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Tuscany's Tiny Treasure

(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 signs.

     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 years.

     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 tasted.

     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 notes.]

     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 releases.

     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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