Carmignano: A Little Bit Of Cab Goes A Long Way (Back In History)

by Jim Clarke
November 2006

The words “Tuscany” and “Cabernet” usually bring to mind a bundle of high-priced wines that emerged in the 1970s: the Super-Tuscans. However, one small region of Tuscany already had a tradition of growing Cabernet and was reemerging from under the Chianti umbrella at the same time: Carmignano.

Despite an illustrious history, Carmignano’s wines spent much of the past century in the shadow of Chianti and Tuscany’s other, more well-known wine regions. The area was noted for its wines as far back as 1396, and in 1716 the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici thought enough of the wines to establish the region’s borders by official decree. The 1930s were less kind, and for four decades Carmignano was subsumed as just another part of an expanded Chianti.

There are ample reasons for considering Carmignano a separate zone. Located west of Florence, Carmignano is a bit farther north than Chianti Classico, and the slightly cooler climate means Sangiovese struggles to ripen there; most of the vineyards, in fact, are located on east-facing slopes to squeeze out every bit of heat from the morning sun. This means the typical Sangiovese going into a Carmignano blend is lighter in body, higher in acid, and often more fragrant than its cousins in Chianti. It also explains the use of Cabernet Sauvignon, which helps fill out the darker fruit range of aromas and the structure of the wines, which might otherwise seem too thin and lean. Records indicate that Cabernet had already secured a spot in local vineyards back in the 18th century, about the time Cosimo was putting his stamp of approval on the area. From 10 to 20% Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc is allowed in the blend, and Merlot and Syrah can also find their way into the bottle under a catch-all 10% “other varietals” category. Even with these additions, Carmignano usually retains an elegance that contrasts with the full, robust international style of the Super-Tuscans, which are mostly made from warmer, more southerly vineyards.


Carmignano is a relatively small DOCG – about 740 acres; like some other Tuscan appellations, it has a parallel appellation for more straightforward wines made with the same varieties, confusingly named Barco Reale di Carmignano (after a Medicean gaming preserve) instead of following the more usual “Rosso di…” pattern of Montepulciano or Montalcino to the south.


Capezzana, owned and run by the Contini Bonacossi family, is one of Carmignano’s leading lights; patriarch Conte Ugo Contini Bonacossi was responsible for the creation of the Carmignano DOC (now DOCG) in 1975. Their Carmignano is made with the maximum allowed amount of Cabernet Sauvignon (20%); the rest is Sangiovese. The 2003 is one of the more muscular examples of Carmignano, in keeping with the vintage’s hot weather. It’s still somewhat young, but already shows lots of dark fruit – boysenberry, blueberry, black cherry – combining with notes of slate, earth, tobacco, and licorice (Decanting helped open up this wine a lot.). The tannins are firm and well-balanced in this medium to full-bodied wine. The Barco Reale from the same vintage is softer and less complex, but is more readily enjoyable at the moment; it’s also more aromatic, with notes of chocolate, licorice, and similar dark fruits.

The Capezzana’s “Trefiano” Carmignano was originally produced as from grapes grown in the vineyards surrounding a villa of the same name. It’s currently on hiatus while the vineyards are converted to organic farming; hopefully recent vintages will be released soon, as the older wines show all the hallmarks of quality. 1996 was a relatively cool vintage in Tuscany, and that year’s Trefiano is at the far end of the Carmignano spectrum from the 2003 described previously. It’s light-bodied, with notes of sour cherry, white chocolate, and tobacco, and some licorice touches appear on the palate. Tannins and acidity are still present, but the mouth-feel is silky and soft. This wine is coming off its peak, but it’s still very enjoyable and elegant, and very clearly Carmignano.

Capezzana also produces a few IGT wines (including a Super-Tuscan, the Ghiaie Della Furba), a Vin Santo, and olive oil; their estate is well set-up for visits and agritourism.


Given his penchant for producing single-vineyard wines, Fattoria de Ambra’s winemaker Beppe Rigoli seems like a Burgundian (or Oregonian) lost in Tuscany. The “Elzana” and the “Vigne Alte” are Riserva wines; the more readily available “Santa Cristina” exemplifies the virtues of Carmignano: medium-body, food-friendly acidity, and firm tannins, with a fragrant mix of aromas ranging from sour cherry to bitter chocolate to bay leaf and tobacco.


Clothing manufacturer Mauro Vanucci dove into the Tuscan wine scene in 1990; Piaggia, his winery, has proven to be more than a hobby or side project. He only makes a DOCG wine in good years; if it’s not up to snuff, he declassifies it into an IGT called Il Sasso, or even sells it off as bulk wine. While the winemaking leans toward the modern, with lots of barriques and a blend that pushes the Cabernet and Merlot to the maximum, the 2001 still shows all the touches of the region: a mix of red and dark fruits countered by spice, food-friendly and elegant.