Podere Il Carnasciale: Il Caberlot 1988-2004

Podere Il Carnasciale 2004 Caberlot  95

Podere Il Carnasciale 2003 Caberlot  94

Podere Il Carnasciale 2002 Caberlot  90

Podere Il Carnasciale 2001 Caberlot  94

Podere Il Carnasciale 2000 Caberlot  93

Podere Il Carnasciale 1999 Caberlot  92+

Podere Il Carnasciale 1997 Caberlot  94

Podere Il Carnasciale 1996 Caberlot  92

Podere Il Carnasciale 1993 Caberlot  92

Podere Il Carnasciale 1988 Caberlot  90

On a cold fall day I made my way up into the hills above Mercatale Valdarno in search of Podere Il Carnasciale. The unpaved winding roads pass through the adjacent Petrolo estate in this very rugged corner of the Tuscan landscape rich in forests. I followed my hand-written directions diligently and when I saw the small house at the end of the road I knew I had arrived. I was greeted by owner Bettina Rogosky and oenologist Peter Schilling, both of whom seemed relieved I had actually made it.

In recent years Il Carnasciale’s Caberlot has emerged as one of Italy’s most distinctive and highly-sought wines. With its cult status and tiny production of roughly 1,500 magnums, it is a wine many people have heard of but few have actually tasted. The story behind Il Caberlot dates back to the 1960s, when agronomist Remigio Bordini discovered a highly unique clone growing in an old vineyard in the Veneto. The clone appeared to be a genetic mutation of Cabernet but also exhibited some qualities considered more typical of Merlot. It was the perfect choice for Wolf and Bettina Rogosky, who were looking for something different and unique to plant on their small Tuscan property. After enduring a series of setbacks, as well as much bureaucratic red tape, the first Caberlot vines were planted in 1985. To bring them good fortune the Rogoskys buried a bottle of the legendary 1985 Sassicaia below the vineyard. Sadly, Wolf Rogosky passed away in 1996, but the wine his vision helped create lives on.

Il Carnasciale’s home vineyard measures just one-third of a hectare. The vines are planted at a high density of 10,000 plants per hectare, a practice that was revolutionary twenty years ago. The vineyard sits at 420 meters above sea-level, which experience suggests is the upper limit for Caberlot. The estate has recently acquired two small plots which lie at lower altitudes. The 2005s and 2006s I tasted from the first of these new plots were strikingly different from the wines being produced from the original vineyard. If the barrel samples I tasted are representative of the final wines, overall quality may very well be on the rise as the new vineyards enter production.

The wines are made under the direction of Schilling and consulting oenologist Vittorio Fiore. Yields per plant are kept quite low, which is facilitated by the Caberlot clone’s naturally low vigor. Fermentation lasts about a week after which the wine is racked into a combination of stainless steel and barriques for the malolactic fermentation. The wine then spends 18 months in 100% new medium-toast barriques (50% Allier, 50% Vosges) prior to being bottled exclusively in magnum.

Overall production is small and averages about 1,500 to 1,800 magnums. Fortunately, in recent years the estate has introduced a more moderately-priced second wine, called simply Carnasciale, made from its younger vines. Signora Rogosky is very particular in deciding who receives an allocation of Caberlot. She personally hand numbers the bottles and keeps track of their owners in a small notebook. Although the magnum-only format is not especially conducive to casual tastings, a gathering with several vintages and the requisite number of fellow wine lovers is sure to make for an unforgettable event.  After having tasted through ten vintages of Caberlot, including the inaugural 1988, it is clear that Caberlot is every bit deserving of its status as one of Italy’s great cult wines. Consumers owe it to themselves to check out this highly singular wine, which beautifully expresses the uniqueness if its terroir, varietal and the quality-obsessed philosophy of proprietor Bettina Rogosky.

All class and elegance, the stunning 2004 Caberlot presents expressive, exotic aromatics and layers of black currants and blueberries buttressed by prominent mineral notes on an ample frame with fine tannins. Showing plenty of structure as well as stuffing, it should offer its most rewarding drinking beginning around age ten, so patience will be required.

The 2004 Caberlot looks to be the finest effort yet from this estate. It is not to be missed. 95/Anticipated maturity: 2014-2024. Readers who understandably don’t want to delay gratification should consider the 2003 Caberlot. Less aromatically compelling than the 2004, it bursts forth from the glass with masses of super-ripe, jammy fruit on a full-bodied, generous frame with notably fine tannins for the vintage. Made in a style that borders on the extreme edge of opulence, the full-throttle 2003 won’t please every palate, but I found myself captivated by its sheer luxuriousness. It is a remarkably accessible Caberlot at this stage, although my impression is that, like other vintages of this wine, it may start to shut down in the bottle of over the next year or so. It is a stunning effort. 94/Anticipated maturity: 2011-2023. The 2002 Caberlot is another good choice for relatively early drinking. It displays notes of herbs, tobacco, menthol and ripe fruit, with a naturally more slender structure than the most important vintages of this wine. Given its less imposing concentration of fruit the new oak is also more evident in the 2002 than is usually the case. 90/Anticipated maturity: 2007-2017.

The 2001 Caberlot is another breathtaking wine. Gorgeously seamless and pure, it reveals notes of leather, tobacco and cedar along with layers of ripe fruit that blossom on the palate. Although the 2001 displays extraordinary persistence as well as fine, noble tannins, it has also shed some its baby fat suggesting it is just beginning to enter the early part of its drinking window. It is a beautiful Caberlot that appears to be enjoyable relatively early, yet has plenty of structure to age gracefully. 94/Anticipated maturity: 2008-2021. The 2000 Caberlot presents an interesting contrast to the fresher 2001. It is a jammy, super-ripe Caberlot similar in style to the 1997 and 2003, with a plush, yet perfumed quality to its fruit. It displays awesome purity as well as notable length on the palate, although the alcohol is somewhat less well-balanced than in the other hot vintages. 93/Anticipated maturity: 2010-2020. Nothing in particular seems to stand out about the 1999 Caberlot. Instead, the whole is clearly greater than the sum of its parts. It is a very complete and well-balanced Caberlot offering plenty of deeply expressive fruit intermingled with more advanced balsamic notes, showing terrific overall harmony. Today it appears to be somewhat closed down and I may have caught it at a slightly awkward stage in its development. Nevertheless it offers much potential. 92+/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2019.

The 1997 Caberlot, sampled from a special 500-ml tasting bottle, is simply awesome. Still showing a deep, primary color, it exudes the essence of cherry/blackberry liqueur on an opulent, packed frame. With some air, lovely notes of tobacco and earthiness develop in the glass to round out this magnificent wine. It is in need of at least another few years of cellaring and even that may not be enough for magnums of this wine.  94/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2017. Readers in search of a ready-to-drink vintage might want to consider the 1996. It is another gorgeously ripe Caberlot, with a luxurious, seamless personality. As expected, it presents more mature notes in its fruit as well as lovely mentholated, balsamic nuances that give it an ethereal quality. Still fresh and vibrant, it should continue to drink well for another 5-7 years, perhaps more, a considerable achievement considering the overall weakness of this rain-plagued harvest. 92/Anticipated maturity: 2007-2014. The 1993 Caberlot is the most complete of these wines to drink today. Perhaps not as complex as the finest vintages, it nevertheless presents an engaging combination of super-ripe fruit, leather and balsamic notes on a pretty, medium-bodied frame of exquisite elegance and balance. The 1993 remains one of the most enjoyable vintages for current drinking. 92/Anticipated maturity: 2006-2013.

It is a rare treat to conclude this tasting with the 1988, the first vintage of Caberlot.  In 1988 the wine was made from vines planted in agronomist Remigio Bordini’s experimental vineyard in Emilia Romagna, while vinification and aging were carried out at Il Carnasciale. The 1988 Caberlot, a slightly faded medium ruby, presents mature notes of leather and tobacco on the nose along with layers of ethereal stewed prune fruit and spice cake flavors that open as the wine sits in the glass. Still showing plenty of freshness as well as a finessed personality, the 1988 is a delicate, medium-bodied Caberlot that is at the peak of its expression. It should continue to drink well for at least another four or five years. 90/Anticipated maturity: 2007-2011.

I couldn’t leave without tasting Signora Rogosky’s recently pressed 2006 olive oil. Packed with layers of flavor as well as personality, Il Carnasciale’s olive oil has become one of the staples of my kitchen. In 2006 the plants were hit with a snap of cold weather just as they were flowering, so total production is a miniscule 200 liters. A few slices of toasted crusty bread drizzled with oil and seasoned with a pinch of salt were the perfect way to wrap up this unforgettable morning.

--Antonio Galloni