Italy’s Greatest Cabernet Franc

Grapes being hand-sorted at Le Macchiole.

© Maruizi Gjivovich

By Ray Isle Posted November 04, 2015

One of Italy's greatest red wines, Le Macchiole’s Paleo Rosso, is made entirely from Cabernet Franc.

Italy has hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, from the well known (Nebbiolo, Sangiovese) to the utterly obscure (glass of Fogarina, anyone?). But one of its greatest red wines, Le Macchiole’s Paleo Rosso, is made entirely from a French import: Cabernet Franc.

Use of the classic French varieties isn’t actually unusual in Tuscany’s Bolgheri region, where Le Macchiole is located. Tenuta San Guido’s Cabernet Sauvignon–based Sassicaia, for instance, achieved worldwide fame and effectively started the “super-Tuscan” category back in the early 1970s. But Cabernet Franc—a supporting-cast variety in France, except in parts of the Loire Valley, and a trickier grape, especially in colder vintages when it can produce weedy, overly green wines—is an outlier.

Paleo Rosso actually started as a Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese blend, but co-owners Cinzia Merli and her husband Eugenio Campolmi (who passed away in 2001) eventually realized that Cabernet Franc grew beautifully on their property. A small percentage crept into the blend, and in 2001 the wine became 100 percent Cabernet Franc. “The result was outstanding,” Merli recalls.

That’s a good word for Paleo Rosso: It really does stand out from the usual run of Bolgheri reds with its complex, herbal, minty aroma and precise balance of richness and delicacy on the palate. I recently tasted through nine vintages of the wine here in New York. All were remarkable, but my favorites were the elegant 2001 Le Macchiole Paleo Rosso ($150 or so), drinking perfectly right now, with notes of tea leaves, sweet cherry, minty herbs and earth; the remarkable 2008 Le Macchiole Paleo Rosso ($90, if you can find it), easily the wine of the tasting for me, with smoky tea leaf and dark cherry notes, fine-grained tannins, and gorgeous texture; and the current vintage, the 2011 Le Macchiole Paleo Rosso ($99), which while still quite young showed chewy sweet cherry and fresh herb notes through a screen of mocha-like oak, and considerable power though it was perfectly balanced. “2011 was one of the longest harvests I’ve had in my life,” Merli commented. “Waiting, waiting, waiting…not today, OK…not today…but then it ended up being my favorite out of ’09, ’10 and ’11.”

Whenever winemakers praise their current vintage as the best ever, or even the best of the past few years, it’s worth taking that with a grain of salt. But in this case, with this wine, I entirely agree.

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