The Boston Phoenix
May 28 - June 4, 1998


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Tuscan raiders

How Italy's oldest wine region got past Chianti

Uncorked by David Marglin

Italy produces more wine than any other country, and it probably also produces more confusion about wine. The country is divided into 20 large wine regions, which are subdivided into more than 250 regions called DOCs (denominazioni di origine controllata), among which are superior regions called DOCGs (the g is for garantita, or guaranteed). The sheer volume of regions and producers can be hard to untangle. In the center of this thicket sits Tuscany, home to a 3000-year-old winemaking tradition -- and today, many would argue, the most innovative wine in Italy.

Everyone's heard of one Tuscan wine: Chianti. For years, Chianti was the cheap, decent Italian wine, as ubiquitous as chardonnay is at bars today. Chianti was, for the most part, more famous than good, the kind of thing you'd order in the North End with spaghetti and meatballs. But the main grape used to make Chianti -- sangiovese -- is capable of reaching great heights, both alone and when blended with other red grapes.

Sangiovese is a very earthy grape; wines made with it taste like tea and have a foresty feel. It's also very malleable. But you wouldn't have known it to drink most Chiantis: because archaic laws dictated how much of which grapes could go into Chianti, any winemaker who blended in new varieties (or who used 100 percent sangiovese) wasn't allowed to call the result Chianti. Then, 30 or so years ago, a few ornery and experimentally minded winemakers in Tuscany decided to try blending cabernet sauvignon with sangiovese -- and try their luck at selling a Tuscan wine without the familiar label.

They figured that the fruity blackberry flavors of cab would complement the robust earthiness of the sangiovese, and they were right. The resulting wines, cutting-edge examples of what can be done in the region, have been nicknamed "Super Tuscans." They're often majestic and powerful, with flavor and poise and mysteries to match all but the very best that Bordeaux and California have to offer. Many are released at upward of $50 per bottle, and at auction you can pay several hundred for a Super Tuscan such as Sassicaia from a solid year.

Today, perhaps in response to the popularity of Super Tuscans, production regulations have been amended to allow Chianti to include up to 10 percent nontraditional grapes like cabernet, so even the traditional Chianti makers are blending up a storm. Sangiovese-merlot-cab blends with less intimidating price tags are on the rise, so you can still afford some pretty super wines from Tuscany, even if you can't afford the true Super Tuscans.

For my money, the superest Tuscan wine isn't a Super Tuscan at all: it's a DOCG wine called Brunello di Montalcino, made from a special clone of sangiovese and aged at least four years before being bottled -- three of those years in wood barrels. This makes for a big wine, and if you ever have a chance to try a 1990 Brunello, do so. Nineteen ninety-one was also pretty stellar, though not quite so out-of-this-world as '90. The '92s are a mixed bag at best, and the '93s are just being released, but they hold a lot of promise. If you want something less massive, try a Rosso di Montalcino, a plummier, fruitier wine that only requires one year of aging before being released. Winemakers put their best grapes into their Brunellos, but still, a lot of great fruit goes into the Rossos.

Tuscany also produces a superb white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano. These were once lean, tight wines that restrained their fruit and had a mean edge, but the recent trend has been to fatten these puppies up, making for a nuttier, mellower, rounder, and more flavorful wine.

Finally, at the end of a meal, conducive to la dolce vita is vin santo, a blend of malvasia and trebbiano grown in Tuscany (and elsewhere in Italy) that produces a lush, sweet wine. Vin santo is made by drying bunches of grapes in barns, then crushing the fruit and sealing the juice into little wooden casks with some of the previous vin santo (to initiate fermentation) for at least three years. The quality of vin santo varies a lot, but you have to love a wine that folks just call "holy wine."

Try a few of these. Let me know what you like by e-mailing me at wine[a]

** Conti Contini Sangiovese 1994 ($6.99, Martignetti)

A good spaghetti wine. A bit thin on the finish, but snappy and bright, with some earth and loam flavors. Pizza in the house!

*** Vigne Del Moro Chianti 1994 ($13.99, Bauer Wines). This 100-percent sangiovese powerhouse is fermented in cement vats lined with glass. The taste is all leather, and we're talking Gucci. With espresso notes, plenty of tannins for structure, and a Godzilla finish.

**1/2 Rosso di Montalcino Castello Banfi 1995 ($16.99, Martignetti)

Full and round, with smoky and gamy flavors, some chocolate, and a touch of tea, but with a layer of fruit hiding underneath. The next best thing to Brunello.

**1/2 Falchini Vernaccia di San Gimignano 1995 ($18.99, Bauer)

An opulent, round, and slightly buttery wine, with the slap, tickle, and bite so common in Italian whites (the bite is a hint of sharpness on the finish, but don't ask me to explain the slap and tickle). Serve with mussels.

**** Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino 1993 ($39.99, Wine Cellar of Silene)

Big and earthy, with cedar accents and plenty of scents of the forest (think mossy stream banks), leather, and slightly muted fruit, with just a hint of vibrant red plum and a touch of Blue Mountain coffee.

David Marglin can be reached at Uncorked archive