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Marchesi Frescobaldi: 'When you prune, you get to know the plants'
By Michael Apstein
Aug 14, 2018
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Lamberto Frescobaldi, tieless in a casual sports jacket, has a down-to-earth demeanor and a twinkle in his eye that belies his nobleman status.  He is the 30th generation of that famed winemaking family, which in the past traded wine for paintings with Renaissance artists.  Winemaking aside, the history of the Marchesi Frescobaldi family has been intertwined with Tuscany in general and Florence in particular since the 1300s.  Through their generosity, the family was responsible for municipal projects of a scale that’s incomprehensible today, such as the construction of the Santa Trinita bridge and the Basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence, to name just two.  Lamberto, a man who must be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and has a 700-year family legacy in winemaking, explains with a child-like enthusiasm, “When you prune you get to know the plants.”  Many wine producers with such a legacy would hunker down, counting on their past to sustain themselves.  Not Frescobaldi.  Under Lamberto, who now might qualify as the Master of Merlot, a handful of recent projects highlight the direction of Italian wine.

Three of Frescobaldi’s recent successful innovations, two of which involve Merlot, “Lamaione” and “Luce,” and a third, Brunello “Luce,” can be traced back to when they started managing the Castelgiocondo estate in Montalcino in 1976, purchasing it about a decade later.  And speaking of Merlot, Frescobaldi reminds the world that this “foreign” grape can achieve grandeur in Italy with Masseto, one of Italy’s and the world’s most sought-after wines, which is produced at another of the Frescobaldi estates, Ornellaia e Masseto (previously known as Tenuta dell’Ornellaia). 

Frescobaldi purchased Castelgiocondo from a French group, who, being French, had planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc in addition to Sangiovese, which was the tradition in the region.  “We happily pulled out the Sauvignon Blanc” and also realized that the Cabernet was unsuited to the soil, so that came out too, Frescobaldi explains.  But they were quite surprised by the Merlot, which was planted in clay soil and was “quite appealing,” so they left it. 

That Merlot formed the basis for Lamaione, which has turned out to be an under-the radar stellar wine and which eventually became the link between Mondavi and Frescobaldi from which Luce was born.  Frescobaldi recounts how Tim Mondavi tasted Lamaione in California, wondered who made it, and expressed an interest in meeting the producer.  That meeting eventually resulted in Luce della Vite (commonly and rather more simply, called just “Luce”), a joint venture between Mondavi and Frescobaldi and a widely successfully Super Tuscan composed of equal parts of Sangiovese and Merlot. Although the joint venture eventually dissolved after Constellation purchased Mondavi, Frescobaldi still speaks warmly of Tim Mondavi, who once noted, according to Frescobaldi, “It’s not about the dollars, we need to make something great.”  And they did, with Luce.

Luce, whose first vintage was 1993, has always been a roughly equal blend of Sangiovese and Merlot and labeled as an IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) wine since the blend does not conform to DOC regulations.  Both varieties come from Castelgiocondo estate and the wine was made there, at least up until the 2017 vintage.  Frescobaldi replaced Sangiovese planted in clay soil with Merlot because of their experience with Lamaione and incorporated it into Luce.

Merlot is harvested about three to four weeks earlier than the Sangiovese and adds weight to the wine, according to Frescobaldi.  With the 2017 vintage, Luce will be made at its own, newly constructed state-of-the art dedicated winery.  “After 27 vintages, Lamberto notes, “it has finally graduated.”  With honors, I might add, after tasting the 2015 Luce, the current vintage ($110, 96 points).  Certainly, one of their finest, it delivers a marvelous combination of tension and elegant power.  Despite an initial supple and fleshy impact, the wonderful edgy firmness and spice of Sangiovese shows.  No doubt about it, it’s truly Tuscan.  Although the 2015 Luce is a delight and easy to enjoy now, my experience from a vertical tasting of Luce in Boston in 2017 tells me that it takes a decade for the wine to hit its stride.  So, put some of the 2015 in the cellar, because it will evolve into something even grander.

Despite making their well-regarded Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Castelgiocondo, Frescobaldi purchased an additional 30-acres of land within the Brunello zone near the Castelgiocondo village when it became available.  About half of the land is on a steep southwest-facing slope in the southwest portion of the Brunello zone, which Lamberto describes as, “an amazing place for Sangiovese.”  In the mid-1990s, Frescobaldi uprooted olive trees--a painful exercise for a Tuscan--and planted Sangiovese.  The vineyard sits almost at the limit of where Sangiovese ripens, an elevation of about 1,400 feet, which explains the uplifting freshness in the wine.  Lamberto also believes that the forest that surrounds the vineyard helps explain its unique microclimate.  The first vintage of this single-vineyard wine, Luce Brunello, the 2003, was released in 2008. Frescobaldi explains that their two Brunellos (Brunelli is actually the better word choice) are very different, “You have less flexibility with a single vineyard site,” such as Luce, compared to Castelgiocondo with it multiple sites spread over more than 300-acres.  To my mind, the Luce Brunello is more powerful, without sacrificing elegance, and more focused than the Castelgiocondo Brunello, as one might expect, coming from a small, single vineyard.

In contrast to the wines from Castelgiocondo, says Frescobaldi, they make no Luce Brunello Riserva.  He notes that the vines are stressed to their limits just to make a regular Brunello.  They would not survive if they had to produce grapes for a Riserva.    Similarly, they make no Luce Rosso di Montalcino because the vineyard is small and the entire site is extremely well-suited for Sangiovese.  Indeed, as viticultural practices have improved over time, Frescobaldi is making less Rosso at Castelgiocondo. Lamberto explains that years ago it took 100 to 120-man hours to work 1 ha (2.5-acres) of land.  He says now it takes 550-man hours to work the same area.  He believes this helps explain why their wines are better, albeit at a much higher cost.  He attributes the 50 percent decrease in Rosso production at Castelgiocondo over the last decade to a combination of improved viticultural practices and older vines.  Since all of their Rosso production comes from Brunello-certified vineyards, the decrease in Rosso production has been translated into increased Castelgiocondo Brunello production, which helps offset the enormous increase in labor costs.  If the trend continues, as I suspect it will, they eventually will make no Rosso at Castelgiocondo. 

One reason Lamberto is so enthusiastic about Brunello in general is that it was a remote abandoned area only widely planted relatively recently (at least in family terms--remember Frescobaldi has 700 years of family experience under his belt).  Montalcino never went through the turmoil of the Chianti Classico area (which emerged from World War II with a volume mentality that valued quantity over quality).  Given that most of the vineyards in Montalcino were planted only after the mid-1970s, growers were able to utilize the scientific information regarding root stocks, clones, soil mapping and other essential determinants of quality. 

That said, Frescobaldi’s latest project shows enthusiasm for Chianti Classico.  In 2017, they purchased the San Denato in Perano estate in the Classico district, which they had been managing since 2014, and renamed it Tenuta Perano.  Now, the fact that someone has bought an estate in Chianti Classico is ordinarily not big news, unless, of course, it’s Frescobaldi, most of whose 700 years of winemaking has been focused on another--and rival--Chianti subzone, Chianti Rùfina.  Tenuta Perano seems ideally located between Radda and Gaiole with vineyards at about 1,500 feet elevation, which like the Luce Brunello vineyard, should imbue the wine with freshness since those grapes will be slightly less ripe and have higher acidity at harvest.  The 2015 Tenuta Perano Chianti Classico Riserva (not yet available, 92 points) initially showed a delightful restraint and firmness I associate with Chianti Rùfina.  It blossomed as it sat in the glass for hours revealing a wonderfully layered, complex and lively mid-weight wine that delivered both ripe fruit and earthy flavors.  Not surprisingly, the blend is Sangiovese (90%) and…Merlot.

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(For more about Chianti Rùfina and my take on the difference between the two zones see: http://winereviewonline.com/APSTEIN_ON_RUFINA.cfm)

E-mail me your thoughts about Tuscan wines in general or Frescobaldi in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

August 15, 2018