Tuscany Part 1: Chianti, Vino Nobile and Supertuscans

Some of the world's finest red wines are made in Tuscany's central areas of Chianti, Montepulciano and Carmignano, all relying mostly on the potential greatness of sangiovese. However, in Montepulciano and especially in Carmignano, unlike in Montalcino, international varieties have also played a prominent role historically, and so the sangiovese-based wines of these three areas can be resoundingly different.  And they couldn't be any more different than the wines of the Tuscan coast, which are made mostly from Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot.

Chianti per se is a generic term that refers to a very large swath of land, not all of it ideal for sangiovese. The most famous Chianti of all is Chianti Classico, that portion of the greater Chianti zone, located essentially between Florence and Siena, that was historically linked to true Chianti production. Over the decades, politicians and producers lobbied to expand the vineyard areas that could also lay claim to the Chianti monicker, and so today we have many other Chianti wines to choose from, mostly notably Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Fiorentini and Chianti Colli Senesi.  However, Chianti Classico is the engine that drives the region forward, and the Chianti Classico producers' association is one of the best-organized in all of Italy.  In an effort to fine-tune their wines, the consortium has just instituted new and important changes: a new and as yet unnamed Chianti Classico category has been created, one that will sit atop the quality hierarchy (i.e., above riserva), and that will be essentially devoted to single-vineyard wines.  These bottlings will require a minimum of 30 months' aging prior to release, including at least 3 in bottle.

The riserva category is also affected by the new rules: producers will be required to declare from the outset which level of Chianti Classico their grapes are destined for, requiring accurate decision-making early on in the production process. Riserva wines are all-important for Chianti Classico since they represent 30% of the region's production and  40% of the total value.  They can be some of Italy's greatest wines and I am not alone in thinking that Chianti Classico has not done enough to protect this wine's image and quality level in the past.

Readers need to realize that outstanding Chianti Classico Riserva wines are, or should be, of the same quality level as many a Brunello or Supertuscan; furthermore, they are usually available at a much lower cost. Unfortunately, the potential quality of these wines hasn't always been marketed as effectively as it might have been, and producers themselves have to shoulder the blame for producing umpteen Supertuscans when simply improving their riserva, and thereby cashing in on, and bolstering, the Chianti Classico name, might have done them just as much good.  In any case, these new changes are still a long time away, as they need to be approved at the national and EU government levels: at least 12 to 18 months will pass before they are in place.

For the most part, wine lovers should know that apart from Chianti Classico (of which there are hundreds of producers, some far more talented than others), the only other Chianti area that is worth a blanket two thumbs up is Rufina, whose wines, thanks to a particularly cool microclimate and higher average altitudes, have considerable refinement and breed. For all the other Chianti denominazioni, which are usually much too vast--not to mention characterized by very different soils and climate--to allow for a unifying interpretation of the wines, you really are best off learning the names of the better estates.

A good Chianti is an essence of sangiovese: aromas and flavors of redcurrant, sour red cherry, violet, black tea leaf and licorice will pour out of the glass. In some cases, and especially with age, forest floor, tobacco and old leather will also be obvious. Chianti is by law made with a minimum of 80% sangiovese; other varieties can include anything from cabernet sauvignon to local grapes like canaiolo nero and malvasia nera. Wines made with the former variety (or with merlot or syrah) are bigger, spicier and blacker in their fruit profiles, while those made with the less-known Tuscan natives (save for colorino, which resembles cabernet in its aromas and flavors) are more refined, floral and red fruit-dominated, and amazingly perfumed.

After almost 30 years of tasting these wines, I can state without any doubt whatsoever that the truly great Chiantis, those that can rival the greatest from Bordeaux, Napa Valley and other viticultural areas of the world, are with very few exceptions made with the local native grapes. While cabernet or merlot can help create sangiovese wines that have more flesh and that are more appealing in the short term, only those made with canaiolo nero, especially, can achieve real greatness. There is something about the sangiovese/canaiolo nero mix that weaves a magic that other grape combinations cannot achieve: think of canaiolo nero as a co-enzyme for sangiovese, where co-enzymes are those factors that help a physical reaction run smoother and better.  When all is well, canaiolo has an uncanny knack for bringing out the best in sangiovese. Last but not least, remember that Chianti, especially the best riservas, can age for 30 years or more in a cool cellar.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Carmignano have had identity crises over the last few decades that they are trying hard to recover from. An increasing number of better wines are now available and thus readers can comfortably pick offerings from the best estates in the knowledge that they will have something to enjoy. Both of these wines feature bigger structures than do most Chiantis, and they are often made with as much as 30% foreign varieties. Carmignano is usually the more refined wine of the two, Nobile the more powerful.

Central Tuscany is not just about sangiovese, however. The area around Cortona has become a hotbed for syrah, offering a different style and aroma/flavor profile (rather less jammy and fruity, and more saline and austere) from the syrahs of Australia and California. San Gimignano, one of Italy's prettiest and best-preserved medieval towns, is where one of Italy's most improved white wines, the refreshing and at times ageworthy Vernaccia di San Gimignano, has been produced for centuries. In fact, in 1966 this wine was awarded Italy's first-ever DOC, before other famous Italian wines such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello and Amarone.

Last but not least, as in every other area of Italy, producers in this part of Tuscany have recently begun making new wines from old native grape varieties, and some of these wines hold considerable promise. So if you're surprised to read about pure canaiolo nero, colorino, foglia tonda or sanforte in this article, my advice is to bear down and learn about these grapes and wines too, for they are here to stay. As I live in Italy year-round and spend anywhere from 60 to 75 days a year in Tuscany (eight days in this month alone), I have been able over the years to follow new developments closely, especially the case with old, once-forgotten native varieties that are being resurrected and used to make brand-new, often monovarietal wines. I hope IWC readers appreciate that many of the wines described here that are made with unknown native grapes (unknown even to most Italian wine writers!) are being written up here for the first time ever in an English language wine publication. Some wines are still available only at the wineries, but their quality is such that they will be getting into the U.S. market soon enough.

Please note this is part 1 of a two-part article devoted to Tuscany's best wines from the most recent vintages. Part 2 will largely be devoted to the Tuscan coast, but will also feature some late arrivals from Chianti and Central Tuscany that I was not able to taste in time to include in the current issue.

What the producers say. Marco Ricasoli Firidolfi of Rocca di Montegrossi believes that 2007 is a fantastic vintage. "I think 2007 is, along with 1999 and 1990, the best vintage in Chianti of the last 30 years," he told me. "The wines have power, complexity and structure, and all the varieties performed well. After that, I'd pick 2009, but only for sangiovese, as merlot suffered a bit from heat. Conversely, 2008 and 2010 required careful selection of only the best grapes due to weather difficulties, mainly ill-timed rains." Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti of Badia a Coltibuono agrees. "For me, 2007 and 2009 are great, classic vintages. The key in 2007 was the very cool nights, so the wines have the upfront charm and fleshiness of very warm vintages but are blessed with sound acidity and real fragrance, which is the secret to great Chianti." According to Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, "in 2009 there was a large crop, which made green harvesting a must. In this respect, the 2009s remind me of the 2001s, wines that are drinkable now but that can live for a very long time." Since 2001 is a great vintage across Tuscany, readers can only hope that Manetti is right in his assessment.

My own view. This is the most impressive line-up of Tuscan wines that I have tasted in some time. There are a number of truly mesmerizing examples of sangiovese in 2009 (especially) and 2010. And in both 2009 and 2010, many entry-level Chiantis are hymns to sangiovese and joys to drink.  And although I defer to Manetti's experience, I would humbly submit that the 2009s are fruitier and less massive than the 2001s. Both are great vintages (and I'm a huge fan of the 2001s) but I can only repeat that 2009's almost unique combination of upfront fruity charm and ageworthiness is going to make this a memorable, stellar vintage. The good news is that monovariety sangiovese wines have never been better, beginning with their bright red and crimson colors that for too long had been replaced by deep purple-ruby, often tinged with black, that were far from typical of sangiovese.

Recent vintages. This article covers mainly the 2010 and 2009 vintages, but I have also tasted many riserva wines from 2008 and 2007. The 2009 and 2010 growing seasons differed markedly from each other. Two thousand ten began with a very cold winter, followed by a wet and cool spring (as much as 200 millimeters of rain in the Montepulciano area), which caused a later budbreak and flowering. However, spring moved abruptly into summer, and June and July were hot (daytime high temperatures in the mid-'80s in Montepulciano, for example); vine growth accelerated, only to slow down somewhat in August and September, which were also hot but not scorching. The sunny days during the harvest in late September and early October saved the vintage, but careful picking, in batches, was necessary to avoid vinifying with physiologically unripe or rotten grapes. Overall production was down by 20% in Chianti Classico, but the vintage displays lovely varietal expression and average to good aging potential. I suspect that these wines will reach their peaks earlier than the 2009s will, although the better wines will also age well.

In contrast to 2010, the 2009 growing season was preceded by a gentler winter and a mild but very rainy spring--almost record-setting in Chianti Classico. In Montepulciano, March 21st was marred by snow and the consequent sharp fall in temperature caused precocious varieties such as merlot and colorino to shut down temporarily. April was hot, and budbreak ensued in all varieties without problems. June and July were hot, and so was August (for example, in Montepulciano there was an almost total absence of rain and above-average temperatures through this period), though the large differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures allowed for production of wines with very good aromatics. Overall, the wines are not excessively rich in extract but feature excellent balance and good freshness. The best 2009s do not have the fleshy opulence of their 2007 predecessors, but many show livelier acidity and more chiseled personalities. Rarely have I found so many wines literally dripping with pure sangiovese sour red fruit and sweet spicy (cinnamon) and floral (violet) aromas and flavors without some of the peppery and at times even jammy excesses of past great vintages (such as 2001 and 2004), which detract from Chianti's refinement and purity.

The 2008 growing season was an irregular one and the wines are inconsistent across the board.  Weather conditions in central Tuscany were a far cry from those in the Maremma on the Tuscan coast, where the climate is generally hotter and more uniform from year to year; readers need to be aware that the 2008 wines of central Tuscany are mostly high in acidity and austere. Entry-level wines may prove a bit lean and tough, while the better ones will require some patience.

The winter was not particularly cold, and average rainfall was slightly below average, contributing to a slightly earlier than normal budbreak. However, a very humid spring, with cool temperatures in May and June, permitted fewer flowers to set and in some cases made it impossible for growers to carry out necessary mold-prevention treatments. The summer was hot and marred by occasional showers, but excellent day/night temperature swings in late August and early September proved ideal for the final stages of grape ripening, and the harvest took place about ten days later than in recent years. Those producers who harvested at the end of September and the beginning of October generally did better than those who picked earlier.  The better 2008 wines are showing elegance and aromatic precision, with moderate alcohol content and structure. Some wines are green though, because the overall cool temperatures often didn't allow sangiovese to ripen fully.

By all accounts, 2007 is a great vintage for Central Tuscany, especially if you like your sangiovese a little bit more velvety and opulent than usual; still, the 2007s are nothing like the wines from the furnace-like 2003 growing season. There was no real winter leading into 2007, so growers feared an excessively dry season, but rain in May and June averted the problem of drought-related stress and the grapes (comparable in quantity to 2006) did not suffer much from the higher temperatures. A little rainfall in June and August also helped revive vines. Higher-than-usual maximum temperatures in late March and April in Montepulciano meant that budbreak took place about 15 days earlier than in a typical year.  But in June cooler conditions slowed the development of the foliage and ultimately contributed to healthy grapes being picked in good weather during the second half of September and first week of October, not as early as the analysis of the preceding months would have predicted. The entry-level 2007s are fleshy and creamy-sweet, while the flagship wines generally show excellent depth and complexity and will age well.