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Trial. Error. Repeat.

Poliziano’s decades-long formula for Tuscan success
Photo by: Andrea Chioato
Federico Carletti has spent his life exploring wine and terroirs in Montepulciano.

Posted: May 21, 2018 1:50pm ET

From his perch outside Montepulciano, Federico Carletti has ridden the rollercoaster of Tuscan wine over nearly four decades: from the adoption of international varieties and big oaked wines to the return to traditional Sangiovese and a focus on showcasing the local terroirs.

"I have no regrets," says Carletti, who took over his family's vineyards in 1980 and built Poliziano into a noted producer with more than 30 releases scoring 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator tastings over the past 20 years.

Carletti's flagship is a single-vineyard wine: Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Asinone (2014, 90 points, $60), from more than 30 acres of silty clay soils that he graded and planted in his early days. In the best years, the wine is 100 percent Sangiovese. In others, up to 10 percent Colorino and Merlot are added.

"It's like my baby," says Carletti, 64, of the wine, first produced in 1983.

His other stellar wine that endures from the late 1980s is a completely different animal—a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot called Le Stanze (2013, 95 points, $60) created as part of the super Tuscan wave.

These days Carletti is excited about a renaissance of Sangiovese in Montepulciano. He is releasing his second single-vineyard Vino Nobile in conjunction with the newly founded group of six Montepulciano producers called "The Alliance." This year, each of the producers—Avignonesi, Antinori's La Braccesca, Boscarelli, Dei and Salcheto, along with Poliziano—will debut a single-vineyard, 100 percent Sangiovese Vino Nobile with the 2015 vintage.

Carletti's contribution is from Caggiole, a cool northwest-facing vineyard laced with porous limestone. "The taste is salt, salt, salt," he enthuses. "You can absolutely taste it in the wine. You can even taste it in the olive oil from the trees next to the vineyard."

Carletti had previously produced a Caggiole bottling in select 1980s and 1990s vintages but abandoned it to shift his focus.

"I had the idea to make a first wine and a second wine like Bordeaux," he says of Asinone and his basic Vino Nobile. "But it was a big mistake because, in fact, Tuscany has many little crus, different terroirs, soils, expositions and altitudes."

"These were the decisions we made at the time," adds Carletti, a self-made winemaker who learned by experimentation and his own mistakes. 

Poliziano began when his father, Dino, a manager for a large construction firm, bought more than 50 acres in Montepulciano in 1961, motivated by a romantic view of country life. His father planted vineyards and sold bulk wine from the estate, which he named after the famed Renaissance poet from Montepulciano.

In 1980, a couple of years after finishing his studies as an agricultural engineer, Carletti took over "because I believed quality wine had a future."

At the time, Carletti says of the thin wines made by his father, "The quality was very low."

From the beginning, Carletti made his mark by working only with the ripest, best-quality fruit. "I selected 50 to 60 percent of grapes and the quality changed immediately," he says.

Carletti still had a lot to learn and consulted informally with ex-classmate and friend Carlo Ferrini, who at the time was the enologist for Chianti Classico's wine consortium.

"For the first 10 years, I was overextracting. It was good wine, but very strong." Likewise, in the 1990s, he says he overused new oak barrels, covering the taste of his wines with wood tannins. In the past decade, he has taken a gentler and gentler approach to winemaking in order to preserve subtle flavors and aromas distinct to the terroir.

Today, Poliziano produces more than 83,000 cases from about 400 organically farmed acres in Montepulciano, nearby Cortona and coastal Tuscany's Maremma region. Most of it is Sangiovese.

Grape selection remains his obsession. Though he invested in an expensive optical sorting system in his modern gravity-fed winery, Carletti doesn't use it for his best wines.

"The machines are too brutal, too fast. For our top wines, we use manual selection," says Carletti, who helps man the sorting tables during harvest.

There is a buzz around Montepulciano these days of a new wave of quality based on more careful selection of Sangiovese, locally referred to as Prugnolo Gentile. A symbol of that is a new rule adopted earlier this month allowing Vino Nobile di Montepulciano producers to emphasize the word "Nobile" in large type on their labels.

"In Montepulciano we have big estates that have changed hands in the last seven years," reflects Carletti, who served as the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano president for five years, ending in 2013. "We need more good wineries that help pull things forward."

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