Fattoria Ambra: a nymph who turned into stone, ancient wines and textiles
The history of Carmignano wines
Wine has been made in Carmignano since the Etruscan and ancient Roman times as testified by vases used to store wine found in Etruscan tombs and by the fact that Julius Caesar, between 50 and 60 b. C., gave land in this area to his veterans where vines were grown.
A parchment dating back to 804 a. D., where a land lease was drawn up, shows that vines and olive groves were grown in Carmignano. The Granduke of Tuscany, Cosimo III of the Medici family, issued a decree in 1716 where the borders of the 4 best zones in Tuscany for wine production, including Carmignano, were marked. In the decree rules were set for grape production, zones and marketing of the wines so that Carmignano can be considered one of the first appellations in the world. At the end of the 1800s and at the beginning of the 1900s wine was made at the cellar of the Marquis Ippolito Niccolini and exported. In 1975 Carmignano wines acquired the DOC status and in 1990 they acquired the DOCG status. Carmignano is one of the smallest appellations in Italy, the estate that bottle are only 15, the total vineyard extension is 150 hectares and approximately 5,000 hectolitres of wine are produced every year.
These wines are unique and different to the wines of the Chianti area, as cabernet has been grown in this area for five centuries and it is compulsory in the blend (from a minimum of 10% to a maximum of 20%). Caterina de’ Medici, who married the king of France, imported this grape variety in the XVI century. In fact cabernet is also known here as “uva Francesca” (French grapes).
The borders of the appellation are still today the same ones set by the decree of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1716. The altitude of the hills where the vineyards stand is not great, between 80 and 200-250 meters above sea level, but it is a very protected zone with a very particular microclimate. In fact the mountain range of Montalbano, that extends between the provinces of Prato, Pistoia and Florence, protects this area and shields it from frosts and hail and from excessive heat in the summer. The harvest period here is generally earlier than in the neighbouring Chianti area so that rain is often avoided. Therefore, it often happened that the harvest was good in Carmignano when vintages were difficult in other areas of Tuscany.
The history of Fattoria Ambra
In a poem by Lorenzo il Magnifico de’ Medici (1449-1492) Ambra was a nymph who turned into stone so not to be seduced by the river Ombrone, that flows through this zone. Ambra is also the name of the Villa of the Medici family of Poggio a Caiano (a town next to Carmignano).
Fattoria Ambra has been in the family of Giuseppe Rigoli, a trained agronomist and oenologist who runs the estate, since the end of 1800. The family of Giuseppe’s mother used to own textile factories in Prato (Prato is the centre of the textile industry in Italy) and a large property which included the Fattoria Ambra of today. The estate was subsequently run by Giuseppe’s father who was a lawyer with a great passion for agriculture. In fact he planted the first 6 hectares of vineyard. Before he passed away, in 1983, he asked the family to sell Fattoria Ambra, as the business was not going well and every year he had to pay the debts with the earnings of his profession. Giuseppe, who had just finished University, decided not to sell and to start bottling the wine that had been, up to then, sold in bulk. 1983 was the first vintage to be bottled and the first 8,200 bottles of Carmignano Santa Cristina in Pilli were all bottled by hand by Giuseppe and by the farm manager Leonardo Machiavelli. Giuseppe then met Marco de Grazia who was looking for a Carmignano. Marco tasted the wine, liked it and the Carmignano of Fattoria Ambra started being exported to the USA in 1985. In the following years, thanks to Marco’s suggestions, the four crus of the estate were vinified and bottled separately.
The vineyard extension is at present 20 hectares and the total average production a year is 80,000 bottles.
This is a family run estate where everybody lends a hand. Giuseppe Rigoli is the manager, agronomist and oenologist. Susan, his wife, is a trained agronomist and helps where needed. Fabio Marzotti, an agricultural technician and sommelier, and Guido Cantini, Giuseppe’s nephew with a great passion for wine, work full time at the estate and follow the work in the cellar, in the vineyard, marketing issues and they support Giuseppe and Susan at tastings, events and fairs. Guido has also been to the USA many times on business trips.
The vineyards and the four crus
The total vineyard extension is 20 hectares of which 14 hectares are planted with Sangiovese, 1 hectare with Canaiolo Nero, 1.5 hectares with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, 2 hectares with Trebbiano and 1.5 with Foglia Tonda, Pugnitello, Vermentino, Merlot, Colorino and San Colombano. The vineyards are divided into four crus among the best in the zone of Carmignano.
The Elzana cru: this is the cru where the grapes ripen latest. The extension is 3 hectares. The composition of the soil is clay and “galestro” (marl). The exposure is south. The altitude is 150 meters above sea level. The vineyard is located in a valley which is very cold in the winter and fresh during the summer with a very wide night/day temperature range (i.e. cool at night and warm during the day). The vines are 100% Sangiovese and they were planted in 1975. The wines produced from this cru are powerful, with evident tannins.
The Montalbiolo cru: of an extension of 1 hectare, it is the highest vineyard of the estate, the altitude being approximately 200 hectares above sea level. The exposure is east. The composition of the soil is sandstone and “galestro”(clayey schists). The grapes of this vineyard are the ones that ripen the latest after of the ones of the Elzana cru. The vines were planted in 1972, 80% are Sangiovese and 20% are Canaiolo Nero. The wines produced from this cru have a lot of aroma and are elegant and “feminine”.
The Santa Cristina in Pilli cru: the vineyard extension is 8 hectares. The vineyards stand on a hill and they surround the charming homonymous church. The altitude is 80-100 meters above sea level. The composition of the soil is limestone (“alberese”). The varieties planted are Sangiovese (the larger percentage), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Canaiolo Nero, Foglia Tonda, Pugnitello, Trebbiano and Vermentino. These vines were planted in 1975, 1991, 1999, 2001, 2010 and in 2013. The grapes from the younger vines are used for the production of Barco Reale DOC and for Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC Rosato , while the grapes from the older vines are used for the production of Carmignano DOCG Santa Cristina in Pilli. The wines from this cru can age for a long time, due to their excellent structure and they are particularly vibrant, fruity, complex and with crunchy tannins.
The Montefortini-Podere Lombarda cru: the vineyard extension is 6 hectares and the vineyards are in the proximity of the Etruscan tombs of Montefortini and of Boschetti. The soil is sandstone (tuff). This is the cru where the grapes ripen earliest. The vines are planted with Sangiovese (the largest percentage), Trebbiano and San Colombano. The exposure is east. The vines were planted in 1968, 1975, 2001 and 2008. The wines produced from this cru have a lot of aroma and they are very pleasant to drink.
Practices in the vineyard
The vineyards are in the conversion phase to be certified organic, consequently only products that are foreseen by the protocol for organic viticulture are used. Neither chemical nor organic fertilizers, nor herbicides have been used for approximately fifteen years. Giuseppe Rigoli tells us that vines are very resistant plants that do not need extra nutrients to live and to produce, but that it is very important to keep the soil “alive”. In fact spontaneous cover crops are left on every second aisle between the rows of vines in the older vines (over 15 years of age). The aisles without the cover crops are tilled. In October/November, after the harvest, the grass is mowed and the organic substance is tilled into the soil. Specific plants are sown on every second aisle in the younger vines (that are up to 15 years of age) such as leguminous plants, barley and mustard that provide nutrients with their root system. In this case the grass is mowed in the springtime/summer and tilled into the soil. With this practice, apart from making the soil more “alive”, the vines tend to make their roots go deeper into the soil making them more resistant to drought. In particularly warm vintages, such as 2015, the soil is tilled during the summer on all the aisles in order to prevent competition between the vines and the cover crops (for water) and in order to enhance the capillary action of water in the soil (the water stored deep in the soil rises to the surface) and in order to make the soil store rainwater. The vine training systems are guyot, cordon spur and “capovolto” (inverted training system, a traditional system in the older vines). In the new vineyards guyot is prevalently used.
The cellar and practices in the cellar
The cellar is small, but well equipped. The alcoholic fermentation takes place in steel vats with temperature control of a capacity of 50 and 100 hectolitres. The malo-lactic fermentation of the reds takes place in glazed concrete vats. Concrete vats, which were abandoned for some time, are now very much appreciated and used as they are excellent containers as they keep the temperature even, they do not release substances to the wines and they are “inert” (they do not create electrostatic charges in the wine). The wines mature in large Slavonian oak casks (of a capacity of 25 hectolitres) and in medium toast French oak tonneaux of a capacity of 3.5-5 hectolitres. Barriques are not used. Giuseppe Rigoli believes in a very careful use of wood, and in particular in a minimal use of new wood, as Sangiovese (the main variety in the blend of Carmignano wines) is a very delicate grape variety the characteristics of which risk to be hidden by wood notes that are too evident. Fattoria Ambra is also equipped with a vibrating sorting table, placed between the destemmer and the crusher. The clusters are dumped into a hopper on the bottom of which a conveyor screw feeds them into a destemmer. The berries then drop onto the vibrating sorting table where unripe or defective berries, leaves, bits of stems etc. are manually removed before reaching the crusher (watch the video!).
The 2015 harvest
The harvest started on the 1st of September with Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero and Cabernet for the production of Barco Reale di Carmignano Rosato, continued with Trebbiano and Vermentino (this grape variety was planted in 2013 and 2015 is the first harvest), Sangiovese from the crus where Sangiovese ripens earlier (i.e. Montefortini-Podere Lombarda and Santa Cristina in Pilli), followed by the vineyards of the Montalbiolo and Elzana crus. Cabernet was picked last and the harvest was completed on the 7th of October. It was very hot in July and at the beginning of August, but luckily the vines had an excellent water supply due to the good rainfall in winter and during springtime. The level of sugar in the grapes was very high together with an excellent ripening of the polyphenols. The weather was good throughout the whole harvest. “2015 is a wonderful vintage”. Beppe Rigoli tells us. “The clusters were perfect…”
The philosophy of Giuseppe Rigoli
Francesco Redi (Italian medical doctor, naturalist and scholar, 1626-1697) describes the wine from Carmignano as follows:
“..but if I hold a cup in my hand of bright Carmignano, so much pleasure does it bring to my heart that I dot envy Jupiter ambrosia and nectar.”
“My philosophy is to make wines with these characteristics even though we live in the XXI century.” Giuseppe Rigoli tells us. “Wines with a large percentage of Sangiovese and with the minimum percentage of Cabernet which is allowed by the production regulation. “Bright”, drinkable wines with flavourful and crunchy tannins that express the essence of the terroir of Carmignano. It is better to drink Carmignano wines with food and these wines age splendidly…”
The estate offers two Carmignano DOCG and two Carmignano Riserva DOCG, each produced from one of the four crus. The other wines are Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC (the “young” version of Carmignano, a traditional wine named after the hunting park of the Medici family, Barco Reale meaning “royal park”), Barco Reale di Carmignano Rosato DOC (a traditional rosée wine), Trebbiano IGT (a fresh white) and Vin Santo di Carmignano DOC (a traditional sweet wine).
A few details:
Carmignano DOCG Santa Cristina in Pilli
Grape varieties: 75% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet, 10% Canaiolo nero, 5% other approved red berry varietals
Vineyard extension: 8 hectares (the wine is produced from the oldest vines of the cru)
Average production/year: 22,000 bottles
Carmignano DOCG Montefortini – Podere Lombarda
Grape varieties: 80% Sangiovese 10% Cabernet 5% Canaiolo nero 5% other approved red berry varietals
Vineyard extension: 6 hectares
Average production/year: 11,000 bottles
Carmignano Riserva DOCG Montalbiolo
Grape varieties: 70% Sangiovese, 20% Canaiolo nero, 10% Cabernet
Vineyard extension: 1 hectare
Average production/year: 3,500 bottles
Carmignano Riserva DOCG Elzana
Grape varieties: 90% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet
Vineyard extension: 3 hectares
Average production/year: 4,000 bottles
Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC
Grape varieties: 75% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet, 10% Canaiolo nero, 5% other approved red berry varietals
Average production/year: 30,000 bottles
Barco Reale di Carmignano Rosato DOC
Grape varieties: 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet, 10% Canaiolo
Average production/year: 8,000 bottles
Trebbiano di Toscana IGT
Grape varieties: 100% Trebbiano
Average production/year: 5,000 bottles
Vin Santo di Carmignano DOC
Grape varieties: 90% Trebbiano, 10% San Colombano
Average production/year: 1,300 half-bottles (0,375 litres).