Fueled by Chianti, Tuscany triumphs over former fiascoes

VINTAGE POINT

February 28, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

The last 10 years have been very good for wine.

Most of the world's great wine regions improved the quality of their product. California gained sophistication. Bordeaux gained consistency. The Rhine and the Mosel began to find a market. Even Burgundy, at long last, rose above fraud and incompetence and took advantage of some overdue good luck.

But even these triumphs pale beside the tale of Tuscany, the north-central Italian region that once was known mainly for its industrial-strength Chianti. The wine came in a comic-looking, straw-covered flask called the fiasco -- and generally that name could be applied to the contents as well.

Even Tuscany's flagship luxury wine, Brunello di Montalcino, was pitifully inconsistent. As often as not, Brunellos were funky, astringent wines that had been beaten to death with excessive oak.

The 1980s brought a revolution to this ancient land. The flasks were phased out, and trashy grapes were eliminated from the blends of the better Chiantis. The region's finest grape, the sangiovese, began to receive the respect it deserved. Investment and winemaking talent, once scarce, became commonplace.

As the wines improved, their worth at the table became evident. Tuscan reds, the region's forte, fit beautifully with the region's glorious cuisine -- its prosciutto, its various hearty risottos, its multitude of grilled meats and its tangy pecorino cheese.

As much as any region in the world, Tuscany benefited from the increasingly global nature of the wine market. Ideas and vine cuttings were welcomed in this formerly provincial region. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot emigrated from France and found a home beside traditional Italian varieties in the rolling hills of Tuscany.

At the same time, the increased flow of wine information through magazines and books ensured that the steady improvement in Tuscany's red wines did not take place in obscurity. (Tuscany does produce white wines, but they are of far less interest.)

Along with improvements in the region's traditional wines came inventive new blends by winemakers who scorned the restrictions of Italy's prescriptive wine laws.

If they thought adding a little cabernet to the sangiovese made a better wine, they did so, and forfeited the right to use the famous geographic names of the region.

These producers adopted the supposedly lowest designation under those laws -- "vino di tavola," or table wine -- and turned it into a badge of honor. Table wine brands such as Sassacaia and Solaia fetched prices as high as the finest Brunellos -- comfortably higher than $50 a bottle.

Success bred imitation, naturally, and now it seems that every Tuscan producer with any ambition has a high-priced vino di tavola in his portfolio. Some are magnificent, some are merely priced as if they were magnificent, but certainly Tuscan winemaking has been transformed by their success.

In the late 1980s, that success began to go to the heads of many Tuscan producers and exporters.

After the rousing success of the exceptional 1985 vintage, the delusion spread that Americans would spend dollars as though they were lire for any wine shipped out of Tuscany.

So the prices of the middling 1986 and 1987 vintages stayed high -- much higher than the quality warranted. And when the excellent 1988 vintage came around, many retailers were reluctant to stock them because their shelves were loaded with unsold 1986s and 1988s.

Fortunately, prices have moderated since the 1988 vintage as the dollar has gained some heft against the lira and importers have figured out that Americans are interested in value. In many cases, wines from the classic 1990 vintage cost less than their 1988 counterparts.

You don't have to spend $50 to experience a fine Tuscan wine. There are many excellent wines available for less than $20.

Foremost among them are the wines of Chianti Classico, the core of the vast Chianti region. While most simple Chianti is still fairly ordinary (though much improved), Chianti Classico can reach exciting heights of complexity, intensity and elegance. The characteristic flavor is black cherry, tempered with Mediterranean herbs.

Brunello di Montalcino remains expensive, but one of the least-noticed trends in Italian wine is the increasing quality of Rosso di Montalcino, the name used for Montalcino wine from young vines or culled from the final Brunello blend.

Some of the Rosso di Montalcinos on the market today are worthy junior partners to Brunello. And where a great Brunello might need a decade or two to be approachable, the Rossos are usually ready to drink upon release. Probably nine out of 10 wine drinkers would prefer them to their more expensive brethren.

Generally, Rosso di Montalcino is more concentrated and more intensely fruity than all but the best Chianti Classicos, but the similarities outweigh the differences.

Most of the vino di tavolas of Tuscany occupy either the highest or lowest ground in the pricing wars.

Occasionally, you will find an example in the middle price ranges, and some of these can be impressive.

The vintages to look for now are 1988 and 1990, especially the latter.

Tuscany was one of the few European wine regions that didn't excel in 1989, and the few 1991s I tasted didn't inspire much confidence.

Generally, the best Tuscan wines come from small estates where artisan-winemakers give their wines personal attention, though large vintners such as Antinori and Ruffino also do an admirable job.

Keeping track of the little guys is a lot of work, however, so it might be easier to keep just one name in mind: Marc di Grazia.

This superb importer is a master at sniffing out great wines from little-known producers. His selections dominate the shelves in the better Italian wine stores in the Baltimore-Washington region. Judging by my tasting notes, his primacy is well-earned.

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