Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The best Tuscan Merlots

In a January 2001 article on Italian Merlot (New Wave Merlot in Italy, Wine, Franco Zillani notes that the presence of Merlot in Italy was first documented by one Salvatore Mondini who identified the variety as being present "in various regions of the north as well as in Tuscany, Latium, ... and Campania ..." From these beginnings, Merlot, according to Zillani, spread through the northeastern zones of Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, and Alto Adige but, even though ranked fifth in vines planted in Italy, the variety was never taken seriously in the classic production zones. All of this changed in the 1990s, however, when non-traditional zones began to experience success with Merlot planted in the appropriate terroirs with tightly managed yields.

Kate Bailey (Italian Merlot Wine, agrees with Zillani's narrative, characterizing the "Merlot march" across Italy as having occurred in three distinct waves: (i) a late-19th-century initiative by vintners in the hillside region of Trento City and in the Vallagarina Valley: (ii) an early-20th-century spread through Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, and Alto Adige, the northeastern portion of the country; and (iii) a more modern advance in Tuscany, the former bastion of Chianti.

And it is with this "more modern advance" that we are concerned.

The Merlots of note in Tuscany are centered around Bolgheri and Suvereto in the Province of Livorno, Chianti Classico (Provinces of Florence and Siena), and Bucine (Province of Arezzo). A number of small-production, mono-varietals reared in this region have begun to gain critical acclaim. Names such as Masseto (Wine Spectator 100 points in 2001), Redigaffi (Wine Spectator 100 points in 1997 and 2000), and Messorio (Wine Spectator 100 points, 2004), among others, have grabbed the attention of critics and wine collectors alike and, in so doing, have led to steady value appreciation for those lucky enough to own these wines. The figure below shows the distribution of these wines-of-note across the Tuscan landscape.

Click to enlarge

Even though in pursuit of a common goal -- production of high-quality Merlot wines -- the conditions and approaches faced/applied by the relevant producers are, in many cases, markedly different. For example, locational differences mean that Chianti-based producers operate in a continental climate and with galestro and albarese soil while their coastal counterparts operate in temperate climates with stone- and rock-imbued clay soils.

Outside of this zone, we find the Palazzi Merlot of Vini Franchetti made with grapes grown in Val d'Orcia, hard up against the Umbrian border.

This wine started out as vineyard within the Ornellaia estate but the owners have opted to build out a separate infrastructure to support this wine as a separate entity.

The Masseto vineyard lies on soil comprised of thin silty clay and broken rock fragments. There is some confusion as to the planting date of the vines with the Masseto website stating the year 1984 as the planting date and other sources (see using 1981 as the planting date. The older date seems to be more reasonable as the first vintage of the wine is identified as being offered on the market in 1986.

The Masseto vineyard is sub-divided into three distinct sections based on soil characteristics and resultant wines.  The lowest section of the vineyard is called Masseto Junior and its soils are characteristically a clay-sand mix.  According to the winery the wines produced frrom grapes grown in this section are lighter and serve to smooth out the tannic roughness associated with the wines from the other sections as well as contributing to the overall delicacy of the final product.  The middle portion of the vineyard is called Masseto Centrale and has the highest levels of Pliocene clays.  Wines produced from these grapes are powerful, concentrated, and tannic.  The top portion of the vineyard is located 120 meters above sea level and the soil here consists of loose clays and sand along with pebbles.  The soil here is the shallowest in the overall vineyard and the grapes tend to ripen earliest. The wines produced from this section of the vineyard are dense and linear.

Grapes are hand-harvested and subjected to a three-part selection process which ensures that only the best berries make it to the fermentation tanks. Suspect grapes are selected-out in the vineyard and before and after de-stemming.

Fermentation is conducted in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and oak vats with each block fermented separately.  Blocks are aged in wooden barriques for one year prior to being blended into the final wine by the winemaker.  The barriques of choice are procured from the Massif Central area in France and have a medium toast.  After blending, the wines are returned to the barriques for an additional year of aging.  Specific lots of wines may be clarified prior to bottling depending on their characteristics.  The wines are aged for an additional year in bottle before being released to the market.

Annual production of Masseto averages around 30,000 bottles and the wine sells for around $550 upon release.  Recent vintages that are especially well regarded by the critics include the 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2008. Axel Heinz, the winemaker, in a Decanter interview (Ornellaia, May 2013) said "When young, Masseto can seem monolithic, but it often shows much more complexity with age."

Masseto has the distinction of being the first Italian wine to be sold through the Place de Bordeaux, a marketplace ttraditionally reserved for First Growths and a small number of foreign icon wines. Other foreign wines sold through this marketplace include Opus One and Almaviva, both estates associated with Baron Rothschild ( 11/18/08).  The first Masseto vintage offered through this marketplace was the 2006.

Tua Rita's Redigaffi.
Tua Rita is located in Notri in Suvereto, a small village in the southeastern corner of the coastal province of Livorno.  In 1989 the wine region surrounding Suvereto was awarded a DOC (DOC Val di Cornia) and in 2000, based on the distinctiveness of its wines, Suvereto was recognized as a distinct sub-category within the broader zone. In November 2011 Suvereto was elevated to DOCG status with its wines awarded the right to label varietally if the contents were constituted of at least 85% of the named varietal.


The petrified clay soils and the Mediterranean climate of Suvereto provides the perfect environment for fully ripening Merlot grapes.  The Suvereto soils are viewed as being richer in minerals and more structured than its more famous neighbor to the north, Bolgheri. Stefano Casadi, winemaker extraordinaire and proprietor of Azienda Agricola Casa Dei, has compared Suvreto to Sonoma and Bolgheri to Napa Valley in order to make a point.  He sees the best wines as coming out of Sonoma but the more famous wines coming out of Napa and the same parallel holding true for the two Tuscan sub-regions (

The Tua Rita estate, located in Notri in Suvereto, was purchased in 1984 by Rita Tua and Virgilio Bisti. Initially sized at 15 hectares, the estate was blessed with iron- and zinc-rich clayey soils and 100 meters of elevation. Subsequent land purchases have extended the estate size to 32 ha, 20 of which are planted to vine.

The Merlot produced by the estate is a monovarietal that is named -- Redigaffi -- after a stream that courses through the property. The grapes for the wine are manually harvested and, after an initial selection in the vineyard, is transported in crates to the winery.  The clusters are placed on a vibrating belt where a second selection is conducted and after which the grapes are de-stemmed and the individual berries placed into a conical, temperature-controlled vats for fermentation.  Fermentation occurs over 25 - 30 days during which time pumping-over and punch-down activities are performed in order to maintain contact between the must and cap.

After vinification the must is lightly pressed and the juice flows down into barriques that reside in a sub-cellar room.  The wine is aged on its lees for 18 months in 100% new French barriques after which it is bottled and aged for 6 months before being placed on the market.   Annual production of Redigaffi averages 9000 bottles.

Tua Rita's Redigaffi has received early and ongoing acclaim.  It was the wine of the year in 2002 Guide Espresso. Robert Parker called the 1999 vintage "as close to perfection as a wine can get" and then made perfection a reality in the 2000 vintage.  In an more recent posting (#196 August 2011), the Wine Advocate stated that "Redigaffi remains a unique and powerful expression of Merlot from the Tuscan coast."

Le Macchiole's Messorio
Le Macchiole is a 22-ha estate located in Bolgheri DOC just across Bolgheri Road from the famed Tenuta dell'Ornellaia estate and 5 km away from the sea.  According to, the late Eugenio Campolmi (co-founder, along with his wife Cenzia Merli, of the current estate) purchased 9 ha of land in the current location in 1983 and embarked on a path that would become the hallmark of the company -- experimentation to determine the best fit for the environment. For example, Le Macchiole was the first estate in Bolgheri to plant Syrah, the first to adopt high-density planting, and the first to produce a monovarietal Cabernet Franc.

Messorio, a Merlot monovarietal, is the estate's flagship wine. Its initial vintage was 1994 and since then it has received much critical acclaim, including a 100-point score from Wine Spectator for the 2004 vintage. Yields are managed tightly through the use of weak rootstocks and thinning of vines. The grapes are harvested manually and fermented for 20 days in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. The wine is then aged in oak -- 75% new, 25% second passage -- for 16 to 18 months. Annual production averages 8000 bottles.


At a 2009 tasting of the 1997, 2001, 2004, and 2006 vintages of Masseto and Messorio (held at Enoteca Bleve and led by the respective enologists Axel Heinz and Luca D'Attoma), Axel Heinz opined that the wines were set apart by different visions and stylistic interpretations of similar terroir with the result being that Masseto was "more powerful and more concentrated, with extremely 'aristocratic' tannins" while Messorio was "leaner, and almost 'austere'.

Quercegobbe is a product of the Petra estate in Suvereto.

In November 2011 Suvereto was elevated to DOCG status with its wines awarded the right to label varietally if the contents were constituted of at least 85% of the named varietal. The petrified clay soils and the Mediterranean climate of the region provides the perfect environment for fully ripening Merlot grapes and the soils are viewed as being richer in minerals, and more structured, than its more famous neighbor to the north, Bolgheri.

Petra -- translates to "stone" -- was founded in 1997 by the father-daughter team of Francesca and Morette Vittorio who had established their winery "chops" on the Bellavista (1977) and Contade Castaldi (1987) estates in Franciacorta. The estate, located in San Lorenzo Alton in Suvereto, is 300 ha in size, with 100 ha dedicated to vineyards and the remainder to olive groves and woods.

Quercegobbe is the estate's 100% Merlot offering. The grapes for the wine are grown on 35 ha in the old part of the property around the winery at 120 meters elevation. The oldest of these vines date back to 1997. The grapes are vinified in 620 hl oak barrels and aged in new French barriques for 18 months. An additional 18 months is spent in bottle in the cellar before the wine is deemed market-ready.

Alfonse Cevola (On the Wine Trail in Italy) remarking in a comment on one of my posts that Petra was just down the road from Masseto  and was "an interesting winery making very dramatic wines." Serena Sutcliffe (Tunnel Vision, Sotheby's Preview, 11/2008) referred to the 2005 vintage of this wine as "pure layered chocolate and balsamico."

Castello di Ama's L'Apparita
Ama is a small hamlet which sits at 500 meters (1500 feet) elevation in Gaiole in Chianti in the Province of Siena.  During the 1970s, the Roman families Sebasti, Cavanna, Carini, and Tradico formed a partnership and bought property in the hamlet with the express purpose of producing world-class wines. The property they acquired was a rounded hilltop -- with primarily southern exposure and a clayey calcareous soil -- 240 ha in size, 90 ha of which is, today, devoted to grape-growing and 40 to olive groves.

Location of Castelo di Ama (

The wine L'Apparita is a 100% Merlot which is made from grapes grown on 3.844 ha (9.495 acres) of land constituting parcels 23 to 25 of the Bellavista vineyard. These parcels were initially planted to Canaiola and Malvasia Blanca but were regrafted to Merlot clone 342 between 1982 and 1985. The soil is clay rich and the vine training method is open lyre.

In its review of the 2006 edition of this wine, Wine Enthusiast glowed "L'Apparita is a divine and delicate expression of Merlot with rich layers of black cherry, blackberry, spice, mocha, cedar, exotic spice and polished stone that are seamlessly woven together." Closer to home, Gambero Rosso has awarded the wine numerous Tre Bichieris (acknowledgement of the best wines in Italy in a given year) beginning with the 1990 vintage and continuing through 1992 and, more recently, the 2000, 2001, and 2004 vintages.

San Giusto a Rentennano's La Ricolma
As is the case for Castello di Ama, San Giusto a Rentennano is located in the village of Gaiole in Chianti but is east and south of its compatriot in a position overlooking the upper course of the Arbia River.

The estate's vineyards sit at 270 meters on steep hillsides with southeastern exposure and is rich in sand, clay, lime, volcanic ash, and calcium. The vineyard -- certified organic since the 2008 vintage -- falls under the stewardship of Ruggero Mazzilli with Attilio Pagli as the consulting oenologist.

La Ricolma -- appellation IGT Toscana -- is a 100% Merlot sourced from grapes grown on 1.5 ha of vineyards that sit on marl, limestone, and clay soils. The grapes are hand-harvested at full maturity and, in the 2009 vintage, was limited to yields of 50 quintals/ha. Yield is managed via green harvesting where between 30% and 50% of the fruit is dropped in July and August.

Annual production averages 5000 bottles.

Galloni, writing about La Ricolma in the Wine Advocate (in 2012), said "San Giusto's Ricolma is differentiated from most other Tuscan Merlots for its firm sense of structure and generous tannin, both of which place it closer to Sangiovese than Merlot stylistically. There are more famous (and more expensive) Merlots being made in Tuscany but few that consistently reach this level of excellence."

Petrolo Galatrona
The 272-ha Petrolo estate is located in Bucine (province of Arezzo) and falls within Colli Aretini, one of the eight Chianti sub-regions (to include Chianti Classico), where its vineyards are strategically positioned along the slopes of the hills bordering the Chianti region.

Tuscan wine region map with Colli Aretini colored dark green

Originally part of the medieval fiefdom called Galatrona, the estate was bought by the Bazzocchi family in the 1940s and is currently owned by Lucia Bazzocchi Sanjust and managed by her son Luca. The lands are allocated to vineyards (31 ha, 26 of which is currently in production), olive groves (19 ha), and woods and arable land (222 ha).

Galatrona, the estate's 100% Merlot offering, was first brought to market in 1994 as a Tuscan IGT wine and has retained that classification ever since. The Merlot vines were first planted by Lucia in 1990 and today numbers 30,000. Annual Merlot production is 13,500 bottles.

The wine is well regarded and much heralded. It has been compared to Pomerol's Le Pin and Petrus and has been a consistent recipient of Gambero Rossi's Tre Bichieri award as well as being consistently assigned 90+ scores by Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator.

Frescobaldi's Lamoine
There are few Italian wine family names that are as storied or as pedigreed as Frescobaldi, a Florentine name that stretches back 30 generations to the 1300 start in wine production at Tenuta di Castiglioni in Val di Pesa. Today Marchesi Frescobaldi is one of the most significant wine producers in Italy with nine estates and over 1000 ha devoted to that task.

Castelgiocondo, situated on the southwestern slopes of Montalcino, was acquired by the Frescobaldis in 1989. The estate, originally built in 1100 to protect the road between Siena and the sea, is 815 ha in size (230 ha of which is dedeicated to vines) and sits at elevations ranging between 180 and 400 meters.

Castelgiocondo's Merlot is a mono-varietal sourced from a 12-ha vineyard on the estate called Lamaione, also the name of the resulting wine. The Lamaione vineyard is 300 meters above sea level and has a southeast exposure and clayey soil that is rich in limestone. The vines are trained low spur pruned cordon and are planted to a density of 5500 vines /ha. The grapes undergo 12+ days of fermentation and 4 weeks of maceration. Malolactic fermentation occurs in barrique followed by 24 months of barrel aging in new French oak. The wine spends 1 year in bottle before release to the market.

Querciabella's Palafreno
Palafreno is produced by Querciabella, an estate founded in 1974 and which currently owns 74 ha (183 acres) of vineyards in Chianti Classico (Greve, Panzano, Raddo, and Gaiole in Chianti) and 32 ha (79 acres) in Maremma (Albarese in the province of Grossetto). The estate has farmed its vineyards organically since 1988 and biodynamically since 2000. The full range of its wines are presented in the table below.

Palafreno, the estate's Merlot offering, is a mono-varietal which was first produced in 2000. Grapes for the wine are sourced from the estate's Cipresso and Marrone vineyards (less than 1 ha in total according to a Twitter conversation with the estate) in Ruffoli (Greve in Chianti) which are sited at 350 m altitude on loose, schistous, skeletal soils with southwest exposures.

Palfreno is only produced in favorable vintages and, as such, the label was not produced in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2009. Production in 2010 was below normal levels due to "voracious bears and deer" (Twitter conversation with the estate). The wine, which has been described by Nicholas Belfrage MW as "... deep yet silky, fruit-driven yet with the perfect touch of toasty oak, enhancing rather than overwhelming ...," has received much critical acclaim including the coveted Gambero Rossi Tre Bicchieri (2004 for the 2000 vintage) and scores of 95 (2007 vintage), 92 (2008 vintage), and 94 (2010 vintage) from Antonio Galloni.

Vini Franchetti's Palazzi
According to Carlo Franchetti, the area of Val d'Orcia in which Tenuta di Trinoro is located had been almost abandoned between 1960 and 1980 with the primary activity being sharecropping. Sheep-breeding came with the Sardinians when they emigrated here between 1960 and 1970. The houses in the area were primarily second homes for the wealthy.

Andrea Franchetti had been a wine broker and imported French and Italian wines to the US between 1982 and 1986. He wanted to come back to Italy but, before doing so, went to Bordeaux and spent some time learning winemaking from his friends Jean Luc Thunevin of Chateau Valandraud and Peter Sisseck of Dominio de Pingus.  Armed with Bordeaux philosophy, practices, and cuttings, Andrea went to the Tuscan hinterlands, to land that was to him reminiscent of the left- and right-bank Bordeaux soils, and bought the 200-ha property that is Tenuta di Trinoro.

There are a total of 22 ha of the estate devoted to vineyards, distributed between 36 separate vineyard plots. As shown on the map below, the vineyard is planted solely with Bordeaux cultivars to include 17 Cabernet Franc and 13 Merlot plots. There are three cru vineyards which lend their names to 100% Cab Franc wines made with the grapes sourced therefrom.


Palazzi, the estate's 100% Merlot offering, is made in the image of a right-bank Merlot. This wine was produced from 1997 to 1999 when it was discontinued. The fruit was so good in 2009 that Andrea resurrected the Palazzi as a wine in that vintage. We tasted both the 2009 Palazzi (100% Merlot) and the 2009 Tenuta di Trinoro (42% Cabernet Franc, 42% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Petit Verdot) but both were too cold to reveal themselves fully. The Palazzi showed mushrooms, a savoriness, and a hint of green. Mineral finish. The Tenuta di Trinoro did not reveal much on the nose and opened up just enough to give a hint of layered complexity.

At a recent tasting of this wine, it showed ripe dark fruit, licorice, spice and chocolate. Balanced. High note resulting from pleasing acid levels. A creamy finish.

While wonderful tasting wines, these Tuscan Merlots do not, for the most part, compare favorably when drunk directly against right-bank Merlots. At a blind comparative tasting which I organized, the tasters consistently referenced the balsamic notes of the Italian Merlots (It should be noted that the Palazzi and Palafreno wines were not included in this tasting.).

Two exceptions to this drumbeat were the 2004 Galatrona and the 1993 Masseto. The Galatrona was described as having the coffee smell of the Right Bank and was riper than its counterpart (the 2006 Bellevue Mondotte) but with a limited finish. The room was split on this pairing with some panelists finding the Galatrona more complex than its flight partner. The finish on the Bellevue was held to be longer. After the reveal, panelists said that Galatrona was a wine that they would be buying in the future. The Masseto was paired with the 1996 La Mondotte and everyone agreed that this was a very strong pairing. Panelists had difficulty picking out the Bordeaux in this pairing and could not wait to see which Italian Merlot was standing toe-to-toe with a Right-banker and not giving any ground. This wine is one of my favorite wines period and I was extremely pleased with its performance.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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