Schooling on Tuscany and Red Raves
by David Lawrason, with notes from John Szabo MS and Sara d’Amato
After spending a couple of hours tasting through the Tuscan wines being presented by VINTAGES this weekend I came to the conclusion that all is well in Italy’s most famous wine region; that this assemblage of big name, larger volume producers who export to Canada are doing a good job of making wines that well represent the various sub-districts and styles of this very advanced region. As a previewer/reviewer on your behalf there are very few that I would not recommend, but on the other hand, few that I fervently recommend. What we have here is a classroom on well-made Tuscan reds. Which spawned an idea.
Many, many people in Ontario are now enrolled in wine education programs – through WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust), CAPS (Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers), George Brown College and Humber Colleges in Toronto, Algonquin College in Ottawa, and Toronto’s Sommelier Factory. In all my years I have never run across so many people studying wine. It’s almost an epidemic of earnest souls delving deep into the grape, and we hope, loving every moment.
So I am going to take this Tuscan release and divide it into three bottle (beginner), six bottle (intermediate) and nine bottle (advanced) study packs. If you can afford them yourself great, but you may want to cobble together a study/tasting group to make a joint purchase. What I do recommend is that you open and compare all of them directly – perhaps meeting late Saturday afternoon to taste then having them all with a Tuscan dinner. I leave the recipes to you.
But first a background. What makes Tuscan unique among Italian wines is a sense of sophistication and refined tension or backbone. They are not heavy, ponderous, thick wines. Instead they are fleet, often nervy yet elegant, with sour red fruit aromas, more so than the riper black fruits of warmer regions. Tuscany’s climate is best described – like Bordeaux – as moderate in the global scheme of things. This creates a sense of balanced acidity upon which all else is built, and the workhorse sangiovese grape also has fairly high natural acidity. In the higher, cooler elevations of Chianti the acidity is even more pronounced. If you go southwest toward the warmer coast through Montalcino and Maremma the acidity lowers and body weight increases. Directly west of Chianti in warmer coastal Bolgheri cabernet sauvignon takes over as the main grape with its different, lifted aromas and firmer tannin. But across the board there remains a sense of fine-pointed balance.
The Tuscan Three-Pack (Total cost $92.85)
This covers the three basic styles of Tuscan red, all made in a more modern idiom (fruitier, French oak). Chianti is always the touchstone so start your tasting with the sangiovese based Rocca Delle Macìe 2011 Riserva Chianti Classico ($22.95). Then move on to Le Volte dell’Ornellaia 2013 ($29.95) to understand the difference between sangiovese and cabernet/merlot based reds. And then go upscale to an intentionally more mature, longer barrel aged sangiovese Poggiotondo 2010 Brunello di Montalcino ($39.95).
The Tuscan Six-Pack (Total cost $161.75)
Start with the basic, light, tart, more traditional Piazzano 2013 Chianti ($14.95), then go to the still traditional, more aged Castelli del Grevepesa 2011 Clemente VII Chianti Classico ($17.00). From here branch out to a warmer, more inland region using a fragrant sangiovese clone called prugnolo gentile in Poliziano 2012 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($29.95). In fourth spot introduce a sturdier sangiovese, cabernet, merlot blend grown in central Tuscany: Ruffino 2011 Modus ($29.95). Then out to the Bolgheri coast again with elegant cab-merlot based Le Volte dell’Ornellaia 2013 ($29.95), and finally into Montalcino with the aged Poggiotondo 2010 Brunello di Montalcino ($39.95).
The Tuscan Nine-Pack (Total Cost $293.60)
The first third of this tasting should be spent with Chianti. Begin again with the classic, lightweight traditional Piazzano 2013 Chianti ($14.95), then move to the maturing, lightweight Castelli del Grevepesa 2011 Clemente VII Chianti Classico ($17.00), and end the flight with the top tier San Felice 2010 Il Grigio da San Felice Gran Selezione Chianti Classico ($46.95) a profound, more aged single vineyard wine from a leading estate and an excellent vintage. The next trifecta brings cabernet and merlot into the mix. Wine four should be the Borgo Scopeto 2011 Borgonero ($19.95) a maturing sangiovese-cabernet blend from a lighter vintage. Then go to Le Volte dell’Ornellaia 2013 ($29.95) to grasp the essential Bolgheri coast cabernet difference; then return to central Tuscany and go way upscale and modern with Tenuta Sette Ponti 2012 Oreno ($77.95) a very youthful, impressive blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. The last stage delves into more evolved Tuscan reds. Marchesi De’ Frescobaldi 2013 Campo Ai Sassi Rosso di Montalcino ($21.95) is calendar young but has a smooth, gentile aged feel central to wines from Montalcino. Follow on with big brother Poggiotondo 2010 Brunello di Montalcino ($39.95). Then finish with a fully mature Cafaggio 2006 Cortaccio ($24.95) a 100% cabernet sauvignon.
But if you are not going to school and simply want to enjoy fine Tuscan wine at your table, here are our picks from this release.
Buyers’ Guide for October 31st: Tuscan Picks
David Lawrason – Whereas most Chianti sangiovese show red currant fruit, the prugnolo gentile clone used in Vino Nobile expresses a riper, more cabernet like blackcurrant note. Here it’s nicely meshed with oak vanillin and cedary spice and evergreen. It’s medium-full bodied firm and dry so set it aside for about two years.
John Szabo – Poliziano is a reliable name in Vino Nobile. The 2012 offers significant fruity aromas and flavours, with plenty of room to evolve. Indeed, it’s still youthful and undeveloped, firm and tightly wound, with abundant, dusty-drying tannins, furthering the case for additional time in the cellar, another 2-4 years or so, at which point it should have evolved nicely. Best 2018-2028.
Sara d’Amato – Vino Nobile is often described as having the aromatic delicacy of a Chianti Classico and the opulence of a Brunello. This classic example from Poliziano shows just this distinctiveness and with refreshing verve and elegance. Tuck this away for another 3 years for optimum enjoyment.
John Szabo – The Gran Selezione category is proving to be by and large not just a way to charge more for Chianti, but also a cue for consumers to find excellent, properly-aged wines. This is great stuff, elegant and refined and savoury, with terrific complexity, already seamlessly integrated. Best 2015-2025.
Sara d’Amato – Only the best quality, estate grown fruit makes it in to this Gran Selezione Chianti Classico from this progressive producer. Gracefully maturing, there is still a great deal of power behind the wine’s elegant frame. Smart and sophisticated – the Sophia Lauren of Chianti Classico.
Sara d’Amato – Although a long time favourite, the Pian della Vigne has had some bumpy vintages of late. The newly released 2010 is a return to a classic interpretation of Brunello and happily marries flavours of cherry, cocoa, fig and leather on the palate of impressive depth. A charmer from the excellent 2010 vintage.
David Lawrason – Rosso di Montalcino is a less aged, earlier drinking version of Brunello. This sports a lovely, fragrant nose, a nicely harmonious gentle palate and very good length. A nice choice if you find Chianti too lean.
Tenuta San Guido 2013 Le Difese ($29.95)
John Szabo – A highly respectable “second wine” of Sassicaia, authentically Tuscan in style, dusty, resinous, earthy and herbal, with all of the positive connotations. Drink or hold mid-term. (70% cabernet and 30% sangiovese). Best 2015-2023.
Le Volte dell’Ornellaia 2013 ($29.95)
David Lawrason – This is of course not as rich, deep and refined as the world famous merlot-based Ornellaia, but I have always admired the same attention to detail applied to a lighter frame of this ‘second wine’. This is not flamboyant on the nose but it is appealing, complex and ripe with wildberry/currant fruit, background oak and herbs. Very refined. Cellar it for now. Best 2018 to 2023.
Buyers’ Guide for October 31st: Other Rave Red Values (Chilean selections were published here last week)
Lavau 2012 Vacqueyras, Rhône Valley, France ($24.95)
John Szabo – Wow, what a mouthful of wine, certainly equal to many southern Rhône reds at twice the price. Fans of massive, big-structured wines will revel in this. Best 2015-2022.
David Lawrason – This is a quite charming, rich and smooth almost creamy young Vacqueyras that is texturally ready to drink in one sense, but I just know it will be more expressive in a couple of years.
Dutton Estate 2011 Karmen Isabella Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($49.95)
David Lawrason – Dutton Ranch is one of the great California sites for pinot, with several wineries sourcing here. This is a lovely fragrant, complex slightly edgy, cooler climate pinot with cran-cherry fruit, spice, evergreen forest and nuanced meaty notes. It’s mid weight, fairly firm but not the least austere.
Purcari 2013 Rara Neagra de Purcari, Nistreana, Moldova, ($19.55)
Sara d’Amato – Moldova has been quietly gaining its wine footing after the disbanding of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. This lightly oaked example of the indigenous rara neagra grape is surprisingly robust and mouthfilling as it is a grape that is thin skinned and generally produces light, fresh and early maturing wines. A curio selection with a widely appealing nature.
Château Pey La Tour 2010 Réserve du Château Bordeaux Supérieur, Brodeaux, France ($19.95)
David Lawrason – A great buy in modern merlot-based red from a fine property between the city of Bordeaux and the right bank. It’s mid-weight, fairly dense, well balanced and structured, as are so many 2010s. Just right ripeness with black fruit, cedary oak, fresh herbs and pencil notes.
J. L. Chave Sélection 2012 Offerus Saint-Joseph, Rhône Valley, France ($33.95)
David Lawrason – Great value in classic northern Rhone syrah. This has an impressive nose of well integrated cherry, pepper, smoked cured bacon and fine basil herbs. It’s medium-full boded, nicely dense and compact but attenuated by fine acidity and minerality. Pitch perfect Saint Joseph.
Val Auclair 2013 Les Barras Rouge, Vallé du Paradis, Roussillon, France ($19.95)
John Szabo – A fine and spicy, carignan-led blend with syrah and grenache from the deep southwest corner of the Roussillon, farmed organically. I love the spicy black pepper and stemmy/leafy notes, the vibrancy, the freshness and the ultimately drinkability of this wine, succulent, salty and juicy. Best 2015-2021.
Sara d’Amato – Domaine Val Auclair is an estate built by the renown family of Saint-Exupéry in the late 19th century. Organically farmed, the estate is home to a plot of hundred-year-old carignan as well as high elevation plantings of syrah and grenache. This unoaked blend of aforementioned classic southern varietals exhibits lovely notes of black pepper and lavender on a firmly structured palate. Excellent value and attractive packaging.
Socré 2011 Barbaresco, Piedmont, Italy ($29.95)
John Szabo – Excellent value, all-estate, family-run, perfumed and mature nebbiolo in the classic spectrum, with well-balanced palate to match. This has terrific depth and intensity for the money, as well as a whack of savoury, umami-laden flavours. The length is excellent, too. Best 2015-2023.
Feudi San Pio 2013 Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Veneto, Italy ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – This Ripasso is more akin to a baby Amarone – memorable and wildly complex. Attractive notes of smoky cherry, fresh earth and fennel seed are knit together with delicate spice and rich but not heavy texture. Generous, stylish and well-suited to wintry gatherings.
Bodegas Mas Alta 2008 Artigas, Priorat, Spain ($37.95)
David Lawrason – If you are curious about Priorat, here is a great, affordable window into its soul. And it’s maturing into drinkable form. Blended from garnacha, mazuelo (carignan) and a touch of cabernet sauvignon, the nose shows lovely complex currant/pomegranate/wildberry fruit nicely framed by oak vanillin, graphite and gentle cedary herbs. It’s full bodied, quite soft and dense, with almost velvety tannins.
Heartland 2013 Spice Trader Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon, Langhorne Creek, South Australia ($17.00)
David Lawrason – Not all inexpensive Aussie reds are heavy and sweet. Thanks to the special maritime terroir of Langhorne Creek this sports a lovely nose of fresh mint, eucalyptus, dark chocolate, graphite and ripe blueberry/pomegranate fruit. It’s full bodied, smooth and richly fruity, then narrows to a saltier, mineral finish. The tension and purity are excellent.
And that’s a wrap for this edition. In the meantime, check your inbox for news on upcoming events and tastings. John and Sara will be your sensory guides at the Gourmet Games next month and stay tuned for details on a special winemakers dinner celebrating the Best Performing Small Winery of the Year – Thirty Bench Wine Makers.
VP of Wine
From VINTAGES October 31, 2015
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