Cabernet Franc Blind tasting at Sette Cieli Tuscany

We have ascended the 400 metres to Tenuta Sette Cieli, located in the hills behind Castagneto Carducci, in Pian delle Vigne in Monteverdi Marittimo, for an opportunity to examine the potential of Cabernet Franc grown here in this corner of Tuscany in a comparative blind tasting with examples from the Loire, Napa, and Bordeaux.

History, philosophy, ambience

view sette cieli 800

We are greeted by Ambrogio Cremona Ratti, estate family owner, and Elena Pozzini CEO and winemaker. The family connection with Castagneto Carducci originates with Ambrogio’s mother, Erika, who fell in love with the area. Her father was Antonio Ratti of the silk printing design scene in Milan in the 1950s, who is credited with rebuilding the Italian fabric design industry in the post-war period.

google map tenuta sette cieli

There is a creative meditative quality to this place that connects the natural environment with the considerable work carried out to design, curate and optimise a balanced landscape for viticulture and biodiversity to coexist.

vine with terraces800

Rows of vines with cover crops intersperse woodlands and green passages of plant life that provide the microscopical pathways for the complex interactions of life. The human fingerprint is evident in the large-scale excavation of sites with enormous boulders arranged to support impressive terraces that shape the land.

Energetic drive of winemaker, Elena Pozzolini

elena pozzolini portrait vines optElena Pozzolini 

Although it is evident from tasting the wines of Sette Cieli, Elena’s experience and laser focus on producing expressive, elegant wines that speak with precision of place, cannot be understated. We are assembled for a blind tasting that will follow the next day but absence of vision is not an issue here.

Elena has traveled extensively to gain experience working with harvests in as far-flung places as California, Australia, and Argentina, returning to Tuscany to apply her formidable expertise.

Thirst quenched vines

From our vantage point, though the rain is falling heavily, we can make out a small triangle of vines on a distant ridge belonging to Tenuta San Guido of Sassicaia renown.

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The rain is very much a factor on our visit. It was unexpected but certainly welcome to the vines who have endured a long (mostly) dry winter and perhaps have a long dry summer ahead. I console myself with this thought as the rain seeps between my toes and the landscape appears more autumnal Welsh than early summer Tuscan.

Of the 120 hectare estate, 15 are under vine, 5 in Castagneto Carducci at 70m altitude and ten here at Monteverdi Marittimo (400m).

Working with nature

Another thing to note about the landscape is that it is very much alive. Wild boar, deer, and even wolves are roaming out there. Human hunters are also amid the fray. Some are unfortunately going after the wolves. This is a shame as they are themselves a keystone species that help balance environments like this where deer and boar, if breeding in larger numbers, can cause enormous destruction. 

We discuss this. The vineyards are farmed organically and from speaking with Ambrogio, there is a clear comprehension of the climate issues that we all face and the necessity for a responsible attitude towards the future.

It is with Elena that the subject of wild deer being out of balance emerges, noting that in larger numbers they can destroy woodlands and crops. On the estate they have already had a situation where the deer have become addicted to eating the young vine shoots. To help achieve balanced biodiversity, hunters are sometimes employed to stabilise the population.

aperitivo venison cured 800

For want of words, Elena holds up her fingers and pulls an invisible trigger to signal that the deer were culled by necessity, and though I am 90% vegetarian, I am also grateful. The meat has been cured and presented to us with a glass of Longitude Premier Cru, by Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, poured from a double magnum. 

Why Cabernet Franc?

Elena points out that all the grape varieties produced by the state are tasted each year to assess their quality. It is from this analysis that Cabernet Franc has emerged as a variety of great promise.

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The vineyards here are at a cooler 400 metres altitude with exposure to the maritime conditions, including winds such as the Ponente or Maestrale. Of course, the long Tuscan summers also bring out the warmer climate characteristics of darker fruit, spices, and rounder elegant tannins.

Ambrogio says that early results in 2006-07 showed the promise of Cabernet Franc but it was hard to get the consistency of ripening in order to produce a single variety wine. In the last 5 years or so, warmer temperatures have provided the perfect ripening for Tenuta Sette Cieli’s single variety cab franc, Scipio. 

Elena emphasises that the development of Scipio has evolved from rigorous tasting and analysis of what is in the barrel as opposed to trying to fit a product to market signals. With each vintage, they examine every variety closely and apply a very agile decision-making policy that is based on achieving the desired high quality. 

When asked by another taster at the table, Filippo Magnani, “why this blind tasting now?”, Ambrogio says that they are learning a lot about the variety, both as it is in Tuscany and in other regions of the world. This tasting is an opportunity to learn together and feedback on what we think. So what do we think?

Blind Cabernet Franc

There are six wines in the blind tasting, each showing different contexts of the grape variety. Each wine is made from 100% Cabernet Franc with four being of the 2018 vintage, one 2015 and another 2020.

Two are from Tuscany and two are from the Loire. There is one from Napa and one from Bordeaux.

Consultant, Bernardo Conticelli, begins the session casting assurances that this is only for fun. No credibility is at stake, and there are no consequences for getting the wines wrong. 

His warm jovial manner lends itself well to cutting through the shroud of concentrated silence that has descended in the room. Bernardo continues with a very comprehensive and informative overview of the Cabernet Franc variety and the locations where it is prominent today.

This introduction was particularly useful as Bernardo assisted in the selection of the wines and, with hindsight, he offered some subtle references to what was, at this stage, still concealed behind the foil wrap.

Let us go then…

bernardo elena tasting 800Bernardo Conticelli conducts the tasting

Having been given very useful insights and clues, it only remained to place the wines and call out their hidden identities. A brief whiff of the first wine with its herbaceous, flinty, and vibrant acidic profile, there was little doubt of cooler climate credentials. This was my first Loire wine and of the 2018 vintage.

Moving to the second wine, at first quite overtly rounder aromatic fruit and some grassier notes. Bernardo’s words still hung in the air and it was the tail end of the taste, the persistent grassy finish that implied this was a more evolved wine from a similarly cool European latitude. Therefor my guess was that this is the second Loire, but also the oldest wine in the pack, the 2015.

The third wine was darker in hue, quite subdued at first and yet showing some fine elegance on the palate with good concentration, freshness and a longer fuller finish. There was something about the body and fuller-bodied nature of the wine that indicated Napa. Also, having tried to order the whole flight in a plausible (to me at least) way, number 3 could only be the 2018 from Napa.

Number four was a wild card. It was so very young and purple, super floral and unusual like it was not long taken from the barrel. With little to go on I mused that perhaps this could be sourced locally. So this was my guess for the first Tuscan Cabernet Franc and of the 2020 vintage.

The fifth wine had a rich dark colour, with a softer attractive nose of sweet spices and very noticeable ripe fresh tannic structure. It was certainly to my taste, themost appealing so far and, given the elegance and freshness the mouth, it felt Tuscan. So I punted for the 2018 Tuscan wine, probably from Sette Cieli.

And finally the sixth wine. This threw me into some disarray because it had adark and inky colour. It had a youthful robust structure for ageing with good concentration of flavour. Attractive but very full-bodied. My only remaining wine was the Bordeaux and so it must be.

The actual order of wines: 

cab franc line up 800sq

  1. Les Mémoires 2018, Domaine de Roches Neuves, Saumur Champigny AOC, Loire Valley, France
  2. Clos 2015, Clos Rougeard, Saumur Champigny AOC, Loire Valley, France.
  3. Paleo 2018, Le Macchiole, Tuscany IGT, Castagneto Carducci, Italy.
  4. Phi 2020, Chateau Edmus, Saint Emilion AOC, Bordeaux, France.
  5. Scipio 2018, Tenuta Sette Cieli, Tuscany IGT, Monteverdi Marittimo, Italy.
  6. Howell Mountain 2018, La Jota Vineyard, American Viticultural Area (AVA), Napa Valley, California, USA.

ambroggio elena800Ambrogio and Elena in pursuit of quality

If’s and but’s

With Bernardo’s insights about how the locations impacted the flavour profile, there was a natural guide to the tasting. My wrongful assertion on wine 4 was largely because I held too tightly to my theory of locally sourcing. Perhaps there was a clue in Bernardo’s introduction when he stated that finding a 100% Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux was not easy. 

Even the distinctly famous Cheval Blanc, renowned for having 45-55% of Cabernet Franc in the blend, did not qualify for this tasting. The attention given to this scarcity should have perhaps cast suspicion on the wildcard?

It is always easier upon reflection. Elena said that she contacted over 200 wineries trying to find a 100% single variety cab franc and this was the only one discovered, an experiment itself, produced in tiny quantities of 300bottles.

Also, after the veil was lifted, the Howell Mountain’s Napa-style seemed obvious. It had the oakiest tannic structure of all the wines and needed more time to integrate. The Paleo, by comparison, more finely structured but equal in concentration of flavour. 

Note to self: Concentrate on what is before you, listen more, and avoid cul-de-sacs of unfounded assumptions.

Take-aways and summary

Cabernet Franc is most certainly a variety with a finely sensitive fingerprint of place and, under varying conditions, expresses itself with a contemporariness of elegance and freshness. 

In this sense, there is a paradoxical element in that the warming climate is driving bigger heavier wines, and yet this parent to the more widely planted offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon, is actually showing itself to be a natural heir in its ability to excite audiences.

The team at Tenuta Sette Cieli has witnessed the recent emergence of consistent ripening temperatures in the last half-decade or so. The global warming trend is far from over and is accelerating. It will be fascinating to see how this story develops over the next decade and beyond as Cabernet Franc, as will all of us, face the inevitable challenges of thriving in an increasingly unstable environment.

That said, Tenuta Sette Cieli is a great discovery for me and it is hard not to find much to adore in their wines. Bravo!

 By Nick Breeze


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