by Andrew Chalk
Suppose you had founded a successful and respected Napa Valley winery 30 years ago on Spring Mountain. Would you then decide to go in with friends on a Tuscany estate with the intent to create a Super Tuscan wine? Crossing oceans, legal systems, languages, and winemaking ethos’ in the process. That is exactly what Hal and Fiona Barnett of Barnett Vineyards did when they partnered with old friend and Dallas private equity investor Dean Macfarlan and his wife Tawney on La Caccia di San Giovanni, their addition to the pantheon of Super Tuscans in the world market.
The Barnetts bring oenological and viticultural expertise, much of it embodied in their winemaker of 15 years, David Tate. The Macfarlans bring capital. The ‘gig came down’, to use an idiom, when the Macfarlans and the Barnetts investigated investing in a vineyard and winery in 2016. In 2017 they closed on the purchase of the San Giovanni farm and villa comprising 133 acres of land, of which 19 were planted to vineyards. It was adjacent to a castle dating back to 998 A.D. which was the five star Belmond Castello de Casole, later acquired by French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, where rooms tonight are available today starting at $653 (with free WiFi).
The partners’ intention was to produce a world class Super Tuscan wine, but the path was hardly plain sailing. When Tate arrived to inspect the vines most of them snapped in his hands, so lignited were they. Eventually, it was decided to replant three quarters of the vineyard in Bordeaux blends and start by making the first vintages of the new wine from the serviceable five acres of vines. A local winemaker and viticulture crew were secured who handle all the day-to-day work. Tate fattens his increasingly impressive frequent flyer account with quarterly trips to check on progress.
While the tenuta may be Italian, the winemaking is French, as seen through a California prism. Words like foudre and Slavonian do not occur. The first vintage was the 2017 and, two years later, it is just released. The grape blend is 50% cabernet sauvignon, 40% sangiovese, and 10% petit verdot. Only 600 cases were produced. After crushing and destemming the grapes were given a 48-hour cold soak and then co-fermented. Ageing was for 22 months entirely in French oak from Sylvain and TN Coopers, with 50% new barrels. Tate is somewhat fastidious about the micro details of oak. For example, he is in an ongoing investigation into the effects of oak sourcing from northern forests. The temperature effect being that grain tightness is negatively correlated with increasing temperature. Some of his oak comes from a forest that is north of Paris (that must be Vosges if it is one of the six designated forests).
I was fortunate enough to be one of the first to taste the 2017 La Caccia at a launch lunch at Fearing’s in Dallas in early October. It is a dark ruby color with a multi-faceted nose of blackberries, boysenberries, cedar, forest floor and thyme. In the mouth grippy. but not harsh, tannins make for a wine with adequate structure to keep but with enough softness to consume now. The fruit, those dark fruits found in the nose, are medium power, so this is no fruit bomb. Best with red meat. My overall impression was of a cabernet sauvignon-dominant blend vinified in a restrained style that avoids the fruit forward aspect of so many New World wines. I would describe this first vintage as a good start. Perhaps it is suitable that its name translates to ‘the hunt’ and, maybe in a satirical note, the label depicts a hunting blind with a wild pig sitting defiantly just outside.
The fifteen acres under replanting are getting a mixture of Bordeaux varieties. When that reaches readiness the proportion of Sangiovese will drop from 40%, in this wine down to a maximum of 10%. Tate seems to relish that shift towards Bordeaux varieties but I have one reservation: while the Super Tuscans of Bolgheri and The Maremma are cabernet dominant, that is because their grapes are grown in cabernet areas. Other blends, such as Tignanello (the original modern Super Tuscan), feature sangiovese as a first class member of the blend (Tignanello is 80%-85% sangiovese). In other words, making a Bordeaux blend in Tuscany does not define the wine as Super Tuscan. Quality does that, and it would likely give sangiovese a role.
Who knows. Barnett’s La Caccia venture may turn out to be as popular as another Tuscan folly, Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (Tarot Garden) in nearby Capalbio. Time will tell.