It was the wedding of a pair of 14 year olds in Marseilles in 1533 that was to change the future of Carmignano wine. Catherine de’ Medici was the young bride and already in her short life she had been orphaned by the death of both parents within days of her birth and taken hostage at 8 years old when the Medici were ousted from Florence for the second time. She was however the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent and her marriage to the future King Henry II of France was arranged and administered personally by Pope Clement VII, himself a scion of the Medici dynasty.
It was the exchange of wedding gifts between the French royals and the Medici family that brought the first Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to Tuscany and they were planted on the hills near the Medici family villa at Poggio a Caiano just 9 miles west of Florence.
Once married and in France, Catherine was neglected almost immediately, but nevertheless become the mother of three fairly useless French kings and one of the most powerful women in 16th century Europe, but some distance behind Elizabeth I of England. However she displayed a ruthless Medici touch worthy of Al Capone himself when she orchestrated the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre of French Huguenots in 1572. More importantly for wine lovers, her marriage left a lasting legacy that manifests itself today all over the beautiful hills of Carmignano.
Another Medici villa, Villa La Ferdinanda, was finished a little later in 1600 in the nearby hamlet of Artimino nestled in the Montalbano hills and it is likely that by this time Cabernet Sauvignon was well-established in the area. Also known as the villa of a hundred chimneys, because each room was given its own fireplace to ward off the chill in a Tuscan winter hunting season, you can gaze at this unique building while having a summer lunch on the terrace of the excellent Da Delfina restaurant on the hilltop in Artimino.
The Barco Reale hunting reserve officially established in 1626 by Grand Duke Ferdinando II all around Artimino extended to 10,000 acres in its heyday and was enclosed by a high wall about 32 miles in length, some of which remains visible today in varying states of repair.
Catherine’s wedding may have started the Medici wine story of Carmignano but, as one would imagine given the proximity of Carmignano to Florence, winemaking in this area dates back to Etruscan times and there is evidence also of an award given by Julius Caesar for wine production in this area.
In 1716 another Medici descendant, Cosimo III, in perhaps the only worthwhile act during his long and abject administration, introduced the first rules and controls relating to the four main areas of Tuscan wine production, of which Carmignano was one. The decree’s purpose was to prevent fraud and specify penalties and it was the first real regulation of this kind anywhere in the wine world, preceding the French Appellation Controlee system by almost 200 years.
Perhaps Cosimo was motivated by the need to reassure Carmignano’s most famous customer at that time, Britain’s Queen Anne, who had a fondness for this wine that was no doubt due in part due to her inability to obtain a reliable supply of French wine throughout the War of Spanish Succession.
Today, Carmignano enjoys DOCG status which codifies and makes obligatory 10-20% of Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Cabernet Franc and a minimum of 50% Sangiovese in the final blend. It is one of the smallest DOCG areas in Italy with only 270 acres under vine. Surprisingly, amidst all of the hoopla when the first so-called ‘Super Tuscans’ were proclaimed fifty years ago, everyone seemed to forget that similar Carmignano blends were already well into their fifth century by then.
But the Super Tuscan salesmen weren’t the sort to let a few inconvenient historical facts get in the way of a good marketing story and Carmignano wine even today remains less well known than most other barrique-aged blended wines both in Chianti and in Bolgheri.
One particular Carmignano wine that we’ve enjoyed over the years is ‘Il Sasso’ from the Piaggia winery in Poggio a Caiano. The history of the Piaggia winery itself is quite recent but it has a connection to France that is just as profound as the arrival of the first French grapes all those centuries ago.
When Mauro Vannucci bought the initial Piaggia property in 1974 from his friend Count Contini Bonacossi, owner of the historic Villa Capezzana estate, the six acres of vineyards in that initial purchase contained vines grown directly from cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot taken from Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Pauillac.
As the Piaggia vineyards have grown over time to 50 acres, all subsequent plantings of these varietals have been made with a massal selection of the original Lafite cuttings (thereby retaining the specific clonal variety) so there is no finer raw material in the whole of Italy than the Piaggia vineyards when it comes to these French grape varieties.
For the first ten years or so Mauro made wine for friends and family until the comments of his dinner guests, astonished at the quality of his vino di casa, prompted him to start producing it in small quantities commercially towards the end of the 1980s.
In 1993 at the start of his journey to craft exceptional wines from this historical location he met two key people at Vinitaly that were to become his trusted advisors. Alberto Antonini, formerly employed by the famous Tuscan estate of Antinori became his oenologist and Federico Curtaz, who had gained valuable experience working for the legendary Gaja family of Piedmont, became his agronomist.
Both have remained with Piaggia since then, as has his other wine consultant/oenologist Emiliano Falsini, a Tuscan who pursued winemaking studies at the University of Bordeaux and who has many clients in Bolgheri, so he is someone with a lot of experience of French grapes grown in Italian soil.
The predominant soil types in the Piaggia estate vineyards in Carmignano are medium textured clay with marl (clay and limestone with skeletal deposits) and schist (a rock based soil that is rich in minerals).
Piaggia produces two blended wines, Il Sasso and Piaggia Riserva and both contain 70% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. The grapes are hand harvested from different vineyards and vinified separately in stainless steel with extended maceration on the skins. The riserva spends 18 months in French oak barriques and is bottled unfiltered and Il Sasso slightly less at 15 months in barriques. The use of oak is the only major thing that has changed over the years with the amount of new oak gradually declining to the point where there is now only 10% new oak for the top two wines and no new oak at all for the Il Sasso.
Between the release date in early October and about April each year the riserva sells out because it's very reasonably priced at 34 euros compared to other similar quality super Tuscans and also because it has an enthusiastic following abroad, particularly Switzerland which buys more of this and the other Piaggia wines on a per capita basis than anywhere else in the world. Piaggia's other top wine is a 100% Cabernet Franc single vineyard wine called Poggio de' Colli which is produced in quite limited quantities. Total production today at the winery is around 100,000 bottles per annum of which Il Sasso and the Piaggia riserva account for about 70%.
(Silvia's dog 'Arturo' keeps a watchful eye on the barriques. In the right-hand photo the pile of residual grape skins and seeds after fermentation, called 'vinaccia' in Italy, is ready to be collected for grappa distillation).
Mauro's daughter, Silvia, started working full time for her father in 2006 and she is now the owner and public face of the estate and handles all the commercial activities, a significant portion of which is international. Mauro remains very actively involved however and has the final word on all key decisions relating directly to the quality of the wines produced.
It's worth noting that the Piaggia riserva and the Il Sasso wines can be tasted at the winery but not the Poggio de' Colli or the much newer entry level blended wine, Pietranera, and furthermore to buy both the riserva and Poggio de' Colli directly you will have to purchase a minimum of 6 bottles of each, so this is not a winery particularly well suited for casual wine tourism. However, single bottles of both can be sourced at some of the good wine shops that we've mentioned in previous articles like Carlo Lotti in San Casciano and Enoteca Corsi in San Gimignano.
Two or three years after the date on the bottle Il Sasso is typically priced around 22 euros in Italy, which is a very good price for a wine of such consistent quality and it's also widely available in the US at under $30.
Il Sasso 2012 - Carmignano DOCG
There’s a full, sweet nose of figs and dried plums here which follows through on the palate. This is a fully mature wine that for me is right at its peak. Very rich and deep with lots of flavor this is exactly what I look for in an older wine. Elena’s view is that it’s a little too smooth, lacking freshness and acidity and though technically she’s correct, the nuances of flavor and the tertiary notes in the glass more than compensate for me. At the winery Silvia Vannucci also remarked that she prefers the very young Il Sasso wine but acknowledged that many people enjoy the way it develops over time, as I do. Lovely wine with a very long satisfying finish.
Il Sasso 2016 - Carmignano DOCG
This is a very hedonistic wine full of rich dark fruit and again some sweetness on the nose. Better acidity in the mouth than the 2012 and one could argue more balanced but I think a couple more years would entice those tertiary notes to make more of an impact. Like the previous wine this is very polished with no hard edges and if you're someone who likes the flavor of Chianti but not the tannins and acidity of young Sangiovese then this may be your ideal Italian blended wine. Perhaps that's why the Swiss love this wine so much.
Il Sasso 2018 - Carmignano DOCG
Plenty of ripe fruit on the nose but in the 2018 version the French grapes more than hold their own against the typical cherry of the Sangiovese. We decanted this for an hour beforehand and I'm not sure it needed it because the tannins are very fine and well integrated for such a young wine. Easy to understand why Silvia Vannuci prefers Il Sasso young because it's already a lovely wine with just the right amount of acidity to pare well with food. I think it will improve and become more complex with age but it's not a sin to drink it now.