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Chianti for Beginners

What's new in Italy's most famous wine region? F & W wine editor Lettie Teague gets some answers from an expert.

Next to the Napa Valley in California, Tuscany is the wine region Americans probably know best. Not just for the wine it produces (though I'd nominate Chianti as the most recognized wine name in the world) but also for all the other things that are made there--great art, olive oil and, of course, Merchant Ivory films. But, alas, Tuscany's fame has not always been synonymous with renown, as the region has long been home to more mediocre wines than great ones. In fact, only in the past decade or two have Tuscany's winemakers really been taken seriously by the world at large, and only in the past several years have they, as a group, sought to match the standards of quality set by some of the twentieth century's Tuscan pioneers, such as Piero Antinori. (One could hardly write about Tuscany without paying homage to Antinori, whose holdings there long ago expanded to encompass just about every region in Italy, as well as winemaking partnerships around the world.)

To understand Tuscan wines, one must first understand the prototypical Tuscan wine, Chianti. Produced in the region of the same name, it is made predominantly from the red Sangiovese grape, though other red and white varieties may be included. A certain proportion of Sangiovese is mandated by the government, but a 1996 change in the law gave producers more freedom to choose their grapes, and many opted to exclude white varieties. Previously, wine made from nonsanctioned grapes was officially termed vino da tavola, or "table wine." But because these wines were often better than the regular Chiantis, they came to be known--first informally and then increasingly as a marketing device--as Super-Tuscans. With the loosening of the laws, the government has also granted Super-Tuscans some recognition and their own new designation, IGT Toscana (for Typical Geographic Denomination of Tuscany).

For an insider's view of Tuscany today and a few predictions of what might happen tomorrow, I telephoned Marco Sabellico, senior editor of the Gambero Rosso/Slow Food Italian Wines annual and contributing editor to Gambero Rosso magazine. He spoke to me from Rome.

Q: Is Tuscany the leading wine region in Italy today?
A: It's one of the most important, along with Piedmont and Friuli. I also think that the Alto Adige will be important in the years to come.

Q: Why is everyone talking about "new" wine regions in Tuscany, like Maremma, rather than established ones, like Chianti and Montalcino?
A: No one can afford to buy vineyard land in Chianti or Montalcino anymore. Not only do you need a small fortune; you can't buy any sizable amounts of land, only small plots. In southern Tuscany, in places like Maremma and Grosseto, there is still land available, and big producers like Antinori and Frescobaldi have been buying and developing large vineyards. Frescobaldi just bought 400 hectares [1,000 acres]. Biondi Santi, the famous Brunello producer, and Cecchi both bought large properties.

Q: What's happening with Chianti--are the wines changing? Do you think that eventually Super-Tuscans will be phased out?
A: As the laws change and producers are allowed to make wines in a modern style, they will drop Super-Tuscans and go back to Chianti. Overall, producers in Chianti Classico [a small, prestigious zone within Chianti] have a project: They need to transform their region into a top growing area and begin making "Super-Chiantis"--wines of the same concentration and quality as their Super-Tuscans. For a long time, there was a problem with the wineries' lack of commitment to quality. Now the problem is in the vineyards, most of which are old and need to be replanted. The best producers are replanting Sangiovese in higher-density vineyards and going after lower yields, resulting in much more concentrated, longer-lasting wines. Only 15 years ago, everything was different. The wines were so thin that the color of a Sangiovese wine was closer to a rosé than to a red. Now everyone is looking for concentration; everyone is looking for depth.

Two decades ago, there was little chance of producers making a good wine with just Sangiovese. It had to be blended with Cabernet or Merlot. This wasn't optional--it was compulsory, along with other techniques, such as aging in French oak. That was the only way they could produce a world-class wine. Now producers are concentrating on making great Chianti Classico. For example, Ricasoli's Castello di Brolio, which has improved dramatically in the past five or six years, is concentrating on one wine that they call a "first growth." They're concentrating on a high-quality Chianti Classico, which they introduced this past spring.

Q: What are some of your favorites among the Super-Tuscans?
A: The wines I would really love to have in my cellar include Felsina's Fontalloro, Siepi from Castello di Fonterutoli and Querciabella's Camartina. All these wines, of course, are available in the United States.

Q: What other Chianti producers have impressed you lately?
A: My favorites, which I'll list in no particular order, are Isole e Olena, Marchesi de' Frescobaldi, La Massa and Querciabella. Antinori is still doing very well--they know the world is changing, and they continue to change with it. GIV, the Gruppo Italiano Vini, is also making some fantastic Chiantis.

Q: Chianti used to be considered a great value wine--a wine that anyone could afford. Now the best producers' wines run $20 to $25 a bottle. Are Chiantis, in general, overpriced?
A: Compared with the wines of Piedmont, I think that Chianti is still not very expensive. What has happened with Tuscan wine prices in general is that Chianti producers now think on an international scale: Why shouldn't my wine be just as expensive as some old-vine Shiraz from Australia's Barossa Valley? And then they have to finance all the improvements to their vineyards.

Q: What grapes other than Sangiovese do you think Tuscan growers have been successful with?
A: The grape that does the best blended with Sangiovese is not Cabernet Sauvignon but Merlot. Cabernet is too much like Sangiovese in terms of tannins and acidity. Merlot provides a better balance. I had some fantastic surprises last year, including the 1997 Merlot-based Gisèle, from La Rampa di Fugnano. It's incredibly intense but elegant and is made in San Gimignano, which is traditionally a white-wine area. I had another incredible Sangiovese-based red from San Gimignano: Luenzo, from Vincenzo Cesani. Syrah also seems to do very well in Tuscany. I love the Syrah from Podere Il Bosco, and the Syrah Case Via from Fontodi in Panzano is a very well-made wine. Villa Pillo, a fantastic little estate that is going to be much better known in the years to come, is also making a very good Syrah. [Editor's note: Villa Pillo's 1997 Syrah won Gambero Rosso's highest honor, the coveted tre bicchieri (three glasses) award.]

Q: There has been a great deal of talk about the past three vintages. The 1997 vintage was considered a great one all over Italy, 1998 a little less successful and 1999, again, a great year. What do you think?
A: The 1997 vintage generally has the reputation of being fantastic, and in most cases it was--many producers made enormous, rich wines. But in some instances the grapes were so concentrated and the sugar levels so high that winemakers didn't know how to manage them, and they had a problem with overripeness. It was, in a way, too much of a good thing. The 1998 vintage, on the other hand, was less celebrated, but it was also less problematic--the producers had a better idea of what to do. I'd say the same is true of the wines from 1999, which are just as concentrated as they were in 1997, but they are also more balanced, because the producers started to understand that concentration is not everything, that balance is important, too. In short, the producers have learned how to manage a great vintage.

Q: Do you see changes taking place with Tuscany's other great red, Brunello di Montalcino?
A: The main issue with Brunello right now is the way it's aged. There is a trend away from long aging in the large oak barrels and toward a wine aged in French oak, that's more international in style--that is, ready to drink sooner, with more color and softer tannins. But Montalcino producers are still quite old-fashioned compared with producers in other parts of Tuscany, and while they are doing a lot of reflecting about a number of things, they might, in fact, decide not to do anything at all.

Q: So far we've been talking about reds. What about white wine? Are there any great whites in Tuscany yet?
A: There are some good white wines--Terre di Tufi from Teruzzi & Puthod, the Vernaccia Riserva from Giovanni Panizzi Panzinni, Ruffino's Cabreo La Pietra Chardonnay. But I don't see a big potential for Tuscan white wines. Maybe some good Vermentino can be made near the coast, and an interesting Sauvignon Blanc or two, but in Tuscany the future is red.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of Tuscan wine?
A: Absolutely. Money counts--they have it in Tuscany, and they are using it. They are also clever enough to understand where the world is going, how it is changing, and they know how to change along with it.

Published October 2000
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