18/13 Tuscan wines essential to every cellar
Is there a place on earth more blessed than Tuscany? Everything seems to flourish there. Many would argue that painting and sculpture reached their zenith in Renaissance Florence, while in literature, Dante virtually invented the modern Italian language with The Divine Comedy. And this rich history has unfolded in a landscape so varied and voluptuous, with its rolling hills, sunlight and cypress trees, that it seems more the work of a clever hand than an accident of nature. So you’d think it only natural that this enchanting place should be the source of some of the finest red wines ever bottled. Yet, for a long time, Tuscany poured forth a steady stream of some of the leanest and meanest plonk on the planet.###
You know the wine I’m talking about. Old-fashioned Chianti in its straw jacket was the mainstay on checkered tablecloths from the Piazza del Campo in Sienna to Vancouver Island. I would describe it as happily mediocre. For 200 years, lovely Tuscany remained the complacent underachiever with a silver spoon in its mouth. When California began blowing away the competition at international tastings in the 1970s, Tuscan winemakers knew the writing was on the wall. Tuscany needed to reinvent itself.
It began in Bolgheri, tucked away on Tuscany’s west coast. Scorching hot, Bolgheri was considered unsuitable for growing vines. Cooling breezes from the Tyrrhenian Sea, well-drained rocky soils, careful berry selection and French oak barrels changed that perception. Sassicaia, a cabernet sauvignon–based Bordeaux blend created by Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, was the first of the new Tuscan wines when it hit the shelves in 1968. By 1971 others, like Piero Antinori, were emulating the Bordeaux style, and soon the phenomenon of the Super Tuscan was born. Over the next three decades, hundreds of Tuscan winemakers using Bordeaux grapes and modern methods began producing wines of a quality and character never before seen in the region’s history. These are powerful, concentrated, structured and stylish wines, often revealing hints of leather and tar. Today no serious cellar or restaurant menu would be complete without several examples.
Chianti, on the other hand, is made from the Sangiovese grape. While the new Tuscan wines were raising the bar, Chianti makers must have appeared to be doing the limbo. Sangiovese will never produce wine as dense and tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon, but it possesses its own unique characteristics. It can be earthy and spicy and is always very lively. Growers began reducing crop yields for greater sun exposure and increased flavour intensity. The best Chianti Classico Riservas are balanced, aromatic, textured and delicious. Having modernized, they are worthy rivals to their super cousins and an essential expression of the true ancestral flavour of the region.
I haven’t said much about Brunello di Montalcino because I wanted to focus on the great Tuscan wine revival. Brunellos have always been outstanding. Ferruccio Biondi Santi, the father of modern Brunello, began introducing practices like limiting yields and isolating ideal Sangiovese clones—the very methods elevating quality today—in the 1870s. He was far ahead of his time, producing big, fleshy, complex wines that retain their freshness and character over decades. In a way, the wine revolution in Tuscany describes a circle back to the old medieval village of Montalcino, where Brunello originates. Taste all three of the samples here to appreciate the full range of the Tuscan experience.
Bolgheri, Tuscany $185
This young Sassicaia is drinking beautifully already, though it will develop over the next 20 years. A feeling of latent power meets the nose in waves of rose petal, dark plum, tobacco leaf and even a whiff of oceanside. The dark ruby 2010 is so well knit that it takes a while for its character to emerge. Three hours of decanting plus another hour of slow sipping revealed a robust and complex wine that is nevertheless smooth and fresh. The finish is mouth-watering, just crying out for red meat, so serve this with your favourite roast or braise.
Angelini Vigna Spuntali Brunello di Montalcino 2006
Montalcino, Tuscany $82
This gorgeous, well-aged Brunello is the colour of amber and rust. Heady aromas of dark earth, mushrooms, olives and ripe plum smoulder in the glass. For all its depth and power, this wine is supple, though firmly bolstered by sturdy tannins. While the flavours are distinctly earthy, there is a dark fruit-licorice centre and the finish is fresh and long. I would describe this wine as intriguing, ideal for guests with a taste for the cerebral. Serve with a mixed grill of beef, Italian sausage and portobello mushrooms.
Lamole di Lamole Chianti Classico Riserva 2008
Chianti, Tuscany $38
The 2008 Lamole di Lamole has everything you could ask for from a riserva. Like a genie in a bottle, this wine comes to life as soon as it is poured. Spices, crushed stone, red berries and freshly turned earth perfume the air. You know from the first sip that you’ve got a live one. Delightful flavours of strawberry and spice are nicely sculpted by fine tannins. The finish is pronounced and uplifting. An exciting wine, perfect with pan-fried veal cutlet and panzanella (Tuscan bread-and-tomato salad).