No, the first Supertuscan isn’t Sassicaia, and it’s certainly not Tignanello. If you define a Supertuscan, as many do, as a wine combining the Italian Sangiovese and the French Cabernet, then Supertuscans have been around a lot longer than those two johnny-come-latelies. There is one place in Tuscany where Cabernet sauvignon has been at home for centuries, where it can legitimately be called a native variety and not an international introduction: the Carmignano zone.
Tuscany has many attention-hogging red wines – Brunello, Chianti Classico, the whole tribe of Supertuscans – but everyone seems to forget about Carmignano, even though it has a history almost as old as Chianti’s and far older than Brunello’s, to say nothing of the evanescent mayfly life of the Supertuscans, which no longer seem either very super or very Tuscan.
Carmignano was one of the wines and zones first delimited by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the 18th Century. Almost 200 years before that, Catarina di Medici – better known as Catherine de Medicis, Queen of France and introducer of petit pois, forks, and fine cuisine to the French – also introduced Cabernet sauvignon to Tuscany. In the Carmignano zone, Cabernet is still locally called uva francesca – the French grape – and it has been cultivated there ever since Catarina’s – sorry, Catherine’s time. That makes Carmignano the longest-established Supertuscan, by a very wide margin.
By an equally wide margin, Capezzana is the leader of the appellation. Beatrice Contini Buonacossi, one of the several siblings who now own and manage the estate their grandparents acquired almost a hundred years ago, was in New York recently to – in effect – reintroduce Carmignano to us. Many decades ago, when I was first starting out in wine writing, Capezzana’s Carmignano had a significant presence on the American market. If memory serves, it was part of the distinguished portfolio of Mediterranean Imports, at that time one of the chief players on the east coast Italian wine scene. Later, as the Supertuscans became news, Carmignano and Capezzano slipped from sight – a pity, because the wine never lost its quality, as the wines that Beatrice poured in a vertical tasting amply demonstrated.
The large Capezzano property, about 30 miles west of Florence, was originally a Medici country estate, so it’s safe to assume that it was one of the earliest recipients of Catherine’s introduction. Certainly, the Cabernet sauvignon that grows there has acquired a much more Tuscan accent than what I’ve tasted elsewhere in Tuscany from newer plantings. It’s lighter on the palate, with seemingly more prominent acidity and a racier character that allows it to blend more seamlessly with the Sangiovese that makes up the preponderance of the Carmignano blend.
That blend – now DOCG – mandates 10% to 20% Cabernet to be combined with up to 80% Sangiovese. Some small amounts of other indigenous grapes – e.g., Canaiolo – are also permitted, though Capezzana currently doesn’t use them in its flagship wine, Villa di Capezzana. Capezzana produces several wines – Barco Reale (70% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet, 10% Canaiolo: a “baby Carmignano”); Trefiano (70% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet sauvignon, 10% Canaiolo, 5% Cabernet franc), and Ghiaie della Furba (60% Cabernet sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Syrah) – but Villa di Capezzana is its historic flagship bottling, and it was the wine that Beatrice showed in the vertical tasting.
Five vintages of Villa di Capezzana spanning five decades – 2008, 1998, 1988, 1977, 1968 – showed an impressive continuity of style and quality. All were delicious, for my palate the oldest ones especially so. Those oldest wines were still alive and lovely, with fully evolved dark fruit and underbrush and earth aromas and flavors. My favorite may have been the ’77 – I say “may have been” because the 1968 was also gorgeous – but all five of them showed wonderful balance and, above all, tremendous elegance, which is the hallmark of Capezzana wines. Wines like these are meant to be savored with your most important dinners, to be stashed away to comfort your old age, to relish with long-time friends who appreciate the nuances of older wines. Considering their quality and longevity, they are bargains.