Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Vertical Tasting

May 15, 2012

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If you appreciate and enjoy the nuances and idiosyncracies of wine, tasting older wines is a rare treat. But it's also a real privilege: someone is allowing you to experience their history first hand and to consume a very limited and dwindling treasure.

An opportunity to taste some history was offered at a special tasting of Ruffino wines at Biagio Ristorante on Toronto's King St. East. The main feature was a vertical tasting of five vintages of Ruffino's well-known Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale Oro, along with five other current wines at the formal presentation and several more over lunch.

AdolfoAdolfo Folonari

Ruffino, which was founded in 1877 as a family business in Tuscany, was sold to the Folonari family in the early 20th Century. The Folonaris developed Ruffino into a major Chianti producer, with prized vineyards in the DOCGs of Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino. Recently Constellation Wines purchased 100% of the Ruffino wine business, and so the sponsor of the Ruffino tasting was Vincor, Constellation's Canadian subsidiary. Adolfo Folonari, who presented the wines of the tasting, remains involved in the promotion of the Ruffino brand, and his family still owns some of the vineyards from which Ruffino grapes are sourced.

tan labelRiserva Ducale - the "tan" label

While it is now producing wines from other regions, Ruffino's history and reputation is based on its Tuscan Sangiovese wines. These range from basic Chiantis to premium vineyard-specific wines. One of their most famous wines (or in modern jargon "wine brands"), is Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale, which was first labeled as such in 1927. The wine is now largely sourced from the estates of Santedame and Gretole in the Chianti Classico region. Adolfo referred to this wine as the "tan label" Riserva Ducale, pictured to the left, in contrast to the Riserva Ducale Oro, the gold label version (label pictured at the head of the article). The special Oro or gold label wine is only made from the best grapes in special vintages (perhaps 60% of the time) and was first released in 1947. It is the Oro wines that were the subject of the vertical tasting.

setupThe formal setting

The first five wines tasted (the back row of the formal setting pictured to the right) were current releases. They included the 2011 Orvietto Classico white wine, Ruffino's basic 2010 Chianti, the tan label 2008 Riserva Ducal, the 2008 Lodova Nova Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Ruffino's "Super Tuscan" Modus 2009. I will mention several of these later, but I want to focus on the historical vertical (the front row of wines), which consisted of the 1985, 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007 vintages of the Riserva Ducal Oro.

In any historical tasting you expect to observe the direct effects of time on the wine. For example, the wine's colour may change and it may appear to be less dense, aromas and flavours may evolve, and tannins may soften and drop out.

But Adolfo mentioned some of the other themes that may contribute to the historical differences. For example, the Folonaris are undertaking a slow and systematic replanting of their vineyards, focusing on specific Sangiovese clones that are believed to be more appropriate for particular sites, and planting at almost double the historical density to force lower yields per vine. Both endeavours should generate more concentrated fruit.

SantedamoThe Santedame Estate (Chianti Classico DOCG (courtesy of www.Ruffino.com)

These changes can also affect winemaking. For example, the more concentrated fruit can handle more oak, both in terms of smaller barrels as well as a higher proportion of new barrels.

Beyond the changes within Ruffino itself, regulations with respect to grape varieties allowed in the DOCG wines have changed as well. The three wines from 1985, 1990 and 1995 had 3% white grapes (mostly Malvasia), a not uncommon practice that still occurs with Viognier added to Syrah in Côte Rôtie, and formerly with Arneis being added to soften Nebbiolo. More recently white varieties have been completely banned from Chianti Classico DOCG wines, and international varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have been added to the permitted varieties that can be used to complement the Sangiovese base.

To get to the wines themselves, the first panel below shows the three oldest wines, while the second panel shows the 2001 and 2007. If you look carefully you can see that the older wines are definitely garnet rather than ruby, and there is some some orange on the rim, especially with the 1985. They are also less dense and more transparent. The 2001 is denser, darker ruby, and the rim is still ruby as well. While the 2007 is also ruby, it is less dense and more transparent, and the rim is showing a little garnet.

1985 1990 1995 Riserva Ducale Oro 1985, 1990 and 1995
  • Riserva Ducale Oro 1985: The nose of the 1985 was intense and slightly oxidized, showing truffle oil, leather, tobacco and dried fruit. The wine was dry with a medium-full body, noticeable acidity, and soft smooth tannins, with dried fruit, leather, dark chocolate and coffee notes. On the palate the oxidation was not apparent. The finish was long and mellow — very elegant! Some people thought that this wine had years to go, and my hesitation was only due to the oxidative nose, which may have been bottle-specific. 9.5/10
  • Riserva Ducale Oro 1990: The nose of the 1990 was powerful with similar mushrooms and truffle oil, prunes and chocolate. Perhaps by contrast with the '85 I found the palate less enticing and lively, although it had good acidity underlying flavours of prunes and tobacco. 9/10
  • Riserva Ducale Oro 1995: The 1995 was more closed, and was dominated by sponge toffee, along with dried fruit. The body was medium-full, with very evident acidity, and while the fruit on the palate was evolving, there was a surprising sweetness and freshness to it. This was a lovely and very approachable wine to drink now. 9.2/10
2001 2007 Riserva Ducale Oro 2001 and 2007

While the '95 may have begun to show the effects of more oak, with the sweetness of the fruit, for me the big change came with the 2001. Here the pictures don't mislead — the dark and dense appearance was mirrored by the full- bodied dark fruit, oak, and some herbacious "forest floor" notes perhaps from the Cabernet. On the palate I found the oak notes fairly strident. I believe this wine has been rated very highly, but to me it was crafted to meet the tastes of certain wine critics, and perhaps it has stepped over a certain line. As my notes said, this is "a big wine!"

I don't understand how the 2001 becomes or evolves into anything like the tradition of Chianti, and I realize that I'm not in a position to judge this with any authority. But as an example of a modern and international wine I much preferred the 2008 Modus, Ruffino's "Super Tuscan" Toscana IGT. For that my notes said:

  • 2008 Modus, Toscana IGT (50% Sangiovese, 25% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot): ruby-garnet colour with a ruby rim, thick tears; a nose of fairly ripe cherry, berry and plum fruit; dry with a full body and medium acidity; the ripe fruit is still fresh on the palate; attractive, modern, long and satisfying finish. 9.2/10

I was very happy that the final wine in the Oro vertical, the 2007, seemed to be stepping back towards tradition, while maintaining a modern take on Chianti.

  • 2007 Riserva Ducale Oro: Ruby with a garnet rim. This is still a big and full-bodied wine, with chalky tannins and lots of ripe cherry and plum fruit. But while the oak is evident it is much more in balance, and the Sangiovese is not dominated by the international varieties. 9.2/10

Finally I want to mention the 2008 Riserva Ducale, the tan label pictured above.

  • 2008 Riserva Ducale (tan label) (80% Sangiovese, the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot): The colour is ruby with garnet highlights and a ruby rim, with medium tears. The nose was of medium intensity, showing violets, berries, cherries with dry herbs (thyme, rosemary) and a hint of pepper. Dry, with a medium-full body, medium acidity and soft tannins; the palate lacks a little oomph on the attack, but flavours build to a medium + finish. Nicely refined wine. 8.9/10

The tan label Riserva Ducale is widely available in Ontario at $25.00, but the LCBO listing does not give a vintage. I assume it is either the 2008 reviewed above, or the 2007. I don't believe the 2007 Oro is available in Ontario, but the 2006 is, at $43.95. The Modus I very much enjoyed will be released in the fall, but sells out quickly, so keep an eye open for it!