By Travis H. Brown
Recently, I had the pleasure of exploring most of the Italian Wine Regions within Tuscany, with a particular focus on their signature red wines. For the focus of our wine buying we started North in Florence, and moved South past Siena, as we navigated the scenic countryside.
By way of explanation, the vast majority of our wine buying for clients and entertainment insists on following only those vineyards of high quality at medium to higher price points. In Italy, there are two designations under wine law to guide you to consistent quality: Denominazinione di Origine Controllata, or “DOC,” and the highest appellation designation, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, “DOCG.” It is to be noted that there are many fine Italian wines that do not carry the DOC label, but rather are IGT wines.
To the north end of Toscana, it’s about Chianti Classico, which in most cases gives you the higher altitude, bone dry, sangiovese wine that many Americans love. We found all DOC-labeled chiantis to meet our expectations, but our palettes were looking for something more complex. Before we leave Chianti Classico, however, it is worth noting that their viticulturists are collaborating in many creative ways to promote their region, mostly through the label marketing of the black rooster. Most Chianti Classicos (DOC grade or better) were selling on or above 25 euros (or roughly $35-40). Along the way, we stumbled across Percarlo wines from Chianti, which were dynamite for us.
While all of Tuscany is panoramically-beautiful, our quest for the best red wines quickly narrowed us to the summit town of Montalcino. This one little isolated town has preserved perhaps the best rendition of Sangiovese for centuries, off the beaten path, at the base of Mount Amiata. It was this volcano that helped create the rich soil diversity, terroir, and atmospheric protection from cloudbursts and hailstorms. Only Sangiovese grapes found within the municipal territory of Montalcino carry the famed label: Brunello di Montalcino. Only 15% of these 24,000 hectares of land is occupied by vineyards since the Etruscan times.
Certainly the international reputation of Brunello means that you can find some great selections in many fine dining establishments within the United States. However, our buying focus was to find a few great local producers not likely to be marketed by most brokers and large suppliers. Toward this end, we got help from the friendly owners at Enoteca La Fortezza di Montalcino. Giorella rolled out a fine map that every serious Brunello buyer should have from the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino.
We sampled more than a dozen local producers (out of several hundred available) from all four corners of this small Montalcino territory: the north (for fresh & elegant styles), the east (for robust styles), the south (for sunny fruit expressions), and the west (for classic dry spices). Our three palettes ended up rating the Terre Nere the best overall. We liked Mate as a producer for their expression of spices. If you sample the wines there, make sure to also sample the local honeys for dessert. For a main course in Tuscan, one must try the ragu pasta with wild boar to be completely indigenous.
My experience in Italian-American restaurants is that they tend to give you a more limited exposure to the incredible diversity within this one varietal. The Terre Nere 2006 & 2007 releases gave us strong red fruits with pinot noir smoothness up front, followed by a long finish into soft tannins and well-balanced earthy spices. If you’re feeling intimated about an Italian wine selection, remember and use “Brunello” as your flag word from which to start a great red wine experience.
When it comes to reds, Tuscany is the gift that keeps on giving. We made it over to Montepulciano just about 45 minutes east of Montalcino for a completely different excursion. Here, we sampled the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (or VNM), a blend of several local red varietals though by papal lords to be a perfect expression of a red wine.
What I expected from these tasting would be grapes with a wild side, something perhaps the Grenache-driven Chateauneuf de Papes that we’ve had in the Southern Rhone. However, to my surprise, I found these reds (granted, mostly riservas) to full of violets in the nose, and smooth on the finish. We can recommend Politiziano and Avignonesi as well-known producers that you can likely find. However, we also found some newcomers, like Dei, a lady singer/entrepreneur making new waves near the town with even more feminine fruit notes in her bottles.
Despite our focused adventure to buy the classic labels this trip, we could not help but notice (and try) many of the new red blends or new varieties that have emerged across Tuscany. Both Syrahs and Merlots are making their way through the next generation producers, with some noteworthy success. I found both (near Cortona) to impart strong Montepulciano earth notes. Their alcoholic content was a bit higher than expected (> 14%), but one Italian sommelier assured me that such labels were often given higher numbers than actually what is bottled just to be safe with Italian regulators.
Italian wine tasting without a Brunello experience is like a wedding without a cake. There are many more wines that are super than just the Super-Tuscans.