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(April 2, 1996) Rain beat down on the tiny Tuscan hill town of Castelnuovo, washing in
torrents down the steep, narrow, twisting medieval streets.
I knew the winery was here. Somewhere. But I didn't have a street address and it
wouldn't have helped in any case, because there seemed to be a town ordinance against
I climbed out of the car, accosted the only citizen I could
find and pronounced the magic words. "Ciacci Piccolomini?" Yes, he
nodded. He knew the name.
Aha! Now if I could only remember that other word. "Dove?"
He pointed and spoke at length. I understood not a syllable, but drove in what I hoped was
the right direction.
Up until now, things had been going surprisingly well for
one who speaks zero Italiano. Several days before, phrase book in hand, I had called a
phone number, somehow communicated with a woman who spoke no English, taken down another
number, called it and (after several unsuccessful attempts) reached a very nice gentleman
whose foreign language skills far exceeded my own. Unfortunately, he explained, he was in
Germany (my call was being forwarded from his office in Florence), but the winemaker, who
also spoke French, would be happy to give me a tour and tasting. We set up a tentative
time and I agreed to call back the next day to confirm. Unfortunately, our connection was
then abruptly broken and I could never get through again. I decided to show up anyway.
So there I was. But where were they?
Eventually I discovered that by stopping often . . . saying
"Ciacci Piccolomini?" . . . and going where people pointed, I could gradually
vector in on the hidden lair. Finally, near the end of the maze, a kind woman took me in
hand and led me right to the unmarked door of this worthy winery.
Inside, I soon found the winemaker, Roberto CiPresso, who
graciously led me through the cellars and treated me to a spectacular barrel tasting.
The caves themselves are worth the effort to find this
place. There's not a lot of space and not an inch is wasted. In one tunnel, where the
floor slants up, the big Slavonian oak casks have been custom-made to fit - papa bear,
mama bear and baby bear.
But the wine!
We started with the 1994 BRUNELLO, a vintage which
some Tuscans are touting as superb, but which Roberto himself describes it as
"okay" - good but not great.
First I sampled a single barrel lot of Sangiovese. Dark and
intense, it laid to waste most of the 1990 Brunellos I had tasted from other producers. It
was already brimming with complex tobacco, spice, chocolate and cherry aromas, and showing
impressive length. Then I tasted an approximation of the final 1994 Brunello cuvee, which
exhibited even more expansive character.
Both lots tasted to me like they were ready to bottle
tomorrow. And I wondered - not for the first or last time - about the wisdom of the
Brunello regulations that require three full years of barrel-aging. It seems to me there's
little to be gained and a whole lot of risk in leaving this wine on the oak for two more
I then tasted the 1993 BRUNELLO, also still aging in
cask. This seemed a little less concentrated than the 1994, with similar berry and dark
chocolate flavors, and a very pronounced gaminess. The leathery notes were more pronounced
than I normally like and may go beyond what some people will accept. But here again, this
was one of the most serious wines I had tasted anywhere in Tuscany, from any vintage.
Now it was time to taste through the 1995s. Roberto was
clearly excited about this vintage and I soon found out why.
First he showed me an approximation of the final blend 1995
BRUNELLO, aging in the traditional large Slavonian oak casks. Black-purple, it was as
dark and concentrated as a great 1990 Bordeaux or 1991 California Cabernet. The flavors
were sensational - layer upon layer of roasted grain, cocoa, cassis - and the finish was
endless. What a wine!
But Roberto was just warming me up. Next we walked over to a
small French oak barrel, where a batch of the very same cuvee had been aging. It seemed a
little more tannic, but showed even more character and depth. Draw your own conclusions -
you can probably guess mine.
I thought we were done, but Roberto just smiled and led me
over to yet another barrel of 1995 juice. This one held a blend of equal parts Sangiovese,
Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and presumably will be the foundation for the 1995 ATEO,
Ciacci's "Super-Tuscan" Vino da Tavola. Black, black, black! Thick, thick,
thick! Amazing stuff! There was simply no contest between this and the Brunello, even
though the latter was superb in its own right.
Okay, Roberto, what next? The components. The 1995 MERLOT
was simpler, perhaps, than the blend, but easily one of the best Merlots I've ever
But the crowning glory turned out to be the 1995 CABERNET
SAUVIGNON. I've run out of adjectives, but trust me - it was the best. The most
extracted, most delicious, most powerful wine I tasted during my entire time in Tuscany,
and a rival to the best young Bordeaux and California Cabs I've tasted this year.
Before leaving, we purchased several bottles, including the 1993
ATEO. By my recollection, it cost about $15 at the winery. I drank it with dinner
later in the week, and found it rich and satisfying - deep ruby, full of raspberries and
truffles, with a nice thick mouthfeel and good finish. It developed in the glass all
evening and tasted even better the next day. This is a really sexy wine, mingling the
fruit of a California Cab with the cocoa-leather flavors of Brunello. [NOTE: I have
subsequently reviewed both the 1995 and 1996 Ateo from bottle. They're even better! Click for the
I was only sorry I couldn't carry several cases of Ciacci
wines back home with me and you can bet I'll be combing the country for their upcoming
As a postscript, let me note that the Ciacci Piccolomini
tasting not only blew my socks off, but also highlighted a couple of issues for me that
should concern anyone who loves Italian wine.
First, more than ever, I'm convinced that Super Tuscans are
where the action is. Chianti and Brunello can be delicious, even great - but this tasting
showed conclusively that a great producer can do even greater things in this terroir with
Merlot and especially Cabernet Sauvignon.
Second, I have to wonder at the current regulations for
Brunello di Montalcino. What's the real benefit of barrel-aging this wine for three years?
It seems to me that it's just too long. Sure, great producers will make wines that can
take the punishment, but think of what's being lost! And when the juice is less than
wonderful to start with, the results are inevitably tough and dried-out - as I found many
too times when tasting elsewhere.
Ciacci Piccolomini is proof of what the rest of Tuscany
could be doing - pushing against the constraints of tradition and claiming a place that is
second to none among the greatest wine producers of the world.
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