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Why Is Italy's Greatest Wine Made Of Non-Native Merlot Grapes? We Find Answers In Tasting 6 Big Super Tuscans From Masseto To Tua Rita

 

Let’s talk about some renowned Italian Merlots. But before that, let’s learn a bit about Italian wine history.

A brief history of the Super Tuscans

 

For centuries, Italy has been home to legendary wines like Barolo and Chianti, each with a history woven deep into the fabric of the country. Yet, the 1960s brought an unexpected twist. In an effort to control wine quality, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) system ironically led to some classic Italian wines like the Chianti began losing depth and personality as winemakers were forced to include Italian white grapes in red blends. A frustration grew among innovative vintners who felt stifled by rigid regulations at a time when red wines from America, France and even Australia were increasingly popular on the international market.

Eyes turned to the French region of Bordeaux and its star grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. In an act of defiance, Tuscan winemakers dared to experiment with these "foreign" varieties. The results were extraordinary – wines with power and complexity that shook the foundations of Italian winemaking. These rebellious gems became known as "Super Tuscans."

 

Super Tuscan Merlots

While most Super Tuscans are blends rather than single-varietal wines – usually a blend of Sangiovese mixed with one of the Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc) – there has been an increasing popularity of Super Tuscan wineries focusing on making single-varietal wines. These wines are highly esteemed for showcasing the potential of single varietals cultivated in Tuscany's unique terroir.

 

 

The Merlot grape in particular has a fascinating past. Originating from the Bordeaux region of France, it earned its first written mention way back in 1783. Some believe the name "Merlot" is inspired by the French word "merle," or blackbird. Both the grape and the bird share those stunning dark blue-black hues.

 

 

Botanically, Merlot shares a close family connection with the famed Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc varieties. It’s the offspring of Cabernet Franc and the less famous Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, which is a half-sibling of the Cabernet Sauvignon.

However, don't let its pedigree fool you – Merlot has its own distinct personality. In fact, Merlot has thinner skins compared to its relatives. This translates to wines that have softer tannins, are smoother and more approachable, compared to bolder wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon. It also boasts naturally high sugar content and lower malic acid, contributing to its signature roundness and plush texture.

Ideal growing conditions of the Merlot

Today, Merlot is a superstar, standing as the second most-planted grape on the planet (right behind its cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon). Italy has wholeheartedly embraced Merlot, boasting over 25,000 hectares dedicated to its cultivation. It's no wonder – Merlot absolutely thrives in the Tuscan terroir.

The Merlot is an early-ripening varietal that prefers cooler climates, where maturation is slowed, leading to more complex and balanced wines. This might at first brush seem counterintuitive for the famously sunny region of Tuscany, but we should note that Tuscany encompasses specific microclimates that offer these ideal conditions. Vineyards at higher altitudes or those caressed by cooling sea breezes provide the perfect environment for Merlot.

 

 

Merlot also has a deep affinity for clay soils, which are a hallmark of several Tuscan sub-regions and help keep vineyards hydrated and healthy throughout the growing season. Not all clays are created equal, however.

Blue Clay (or Argilla Blue) is perfect for Merlot but generally not suitable for later-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. This is because it has a remarkable ability to retain moisture, and also tends to be much cooler due to their composition. This prevents Merlot from ripening too quickly, aiding in the gradual, balanced development of acidity and vibrance.

 

 

Certain Tuscan and Bordeaux areas also boast "Crasse de fer," a unique clay rich in iron oxide. This soil type, famously found in Bordeaux's Pomerol and Saint-Émilion regions, is believed by some to impart a distinctive minerality to Merlot wines.

 

Blue clay and iron-oxide clay (Crasse de fer) in the French region of Pomerol.

 

On the whole, the cooler climate and clay soils of many sub-regions in Tuscany make for a Tuscan Merlot with a well-rounded body, gentle tannins and low acidity.

The Tuscan Merlots we tasted

Last week I had the pleasure to attend a captivating masterclass led by Celine Jung, Deputy Group Head Sommelier of Park90. We delved into the world of exquisite Tuscan Merlots, tasting wines from six highly esteemed Super Tuscan producers. The lineup included cult favorites like Masseto and Tua Rita:

  1. Tolaini, Tenuta Montebello "Picconero" 2018
  2. Castello di Ama, "l'Apparita" 2018
  3. Petrolo, "Galatrona" 2019
  4. Tua Rita, "Redigaffi" 2014 (1.5L Magnum)
  5. Le Macchiole, "Messorio" 2013
  6. Masseto, "Massetino" 2018

 

 

1. Tolaini, Tenuta Montebello "Picconero" 2018

100% Merlot (though usually blended with Cabernet Franc), Chianti Classico, Toscana IGT Appellation, Soil: lime and clay with some gravel-sized stones.

 

 

Let's begin our exploration with the Tolaini. Hailing from the Chianti Classico region with vineyards boasting a unique terroir of lime, clay, and large gravel stones, Tolaini may not enjoy the same international spotlight as some of the other wineries featured, but it's steadily gaining recognition for its superb "Picconero".

Picconero, which means "Black Hill," is typically a blend showcasing Merlot and Cabernet Franc. However, the 2018 vintage stands out as a 100% Merlot expression. After meticulous selection, both in the vineyard and with an optical sorter, the grapes are aged in 100% new French oak barriques for a luxurious 24 months, followed by 12 months of bottle aging.

Their wines tend to have a bouquet of wild berries, spice, and vanilla and on the palate, dark cherry, blueberry, leather, and earthy notes.

My thoughts after tasting:

This Tolaini "Picconero" showcases a more austere style of Merlot, emphasizing earthiness and tannic structure over plush fruitiness. It takes some time in the glass for the initial waxiness to dissipate, revealing a denser core with interesting hints of mustiness and magic marker. The prominent tannins and subtle fruit offer a unique profile compared to more typical, fruit-forward Merlot expressions. The aromas of cakey clay provide a particularly intriguing dimension.

My Rating: 80/100

🍷Score/Rating Scale :

  • 95-100 Classic: a great wine
  • 90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
  • 85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
  • 80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
  • 75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
  • 50-74 Not recommended

2. Castello di Ama, "l'Apparita" 2018 

100% Merlot, Gaiole in Chianti, Toscana IGT Appellation, Soil: calcareous with clay.

 

 

Then, we shift our focus to a true pioneer in the realm of Super Tuscan Merlots – Castello di Ama. Located in the heart of Chianti Classico, Castello di Ama’s history is fairly short (having been established in the 1970s) but really made its mark for being a pioneer in the Super Tuscans category. Their L'Apparita was first released in 1985, and was one of the first pure Merlots from Tuscany. Thanks to L'Apparita, the winery quickly gained acclaim and solidified Castello di Ama as a driving force in Tuscan winemaking.

The grapes for L'Apparita are sourced from a special cru within the Bellavista vineyard, where the vines average a remarkable 35 years in age. The calcareous clay soil found here is known to impart a distinct minerality and freshness to the wines.

My thoughts after tasting:

This "l'Apparita" is a distinctly brighter and more fruit-forward take on Merlot with a lively acidity. While the tannins provide structure, they remain restrained, creating a softer, elegant style. It's well-saturated in flavour, yet lighter in body, appealing to those who enjoy easy-drinking reds with expressive character. The slight barnyard note on the nose adds a touch of rustic charm that may not be everyone's preference but does adds an element of interest.

My Rating: 80/100

🍷Score/Rating Scale :

  • 95-100 Classic: a great wine
  • 90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
  • 85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
  • 80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
  • 75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
  • 50-74 Not recommended

3. Petrolo, "Galatrona" 2019 

100% Merlot, Val d'Arno di Sopra in Tuscany, Val d'Arno di Sopra DOC Appellation, Soil: marl, alberese, sandstone, claystone and flakes of shale.

 

 

Let's now venture into the Val d'Arno di Sopra and explore the artistry of Petrolo. This esteemed winery is best recognised for its flagship wine, "Galatrona," which is often compared with the best Merlots in the world and is a testament to the expressive power of Merlot in this region.

Petrolo's vineyards, planted in the 1990s, sit by a shimmering lake on unique soils rich in marl, alberese, sandstone, claystone, and shale, providing a complex foundation for their wines. They were certified organic in 2016, which underscores their commitment to capturing the essence of their terroir.

Named after the medieval tower that watches over the Petrolo estate, the "Galatrona" has earned comparisons to legendary Merlot wines from Pomerol sub-region of Bordeaux. It's known for its intensity, elegance, and a captivating balance between structure, ripe fruit, and a vibrant acidity.

My thoughts after tasting:

This is a really enjoyable Merlot! It shines with its full body, generous flavours, and excellent structure. Its nose pours forth rich aromas, showcasing both vibrant fruit and subtle earthiness. While the palate's flavour profile is rather straightforward, there's an undeniable fullness and satisfying roundness. The evolving finish adds complexity, ending on a high note of dense, sweet raspberry jam.

My Rating: 84/100

🍷Score/Rating Scale :

  • 95-100 Classic: a great wine
  • 90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
  • 85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
  • 80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
  • 75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
  • 50-74 Not recommended

4. Tua Rita, "Redigaffi" 2014 (1.5L Magnum)

100% Merlot, Maremma in Tuscany, Suvereto DOCG Appellation, Soil: stony with silt, clay and sand.

 

 

Now, let’s shift our focus to the sun-kissed coastal region of Maremma to the West of Tuscany, where Tua Rita resides. This small but acclaimed winery has a terroir of terroir of stony soils rich in silt, clay, and sand, which has a unique ability to coax more depth and concentration from its Merlot vines. Its vineyards prioritise low yields and perfect ripeness.

The winery is best known for its Redigaffi – a 100% Merlot masterpiece that was one of the first Italian wines to be awarded a perfect 100-point score by major wine critics, which propelled Tua Rita to international stardom. This expression is known for its decadent dark fruit character intertwined with spices, leather and tobacco and a firm tannic structure.

My thoughts after tasting:

This is perhaps one of my favourite Super Tuscans. It’s a beautiful expression that stands out for its structure, generous depth, and undeniable power. Its raspberry jam character is delightful, while the gentle tannins and balanced acidity make it remarkably easy to drink despite its intensity. There's also a silkiness here that adds textural pleasure and keeps the fruit-forward profile feeling refined. Just beautiful.

My Rating: 88/100

🍷Score/Rating Scale :

  • 95-100 Classic: a great wine
  • 90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
  • 85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
  • 80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
  • 75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
  • 50-74 Not recommended

5. Le Macchiole, "Messorio" 2013

100% Merlot, Bolgheri in Tuscany, Toscana IGT Appellation, Soil: clay, silt, sandstone and limestone.

 

 

Next up, we visit the prestigious vineyards of Bolgheri that is home to the highly regarded Le Macchiole winery. This estate has built a formidable reputation for its masterful single-varietal wines, excelling with Cabernet Franc (Paleo), Syrah (Scrio), and, most notably, their flagship wine – the "Messorio."

The name "Messorio" itself is supposed to refer to the ancient Tuscan practice of harvesting wheat during the most important time of the year, thus underscoring the winery's deep connection to the Tuscan land. The grapes for this legendary Merlot come from two plots, Puntone and Vignone, planted in the late 1990s on distinctive soils rich in clay, silt, sandstone, and limestone.

My thoughts after tasting:

Le Macchiole's "Messorio" 2013 exemplifies the best qualities of Merlot – its plushness, full body, and intense richness. The palate is the star here, delivering big fruit jam flavors, a satisfying density, and a firm tannic structure that contrasts beautifully with the wine's initial sweetness. The finish is slightly more austere, with drying tannins – a thrilling tightrope walk with the dense fruit character that keeps everything in check. I particularly enjoyed the evolution from sweet and luscious to slightly dry and austere and the impressive array of tertiary notes that speak to the wine's age.

My Rating: 89/100

🍷Score/Rating Scale :

  • 95-100 Classic: a great wine
  • 90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
  • 85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
  • 80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
  • 75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
  • 50-74 Not recommended

6. Masseto, "Massetino" 2018

94% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc, Bolgheri in Tuscany, Toscana IGT Appellation, Soil: pliocene blue clay, gravel, sand and rock fragments.

 

 

We remain in the prestigious vineyards of Bolgheri, now venturing into the most hallowed ground of Masseto. This legendary estate stands as a pinnacle of Italian winemaking, particularly for its 100% Merlot wine that consistently achieves international acclaim and commands astronomical prices – it is arguably one of the most sought-after wines in Italy.

The Masseto vineyard is famous for its exceptional terroir. In fact, the name "Masseto" is born from the unique, soil dominated by the presence of large boulders of blue clay ("massi" refers to boulder) under the vineyard. This blue clay provides the perfect foundation for Merlot. Its mineral richness and remarkable water retention capabilities allow for the measured, balanced ripening crucial for this early-ripening varietal.

The vineyard is divided into sections – Alto, Centrale, and Junior. The Alto has the highest elevation and delivers rich fruit, aromatics, and great structure. The Centrale is dominated by the iconic blue Pliocene clay where grapes develop slowly through the season, yielding intense, concentrated wines. Finally, the lowest elevation Junior offers a delicate counterpoint, ensuring balance and elegance in the final blend.

The "Massetino" is Masseto's so-called "second wine." Although it shares the same pedigree as its more famous sibling, it offers a slightly younger and more approachable expression of the estate's Merlot. The 2018 vintage of the Massetino is made with 94% merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc.

My thoughts after tasting:

The Massetino 2018 feels perfectly classic. While straightforward in profile, it embodies richness, intensity, and focused energy. The rich fruit jam character shines through, occasionally contrasted by earthy tobacco and clove notes that add depth. I was particularly drawn to the wine's vibrancy and well-expressed flavour profile, evoking a single, resonant note echoing through a concert hall. With just a touch more richness, power, and complexity, this would be completely perfect.

My Rating: 92/100

🍷Score/Rating Scale :

  • 95-100 Classic: a great wine
  • 90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
  • 85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
  • 80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
  • 75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
  • 50-74 Not recommended

Overall Thoughts

After this exploration of Tuscan Merlots, I can confidently say they absolutely live up to their reputation, and perhaps even surpass expectations. The recurring notes of ripe cherries and raspberries, often interwoven with warming spices and sweetness, are a hallmark of Tuscan Merlots that make them distinct from their Bordeaux counterparts, which tend to lean more towards having structure with black fruits and earthier tones. This distinction is likely due to the unique Tuscan terroir, where sun-drenched vineyards thrive on clay-rich, and sometimes sandy soils.

Amongst the impressive wines tasted, two truly stole the show: Le Macchiole's "Messorio" 2013 and Masseto's "Massetino" 2018.

 

 

The Messorio 2013 captivated me with its plushness, full body, and tertiary notes. The evolution from sweet and luscious to a slightly more austere finish with an impressive array of tertiary notes, showcased a wine of remarkable depth and aging potential.

The Massetino 2018 also really impressed me with its richness, intensity and vibrancy. The intense concentrated fruit flavours of a young wine with refined structure and balance exemplifies the ideal that Merlot can achieve in the clay-rich soils of Bolgheri. I'd expect nothing less of a bottle from the renowned Masseto.

 

 

@CharsiuCharlie