Percarlo and La Ricolma are two of Italy’s finest wines – both crafted by Luca Martini di Cigala at San Giusto a Rentennano. Percarlo is the Tuscan estate’s top Sangiovese bottling, made with the most concentrated and best fruit, picked in a third and final pass through their vines (with the previous passes used for the estate’s Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva). When Martini di Cigala first made the wine in 1983, however, it was illegal for Chianti Classico to be 100% Sangiovese, so he had no choice but to declassify the wine to an IGT. Although the rules have since changed, Percarlo’s reputation precedes that of the Chianti Classico denomination and remains an IGT.
La Ricolma is 100% Merlot – a variety with a very different temperament to Sangiovese. The fruit for this wine is picked all in one go; the secret to finding balance in Merlot, the Martini di Cigala says, is to slow its ripening – a challenge that must be tackled throughout the season.
The result is two completely different wines from two different varieties grown on the same estate in Gaiole – Chianti Classico’s southernmost district.
Last Thursday, we hosted a special dinner pitting these two legendary wines against each other. Luca Martini di Cigala returned to London for the first time in over 30 years, with his wife Bettina, to present some of the estate’s finest bottlings, with vintages back to 1998. Tasting these wines at full maturity was a privilege, made all the more special by the fact they were all served from magnum – and came from Martini di Cigala’s personal cellar. With so few magnums produced, many of the wines on show had never been commercially available – the large formats reserved for the family’s private consumption.
Martini di Cigala selected a range of vintages that he felt were in their sweet-spot and included the 2007, 2006, 2005 and 2004 of both Percarlo and La Ricolma – followed by a rare 1998 Percarlo. The wines were extraordinary.
Having been fortunate enough to have tasted the 2018 La Ricoma and Percarlo earlier in the day – which were stunning in their youth – it is mind-blowing to see how these wines develop with 15 years or more in bottle. With age, the purity of fruit found in the younger vintages takes on hedonistic, richer aromas that set the drinker’s pulse racing.
The aromatic appeal of La Ricolma is about as beguiling as wine gets and the 2007 (in what Cigala describes as a hot vintage) was arguably the wine of the night. It just shows how resilient Merlot is in San Giusto’s vineyards. A grape often seen as too alcoholic and overpowering in hot vintages, in the right place it produces a wine of outstanding purity. While having all the opulence the finest Merlots can muster (which is not dissimilar to Pétrus), the balance is impeccable.
Tasting 2007 Percarlo alongside 2007 La Ricolma was a fascinating comparison – something that rang true throughout the vertical we tasted. Where the Ricolma was more exuberant, Percarlo was more austere, although this seems too stern a word, such is the wine’s finesse. The Percarlo certainly seems more vertical – yet it is one of the smoothest and most rounded Sangioveses you are ever likely to taste.
Martini di Cigala notes that the San Giusto vineyards are not that high in altitude compared to his neighbours at Castello di Ama. This means that during the day his vineyards are as hot as those in the more southerly, warmer Montalcino; the difference is that San Giusto has much cooler temperatures at night, allowing the fruit to retain vibrancy and cooler fruit tones – something that shone through in all the wines tasted.
Martini di Cigala is one of the most modest winemakers I have ever met. Asked what his secret is, he says he has none. But, as he talks about his wines, the terroir – and his amazing memory of weather episodes decades ago – he clearly has an exhaustive understanding of his craft. It was a delight therefore to see him become so animated when the 2006 Percarlo was poured. Tasting the wine, he professed to the guests, with a big smile on his face, that this was one of the finest Percarlos he has ever made – this was the wine he always wanted to make. He recalls the harvest and said, “These were the best grapes I had seen in my life.” It was a joy to taste this wine 16 years on with its deservedly proud maker.
The 2005 vintage, noted Martini di Cigala, was a vintage full of expectation. Vignerons were very excited about the wines’ prospects, but then the vineyards were hit by wet weather during harvest. Despite this, the 2005 Percarlo and La Ricoma are magical. While they don’t have the concentration of the 2007 and 2006, they still capture the San Giusto magic. In my 2005 La Ricolma tasting note, it says “otherworldly” – so it must have been pretty special.
The 2004 La Ricolma is particularly elegant. The nose is again extraordinary – the palate texturally sublime and the wine has impeccable balance. The 2004 Percarlo is, as Martini di Cigala noted, “a particularly elegant vintage for Sangiovese”. The wine has fantastic clarity to the fruit, mouthwateringly juicy but with amazing structure too. The tannins are just so fine – it is incredible. Just 18 magnums of the 2005 and 2004 La Ricolma were ever made – so it was a real privilege to have them at the tasting and for them to be showing so well.
After comparing the four vintages Martini di Cigala felt the 2005 and 2004 have reached optimum maturity, having fully opened and reached their peak. The 2006 and 2007 on the other hand, “still have a certain amount of coiled spring energy to the wine – they still have more to give”.
We begged Martini di Cigala to bring a very rare 1998 Percarlo from his cellar – providing a particularly grand finale. At nearly 25 years of age, the wine was magnificent. It captures all the character that runs through the previous vintages of Percarlo – with incredibly refined tannins, vibrant acidity and classic Sangiovese structure, while also being so smooth and rounded. Even with age, the structure was solid and had matured beautifully.
Looking back at the wines, it is the Tuscan terroir that clearly defines these two wines. La Ricolma has the opulence and complexity of Pomerol but with that austere edge, that vibrancy and verticality that you only get from Tuscan soils. In comparison, the Percarlo has the vibrancy and Tuscan verticality, but there is no astringent edge – such is the finesse of the tannins. Some preferred Percarlo’s more classic Italian acerbity, while others loved the uniqueness and profundity of La Ricolma. Tasting them side by side was such a joy, the wines offering two very different varietal expressions while also sharing a similarity of place. These wines – even the Merlot – just couldn’t be from anywhere but Tuscany.
It's fitting that Alessandro Masnaghetti – the man who created the groundbreaking viticultural maps of Barolo and Barbaresco – has just published his new book, mapping the terroirs of Chianti Classico. It’s a book Luca Martini di Cigala is immensely proud of, having championed the differences in sub-zones for decades; now he has the proof – and he brought a copy for both us and the River Café’s Ruth Rogers. Her late business partner and co-founder of the London institution, Rose Gray visited San Giusto many years ago – it was fitting for Martini di Cigala to be able to repay the favour for this special evening.
While the tasting might have been billed as Percarlo versus La Ricolma, it was a friendly battle. It was great to see them both showing so well and how complementary they were tasted side by side. One of the most notable takeaways from the evening was the outstanding consistency. Every wine on the table sang. Every wine was impeccably balanced. Every wine was full of character and complexity. It was a special, rare opportunity that will live long in the memory. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 30 years before convincing Martini di Cigala to come back.