Il Caberlot: A Love Story
In the week we celebrate Valentine’s Day it seems only fitting for a wine blog to acknowledge that the key ingredient in many of the world’s most extraordinary wines is love.
This important truth was brought home for me again last week in the course of sampling a 10-year-vertical of one of the world’s very rare wines. Not only is it the exclusive wine made from a particular variety—the Caberlot grape—it is also made in small amounts. It is then bottled and labeled by hand, with artistic flair, only in magnums.
This wine—Podere Il Carnasciale’s Il Caberlot—was the project of an extraordinary couple whose love story began in 1963.
That was the year Bettina Schnabel, a statuesque young beauty, met husband-to-be Wolf Rogosky in Berlin. Later that year, Bettina remembers seeing Jack Kennedy make his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Only a few months later, she found herself joining thousands of other Berliners in the streets to mourn Kennedy’s death.
Bettina is the daughter of Ernst Schnabel, a German writer and pioneer of the radio documentary who wrote the first book about Anne Frank. Wolf was also an aspiring writer.
Wolf ultimately became the creative director for GGK, an international advertising agency. While they were still living in Germany, in 1972, the couple bought a house and several acres of property on top of a hill in Tuscany that was full of olive trees. Eventually they started to think about making wine there.
The couple moved to New York City in 1976 where they stayed until 1982. IBM and Swiss Air were among Wolf’s accounts. He also came up with a very successful and long running campaign for Jägermeister (“I drink Jägermeister because . . .”).
In 1982, the couple returned to Europe, settling in Paris, but also spending substantial time in their Tuscan home. They tasted some wines at Restaurant Cibrèo in Florence that impressed them that turned out to have been made by enologist Vittorio Fiore. They met Fiore and talked to him about their desire to make wine. Fiore in turn introduced them to an agronomist, Remigio Bordini, who had identified what he believes to be a natural crossing between Cabernet Franc and Merlot that was discovered in an abandoned vineyard near Padua in the 1950s.
On learning of this grape the couple thought it might be the perfect basis for a wine of unique character that they hoped to produce. They never tasted wine from this grape prior to reaching the decision to plant it on their property, as no wine had yet been made from it. They simply had faith in Dr. Bordini’s description of the grape and its characteristics. Dr. Bordini ultimately agreed to raise the necessary vines in his nursery for the Rogoskys to plant.
The couple then sought permission from local authorities to install a small vineyard in place of some of the trees on their property. Their request for a permit was denied. Ultimately nature intervened when a severe frost in the winter of 1985-1986 destroyed dozens of their trees. They now had room to legally plant less than an acre of vines where only trees had stood for over 200 years.
In 1986, Fiore helped them plant the vineyard with Bordini’s vines. For luck, Wolf placed in the ground under the first vine an unopened bottle of 1985 Sassicaia, then the greatest of the so-called Super Tuscan wines (wine made in the Chianti region of Tuscany without following the then prescribed appellation rules). Following Fiore’s advice, they planted with high density spacing using the gobelet alberello method of tying the vine to a supporting stake. The plants are pruned to allow only five bunches per vine.
The couple made a small quantity of wine from the 1988 vintage from sufficiently mature vines in Bordini’s vineyard. They bottled the wine in magnums—having enough juice to fill 300 bottles. The lucky few who got to taste this initial vintage started a buzz about it. In 1989 they made a similar quantity, partly with grapes from Bordini’s vineyard and partly with their own grapes. They lost their 1990 vintage entirely to marauding wild boars who invaded the vineyard three nights in a row. Thus the first vintage entirely from their own vineyard was the 1991.
The couple lavished tremendous attention and care on the vines, doing everything in their small vineyard by hand. They used no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. When harvest time came, the grapes were picked in several passes over as long as three weeks. They carefully selected only the individual berries that were ready to be picked. As Bettina explains, their philosophy was, and is, “What you would not put into your mouth will not go into the wine.”
The wine was very gently vinified and then aged in French barriques, spending additional time in bottle before the wine was sold.
In 1996, after they finished bottling their 1994 vintage together, Wolf and Bettina went to town to have dinner. Right outside the restaurant, Wolf suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Wolf’s ashes were buried in the garden outside the kitchen window. Bettina looks to that spot regularly, sometimes seeking guidance as to what Wolf would do.
With Wolf gone, Bettina says she knew the wine would be her legacy, and that she would continue with the same team to produce wine from the vines on which she and Wolf had lavished so much care and attention.
Having now tasted ten vintages that Bettina and team have made following Wolf’s passing, beginning with the 1996 vintage, I marvel at the quality and complexity of the wine. Each vintage is distinct, with some showing more the characteristics of fine Merlot, or the Merlot and Cabernet Franc blends from Bordeaux’s Right Bank, while others are more reminiscent of great Syrahs from Hermitage and Cornas, with intense white and black pepper aromas and flavors, along with truffle, mushroom and other delightful notes. All of them are excellent, and my favorite of all, the 1996–the first wine Bettina and team made following Wolf’s passing–is just astonishingly good. I rated it 98+ points.
We sampled the wines over dinner at Murray Circle Restaurant at Cavallo Point, which is located just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Executive Chef Justin Everett created some beautiful dishes–like porcini tagliatelle with soft cooked egg, pancetta, grilled hedgehog mushrooms and black truffle–that added to the special quality of the evening. The stars of the night, though, were our rare magnums of this extraordinary wine, and the elegant Bettina Rogosky herself.
Bettina carried on with her plans made with Wolf to expand their tiny production by planting two additional vineyards further down the same hill, in 1999 and 2004, for a total of five planted acres. A third new vineyard, not yet in production, was planted in 2011. The new vineyards have been planted east-west instead of north-south so as to better accommodate the effects of global warming. As of 2012, they now have a capacity to produce 3,000 to 3,500 magnums of Il Caberlot.
One of the couple’s sons, Moritz, a fashion designer who lives in Paris, assists with harvest and all relations with their clients; despite the wine’s small quantities, they have customers in 24 countries. In 2002 Bettina found a new winemaker experienced in Burgundy to make the wine, enologist Peter Schilling.
In 2000, Bettina introduced a second wine, called Il Carnasciale. It is based on a selection of barrels that she and her team—Schilling, Moritz, Bordini, Fiore, and Schilling’s assistant Marco Maffei—taste blind to determine which have the structure and ageworthiness to go into the Il Caberlot, and which are going to be approachable sooner for the second wine.
The winemaking continues to be as gentle and thoughtful as the viticulture and harvest. After destemming, the grapes are gently fermented at relatively cool temperatures in small stainless steel vats. The grapes from each separate pass through the vineyard and from each vineyard are vinified separately. The fermentation cap is broken twice a day by hand. Malolactic fermentation occurs in barrel, and the wines are then aged in French barriques, of which traditionally about 70% are new (they began to decrease this percentage of new oak in 2009). After aging 22 months in barrel, the barrels selected for the second wine are bottled and released six months later. The wine that goes into Il Caberlot is bottled by hand and unfiltered in magnums that then spend 18 more months aging in the cellar.
The distinctive Il Caberlot labels feature a handpainted “X,” the work of a local artist friend, that varies slightly with each vintage. They have a color palette of 10 different colored papers for the labels, so each vintage also has its own color background. Bettina individually hand numbers each of the magnums. A final small feature of the label is a little man’s head with a hat.
It comes from a family crest for the Schnabel family Bettina received when she sent away for the history of her family name many years before. She added a line under the man’s nose representing being up to their noses in wine. The little red triangle on the end of the man’s hat is a reference to the days when all the wines sold from their wine club had a triangular red sticker added to the label. They call the little man a “Schnabelino.”
Rare Wine Co. was named the U.S. importer for Il Caberlot and Carnasciale in 2005. RWC also imports a small allotment of the delicious and highly sought after olive oil that is made from the 600 olive trees remaining on the property.
As Bettina told us, she and her neighbors who make wine, including nearby Fattoria Petrolo, carefully avoid making much comment on each other’s wines. They reserve all their competitive spirit for praising their own olive oils.
I had to ask Bettina before the evening was over whether they were considering a DNA test for the Caberlot grape, so as to officially determine the variety’s parentage. She said she and Dr. Bordini have considered it, but at this point, they’re not sure they want to know.
I have to wonder whether almost any wine grape variety given this much care, attention and love might not also make exceptional wine. We have no other wine from this grape to compare it to, so it’s impossible to know how much the high quality of Il Caberlot is attributable to the variety and how much is owing to the Rogosky team’s loving ministrations. Personally, I’m betting that the latter is mostly responsible.
For my tasting notes on these wonderful wines, see below:
Our magnums for the tasting came mostly from Rare Wine Co.’s cellars, except for the 1996 and 2000, which Bettina had hand carried in her luggage. The bottles were opened three and a half hours before the start of the dinner and double decanted.
- 2009 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – opaque purple red violet color; very appealing, intense, fresh cracked black pepper, lavender, Provencal herbs, tart plum, charcoal, black currant nose; delicious, intensely flavored, densely textured, complex, charcoal, black pepper, mineral, roasted black fruit, bittersweet chocolate palate with medium acidity; could use 4-5 years of cellaring and should 30+ years; long finish 95+ points (95 points)
- 2008 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – opaque purple red violet color; appealing, tart roasted plum, black pepper, tart currant, black truffle, light lavender nose; maturing, silky textured, black pepper, tar, very tart black plum, tart black currant, mineral, liquid pepper palate, like a delicious top Cornas; approachable now and should go 20-plus years; medium-plus finish 94+ points (94 points)
- 2005 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – very dark red violet color; appealing, refined, roasted plum, black pepper, charcoal, dark Provencal herbs, lavender nose; delicious, roasted black fruit, black pepper, mineral, charcoal, tart black currant palate, reminiscent of a young Chave Hermitage; needs 2-3 years and will go 30-35 years; long finish 97+ points (97 points)
- 2004 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – nearly opaque red violet color; very appealing, Cheval Blanc like, tart cassis, light charcoal, tart plum, black tobacco nose; focused, maturing, tart plum, tart black fruit, roasted black fruit, tobacco, mineral palate with subtle herbs and enlivening acidity; mature now and should go 20-plus years; medium-plus finish 94+ points (hail struck on 9/15, greatly diminishing yield, only 1800 magnums) (94 points)
- 2002 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – very dark red violet color; very appealing, tart roasted black fruit, charcoal, lavender, black and white pepper, orange peel nose; delicious, focused, harmonious, roasted plum, pepper, lavender, mineral, espresso palate with medium acidity, like a great Allemand Cornas; delicious now and should go 25-plus years; long finish 96+ points (96 points)
- 2001 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – very dark ruby color; maturing, dried porcini mushroom, tart plum, truffle, light green peppercorn nose; mature, velvety textured, tart plum, mushroom, dried porcini mushroom, beef pan droppings palate with firm, sweet and refined tannins, reminiscent of a mature Sassicaia; should go 30 years; long finish 94+ points (94 points)
- 2000 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – very dark red violet color; mature, very appealing, mushroom, tart plum, cedar, light oregano nose, reminiscent of a maturing Pichon Baron; tasty, mature, velvety textured, elegant, tart black fruit, cedar, mineral, mushroom palate; lovely now and will go 20-25 years; long finish 95+ points (95 points)
- 1999 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – nearly opaque red violet color; tart plum, smoke, tar, tart blackberry, roasted black fruit, charcoal nose; tasty, black pepper, ripe black currant, mineral, tar, espresso palate with definition and near medium acidity, like a Cheval Blanc from a big year, like 2000; good now and should go 25 years; medium-plus finish (95 points)
- 1998 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – very dark red violet color; mature, sweet green herbs, tobacco, lavender, light brett nose, reminiscent of a mature Lynch Bages; delicious, velvety textured, tart black fruit, tobacco, mineral, tar, tart black currant palate, reminiscent of a mature Figeac; good now and should go 15-20 years; long finish (94 points)
- 1996 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
From magnum – opaque red violet color with slight bricking; very appealing, lifted, redolent, black pepper, tart currant, green pepper, charcoal, dried lavender nose; delicious, youthful, tart roasted plum, charcoal, tar, black pepper palate with concentration, focus and sweet pure fruit yet; youthful, and should go 35-plus years; long finish 98+ points (98 points)