The columnist Matt Kramer recently ventured in Wine Spectator magazine that Tuscany is the most difficult wine region to "really understand." He makes an astute and specific point. We all know about Chianti. But aside from the assurance that the wine will be red, most bets are off as to what's in the bottle. Will lively sangiovese be goosed up with dense cabernet sauvignon? The labels rarely say so. Will there be lots of oak or a little? No way to tell. Will it taste like nirvana or like mouldy cheese? You don't know till you've popped the cork. And Chianti is just one opaque appellation among many in the region.
Tuscany is an enigma for another reason: Like the Italian electorate, it loves change. When you think you've got the Chianti thing nailed down (not that you ever will), you've got to grapple with the "supertuscan" model based mainly on French grape varieties and such unrevealing vanity names as Nemo, Desiderio and Il Futuro.
Then there are emerging appellations to add to your connoisseur's lexicon. Which brings me to Montecucco. The obscure district was legally christened in 1998 to recognize rising quality in the area and to set a high bar for wines aspiring to distinction. Producers had frustratingly toiled in the shadow of one of Italy's premier wine zones, Brunello di Montalcino. Montecucco was essentially a Brunello suburb without a name.
As in Montalcino, known for big, earthy reds, sangiovese is the star. Often Montecucco wines will contain a smaller proportion of other grapes, such as the local colorino and canaiolo, which darken and soften sangiovese without muddying its fetching and very Tuscan cherry-earthy-salty profile. The Amantis below is a gem, better than the similarly priced but more vaunted Fontodi Chianti as well as the pricier Corte Pavone Brunello, though I like those wines, too. That's Tuscany, often confusing but frequently glorious.
Amantis Sangiovese Montecucco 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $29.95
Mainly sangiovese with dollops of colorino and canaiolo, this dark, concentrated red plays with fetching floral-cherry nuances on the nose. Those qualities carry through on the palate, joined by wood and fine-grained tannins. Richly flavoured but not heavy or sweet – it's classic, concentrated sangiovese, and surprisingly fresh for its age. It should improve in four to six years. Available in Ontario.
Corte Pavone Brunello di Montalcino 2005 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $49.95
Brunello, the king of classic Tuscan reds, is an expensive hit-or-miss proposition. Some deliver fruity freshness, others are arid, prune-like astringent, though they all tend to be big and muscular. This one's somewhere in between, and just about where I like it. Full-bodied and tannic, it veers slightly into the driedfruit spectrum, but the prune mingles with fresher plum and cherry against a backdrop of pipe tobacco. It could improve with up to 10 years in the cellar and pair nicely with meat dishes that include truffle or porcini-mushroom sauce.
Fontodi Chianti Classico 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
As the price would indicate, this is serious Chianti, produced by the Manetti family that's been making Tuscany's signature terra-cotta tiles since the Renaissance. The wine was fermented with indigenous yeasts and matured for 12 months in good French oak. Its sourcherry- like fruit remains shy, dominated by sweet, oak-imparted spice, tobacco and astringent tannins. Best to rest it for six to eight years in a cool cellar. Failing that, serve it with medium-rare, herbcrusted T-bone. I've got some 1999 in my cellar still and it continues to drink well more a dozen years later. ($28.10 in Que., $40.01 in N.S.) The even better 2007 vintage of this Chianti sells for $33.99 in British Columbia.
Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $139.95
Years after the late Robert Mondavi's family lost control of this iconic Napa estate to a giant corporation, the flagship cabernet holds true to the elegant model set down by ex-winemaker Tim Mondavi, Robert's son. Concentrated and tannic, its fruity core is woven through with earthyherbal accents and spice. This one's designed– and priced – for long-term cellaring and is likely to improve with up to 15 more years. It would have merited a higher score (and cellaring estimate) were it not for a quibble: The 16-per-cent alcohol is a tad hot.
Dry Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
A bargain by California standards for such a good wine, it's creamy yet with good acid lift, showing vanillacappucino flavours against rich berry and a hint of herb. Pair it with steak or lamb chops. Available in Ontario and Alberta.
Mission Hill Reserve Merlot 2008 (B.C.)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $25.95
Named 2011 Canadian Wine Producer of the Year at London's International Wine & Spirit Competition, Mission Hill also recently pulled down a few 90-plus scores in U.S.-based Wine Spectator magazine, a publication that, though just over the border in New York, has just begun awarding high marks to Canada's dry wines. This well-oaked red is intense, with notes of cassis, black olive, cedar, coffee and a lively saline quality. Age it for three to seven years if you can, or try it now with rare duck breast. ($24.99 in B.C., $22.99 in Man., $24.99 in Sask., $26.20 in Que.).
PondView Riesling 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16
The Puglisi family, distinguished grape growers for years, had been selling all their fruit to other producers before setting up PondView. The head start in the vineyard shows in the new estate wines. This riesling's aroma could almost be German, always a good thing in this white variety. The palate is light and dry, with peach- and orange-like fruit and a floral nuance, culminating with mouth-watering acidity. Available in Ontario.
Gérard Bertrand Art de Vivre Cabernet 2009 (France)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.05
A Pays d'Oc red from the south, it's impressive for the money, smooth and round, with cassis-cherry fruit, mild spice and light, fine-grained tannins. Good for steak. Available in Ontario.
Cave de Viré Viré-Clessé 2009 (France)
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $16.95
The Viré-Clessé appellation in Burgundy's was created in 1999 another relatively new term to add to your European wine lexicon, like then Montecucco above. The wines are white, made from chardonnay. This medium-bodied example sees no oak, though it's not as fresh and lively as I'd prefer. Straightforward but nice for pan-seared fish or breaded chicken or veal. Available in Ontario.