Tuscan Sun, Tuscan Year, Tuscan Hills, Tuscan Childhood ... Tuscany is hot these days, featured in dozens of new books, drawing attention as a travel destination, for its food, and of course for its wealth of world-class wines. Tuscany is drawing so much attention that one wonders why it took so many people so long to "discover" this historic Italian region with its deep cultural roots that go back to medieval times and beyond.
It's one of my favorite places for wine touring, and I'm both honored and delighted to have been invited as the only U.S. wine judge at the "VII Selezione dei Vini di Toscana" ("7th Annual Selection of Tuscan Wines") at the Enoteca Italiana in Siena this weekend.
I hope to be able to publish photos and daily reports from Siena, assuming a good Internet connection, but in any case, I'll bring back a full report when regular Wine Advisor publication resumes next week.
For today, let's set the scene with a quick-reference list of some of the leading Tuscan wine types. I expect the judging will be organized along similar lines:
Chianti - The ancient Tuscan hills between Florence and Siena have been producing Chianti, to the delight of wine lovers, for 700 years or more. It's based primarily on the Sangiovese red grape with a blend of other varieties, including, traditionally, a bit of white grape juice to add grace notes, a custom that some modern producers no longer follow. Chianti Classico is made from grapes grown in the desirable central part of the region, and wines labeled "Riserva" are aged in oak for a prescribed time before bottling.
Super Tuscans - A generation ago, some Chianti producers, eager to experiment with grape blends and barrel aging not permitted under the strict regional wine laws, began making Chianti-style wines with such offbeat variations as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot in the blend and small French oak barrels. Initially they chose the generic "Vino da Tavola" ("table wine") designation previously reserved for modest everyday wines. More recently, Italian wine law has become more flexible, opening up regional Indicazione Geographica Tipica (IGT) designations for "non-traditional" wines. Most Super Tuscans are now labeled Toscana IGT. Some of them command top critical ratings and price, although many of them are made in a modern "international" style that attracts high critical ratings and prices but that those who admire traditional European wine styles find controversial at best.
Brunello di Montalcino - Another ancient and highly regarded wine, grown only around the village of Montalcino south of Siena, Brunello is made from a specific clone of Sangiovese. It's not unlike a fine, high-end Chianti in style; ageworthy and collectible, it ranks among Italy's top wines and is certainly one of my favorites ... when I can afford it. Bargain hunters may want to look for Rosso di Montalcino, usually made from younger grapes and less oak exposure to yield a fine if simpler wine that can be enjoyed without cellaring.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - Another special Sangiovese clone goes into another of Chianti's cousins, just about as structured and ageworthy as Brunello, but not yet quite as expensive. Today's tasting report features a Vino Nobile that's a fine value in the lower $20s.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano - The most sought-after white wine in a land best known for its reds, this usually medium-bodied and aromatic white, made from the Vernaccia grape, comes from the picturesque village San Gimignano, a landmark for its many church towers.
If you'd like to read more about the competition I'll be judging, there's extensive information at the Enoteca Italiana site. It's only available in Italian, though!
Angelini 2001 "TreRose" Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($23)
This is a very dark garnet wine, almost black in the glass. Spicy black cherry aromas, characteristic of Sangiovese, add a subtle, earthy whiff of "barnyard" that's not at all unpleasant. Mouth-filling black fruit flavors, mouth-watering acidity and smooth, silky tannins come together in a beautifully structured wine that's fine with food in spite of its unusually high (14%) alcohol content. U.S. importer: Wilson Daniels Ltd., St. Helena, Calif. (Oct. 7, 2006)
FOOD MATCH: Simple, medium-rare red meat is the answer here, and a pan-seared medium-rare rib eye made a perfect match.
VALUE: The lower $20s is more than fair for a wine of this quality.
WHEN TO DRINK: Luscious fruit makes this one unusually accessible at an age that's still young for a Vino Nobile. The conventional wisdom anticipates a plateau of maturity at 10 to 15 years past the vintage.
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The Connoisseurs' Series: Two excellent California reds
Anyone who follows my wine reports will know that I'm a tough judge of New World wines, but California Wine Club's limited-membership Connoisseurs' Series offerings, chosen by Connoisseurs' Guide publisher Charlie Olken, consistently suit my fancy for top-end California wine. I've come to trust the judgement of Olken and California Wine Club's Bruce Boring, who sort through all the high-rated wines and select excellent, balanced wines that suit my style preferences.
Connoisseurs' Series members may subscribe for monthly, alternate month or quarterly packages. Each shipment includes two to four bottles of California's top wines, with detailed background information. Monthly shipments average $125-$175, including all shipping and handling. There's no membership charge, no long-term commitment (cancel any time), and every wine is guaranteed.
Visit http://www.cawineclub.com/connseries or call The California Wine Club at 1-800-777-4443 to learn more about The Connoisseur's Series. Feel free to tell them that I sent you ... and, if you join, please don't hesitate to contact me by E-mail and tell me what you think.
This recent Connoisseurs' Series arrival rang my chimes. I think you'll like it, too. But do take note that Connoisseurs' Series wines are available in painfully limited quantities and sell out fast. If you want to get your hands on one or more of the few remaining bottles of the Hartwell, call 1-800-777-4443 today and ask for it as part of your first Club shipment. If you join this week, they'll throw in an extra Connoisseurs' Series wine with your first order for no additional charge.
Hartwell Vineyards 2002 Stags Leap District Merlot ($68 retail, $54 per bottle for half or full case orders from Connoisseurs' Series)
This is a deep, dark blackish-purple, bright garnet at the edge. Lovely black cherry and blueberry aromas are spiced by smoky oak (it sees 16 months in new French-oak casks). Mouth-filling and ripe, cherry-berry flavors follow the nose, with good acidity, smooth tannins and powerful yet discreet 14.8% alcohol. Thoroughly enjoyable now, but fruit, balance and a sturdy structure suggest up to a decade's cellaring potential. It has the refinement to make an elegant companion to a simple steak or chop, but it also stands up well against bolder flavors; it made a splendid match with lamb shanks and heirloom Flor de Junio beans in a Southwestern variation on country French white beans and lamb. Only 803 cases were made, and only a limited amount remains available through Connoisseurs' Series. Here's the winery Website: http://www.hartwellvineyards.com (Oct. 6, 2006)
This week on WineLoversPage.com
Some highlights of recent articles on WineLoversPage.com that I hope you'll enjoy:
Bucko's Wine Reports: Late summer 2006
Vino 101: Seasonal soup
Hot topics in our WineLovers Discussion Groups
Poll: Favorite Italian region
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Serious Lambrusco (Oct. 13, 2006)
Great food. Where's the wine? (Oct. 11, 2006)
Global warming in your glass (Oct. 9, 2006)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Aromatic chicken (Oct. 12, 2006)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Oct. 16, 2006