The result was, in 1983, the first vintage of Mormoreto, making this the (more or less) 25th anniversary of the wine and providing the rationale for the vertical tasting I attended.

The 12 vintages shown appeared in three flights of four wines each:

• 1985, 1988, 1990, and 1994

• 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2003

• 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007

In the first flight, the ’85 and ’88 showed themselves live and vigorous and elegant, with almost no discernible oak flavor – this is distinctly a compliment – despite a pretty substantial time in barriques. The ’94 and especially the ’90 surprisingly seemed to need more time, both in the bottle and in the glass, to open up fully. For me, the ’88 was the wine of the evening. All four of these wines were vinified predominantly from Cabernet sauvignon, with as little as 5% Cabernet franc (1988 and 1990). The 1994 had 20% Cabernet franc and was (on that account?) my least favorite wine of the flight.

The second four wines seemed still a bit hard, though once again they gave no real taste of the barriques. The 1997 (85% sauvignon, 15% franc) seemed to be just emerging from eclipse: Mormoreto is clearly a slow-maturing wine and rewards patience. The 1999 vintage had seen the introduction of a large component of Merlot to the blend (60% CS, 15% CF, 25% Merlot), which radically changed the nature of the wine. As my friend and fellow wine writer Michael Apstein put it, tasting the wine was like having a big, happy Labrador puppy lick your face. 2001 and 2003 continued that blend. ‘03 was fine for that very hot year, but the 2001 was the stand-out wine of this flight, showing the great depth and complexity that that vintage produced all over Italy.

The final flight was the hardest to judge, both because the wines were the youngest and because the blend changed again, now to 60% CS, 25% Merlot, 12% CF, and 3% Petit verdot. This now forms the standard blend for Mormoreto. All these wines did show some oak, which the evidence of the older vintages says they will outgrow, but which right now masks a lot of their character. On that same basis, the odds are strong that these wines will grow into that same earthy Rufina character that all their older siblings displayed – especially the 2004, which like 2001, gave great wines throughout Italy.

So the history of Mormoreto somewhat resembles the history of music, evolving from classical harmony to modern . . . discord is too strong a word: to compositions that take a little time to get used to. Girolamo, ancestor or not, would be sympathetic.

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