In 1979, Ugo Conti Bonacossi, owner of Tenuta di Capezzana, the leading estate in Carmignano, created a unique Super Tuscan wine, Ghiaie della Furba (literally, pebbles along the Furba stream). It should come as no surprise that a grower in Carmignano should make a Super Tuscan because, after all, Carmignano, not Bolgheri, was the birthplace of the concept. Catherine de Medici brought Cabernet Franc with her from France when she returned to the area in the 16th century. So, Carmignano has a five-century tradition of using Uva Francesca (a.k.a. Cabernet Franc) in the blend with Sangiovese for their DOCG wines.
What Bonacossi did was still unique. A friend of Eric de Rothschild, Bonacossi wanted to make a Bordeaux blend. He found a site with gravely soil alongside a stream that was ideally suited for Bordeaux varieties. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon in 1968 and made the first Ghiaie, the first Bordeaux blend for the region, about a decade later by blending equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Ironically, given its history in the area, Cabernet Franc was eliminated, replaced by Syrah in 1998 when Benedetta Bonacossi, one of Ugo’s daughters, took over as head winemaker. Ugo, always willing to experiment, had planted, among other varieties, 2.5-acres of Syrah in the mid-1980s. The Bonacossi DNA for experimenting flowed to Benedetta, who examined the effect of incorporating Syrah into Ghiaie della Furba. She did blind tastings with and without Syrah and concluded that Ghiaie with Syrah was a far more expressive and complex wine. She clearly loves Syrah. Her face brightens and her otherwise quiet demeanor becomes animated when she talks about the variety. They’ve subsequently expanded their Syrah plantings to 7.5-acres and the current blend is roughly Cabernet Sauvignon (40%), Syrah (35%), and Merlot.
Capezzana dates to at least 804 (you read that correctly), according to a contract written on parchment held in the Florence Archives, indicating that vines and olive trees were grown there. The microclimate of Carmignano, and especially of Capezzana, between the Mediterranean and the Apennines affords good ventilation, adequate rainfall at the right times, warm days, and cool nights, the latter essential for holding onto acidity in the grapes that translates into vibrancy in the wines. The Medici family, who vacationed there to escape Florence’s summertime heat, went on to make the wines of Carmignano the most famous in Tuscany. Though today Carmignano may not carry that distinction, the DOCG remains unique because it requires the incorporation of Cabernet, either Sauvignon or Franc, into the blend with Sangiovese. And with only 13 producers, the wines from Carmignano, the smallest DOCG in Tuscany with only about 550 acres of vines, are consistently high-quality.
The Contini Bonacossi family acquired Capezzana in 1924. The estate comprises about 2,100 acres, of which 200 are devoted to vines (125 acres in DOCG Carmignano) and 350 to olive trees. They have used only native yeasts since 2103 because Benedetta believes, “having many strains of yeast is important for aromatic complexity.” The entire property is now certified organic. Ghiaie della Furba, classified as an IGT Toscana, is aged in small oak barrels, a.k.a. barriques, for from 12 to 15 months, depending on vintage.
Now to the wines. Capezzana hosted a vertical tasting of Ghiaie della Furba that included the 1981, 1999, 2006, 2016, and 2019 in Florence in February during the Antiprime di Toscane. In preparation, I tasted the 2015 from my cellar, so I have included notes about that wine as well.
Before delving into specific wines, let me outline my overall impressions:
First and foremost, Ghiaie della Furba is a top Tuscan wine that, like all great wines, takes more than a decade to reveal its true grandeur. Unsurprisingly, the style of the wine changed with the substitution of Syrah for Cabernet Franc, resulting in a more muscular wine with peppery or meaty accents. All the wines, even the 40+ year-old 1981, had great freshness and life. That’s the Tuscan acidity speaking.
The 1981, a classic Bordeaux blend of equal parts, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, has developed gorgeously, expressing the alluring cedar-like nuances of mature Bordeaux buttressed by racy Tuscan acidity. As it sits in the glass, coffee-like notes emerge. Certainly, mature, but by no means tired. Judging from this wine, Ugo was correct. 95 points.
Even with Syrah comprising only ten percent of the blend of the 1999, its presence in this powerful yet graceful wine is clear. (Cabernet Sauvignon comprised 60% of the blend while Merlot filled out the rest.) The Syrah adds “oomph” and a meaty complexity that becomes apparent with air. Minerals and a delightful hint of tarriness in the finish adds allure. You’d never guess this balanced and complete wine was 20+ years old. The Tuscan acidity keeps it energetic. An entirely different style from the 1981, the suavely muscular 1999 is equally impressive and enjoyable. 96
To my mind, the more tannic 2006, from a year widely acclaimed as a great vintage, still needs a few years to show its splendor. Initially burly, the tannins soften with air, and the black peppery notes of Syrah become a gorgeous accent to the wine’s mineral aspect. The energy of the 2006 is thrilling. Everything here is in balance, which is not surprising since Benedetta emphasizes, “Balance is key from the start.” It’s hard to believe that this Incredibly youthful wine is 15+ years old. For those who are interested, the blend of the 2006 is Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) and equal parts Merlot and Syrah. 93
The muscular 2015, with what has become the modern blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (40%), Syrah (35%) and Merlot, is tightly wound even at eight years of age. Like the 2006, this youthful beauty reveals its glories slowly as it sits in the glass. Suave and glossy tannins enrobe its tar-like mineral qualities. An intriguing meatiness—the Syrah speaking—emerges with time. Its balance suggests this 2015 has a beautiful future. That said, those who enjoy wines at a more youthful stage of their evolution can enjoy it now if you decant it and savor during a meal. 92
The reduced proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the suave 2016 compared to the 2006, 40% compared to 60%, and the concomitant increase of Syrah to 35% from 20%, may explain the wine’s appealing texture. Black pepper notes add balancing spice to this powerhouse. It carries its 15.4% stated alcohol effortlessly. Fresh and youthful, this muscular wine should develop splendidly over the next decade. Its balance and fine texture allow enjoyment now as long as you’re a fan of youthful, power-packed wines. 94
Powerful and polished, the 2019 is another excellent Ghiaie della Furba. With the same blend as the 2016, Cabernet Sauvignon (40%), Syrah (35%) and Merlot, this youthful dynamo displays haunting peppery accents that balance the deep, plum-like black fruit nuances. Finely honed firm tannins add to its appeal and impart balancing structure without astringency. Fresh and lively, it has a graceful and persistent finish. 94
My advice: drink your Ghiaie della Furba wines young, within five years of the vintage, to enjoy the power if your tastes run to muscular meaty reds. Otherwise, find a place in your cellar for these gems and let them develop for a decade or two to allow them to show their nuanced complexity.
E-mail me your thoughts about Carmignano in general or Capezzana and Ghiaie della Furba in particular or at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein
May 17, 2023