In 1995, Vittorio Frescobaldi of Italy's venerable Marchesi de' Frescobaldi joined forces with Napa Valley icon Robert Mondavi to produce a Tuscan red called Luce della Vite. The grapes came from vineyards in Montalcino, adjacent to the Frescobaldis' Castelgiocondo estate.
Luce debuted two years later with the 1993 vintage. There is also a second wine called Lucente produced from the same vineyards. Earlier this year in New York, Lamberto Frescobaldi, vice president of the company in charge of production for Marchesi Frescobaldi, presented a vertical tasting of every vintage of Luce from the past 20 years, exclusively for Wine Spectator.
"People thought because it was a joint venture with Americans it would be a big, juicy wine," recounted Frescobaldi. "Tim [Mondavi] always said it should be in the style of what Montalcino does best, with its integrity of the soil and ability to age."
"I initially disagreed, but now I'm glad we kept to this path," he said.
Interestingly, Merlot was already growing on the Luce property, planted in 1976, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, under the former ownership of French investors. The Sangiovese was planted between 1975 and 1983, with newer, higher-density plantings beginning in 1997, which have been part of the Luce blend since the 2003 vintage.
More vineyards were planted after 2004, bringing the total today to 136 acres, 106 classified as Indicazione Geografica Tipica and 30 designated as Brunello di Montalcino. There is a little more Merlot in the overall plantings, reflected in the Lucente blend, which is roughly 70 percent Merlot with the rest Sangiovese. It consists of the estate's younger vines, in cooler sites at lower altitudes.
The vineyards of Tenute Luce della Vite lie between 1,155 feet and 1,385 feet above sea level. The higher part, a mix of schist and limestone soils called galestro, is ideal for Sangiovese, while the lower, clay-rich portion is better-suited for Merlot.
"It's a smart blend," said Frescobaldi, about halfway through the tasting. "The two components are very different in how you manage the vineyards and when you harvest, but the wines integrate very well." The Merlot is typically harvested mid-September, the Sangiovese three to four weeks later. They are blended together after fermentation.
The tasting took place at the office of Alessandro Lunardi, United States director for Luce. All the bottles were shipped five weeks prior to the tasting and stored at cool temperature, with the exception of the 2012 and 2011, which were barrel samples brought by Frescobaldi.
Luce is a blend of 50 percent Merlot and 50 percent Sangiovese. Occasionally there is a little more Merlot, about 55 percent, and there was one notable exception, the 2002, which is 75 percent Merlot, 25 percent Sangiovese due the to late-season rains that affected the Sangiovese harvest. Only 600 cases of the 2002 were made, versus 4,000 to 5,000 cases in most years. The wines are aged in 100 percent new French oak for 21 months.
Three distinct groups of Luce emerged from the tasting: the young wines (2006–'10), not yet completely integrated and balanced; those ready to enjoy now and over the next years (1996–2005); and those that were fully mature (1993–'95).
The 2001 was the outlier, a tough, surly Luce with animal and balsamic flavors. It hasn’t always been that way, according to Frescobaldi. The 2001 vintage was significant for its spring frost, which reduced the crop. “I personally always loved the rich character of the vintage, its rich, up-front taste,” he said. “I always loved it, I had a crush on Luce 2001. In the last years, however, my crush has cooled down a bit. The wine has probably evolved quicker than what I supposed.” I felt that perhaps it was in a dumb phase and may just need more time.
What I also found interesting from this vertical tasting was that some better-quality vintages disappointed, while other, less successful years were surprisingly good. Among the former, 2007, 2004, 2001, 2000 and 1997 underperformed, while in the latter category, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the 2003, 2002 and 1998.
Add to these vintage variations the differing sources of fruit over the years. Between 1993 and 2003, some of the fruit came from Castelgiocondo, and the Sangiovese was partially replanted to higher density since 1997. Since 2004, Luce has its own vineyards; as these vines age, the quality should improve.
Vite Toscana Luce 2012
This bore fresh, saturated cherry and blackberry aromas, with a touch of oak. Rich and fruity, its dense tannins are integrated. Tasted from barrel sample; to be bottled in November or December 2014. (89–92 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2011
Shows plenty of floral, violet and black currant aromas and flavors. Well-marked by oak and tannins, yet spicy and long. Tasted from barrel sample; to be bottled in November or December 2013. (87–90 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2010
The floral, violet, black cherry, earth and spice aromas and flavors are very pure here. It's focused and elegant, yet forceful, balanced and long, adding a touch of mint in the aftertaste. Best from 2018 to 2040. (94 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2009
A touch woody on the nose, with spice and cherry aromas. On the palate this is full of sweet cherry, berry and spice flavors with support from tannins on the finish. Best from 2018 to 2035. (91 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2008
Beginning to show some developed aromas, this shows sweet cherry and berry, with hints of truffle, leather and spice. It's elegant and lighter in style, yet firm, linear even, with noticeable yet not aggressive tannins. Best from 2015 through 2027. (89 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2007
Herbaceous elements here, along with ripe black cherry, plum and tar flavors, but the tannins sit apart, leaving a dry, dusty yet fresh impression. Best from 2016 through 2028. (88 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2006
Gorgeous nose here, deep, dense and complex, offering black cherry, blackberry, floral and peppery notes. It's monolithic, much less evolved than either the 2007 or 2008, revealing ripe fruit, vibrant acidity and firm, muscular tannins. Long, savory, minerally aftertaste. Best from 2017 through 2035. (95 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2005
Showing maturing aromas of cherry, currant, cedar and spice, this is on the elegant side, with bright acidity. The tannins are aggressive and the finish astringent. Drink now through 2027. (88 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2004
The bouquet is coming together, displaying a mix of dried cherry, berry and spice. Soft initially, with ripe fruit and low acidity, yet the tannins give it lift and freshness, especially on the finish. A mellowing Luce almost at its peak. Drink now through 2028. (90 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2003
Beautiful bouquet of sweet cherry, black currant, leather, herbs and spices introduces this very complex, sweet and supple Luce, picking up licorice and tobacco notes on long finish. 55 percent Sangiovese. Drink now through 2030. (94 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2002
Still a deep ruby red at the rim. There's a bouquet of sweet fruit, plum, licorice and spice. This is sweet and smooth in texture, with well-integrated tannins, softness and a long, fruit, cedar and mineral aftertaste. 75 percent Merlot, 25 percent Sangiovese. Drink now through 2024. (93 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2001
Animal, iron and sanguine aromas lead off; less developed than the 2002 and 2003, the 2001 displays more balsamic Sangiovese notes and a stiff base of tannins underneath, with elevated alcohol. Best from 2016 through 2032. (89 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 2000
The bouquet is shy, followed by light flavors of cedar, ripe cherry and plum. This starts out soft in the balance except for the assertive tannins on the finish. Astringent overall. Drink now through 2020. (84 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 1999
A cool, reserved bouquet of sweet dried cherry, truffle, licorice and spice highlights this red. It's fresh, elegant, complex and harmonious, yet still firmly structured and long. Ready to enjoy, but there's no rush. Drink now through 2037. (95 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 1998
The mature bouquet reveals subtle, sweet cherry, berry, licorice, mint and spice. Full of sweet fruit, this is fresh, elegant and balanced, with plum and spice. It finishes on a long tobacco aftertaste. Drink now through 2020. (90 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 1997
The bouquet is moderately intense, displaying sweet cherry, plum and spice. There is concentration, but the fruit is diffuse and the tannins on the assertive side. Fully mature and ready. Drink now through 2018 (89 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 1996
Showing a mature bouquet of plum, cherry, spice and antique shop, this has a nice patina now, with a mix of fruit, spice and tobacco notes buoyed by the firm grip. Drink now through 2022. (90 points, non-blind)
Vite Toscana Luce 1995
Red color, fading to brick, with a mature bouquet of plum, cedar and spice that quickly fades to dry tannins. Drink now. (86 points, non-blind)
Vite Luce 1994
Sweet cherry, berry, dried flowers and spice bouquet and flavors mark this expressive, elegant red. Firm tannins on the finish. Drink now. (88 points, non-blind)
Vite Luce 1993
Showing cedar, tobacco and spice bouquet, with vestiges of fruit, this has a midpalate sweetness that gives way to dry and astringent tannins. Drink now. (87 points, non-blind)