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Tuscan trio

Tom Maresca selects top Tuscan wines from Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino at the annual tasting of new releases.

Every February, the producers of Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino gather together to present their soon-to-be-commercially released Tuscan wines to an international audience of wine writers. The event always provides attendees an opportunity – at the cost of painfully purple tongues and tanned palates – for an intensive appraisal of the state of Tuscany’s three most important wine areas.

Boscarelli, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva, Tuscany, 2016

Typically, this year’s event spotlighted multiple vintages in the three zones. Chianti Classico offered examples of 1999 and 1998 vintages and riserva bottlings of 1998 and 1997. Some 75 producers poured well over 100 different wines. In Montepulciano, the smallest zone of the three, 23 producers showed examples of the 1999 Rosso di Montepulciano, 1998 Vino Nobile and 1997 Vino Nobile riserva. And in Montalcino, where the growth in the number of producers has been explosive in the past decade, 103 estates poured samples of 1999 Rosso di Montalcino, 1996 Brunello and 1995 Brunello riserva. In a spirit of pure supererogation, the wine organisations of all three zones also showed selected barrel samples of the difficult 2000 vintage.

Chianti Classico great Lapo Mazzei dies

A general view

A few broad generalisations emerged from the plethora of tastings, despite significant differences from zone to zone. 1997 and 1999 were wonderful harvests for all three, with the simple bottlings of those years (ie, Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montalcino) showing almost universally delightful and accessible fruit and charm, as well as sufficient structure to remain pleasant drinking for several years to come. 1998 and 2000 were everywhere hot and dry and yielded uneven results. The key, especially in 2000, seems to have been drastic pruning – a late green harvest discarding over-ripe and raisined grapes. Producers who did this ruthlessly made some very fine wines, those who didn’t, didn’t.

Chianti classico: the background

‘In the past few years,’ says Stefano Porcinai, oenologist of the Chianti Classico consortium, ‘all the hard work of the Chianti 2000 project has started bearing fruit.’ Pun aside, Porcinai’s comment reflects accurately the enthusiasm in the Classico zone for the viticultural changes resulting from the Chianti 2000 research. Better selection of clones for the quintessential Sangiovese and improved field techniques are already being reflected in the steadily increasing quality of Chianti Classico wines. Sangiovese forms a increasing percentage of each producer’s wine every year, with some producers already opting for a 100% Sangiovese riserva. Super-Tuscans are now taking a back seat to Chianti Classico riserva, and Cabernet Sauvignon, the not-so-long-ago badge of modernity, has rapidly fallen out of favour. ‘We don’t use any Cabernet at all,’ says Roberto Stucchi-Prinetti of Badia a Coltibuono, ‘and I don’t know anyone who is planting it now.’ International varieties haven’t disappeared entirely from Chianti. Many growers, for instance, believe strongly in the rounding effect of 5% or 10% of Merlot. But an intensified Sangiovese has become the dominant note in Chianti Classico and the key component of its typicity. For the foreseeable future, ratings of these wines will turn on the quality and intensity of Sangiovese in them. Vintages such as 1997 and 1999, where the Sangiovese sings, are already setting the standards by which lesser years are measured.

‘August 2000 was very hot and caused premature ripening in Merlot,’ says Stefano Farkas of Villa Cafaggio. ‘We had to cut away a lot of raisined grapes, so there is very, very little Merlot in my Chianti. However, Sangiovese stood the heat very well and ripened beautifully.’ Alessandro François of Castello di Querceto flatly states: ‘My Chianti Classico 2000 is as good as 1997.’ Giampaolo Motta of La Massa says: ‘My 2000 is very high quality. Our only problem was high alcohol – but we had beautiful phenolic maturation. It’s a wonderful wine.’ The 2000 vintage won’t reach the market for some time yet. Of what’s available now, the 1997 riservas and the 1999 annatas (the basic non-riserva wine of the year) are, with very few exceptions, excellent wines. The 1998s, both annata and riserva, are much more uneven, and while some producers did succeed admirably, unless there is a significant price difference, the average consumer is better advised to stick to the superior vintages.

Chianti classico: the great and the good

Top-flight wines from 1999 Chianti Classico are Badia a Coltibuono, Fonterutoli, Castello di Verrazzano, La Madonnina Bello Stento, La Massa, Villa Cafaggio; slightly less impressive but still fine are Carpineto, Cecchi, Collelungo Roveto, Castello di Meleto, Il Mandorlo, Le Corti, Lilliano, Nittardi, and Rocca di Castagnoli. The above average 1998 riservas from Chianti Classico are Castello di Fonterutoli, Rocca delle Maccie, and San Felice Il Grigio. Of the great 1997 Chianti Classico riservas, first rank are Carpineto, Castello di Querceto, Castello di Volpaia, Villa Cafaggio; only slightly behind are Bibbiano Vigna del Capanino, Castelli di Grevepesa Clemente VII, Castello di Cacchiano Millennio, Castello Vicchiomaggio La Prima, Cennatoio O’Leandro, Le Cinciole Petresco, Melini La Selvanella and Nittardi.

Vino Nobile dI Montepulciano: the background

For a long while Vino Nobile lagged behind Chianti Classico and Brunello in esteem and in quality. That gap exists now more in public awareness than in fact. Clonal studies, new investment and some new players in the zone have energised production. And a succession of good-to-excellent harvests has also helped mightily. The 1999 Rossi di Montepulciano that I tasted were uniformly charming wines, easy to drink and very satisfying. The examples of the 2000 vintage that the Consorzio chose to offer showed more similarities than differences at this stage: all seemed a touch mute, with for-the-moment aggressive tannins. But they are round, with good flesh and weight, and nascent suggestions of complexity and suppleness – quite decent wines for a growing season that Federico Carletti of Poliziano characterised as ‘very difficult, with the summer very hot and dry’. Alberto Ferrazzani of Fazi-Battaglia described 2000 as a ‘good, perhaps an excellent year, but difficult to work. There was good growth until August, when the weather became so hot that grape maturation slowed and in some places stopped. September rains restarted normal maturation, so those who harvested at the right time made good wine, with the potential for elegance’.

Vino Nobile dI Montepulciano: the great and the good

1998 Vino Nobile seemed less consistent. The lesser wines felt austere, while the best showed rustic power and lots of enjoyable dark cherry, chocolate and tobacco flavours. If, like me, you like that slightly old-fashioned style, you will thoroughly enjoy Le Casalte, Gracciano-Svetoni, La Ciarliana, Poliziano, Salcheto, La Braccesca, and del Cerro in this vintage. 1997 Vino Nobile riserva had the same sapid, dark, almost smokey flavours, and the same power, but replaced all the rusticity with elegance. Many wines showed well here. The best for me included Casalte, Poliziano, Romeo, Canneto, Contucci, and Tre Rose’s Simposio.

Brunello di montalcino: the background

Brunello di Montalcino provides the cello voice of the Tuscan trio, in its best vintages (like 1995, 1997, 1999) a deep, sonorous wine of great power and polish. Always highly reputed within Italy, Brunello has come farthest fastest in international esteem as well as in its internal development and exploitation – and therein lies a potentially very serious problem. The Brunello Consorzio now boasts 103 members who bottle their own wine – this in a zone that 25 years ago scarcely had 10 and is geographically small. There are many new young vineyards, all trying to produce a Rosso di Montalcino, a Brunello, and a Brunello riserva. It will be news to no one that all vineyards sites are not equal – so as Brunello’s reputation and sales have grown, its quality has become dramatically uneven. The best Brunellos remain indisputably world-class wines, but there are far too many lesser ones. What Wall Street would call a shakeout seems imminent in this zone. If not, some intrepid soul will have to undertake a quality ranking, at least of the vineyard sites if not of the made wines.

According to Stefano Colombini Cinelli of Fattoria dei Barbi, the weather in the Brunello zone has changed dramatically over the past decade. ‘Very hot, dry summers have become normal. Mould is no longer a problem, but over-ripeness is. 2000 was a unique year – a very wet spring, a very dry summer, a perfect September. Those who harvested late got great grapes – but we had the highest percentage of perfect grapes and the highest percentage of bad grapes ever.’ Lamberto dei Frescobaldi of Castelgiocondo readily agreed. ‘In 2000, very strict selection made great wine. Sangiovese can withstand drought, but it needs to be picked late in order for the pips to mature fully, otherwise you wind up with green, weedy flavours in the wine’. That didn’t seem to be a problem in the barrel samples of Brunello 2000. Most of them were soft, fruity and deeply coloured; their flaw seemed to be low tannin or acidity. This won’t be a big, structured Brunello year. On the whole, the other two DOCGs seem to have done better than Brunello in 2000, while Brunello outperformed them in 1998. The trio played together – beautifully – in 1997 and 1999.

Brunello di montalcino: the great and the good

In the excellent 1999, all the best grapes are being used for Brunello and Brunello riserva. A small fraction was for Rosso di Montalcino and made an on-the-whole pleasing, fresh wine with hints of depth and finesse. For my palate the standout wine was Val di Suga; Fattoi, Il Poggiolo, Il Poggione, La Mannella, Lisini, Mastrojanni, Pertimali, Poggio Antico, Talenti and Uccelliera also showed very well. 1996 was not as fine a vintage, but it has made some lovely wines, with traces of Brunello’s classic dark flavours – black cherry and unsweet chocoloate and tobacco – and an echo of its hallmark heft. The wines will offer very enjoyable drinking now and for the next few years. For me the finest wines of this vintage were Sesti, Nardi, and Barbi, followed very closely by a whole pack: Banfi, Col d’Orcia, Donatella Cinelli Colombini (both her own wine and her selection Prime Donne), Il Poggiolo, Poggio Antico, and Talenti.

Brunello riserva 1995 provides cause for rejoicing. These are big, structured wines that should last long and evolve beautifully. Even now they are very complex with fruit, spice and nut flavours, and suggestions of tar and tobacco. Many producers showed very well this year but the best were Castelgiocondo, Il Poggiolo, and Poggio Antico, followed a hair’s breadth behind by Banfi, Barbi, Col d’Orcia, Il Poggione, Lisini, Mastrojanni, and Pertimali.

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