Tuscany Part 1: Chianti, Vino Nobile and Supertuscans

For all intents and purposes, when it comes to wine, Tuscany is a country all on its own, with myriad different microclimates, terroirs and grape varieties to sift through.  Thus it makes very little sense to speak of Tuscany as a whole; for example, wines made from cabernet sauvignon and merlot on the Tuscan coast, those made from sangiovese in cooler-climate Chianti Classico, and those made from syrah in Cortona couldn't be any more different.  Add to that further permutations such as the sangiovese wines of still cooler climates such as Chianti Rufina, or the much warmer microclimate and iron-rich soils of the Chianti Colli Senesi and Montalcino, and you begin to understand why speaking generally of "Tuscan wine" is next to meaningless.

And altitudes, exposures, sunlight hours and precipitation totals do play huge roles:  just think that the sangiovese harvest in Chianti Classico takes place about two weeks later in Gaiole and Radda than it does in San Casciano, only a 15-minute drive away.  All that, and we haven't even begun to consider areas like Montepulciano and Carmignano, where international grape varieties (such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot ) have historically enjoyed primacy along with Tuscany's more common sangiovese.

Clearly, if there is one unifying feature in the Tuscan wine scene it would have to be sangiovese, one of the world's ten most planted grape varieties (and number one in Italy by a wide margin).  It basically grows everywhere in the region and only in parts of the northern Tuscan coast does it seem less at home.  Sangiovese is at the core of some of Italy's (and the world's) greatest wines, although truly outstanding wines aren't always easy to come by given the pinot noir-like degree of difficulty the variety poses to vine growers and winemakers everywhere.

The good news is that, generally speaking, Chianti Classico wines have never been this good.  That said, there have been many other Tuscan wine success stories in the last 30 years.  In fact, there have been fewer bigger successes in Italian wine than the explosion of wines made with cabernet franc and merlot from Bolgheri and other parts of Tuscany's coastline or the excitement generated by the up-and-coming area of Cortona and its syrah wines.  Even Tuscany's white wines are on a roll nowadays:  Vernaccia di San Gimignano is better than ever, and a host of delicious, unique vermentino and ansonica wines are now made along the coast and on Tuscany's islands (such as Elba, Capraia, Giglio and Gorgona).  Last but not least, Tuscany offers some of Italy's greatest sweet wines, ranging from the deliciously thick and sweet Vin Santo to the aromatic red aleatico, which is not unlike a black muscat wine.

Please note that due to the region's incredibly rich biodiversity, as well as to the huge number of quality estates and wines, Tuscany's wines will be presented in two articles in the International Wine Cellar.  Part 2, to be published later, will largely be devoted to the Tuscan coast, but as usual 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.

Probably the single most important event that's happened in Tuscany since I last wrote about these wines has been the creation of a new and very important quality category in Chianti Classico.  I had first broken the news in Issue 163 of the IWC, and we know now that new category's name is "Gran Selezione."  Gran Selezione wines represent the highest level of wine quality in Chianti Classico; essentially, these wines ought to be the best produced at each estate.  Gran Selezione stipulates that the wine be made exclusively from the estate's own grapes and can be marketed only after a minimum 30-month period of aging.

I am generally not a huge fan of such new categories, especially those as hard to pronounce (for non-Italians) as "Gran Selezione", because they generally add very little and come to mean just more bureaucratic red tape. I  believe that simplifying the categories of Italian wines, and not complicating them further, is the route to go.  However, the establishment of the top-tier Gran Selezione wines is just the first step in changing the Chianti Classico we have come to know and love.  In fact, work is underway on phase 2 of the Gran Selezione project, in which mapping and promotion of individual communal terroirs will take center stage.  In the near future, wines will be sporting the names of the townships where the grapes grow, such as Castellina in Chianti or Greve in Chianti, which I find a very good idea.  The good news for wine lovers everywhere is that, for the most part, producers have clearly gone out of their way to make outstanding Gran Selezione wines:  the majority of such wines I tasted this year were impressive, and many merit inclusion in a "best Italian wines of the year" list.

The flip side to the establishment of Gran Selezione has been the further impoverishment of the Chianti Classico Riserva category.  Riserva had never been properly supported or enforced in Chianti Classico and the designation was loosely applied to wines that could be the result of blends of the best casks, or best grapes, or simply aged longer in wood.  Therefore, a Riserva designation didn't necessarily mean higher quality, and the grapes themselves didn't need to come from the estate's own vineyards.  Because of this, the introduction of  a new, top level, Gran Selezione category was perhaps a necessary step.   But with the introduction of the Gran Selezione wines, I noticed a precipitous drop in the quality of most Riserva wines this year, further reducing this moniker's value.

Last but not least, this being Italy, where individualism and creativity have been raised to an art form, although some famous Chianti Classico wines have become Gran Selezione (such as Barone Ricasoli's Colledilà), other estates that are unimpressed with the new rules and regulations have chosen to drop out of the Chianti Classico family altogether.  For example, Le Cinciole's very fine Petresco Chianti Classico Riserva will no longer be labeled as a Chianti Classico. 

While Chianti Classicos can be among Italy's greatest wines, right up there with the best from Barolo and Montalcino, Chianti wines in general are hampered by two main problems. These are the existence of myriad wines confusingly called Chianti-something (for example, Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Aretini, and so on, and also simply Chianti or Chianti Superiore) and the overly generous use of other allowed grape varieties in Chianti blends.  The various Chianti denominations reflect greatly different microclimates, soils and wines: most Chiantis (Rufina excepted) have little in common with their more noble Chianti Classico counterparts, though some beautiful wines exist outside of the latter DOCG.

And allowing up to 20% of different grape varieties in Chianti blends isn't a very good idea either: just take your pick from a list including, among others, canaiolo nero, colorino (of which there are at least four different varieties in Tuscany, all belonging to the colorino group, but there are other coloring or teinturier varieties too), malvasia nera (one of which may actually be tempranillo), cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, syrah, merlot, etc., and it all adds up to wildly different wines.  I won't harp on the positive or negative contributions made by the international varieties, but the stylistic gap between wines made with hefty doses of varieties with darker aromas and flavors and others made with sangiovese only or featuring the local natives (wines that are much more tangy and floral, with red fruits dominating) is evident even to beginners, and ultimately just adds to the confusion.

That said, one very positive change in Tuscany over the last ten years is a renewed faith in sangiovese on the part of most estates--a direct consequence of paying more attention to where the variety is grown, and to which clones and rootstocks are planted.  Better vineyard practices have led to optimal ripening curves of the sangiovese, so that the addition of early-ripening merlot, for example, isn't all that necessary anymore.  At the same time, there have been important improvements in other lesser-known native varieties.  While years ago it was nearly impossible to find a decent monovarietal wine made with canaiolo nero or colorino del Valdarno, that is no longer true.  And more and more of these native grapes are not only finding their way into Chianti blends but are now the hot new players in monovarietal wines of truly exciting quality.

Wine lovers should not forget about Chianti Rufina.  For the most part a high-altitude, cool-climate viticultural area, its Chiantis are some of the most perfumed, flinty and refined of all.  And remember Carmignano too: it is the one Tuscan denomination where international varieties (especially cabernet sauvignon, here historically called uva francesca, the French grape) have always thrived and have long been blended with sangiovese.  Carmignano's wines are hampered by a wide range of stylistic differences, but the best estates are among Italy's quality leaders.  Cortona is a land of excesses, with major seasonal variations in temperature and rainfall.  Its wines can be fairly opulent and forward from the get-go, and syrah seems to have found a great home here.  These latter wines will rarely remind you of those of the Rhone or Australia, but this may be partly due to relatively young vine age.  In Montepulciano, sangiovese wines are always some of the hardest and most austere of all in central Italy, but the best examples are also characterized by wonderful freshness and lift. Don't confuse the wines of Montepulciano (such as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano) with those labeled Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, totally different wines made with another grape (montepulciano) and in another region (Abruzzo).

Recent vintages.  This article covers mainly the 2012 and 2011 red wine vintages, plus some 2010 and 2009 wines; white wines are mainly from 2013.

The 2012 and 2011 vintages were generally hot.  The main differences between them are that in 2011 the heat started immediately:  even April and May recorded record-high temperatures.  In 2012, on the other hand, the onslaught of extremely hot weather was more sudden, with the month of August featuring three serious heat spikes.  The 2012 growing season also featured autumn rains, so while wine quality is less consistent this year, many wines actually benefited from the cooling effect brought about by the rains.

The 2009 and 2010 vintages are two of the greatest ever (with caveats) for Chianti Classico and central Tuscany.  The two growing seasons differed markedly from each other (for a more in-depth analysis please refer to IWC Issue 163).  In general, the warmer 2009 vintage yielded wines that are more exotic, riper and higher in alcohol, while 2010 yielded wines of greater elegance and balance.  That said, please note that 2009 wines from warmer parts of Chianti Classico (such as Castelnuovo Berardenga) can be tarry, heavy and disappointing, while the cooler microclimates tended to suffer in 2010, with some wines, such as those of Gaiole, marked by green and vegetal streaks.  Finally, 2013 is a wonderful white wine vintage: generally cold (and somewhat rainy) and characterized by a very long growing season.  The wines have uncanny acid lift, flavor and depth. The reds I have tasted from cask so far also seem quite good, if in a leaner, more refined style.