Confessions of a Closet Merlot Drinker

Readers of my work know that I love Barolo, and Sangiovese. They also know that I have developed a love for the new wave of Spanish wines, as well as well-balanced Rhones–both north and south. However, what most of my readers don’t know is that I have something of a secret passion. Not a secret because I’m embarrassed of it, or because I try to hide it in any way, but because most other wine drinkers ignore this category or discard it all together. The secret passion is for Merlot.

Not just any Merlot, mind you. Trust me when I say that I am not a fan of the large-scaled, heavily oaked and overly fruity, New World Merlot that created the smear on the word that continues to exist in most consumers’ minds to this day. No, I am a fan of Old World Merlot, both rustic Merlot and refined Merlot, and even Merlot that was produced by many of the old-school pioneers of California from back in the day–Joel Peterson comes to mind. I’m also a fan of Merlot-based Bordeaux, yet it often depends on the vintage and the trends within the region at the time the wine was made.

Which brings me to my favorite category of Merlot: Tuscan Merlot. There is simply something about Tuscan Merlot that is so unique when compared to the variety grown anywhere else in the world. Call it terroir, or call it “Tuscan Spice”, or maybe it’s the zesty acidity that Italy seems to add to every variety grown there. However, no matter what it is, I love it, and the exotic twist keeps me coming back over and over again.

Of course, not all are created equal, as there are plenty of producers who cut yields too low, heavily extract, or age in massive amounts of new oak. I’m not here to talk about them. I’m here to talk about my favorite producers of Tuscan Merlot. One which I’ve been following for close to a decade now, and has consistently shown to be not only one of the top Merlot producers in the world, but also the one that offers amazing value when compared to the likes of Masseto and Tua Rita. That producer is Luca Martini di Cigala of San Giusto a Rentennano.

Luca Martini is currently one of the most talked-about producers in Tuscany. Located in the southernmost region of the Chianti zone, Luca’s priorities

 are focused on the land, the vine, and using strictly natural techniques to produce fruit of remarkable quality, which speak of Tuscan terroir above all else. Organic, biodynamic, in sync with nature–it all qualifies here, as well as a natural approach in the cellar that has evolved over the past decades into something verging on religion. At one time, smaller oak barrels could be found in abundance in the winery, but they have been slowly disappearing over the last decade.

Then there are the wines themselves, from the entry-level Chianti Classico (a must-buy in every vintage) to his flagship Percarlo, a monument to what can be achieved with Sangiovese. I love them all dearly, yet the wine that speaks to my soul is his Merlot, La Ricolma.

La Ricolma is a 100% varietal Merlot, from choice parcels planted throughout Luca’s vineyards. When compared to other Tuscan Merlot (something I’ve done many times in the past), it immediately stands out as a wine of terroir and varietal, with a balanced use of oak that rounds out its edges and sends it along the path of maturity in perfect form. And the fact is that maturity is where the real reward awaits, as La Ricolma ages beautifully. I’d go as far as saying that I’ve never seen a vintage of La Ricolma that wouldn’t benefit from ten years or more in the cellar.

Which brings me to the inspiration of today’s blog.

Last year marked the release of the 2015 La Ricolma, a wine that had been hinted at being one of the greatest vintages ever produced by more than one professional critic, and also a wine that was one of the top wines of the 2015 Tuscan vintage overall.  These hints proved warranted when Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media released his 100 point score. Suddenly, any bottle of 2015 La Ricolma that hadn’t already been snatched up by collectors disappeared.

The attention this series of events created in the collector market shined the spotlight on past vintages as well as pushing prices up and availability down.

What was a true fan of La Ricolma to do? Buy. Buy. Buy.

However, we didn’t want to buy blindly.  Luckily a good friend and fellow collector had a great idea to build a vertical of La Ricolma that would showcase as many vintages as we could assemble.  Next, to invite a group of Merlot lovers (not the easiest task) to help us complete this vertical, while getting the insights and opinions of others at the table.  We even added two vintages of Redigaffi and one of Messorio for comparison’s sake.

In the end we had eight vintages of La Ricolma, starting with the 2001 and ending with the 100-point 2015 (I also added a 2007 here that came too late to include that evening).  It was glorious, but it was also a lot of wine, which couldn’t be finished in one night. However, this provided an unexpected opportunity to the tasting, because I was able to check in on those wines over the course of three days, using only refrigeration between tastings to slow their decline.

The outcome?

First and foremost, the biggest takeaway from the tasting was the evolution of these wines, with the 2008 vintage being only in its early drinking window, and each younger wine only on the path to providing the pleasure they are certain to deliver one day.  Even in the riper vintages, San Guisto managed to create wines of balance and longevity, just in a riper style. As for the most mature wine of the night, the 2001 still has many years of evolution ahead for it. And, of course, the 100-point 2015–and I will say this knowing full well that this tasting group is one that likes nothing more than to poke holes in 100-point wines–it was glorious.

Now let’s talk about the best part of all, following nearly all of these vintages over three nights. The 2008, a wine that didn’t receive any major critical acclaim upon release, was beautiful on the first night for its vibrancy and tension, yet it only got better and better with each tasting afterwards.  In the end, it was one of my top wines. The ‘06, ‘12, and ‘13 also got better or at least maintained through each night. In fact, only the ‘09, ‘14 and ‘01 (<– completely forgivable) showed any decline night after night. I was amazed. The only sad thing is that the 2015 was so good that it was already gone on the first night.

In closing, this tasting confirmed all of our hopes for La Ricolma.  The wines were spectacular, beautifully balanced, and excellent examples of varietal and terroir, made in a style that promises decades of positive evolution.

My best advice is to buy them if you can find them.

On to the Tasting Notes:

2001 San Giusto a Rentennano La Ricolma Toscana – The nose alone on the ‘01 La Ricolma was worth the price of entry.  It was lifted and very pretty, showing depths of raspberry, cherry, sweet plum, dried perfumed florals, cedar shavings, and hints of undergrowth.  On the palate, silky, feminine textures paved the way for blackberry and savory spice, with a mix of zesty acid and still-youthful tannin, as inner florals amassed toward the finale.  The finish was long and structured, almost impossibly young, as tart cherry and residual acids made the mouth water. What a beautiful wine. (95 points)

2006 San Giusto a Rentennano La Ricolma Toscana – The nose was dark and showing a bit of maturity, with hints of undergrowth and wet fall leaves up front.  With time in the glass, a mix of ripe plums, blueberries and black cherry developed, as earthy minerality and savory herbs completed the experience. On the palate, creamy textures like fine silk washed across the senses, giving way to acid-driven red and blue fruits, as fine tannins slowly mounted.  The finish was long, staining every inch of the palate with cheek-puckering tart red fruit and youthful tannin. The ‘06 was a beautiful wine to enjoy on this night, yet I worry that it may decline in the next few years, as its tannins and acids seem to be outpacing its fruit. (94 points)

2007 San Giusto a Rentennano La Ricolma Toscana – The nose was zesty and seductive, showing spiced blueberries, dried cherries, sweet tobacco, cedar dust, smoky minerality, and a hint of sage. On the palate, silky textures were offset by brisk acids, creating both a mouthwatering yet elegant expression, all at the same time as notes of tart dried cherries with savory spice and minerals penetrated the senses. The finish was long and spicy, displaying youthful tannin against a backdrop of dried red fruits, tobacco, cedar and inner florals. (94 points)

2008 San Giusto a Rentennano La Ricolma Toscana – The ‘08 La Ricolma was my surprise of the night, often considered a difficult vintage in Tuscany, yet you’d never know it from this wine.  Here I found a savory display of tart black cherry, crushed raspberry and plum, mixed with dusty spice, dark earth, hints of cedar, and a melange of perfumed floral tones. On the palate, velvety, almost-creamy textures flooded the senses with savory dark fruits, sage and minerals, remaining remarkably fresh and almost mouthwatering through its bright acidity and spicy persona, yet beneath it all–classic tannins.  The finish was long and structured, with palate-staining dark red fruits, fine tannins and a hint of savory herbs. What a beautiful wine; this is the real deal. (97 points)

2009 San Giusto a Rentennano La Ricolma Toscana – The 2009 La Ricolma shows the character of this warmer vintage, yet in the best possible way.  The bouquet was a dark and intense display of blackberry, crushed blueberries and ripe plum, spice cake, hints of balsamic spice and haunting florals.  On the palate, silky textures were complemented with notes of ripe blackberries, blueberries and sweet herbs, as lifting minerality created a cool-toned and truly satisfying expression, with fine tannin lurking in the foreground .  The finish was long and amazingly fresh for such a big wine, as hints of blackberry and plums slowly faded. (93 points)

2012 San Giusto a Rentennano La Ricolma Toscana – At first, the bouquet was quite restrained, yet time revealed a classic expression with dusty florals giving way to dried cherries, mint leaf, crushed stone minerality, and hints of cedar.  On the palate, silky-soft textures were lifted by cooling acids and subtle spice, as notes of dried raspberry and rosy inner florals gave way to slow-mounting tannin. The finish was long and classic, as fine tannins mixed with raspberry and hints of spice.  Frankly, as much as the 2012 needs more time in the cellar to develop, I found it so easy to like already. In a way, it reminded me of a crushed flower, as its focus seemed so linear yet with so many details to be found within. (94 points)

2013 San Giusto a Rentennano La Ricolma Toscana – The ‘13 La Ricolma showed a darker and spicier expression than the vintages surrounding it.  Here I found a bouquet of crushed black raspberry, tart cherry, sage, dusty earth tones, stone dust and dried florals.  On the palate, silky textures were contrasted by savory spice, minerals and lively acidity, as an intense mix of saturating red and blue fruits bombarded the senses, leaving youthful tannins in their wake.  The finish was long and structured, as zesty acids gave life to lingering tart cherry, spice and minerals. There are many years of evolution in store for the ‘13, and anyone who has it in their cellar will be very happy in another ten years of more. (96 points)

2014 San Giusto a Rentennano La Ricolma Toscana – The nose was exuberant and ripe, yet still so fresh, showing a mix of sweet plums, blueberries and spices, giving way to mint leaf, lavender and masses of dusty dried florals.  On the palate, I found a cool-toned expression, as silky, almost-creamy textures ushered in tart red and black fruits, infused with saline-minerality. The finish was at first a bit short, yet as the wine sat in the glass, it gained more momentum, coating the palate in inner floral tones, while tart red fruits and mounting tannins resonated.  When all was said and done, I found myself loving the 2014. (94 points)

2015 San Giusto a Rentennano La Ricolma Toscana – It’s always great when a wine that has received 100 points from a critic actually lives up to its reputation.  Not to say that I believe it is truly a 100-point wine in my book (something I reserve for earth-moving experiences), but the 2015 La Ricolma certainly came close.  The bouquet presented a layered and remarkably fresh expression, savory at times and then sweet and spiced, showing dark red fruits accentuated by crushed stone minerality, hints of sweet curry, blueberry skins and undergrowth.  On the palate, enveloping, silky textures gave way to lifting mineral-encased red berries, saturating savory spice, and youthful tannin, yet remaining fresh and vibrant. It finished long and intense, as a mix of minerals and tannins coated the senses, reminding me that this is a wine that’s built for the long haul.  Beautiful. (98 points)


Credit Resources

Article, Tasting Notes and Most Photos by Eric Guido

Thank you for use of winery and vineyard photos, please visit the official website of San Giusto A Rentennano

Thank you to Vinifera Imports for taking part in and helping to complete our vertical.

Explore the selection of San Guisto a Rentennano at Morrell Wine.