Vino Nobile & Carmignano: Italy’s Forgotten Noble Reds
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | APRIL 13, 2021
Italy is one of the world’s most fascinating and diverse countries. There are of course famous wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo and Chianti Classico. But the country is also home to many other wines that have enjoyed periods of prominence mixed with less brilliant eras of near obscurity. Vino Nobile and Carmignano are two wines with long, rich histories, deep connections to the land and much for the curious wine-lover to explore.
Montepulciano’s Vino Nobile
Vino Nobile is the top wine made in Montepulciano, a picturesque hillside town located near Montalcino, Pienza and the southern border of Chianti Classico. Vino Nobile, nowadays often simply called ‘Nobile’, generally has more structure and depth than Chianti Classico, but less opulence than Brunello. That’s a pretty appealing mix in my book. In recent years producers have backed off the extracted, oaky, internationalized styles meant to make Nobile resemble wines from other commercially popular regions – the approach of the last three decades or so – and instead focused showing the natural translucence and expressivity of Sangiovese, known here as Prugnolo Gentile.
The results are evident. I have never been more turned on by the wines of Montepulciano as I was during my tastings for this report. If I had to bet on one region in Italy that really has the potential to explode onto the global stage the way Brunello, Barolo, Barbaresco and Chianti Classico have, it would no doubt be Montepulciano. There is so much potential here. For now, the wines of Montepulciano offer exceptional value, especially within the context of reds of place from historical Old World appellations.
Gently undulating vineyards in Montepulciano.
A Bit of History…
Readers may be surprised to learn that Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was the first Italian wine awarded DOCG status, back in 1980. Its history goes back much further than that. The first recorded mention of wines from Montepulciano being notable dates to the eighth century. Writer Francesco Redi praised the wines in his famous poem Bacco di Toscana in 1685. Thomas Jefferson, who may have had the most refined and well-traveled palate of his time wrote "[F]or the present I confine myself to the physical want of some good Montepulciano..., this being a very favorite wine, and habit having rendered the light and high flavored wines a necessary of life with me” in 1816.
Vino Nobile must be at least 70% Sangiovese (Prugnolo Gentile), although that number is in reality much higher for virtually all wines of note. Most ranges start with a straightforward Rosso di Montepulciano, a Sangiovese-based red similar to Rosso di Montalcino or Chianti Classico. At their best, the entry-level Rossos offer tons of Sangiovese character, mid-weight structure and good value. The next step up is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Here, too, readers will find wines of real character that also offer tremendous quality for the money in the context of today’s fine wine market. Single-vineyard Nobiles were once rare, but their number has grown in recent years. Overall, this is a positive trend in highlighting the personalities of specific sites. A handful of producers also bottle a Riserva. These wines are mixed. The temptation remains to lavish the wines with heavy-handed oak, but that is thankfully less common than it was just a few short years ago. Last but certainly not least is Vin Santo, which can be truly magical in Montepulciano.
Readers will find an assortment of vintages in the market. Overall, the 2016s are wines of dimension and breadth. Even when they aren’t big wines, the 2016s offer quite a bit of detail. The 2017s are richer, creamier wines loaded with considerable immediacy and sheer appeal. So far, the 2018s I have tasted point to a vintage of aromatic, mid-weight Nobiles.
Cosimo III de' Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his famous edict of 1716, which for the first time defines four prized areas in Tuscany for the production of fine wine; Carmignano, Chianti (the core of Chianti Classico today), Pomino and Val di Sopra (Val d’Arno).
Carmignano is a tiny appellation located in the province of Prato, just north of Florence. It, too, boasts an extraordinary legacy that dates back many centuries. It was one of the four historic appellations chosen by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1716 as being especially of note in what was likely the first attempt to classify and delimit areas of quality production in Italy. The other three regions were Chianti (the core of Chianti Classico today), Pomino and Val di Sopra (Val d’Arno). Redi praised the wines in his literary works, while records show that vineyards were planted at least as far back as the 8th century.
Tuscan, With an Accent
One of the most unique aspects of Carmignano is the presence of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc imported from France. Cabernet did not arrive in Carmignano during “Super-Tuscan” movement that started in the late 1970s, but rather more than 500 years ago, when Catherine de’ Medici was the Queen of France. Reportedly, the Queen wanted some Cabernet in Tuscany.
Carmignano became a DOCG in 1990. Its regulations stipulate at least 50% Sangiovese. Canaiolo Nero can be used up to 20%, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are used from 10-20%, either singly or together. White grapes and other indigenous red varieties are authorized up to 10% each.
Here, too, the wines have become more elegant and transparent in recent years. Because of its small size, Carmignano does not have a large number of producers, but the wines are impressive. In addition to Carmignano and Carmignano Riserva, readers will want to be on the lookout for Barco Reale and other entry-level reds, the best of which offer terrific quality as well as value. Vin Santo is rare, but it can be exceptional.
I tasted most of the wines for this article in New York between the end of 2020 and early 2021.
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