Wine-wise, Tuscany can be an enigma. Just when you think you've got the place figured out ("Chianti – that's made from sangiovese!"), it has a way of throwing curveballs.
Or, rather, of moving with the times. Popular Bordeaux varieties such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon now grow successfully there. Cabernet franc, another signature of Bordeaux as well as the Loire Valley, is a sensational up and comer. Syrah, from the Rhône Valley, appears to love the famous rolling hills around Florence as much as tourists do.
The rise of French grapes in Tuscany over the past 40 years is a curious phenomenon for a castle-strewn paradise so seemingly steeped in tradition. Some estates, notably Frescobaldi and Antinori, have belonged in their respective families for about seven centuries. But these and other producers are not nearly as hidebound by tradition as their counterparts in most of France.
That's because Tuscan appellation laws are not as firmly set in marble. They have evolved, with a push and a shove from forward-thinking growers, to embrace the iconoclastic notion that centuries-old decrees about which grapes perform best on which hillsides may not be the last word. There's always room for heretical experimentation. This is the land of Galileo, after all.
Today, Tuscany is a curious convergence of old and new. The distinguished reds of Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano are still based on the region's signature grape: sangiovese – medium-to-full-bodied, crisp and reminiscent of cherries and earth. But there are new flavours to enjoy. I wrote about some in February, and Vintages stores in Ontario just stocked new releases of classical as well as new-styled offerings, all in limited quantities. There's even a great non-Italian sangiovese in the mix. Aficionados of the grape can probably guess where it's from: California, another place that's embraced Bordeaux grapes with enthusiasm. Maybe one day Bordeaux will start experimenting with sangiovese. Sorry, I take that back. That's never going to happen.
San Felice Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino 2005 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $44.95
The regal wine of southern Tuscany, Brunello di Montalcino, is never cheap. This one's reasonable for the quality. It's deftly balanced, juicy and sings with fresh cherry, a floral note and a whisper of mineral. The alcohol is a relatively tame 13.5 per cent. Like I said, balanced.
Antinori Pian Delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $59.95
Here's a well-known centuries-old producer (Antinori) and a classic appellation of southern Tuscany (Brunello) marching to a contemporary drumbeat. Many Brunellos this old veer toward the dried, prune-like, leafy side of the spectrum. This one's fresh, showing ripe plum, violet and mineral, with just a trace of tobacco. The tannins are substantial but fine-grained. It could cellar nicely for at least 10 more years.
Luce della Vite Luce 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $99.95
The repetition of "Luce" in the name can be confusing. Luce is the flagship red of Frescobaldi's Luce della Vite label in Montalcino, not to be confused with the less-expensive Lucente. Still with me? This blend of merlot and sangiovese oozes plum, chocolate and vanilla with a creamy texture. There's more merlot softness here than sangiovese crispness (the blend is 55-per-cent merlot, in fact). Chewy tannins coat the mouth. It should age well for five to eight years.
Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $25.95
Vino Nobile is a style based mainly on sangiovese, often with a dollop of the local canaiolo. The wines of Poliziano are excellent and usually good buys. This is medium fullbodied, with dark-skinned fruits and subtle savoury-spice notes. I love the firm texture and juicy acidity.
Tenuta di Nozzole La Forra Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
The fruit certainly was picked ripe, yielding a wine with 14.5-per-cent alcohol and which starts out on a pruny note. But then the tobacco chimes in along with toasty oak, dry tannins and good acid balance on the finish.
Poggio Verrano Chance 2005 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $33.95
Almost black in colour, this full-bodied blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc is exceedingly ripe but short of raisiny, with an earthy, dirt-road quality and good acidity.
Casa di Terra Moreccio Bolgheri 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95
A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, it's full and round, with a core of plum and leather lifted by herbs, spice and mineral.
Cordella Rosso di Montalcino 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $19.95
Rosso di Montalcino is the early-maturing baby brother of Brunello, also made from sangiovese. Plum and herbs lead the way, held back slightly by a desiccated, leafy quality till the juicy acidity shows up.
Jonata La Tierra de Jonata Sangiovese 2007 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $84.95
Sangiovese from California tends to be more miss than hit and is usually more expensive than a better Chianti or Vino Nobile. That's why sangiovese acreage in the state has declined. But what a hit this is from the star producer Jonata, owned by the same two wealthy partners who control Napa Valley's Screaming Eagle. Rich and packed with sweet cherry, it keeps serving up layers of exciting flavour, from spice to cedar to a note reminiscent of roast pork. There's also a light dusting of tannins that suggest it could cellar well for up to a decade.
Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe La Crau Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2008 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $72.95
It's neither Tuscan nor made from sangiovese. But it's released today through Vintages and will likely hold appeal for many because Vieux Telegraphe is a storied producer in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I'm a fan of the domaine and have purchased much for my cellar over the years. But this 2008 vintage won't be joining its older siblings in the basement. There's a chocolate essence here that doesn't taste right for a Châteauneuf. I suspect the grapes were picked very late – too late for my liking. The alcohol is 15.1 per cent.