Looking across the Luce vineyards to Frescobaldi's Tenuta di Castelgiocondo in southwest Montalcino in the November sunshine
The text of this article was first published in The World of Fine Wine issue 63
There must have been no shortage of potential candidates for Lamberto Frescobaldi to choose from for the newly created post of technical director and oenologist at the new, all-singing, all-dancing, no-expense-spared Tenuta Luce winery in Montalcino. It was surely a red-hot ticket in the world of winemakers. I can’t, therefore, have been the only one to see the name of the appointee, Stefano Ruini, and think: “Who?” Reading the details released I wasn’t a whole lot wiser: “With a degree in Viticulture and
Oenology from the University of Piacenza, Ruini previously spent twenty years in the Médoc collaborating with prestigious Châteaux. This path has led him to develop an innate understanding of how a wine is inseparable from respect for and knowledge of its terroir.”
In fact, I learned from Ruini when I visited, he was in the Médoc for 23 years, ten of them at Haut-Bages Libéral. He then spent two years in Corbières-Boutenac and a year at Château Cénac in Cahors (“beautiful Malbec, but in terms of expression just behind Cabernet Sauvignon”). He came to Italy four years ago, to Tenuta Mazzolini in Oltrepò Pavese to make “elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” but he is neither Italian born nor bred. He started life in French-speaking Switzerland to a Swiss-French mother and an Italian father and has spent 32 of his 58 years in France. What nationality does he feel? No hesitation: “French.”
He feels French and has considerable experience with Cabernet Sauvignon, but not much, he admits, with Merlot, which is Sangiovese’s partner in the Luce blend. But in Montalcino Merlot is quite different from Bordeaux Merlot anyway, he says. In Montalcino it has much thicker skins when ripe, “probably because of the amount of light and sun”. As for Sangiovese (aka Brunello), “it was something new for me”. New and by no means an easy variety like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. And not one Ruini warms to universally. He doesn’t like traditional Brunello di Montalcino, but he does like the modern interpretation, which is fortunate because his Luce winemaking portfolio includes a small volume of Brunello made in a contemporary style.
Winemaker Stefano Ruini setting up the vertical tasting of Luce della Vita and Luce Brunello and the pre-release first vintage of Lux Vitis Cabernet Sauvignon in the new winery's tasting room
I wondered what he thought had drawn Lamberto Frescobaldi to him: “You would have to ask him,” was immediate response. What, then, had attracted Ruini to the post? Here he was much more forthcoming: “Tuscany, the rebrand, the project. I arrived in order to start an evolution with a new cellar and a new team. I saw the project, the investment, the equipment arriving and the 88 hectares [of vines] – Mazzolini was very small: 23 hectares. There was also the opportunity to travel. Part of my role is technical, but a third is being an ambassador. But above all it was the quality of the wines – all the Frescobaldi wines.”
"I think it was a good thing not to have much experience of Sangiovese" I assumed, then, that Lamberto Frescobaldi had encountered Ruini or wines he had made. Not so. “He called me out of the blue”, says Ruini. A point confirmed by the Marquese later: “I didn’t know him. We got his name from a professor in northern Italy and called him. I wanted someone with experience [outside Italy]. I like the preciseness exercised in French wineries. I think it was a good thing not to have much experience with Sangiovese. He has the experience of doing things properly, of taking care of the details. He has the humility of knowing that a mistake at this level of wine costs a lot.”
Stefano Ruini, meanwhile, says he has to express as much of the terroir as he can. “I try to give the grapes ripeness. I’m a midwife not a winemaker.” If in doubt about anything, Frescobaldi still employs consultant winemaker Nicolò Afflitto, who started at Castelgiocondo, where Luce was made until last year, in 1991. And Ruini is certainly well placed to take care of the details. He lives at the winery (in, as he says, “the middle of nowhere”) on the 259-ha Luce estate, which lies at 350–420m in southwest Montalcino adjoining the 815-ha Castelgiocondo. When I talk to Lamberto Frescobaldi later, it emerges that, from the outset when it was a joint venture with the Mondavi family, it was always in the plan to have a dedicated Luce winery: “A high-end project needs a winery for it to be cared for and nourished,” he says. In 2001 they even got as far as asking a French architect to come and look around, but then the Mondavi collaboration ended in 2004 and the Frescobaldis had other things on their minds – like buying 50 percent of the Luce shares. They started thinking again around 2010, eventually buying the adjacent Logonovo estate for just over €11.5 million (55ha, 11 of them planted), where the owner had already started to build a winery. Finishing this winery saved the landscape from having a third in close proximity. The new Luce winery, opened in June 2018, is equipped with a very gentle “new generation” destemmer-crusher, 96hl Italian-made, unlined, egg-shaped concrete tanks in a fetching red (at Castelgiocondo there is more stainless steel than concrete) and with barriques from a variety of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Cognac coopers. All wines can be, and are, fermented with indigenous yeast and indigenous malolactic bacteria. Will the quality of Luce improve? I ask the Marquese. “If it doesn’t I can shoot myself now… We’re giving a niche winery a greater level of independency to enhance the terroir.”
The 11th century Castelgiocondo, the vegetable garden (above left) and lunch featuring the estate's olive oil
TASTING I tasted the wines in the order below at the new winery in November 2018, although all the wines had been made at Castelgiocondo. Luce (first vintage: 1993) is always more or less 50/50 Sangiovese and Merlot, the later-ripening Sangiovese planted higher up, on schist rich in marl (aka galestro), and the Merlot planted lower down where there is more clay mixed in. After the slow, indigenous alcoholic fermentation all lots of Luce go into barriques, 85% new, for the malolactic and stay in the barrels for 24 months. There is no filtration or egg fining. Although the estate has been certified organic since 2015, the wine labels don’t say so. Luce 2015 Insistent, bright, ripe black fruit on the nose – more Merlot than Sangiovese – carrying through with the same intensity on the palate and joined by fresh aromatic herb and balsamic (Sangiovese) notes and a hint of cocoa bitterness. The oak is still fairly prominent and the tannins make their presence felt but with pebble smoothness. The opulence, lushness and sheen make this accessible even at so primary a stage, but it has the concentration, the freshness in conjunction with ripeness, and the balance to be long-lived. 95 Luce 2012 More elegant and classically constructed, with a pretty, floral, spicy perfume that keeps reprising (and is more iris and peony than heady rose, jasmine or violet). Black fruit again, but not as extravagant as the 2015, with notes of tobacco (Sangiovese), balsamic and a suggestion of eucalyptus. Silky texture with effortless fine-grained tannins. Harmonious and long rather than broad. 95 Luce 2010 Toast, chocolate and cappuccino on both nose and palate. Rich and ripe but without the brilliant black-fruit clarity of the 2015. Concentrated and quite chunky, with powerful, ripe tannins rather than the very fine tannins of 2012, and showing its oak more than the two younger vintages. Lifted, though, by a fresh, spicy, almost peppery finish. Needs time. For some tasters I’m sure this would be their preferred wine. 93 Luce 2008 A very hot vintage. Stefano Ruini says hot vintages are good for Sangiovese. The Merlot was harvested lightly over-ripe. Still showing more Merlot than Sangiovese at this stage, with rich black cherry, a hint of violets and some meaty balsamic and earthy mineral notes. Silky but concentrated, with some firmer, more grippy tannins in the background and then a welcome fresh note to the finish. 94 Luce 2006 A change of gear – less about Merlot and black fruit and more about the evolution of Sangiovese, with aromatic, herb-perfumed sweetness, sweet red cherry and wild berry fruit, tobacco and some mocha-chocolate notes. Velvety but dense tannins and a long, fresh, paprika-spice finish. Drinking well now but would repay keeping even longer to allow the tannins to soften still further. 93/4 Luce 2001 Deep garnet colour with slight thinning at the rim. Evolved, sweet leather and spice aromas and a suggestion of garrigue. Mellow, cherry-topped spicy fruitcake palate with soft, dry tannins and a gentle freshness. It doesn’t have intensity of more recent vintages, but has a balance and rounded, sweet-fruited, spicy mellowness that make it very appealing to drink now. 93 Luce Brunello The Brunello (first vintage: 2003) is from a single five-hectare plot, the Madonnino vineyard. In 2016 the six months’ ageing in barriques was dropped in favour of maturation in 30hl Slavonian oak only (staves seasoned but not toasted). Stefano Ruini says they are currently experimenting but will probably go to a smoother, longer elevage. Luce Brunello 2013 Mouthwateringly aromatic with dark cherry and bitter chocolate aromas. Intense cherry fruit, both black and red, with savoury Marmite and balsamic notes on the palate. Powerful, but tight rather than expansive, long rather than wide. Texturally already fine and satin-like but there’s no mistaking the supporting framework of tannin and oak promising a long evolution. 94 Luce Brunello 2010 Slightly deeper colour than 2013. Glorious depth, richness, sweetness and mineral freshness. Intense fruit – black cherry with floral notes (violets more than anything). More intense and concentrated than the 2013. Forceful but fine tannins. Still reined in, but just beginning to relax and unfold. Great potential. 95 Luce Brunello 2008 Nose marked by vibrancy of black fruits and floral (violet) aromas. Meaty, spicy concentration on the palate: roast meat and game with a deep bitter-chocolate streak followed by tobaccoey spice. A big, concentrated wine with ripe, clinging tannins. 93/4 Luce Brunello 2006 Opulent and yet beautifully fresh, with an autumnal nose of cherry, tobacco, pine resin, garrigue and balsamic – all very alluring. Rich, dark and milk chocolate depth to the palate with ripe, powerful, tailored tannins. 94 Lux Vitis 2015 The new baby, Lux Vitis 2015, is from three hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 2004 on soil with limestone and sand. It’s 95% Cabernet with 5% Sangiovese, aged for two years in 100% new barriques and 7,459 bottles were produced. It’s being launched in overseas markets this year. Very intense black fruit and cedary spice – almost peppery in its youthfulness. Impressively elegant tannins – fine-grained and seamless. Equally impressive freshness, definition, concentration and savoury length. It will become much more complex and nuanced, but the ripeness and glossy texture make it possible to drink even now (almost criminal to do so, though). 94/5 Lucente 2016 The second wine of Luce (first vintage: 1995) is a 70:30 Sangiovese blend barrique-aged for a year in 30% new oak and 70% previously used for Luce. Lush fruit – spicy red cherry, red berry and black cherry – but with a purity emphasized by a sweet herb, green spice freshness (echoes of Cabernet Franc) and by the delicate, smoky mineral quality. Supple and approachable but with structured tannins to give it a future. A very good second wine.
Brunello's schistous clay galestro soils and the chic red concrete fermenters in the new Luce della Vita winery
Photographs by Joanna Simon