Daniel Thomases on Tuscany

In the late 1970s, as a direct result of a decade-long period of declining standards and insipid wines, Tuscany vintners found themselves with cellars bulging with bottles that no one had any desire to drink. Tuscan wine has come a long way since then. The region's reversal of fortune over the last generation has been recounted so many times that it seems pointless to linger excessively over the details: the realization on the part of far-seeing producers that things had to change, and drastically; the decision to cut back on yields and to select better genetic material when planting new vineyards; the replacement of generation-old casks with newer and fresher wood; the experimentation with non-traditional varieties (first cabernet and chardonnay, now increasingly merlot and syrah).

In commercial terms, the turnaround has been startling. Tuscan wine is hot, a fact that consumers can verify simply by gazing at the prices of wines once affordable for everyday drinking. While some deplore the new price levels, in the long run it is the market that decides these matters, and rising prices simply reflect the law of supply and demand.

But the most significant question at the moment is not how much the better bottles cost but where Tuscan wine is going. If the wines of 20 years ago were excessively provincial and rustic-too acid and tannic, frequently either oxidized or reduced, thin gruel indeed for drinkers-those of today frequently seem almost too studied, programmed for superficial glamour, "international" in the wrong way. Too much cabernet and merlot, too much new oak, too many worked-over wines whose softness and early drinkability seem more willed than authentic. It is all too easy to claim that Tuscan producers are seeking the kind of quick and predictable success that will deprive the wines of their soul, but there has unquestionably been some loss of specific personality. The danger today is that Tuscany will make wines that too closely resemble those produced all over the globe.

The wines currently coming onto the market offer an excellent opportunity to check out the state of Tuscan wine and make some predictions about the region's immediate future. I shall not attempt to hide my own opinions and prejudices. My own hope is that sangiovese, in as pure a state as possible (100% sangiovese is not always feasible and, in fact, is not the tradition of either Chianti Classico or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano), remains the principal grape of the region and that producers concentrate their efforts on improving its cultivation in the vineyard and its transformation into wine in the cellars. I would also hope that, in the many specific vineyards where sangiovese does not ripen well, cabernet and merlot would be cultivated principally for the purpose of making varietal wines, not for the easy solution of "improving" sangiovese.

In terms of vintages, the current releases offer the best of what Tuscany should be able to produce. Both 1995 and 1997 were, in different ways, very fine years: 1995 with a long growing season that gave producers ample choice of when to pick, 1997 with a classic hot summer and early fall that yielded ripe, sugar-rich grapes. But both years also featured potential pitfalls. A final word about the wines included on the following pages: '97s from Chianti Classico now being marketed are either Riserva bottlings or selections, while the '95 Brunello di Montalcino and '97 Vino Nobile di Montalcino releases are the regular bottlings. But it goes with saying that, in a superior vintage, even a "regular" Brunello di Montalcino or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano should be an important, well-made wine.