How a Medici girl revolutionized dining in France and winemaking in Tuscany


It must have been a splendid wedding—the union of Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici, the pride of the Medici clan, with Henri de Valois, Duke of Orléans, second in line to the French throne. The bride’s uncle, bearded Pope Clement VII, traveled to Marseilles to conduct the marriage ceremony in the Église Saint-Ferréol les Augustins on 28 October 1533.

According to Paul Strathern, the momentous nuptials were “suitably magnificent.” He writes in The Medici that the blushing bride was “attended by no fewer than twelve maids of honor,” and the ceremony was “followed by nine days of lavish banquets, pageants and festivities” funded by “punitive” tax increases in Florence and Rome.

The Medici had cause to celebrate. Hitherto scorned as mere merchants, despite some success in the political realm, the Medici had with this alliance risen unambiguously to the ranks of nobility. When Prince Henri later became King Henri II, Caterina (by then known as Catherine) became Queen of France. Three of her 10 children ascended to the French throne.


And she revolutionized French dining.

Cultural Exchange
Bryan G. Newman writes in Behind the French Menu, an unpublished book excerpted online (behind-the-french-menu .blogspot.com), that Catherine’s entourage brought along “much more than pasta, they brought new soft drinks such as lemonade and orangeade; her market gardeners brought many different herbs and vegetables … and a love for basil.”

The arrival of new ingredients and Florentine cooking techniques— coupled with Catherine’s influence as queen and mistress of royal entertaining—brought about a culinary revolution in France, creating the elegant haute cuisine for which the country is famous.

And then there’s the fork. An anonymous commentator writes that the implement “was used back in her native Italy at a time when the rest of Europe still looked on it as being a bit pretentious; her using it may have encouraged more around her to try it as well.” Nearly five centuries later, forks continue to be used for dainty dining throughout France.

Catherine’s move to France had another effect. Once settled there, she or members of her retinue sent samples of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon back home to Tuscany, where the grapes were then unknown. Before long, the Medici were growing the varietals near Carmignano, a small town not far from Florence where the family had a hunting preserve. Their successors have been making wine from the two uve francesche in Carmignano ever since—blending them with Tuscany’s noble native varietal, Sangiovese.

Tenuta di Capezzana
The Medici’s barco reale— hunting park—has changed hands several times over the centuries. Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi and his wife, Vittoria, purchased it in 1920 when they returned with their two sons from Spain, where the Count had been involved in the antiques business. In addition to purchasing the estate known today as Tenuta di Capezzana and adjacent properties, the Count eventually assembled what became one of the largest private collections of Italian paintings, sculptures, furniture and ceramics. The Contini Bonacossi Collection now can be seen at the Uffizi in Florence.

According to the Contini Bonacossi family, “the year 804 marks the first recorded mention of wine production at Capezzana.” Introduction of Cabernet Sauvignon dates back to the 16th century. Since the Renaissance, “Carmignano wines have comprised a signature blend of Sangiovese with an all-important dash of Cabernet.” Vittorio Contini Bonacossi, who is in charge of the vineyards at Capezzana today, explains that Cabernet Franc may have arrived in Carmignano before Cabernet Sauvignon; old records refer simply to uva francesca—French grape.

Carmignano now is an official DOCG area (thanks largely to efforts of the late Ugo Contini Bonacossi). In order to show Carmignano on the label, wines grown there must include at least 50 percent Sangiovese and up to 20 percent Canaiolo Nero—with 10 to 20 percent Cabernet Franc and/or Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend.

My wife and I visited Tenuta di Capezzana (capezzana.it) in the fall of 2014. We toured the cellars and villa, rode through the vineyards with Vittorio in his sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle, and dined with the gracious Contini Bonacossi family. The meal, wines and conversation were wonderful. The following day we visited the Uffizi in Florence to view the Contini Bonacossi Collection, also wonderful.

Taste Tests
Since returning to the United States, my wife and I naturally have seized every opportunity to enjoy wines from Tenuta di Capezzana. Notes on three of them follow.

Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC 2014 ($15) is a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese, 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Canaiolo and 5 percent Cabernet Franc. Fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged for a year in barrels of French oak, it is a deep, ruby red hue. Blackberries predominate in the crisp, tangy bouquet, augmented by violets and pepper. The flavor is complex and intriguing—dark cherries, currants and blackberries with a kiss of pepper, tea and possibly eucalyptus.

Ghiaie della Furba Toscana IGT 2008 ($60) comprises 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot and 20 percent Syrah. Thus it is marked IGT (“typical wine of Tuscany”) rather than DOC or DOCG. Its initial fermentation took place in stainless steel, after which it was cosseted in French oak for 14 months. Stygian in the glass, the wine is impenetrably dark with only a glow of deep red here and there. A bouquet of dark berries continues the dusky theme, introducing juicy flavors of blackberries, black cherries and plums. The finish is long. Tasting this delicious liquid I could not help but think of the black-clad gentlemen Baldassare Castiglione mentions in his Book of the Courtier—elegant, confident and self-assured, just like this stunning wine. (Ghiaie della Furba refers to small stones found in the bed of a stream named Furba that flows through the Capezzana property.)

Vin Santo is the classic amber dessert wine of Tuscany. Grapes for Vin Santo traditionally are dried for several months in a hot, well-ventilated attic before they are crushed. The resulting wine—high in sugar—then is aged in small, sealed barrels for several years.

Capezzana’s Vin Santo di Carmignano Riserva DOC 2007 ($55) is a blend of Trebbiano Rosa with about 10 percent San Colombano grapes. According to the Contini Bonacossi, their Vin Santo is aged in 100-liter barrels “made from cherry and chestnut trees grown on the property.” The lush liquid is a deep amber color with a gleam of orange. It emits an intense bouquet of coconut, vanilla and citrus rind. The glowing, viscous delight is both sweet and tangy, offering hints of walnuts, coconut, raisins and butterscotch. This wonderful wine would be the capstone of any great dinner—accompanied by a rich dessert or on its own.

In addition to making glorious wines, Tenuta di Capezzana also produces wonderful olive oil. Alas, olive harvests have been terrible in Tuscany for several years, and the oil currently is unavailable. We aspire to enjoy it again in a future year.

You can visit Tenuta di Capezzana. Tourists can rent apartments and rooms at the heart of the estate and on nearby properties. It is a perfect setting for a family vacation. In addition to experiencing the joys of rural Tuscan life, visitors can take cooking classes. There is plenty of wine, too. Details are available on the Capezzana website.

Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.

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