Lately, and I have no idea why, all things Italian intrigue me. It’s a passionate country with rich history and a population who adores food. What’s not to like? But their complicated (and archaic) wine laws confound me. Grape varieties number in the thousands. Wine can be labeled by region or grape variety, making it confusing for the uninitiated. Tuscany in particular deserves some love, especially their wines that appeal to a New World palate.
Nowadays, Tuscan wines generally fall into “modernist” or “traditionalist” winemaking camps. For thousands of years, many winemakers in the area crammed huge, dirty oak vats with haphazardly grown grapes and crossed their fingers. Ever wonder where that earthy smack in older Italian wines originated? Probably the grubby crust on the fermenter. Yum! Historic results produced tannic, dusty, fruit-free wine and some wineries stay true to these traditions, although thankfully their hygienic practices have improved.
The modernists, on the other hand, take a note from countries like France, using smaller (cleaner) oak barrels to impart softness and techniques that reduce tannins and coax more fruit into the wine. The “centrist” producers combine the best of both styles, but as Ferdinando Frescobaldi, from Tuscany’s 700-year old Frescobaldi winery, said to me recently, “Good wine starts in the vineyard,” no matter what winemaking style they choose. Basically (and his sophistication prevents him from saying this): Garbage in, garbage out.
Which brings us to Chianti, formerly known for straw-encased jugs filled with flavorless plonk. But Chianti, Chianti Classico and their legally lesser counterparts, Toscana Rosso and Sangiovese di Toscana, have decidedly changed for the better. Chianti earned its shoddy reputation in the mid to late twentieth century when aristocrats with deep, feudal roots in the area — yet no knowledge of agriculture — owned expansive tracks of land farmed by sharecroppers. Paid by weight, sharecroppers had no incentive to increase the quality of the fruit, only the quantity. Chianti – made from the sprite and finicky sangiovese grape – mostly tasted insipid and weak until the mid-1980’s, when Italy’s wine bureaucrats introduced new regulations, land ownership incentives and tax credits. Free of the government’s shackles, smart farmers grew entrepreneurial wings, introduced modern techniques, and began selling to parts of the world previously unimaginable to them.
But these producers, seeing the raging international popularity of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot, grew antsy. The rules of Chianti require wines to be made from at least 85 percent sangiovese. So they stubbornly bucked the rigid system, labeling the often cab-based wines Toscana or Vino de Tavola, essentially the region’s lowest and humblest legal designations. Thus, the famed “Super Tuscan” was born. Although it’s another confusing term, it allows Tuscan winemakers to experiment with “invited” grapes, often with incredible results.
As far as price, Tuscany doesn’t ooze value. Yes, many boast incredible quality, yet it’s challenging to find a decent Tuscan wine under $15. But compared with big, fruity new world wines, the tart acidity in sangiovese wines pairs much better with food. And that’s worth the extra bucks.
Tenuta Belguardo 2003 Maremma Toscana Serrata (Italy) Mostly cabernet sauvignon, it tastes dense, austere and very full-bodied, with black cherry, blackberry and sweet vanilla. Sports high acidity, manageable tannins and a deliciously long finish. Sw=1. $20. 4 stars.
Melini 2006 Chianti Classico Isassi (Italy) Melini has had over three hundred years to perfect their Chianti. This single-vineyard wine is über dry and medium-bodied with dusty cherry, strong brewed tea, ripe plum, earthy mushroomy-ness and plenty of acidity. Definitely traditional in style, but tomato-based food brings out the fruit. Sw=1. $17. 3.5 stars.
Monte Antico Rosso 2005 Toscana (Italy) Family-owned winery that produces a predominantly sangiovese grog. Ripe black cherry, leather and dried herbs. Medium bodied, smooth tannins, with a finish like the Energizer bunny. Sw=1. $12. 3 stars.
Sweetness (Sw) rating: 1-10. Star rating: 1-5.