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Does the World Need Another Super Tuscan?
By Michael Apstein
Apr 30, 2013
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Caiarossa is the new Super Tuscan on the block and the other “aias” should take note.  It’s not yet in the league of Ornellaia or Sassicaia, but based on my first introduction to this young estate, it could be soon.

The general manager, Alexander Van Beek, and the technical manager and winemaker, Dominque Genot, recently led a vertical tasting of Caiarossa from 2004, their first vintage, to 2009.  While the 2004 Caiarossa was very good, the 2008 and 2009 were the stars as far as I was concerned--showing that Caiarossa has gone a very long way in a very short time.

Bordeaux Sensibility

You would think that Caiarossa, which is owned by the same Dutch family who own the Margaux classified growths, Château Giscours and Château du Tertre, and whose general manager, Alexander Van Beek, runs those two Bordeaux properties, would limit themselves to Bordeaux grapes.  But you’d be wrong.  They’ve opted to plant 11 different varieties, including Sangiovese, Alicante, Syrah and Mourvèdre for the reds in addition to the usual Bordeaux grapes.  They are experimenting with Chardonnay and Viognier for their dry whites and also with Petit Manseng for their excellent sweet wine, Oro di Caiarossa.  Despite the non-Bordeaux blend, the red wines all had a Bordeaux-like sensibility and a Margaux-like suaveness.

Van Beek points out that the inclusion of Sangiovese and Rhône varieties at Caiarossa make a mosaic of plantings that differentiates them from the other Super Tuscans. The challenge, of course, is to find a blend that works in their unique climate.

Although the blend varies from year to year depending on how the individual varieties develop during the growing season and which ones avoid spring frosts and fall rains, Van Beek aims for roughly 60-70 percent Bordeaux varieties with the Rhône grapes and Sangiovese accounting for the remainder.  The 2004 Caiarossa is Merlot predominant (33%), with a healthy dose of Sangiovese (25%), and no Petit Verdot, while the 2008 is Cabernet Franc dominant (29%) with a substantial amount of Petit Verdot (16%) and very little Sangiovese (3%). Despite this tremendous variation in blend, the wines have a family resemblance which speaks highly for the concept of terroir and reinforces the French idea that it’s the land speaking.  According to the French concept of terroir, the grapes are merely the vehicle for transmitting the flavors of the site.

A White Canvas

Van Beek described Caiarossa as “a white canvas,” which presents simultaneously both an enormous challenge and enormous opportunity. They are not constrained to follow what Van Beek calls “the tradition and recipe of Bordeaux.“  From his perspective, a Bordeaux chateau basically continues its tradition with the wine, often upgrading the vineyard and/or winery, but certainly never starting a different blend or a new wine.

Although the Bordelais are happy to embrace new technology, they fundamentally don’t think outside of the box when it comes to making wine.  Loduvic David, the recently appointed director and winemaker at Château Marquis de Terme, has made dramatic improvements in that property’s wines since his arrival in 2009, but notes, “We need to respect the tradition and terroir of the area.”

The last time the Bordelais did something unusual was when Château Palmer, produced its “historical blend” (labeled, The Historical XIX Century Blend) by incorporating a bit (10-15%, depending on the year) of Syrah vinified in the Northern Rhône.  Their aim was to recreate the blend of the 19th century when it was common practice to add Rhone wine, typically Hermitage, hence the term Hermitagé, to bolster the rather anemic Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot of the time.  Since Palmer’s recreation was considered so “bizarre” by traditional standards, they weren’t even allowed to call it Bordeaux or put a vintage on the label, despite its quality. 

Different from Bolgheri

Caiarossa, located in the Maremma in the town of Riparbella, is a bit north and at a higher elevation than Bolgheri, home to the aforementioned “aias.” Van Beek notes that the soil differs from Bolgheri where there is more clay.   Because of the elevation, the climate is cooler, preserving acidity in the grapes, which translates into freshness and verve in the wines.  Despite stated alcohols of 14.5 to 15%, the result of good ripeness, the wines were fresh and lively because of their acidity. He believes the altitude explains why their Sangiovese has more savory than fruity character.

The soil and exposure of the estate, which currently comprises 45-acres, varies.  For example, sandy soil abuts red earth, which is high in iron and from which Caiarossa (literally, red place) takes its name.  To take advantage of this diversity, they have planted the different varieties to match the soil and exposure of each of the parcels.  By the end of the year they hope to double their plantings to about 80-acres, which represents the capacity of their newly built winery.

Starting from scratch allowed them to farm the vineyards biodynamically from the get-go.  Their enologist, Dominique Genot, saw the results of biodynamically farming when he worked with Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace and is enthusiastic about it.  Although Van Beek notes with a healthy skepticism, “First the wine has to be good, then you can call it biodynamic.”  They also started immediately with high-density plantings--9,200 vines/ha--which Van Beek insists forces competition among the vines, driving their roots deep into the soil searching for nourishment.  He believes grapes that come from vines with deep roots have more complexity.  As their vines age (the first planting was only 1999) he expects the roots to go deeper and the wines to be even better.

The Wines

All of the wines carry the lowly IGT (now IGP under new pan-European nomenclature) Toscana indicator because the Rhône varieties are not permitted under the DOC (now DOP) regulations for the Maremma.  Despite the non-Bordeaux plantings, and the inclusion of substantial amounts of those grapes in the blend, Van Beek explains that the owners “were looking for the subtleness of Bordeaux in Italy,” a country they love.  Caiarossa also produces a second label, called Pergolaia, which is mostly (90%) Sangiovese based.  (The 2008 Pergolaia, perfect for current consumption, was particularly attractive and well priced, about $25.)

Caiarossa 2004:  The release currently on the US market ($70), it’s already showing some lovely mature notes to accompany its glossy Margaux-like texture.  An intriguing savory aspect, presumably from the Rhône varieties, adds excitement to the plump fruit.  For those interested in the technical aspect, the blend was Merlot (33%), Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (together 33%), Sangiovese (25%), Alicante (6%), Syrah (2%), and Mourvèdre (1%).

Caiarossa, 2005:  Younger and more vibrant, but beautifully balanced, it has the same Margaux-like suaveness.  At this stage there are fewer savory notes and more focus on the fruit, but I suspect that will change with additional bottle age. The details: Merlot (31%), Petit Verdot (20%), Cabernet Franc (17%), Cabernet Sauvignon (16%), Sangiovese (9%), Alicante (3%), Syrah and Mourvèdre (each 2%).

Caiarossa, 2006:  Younger still and perhaps because it is Sangiovese predominant, the savory notes and ripe fruit elements have yet to come together.  At this stage, the elements are balanced, but not integrated.  Since 2006 was a great vintage in Tuscany, I suspect this one will turn out just fine.  The blend is Sangiovese (23%), Cabernet Franc (22%), Merlot (21%), Cabernet Sauvignon (12%), Alicante (8%), Syrah (6%), Petit Verdot (6%) and Mourvèdre (2%).

Caiarossa, 2007:  Very young and vigorous, the gorgeous fruit is most evident on the seductive nose, but buried under considerable tannins.  Still, its polish is apparent. The blend is Cabernet Franc (25%), Merlot (24%), Sangiovese (16%), Cabernet Sauvignon (14%), Petit Verdot (8%), Syrah (6%), and Alicante (7%).

Caiarossa, 2008:  A gorgeous young wine, the 2008 had firm, but glossy tannins that did not intrude, but rather supported and balanced a near magical mixture of savory and ripe notes.  Long and luxurious, it was an exciting, albeit, young wine.  The details: Cabernet Franc (29%), Merlot (16%), Petit Verdot (16%), Syrah (14%), Alicante (14%), Cabernet Sauvignon (8%) and Sangiovese (3%).

Caiarossa, 2009:  From a warm year, the 2009 shows captivating, hard to resist, floral notes and succulent ripe fruit.  For all its intensity, it’s fresh and vibrant, without a trace of over ripeness.  A glossy texture and impeccable balance suggests it will develop beautifully.  The numbers: Cabernet Franc (25%), Merlot (21%), Sangiovese (19%), Cabernet Sauvignon (18%), Petit Verdot (8%), Syrah (6%), and Alicante (3%).

In summary, the vertical tasting showed that Caiarossa, still a work in progress, is on a great trajectory, as the 2008 and 2009 were brilliant young wines.  There’s a Bordeaux-like sensibility to the red wines--they are not boisterous and in your face--but the freshness and vivacity marks them as Tuscan.  I was struck by the family resemblance of these Super Tuscans, despite enormous differences in the blend and vintage characteristics, lending support to the concept of terroir.   

Caiarossa is imported by Wade & Clark Wine Imports.

Let me know what you think of Caiarossa.  E-mail me at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com or contact me on Twitter at @MichaelApstein on Twitter