Tuscany is Italy's best-known wine region. It's also the most cosmopolitan where grape varieties are concerned. Home to Chianti, the famous red based on sangiovese, Tuscany has earned a reputation over the past couple of decades for producing impressive wines based on so-called global vines, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.
Some people see Tuscany's embrace of foreign grapes as controversial. Why plant imports – predominantly of French origin – in a country that boasts more indigenous varieties than any other? I think it's a fair question, even if some of the cabernet sauvignons (and merlots and cabernet francs) are glorious. Do we need expensive copycats from Italy of all places? And isn't it slightly ironic? I've met Tuscans who've raised a skeptical eyebrow at the news that Ontario is now producing good buffalo mozzarella and premium prosciutto, foodstuffs as central to the Italian way of life as a nonchalant disregard for highway speed limits.
Today, the Vintages department of the LCBO in Ontario is rolling out a bunch of Tuscan reds, several of which are outstanding. They're all from the 2007 harvest, and some contain those "foreign" grapes as well as sangiovese. Residents of other provinces might want to keep an eye out for Tuscan wines with that year on the label. It was, as they say, a very good year, and it's widely represented on shelves at the moment.
The south Tuscan appellation of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano stands out as particularly successful in 2007. Many of the offerings exhibit a firm tannic backbone and relatively high alcohol, but the Chiantis tend to be decent as well. The first six wines at right, all from Vintages, pair well with hearty pastas and many red-meat dishes, including steak. They're also good candidates for three to five years of cellaring.
Both Vino Nobile and Chianti are based on the native sangiovese, which produces wines with medium to full body, a bittersweet cherry essence, fresh tug of acidity and often savoury notes of mushroom and violet. But in many cases Chianti producers add a legally permissible dollop of those controversial French varieties to achieve a fuller body and, dare I say it, cosmopolitan flare.
Icario Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2007 (Italy)
Warm and penetrating, with mouth-parching tannins, this ripe red sports formidable 14.5-per-cent alcohol. There's a good dusting of spice here and essence of fennel, as though it had been crafted by a wise Tuscan chef.
Mastrojanni San Pio 2007 (Italy)
From Tuscany's southern Montalcino zone, this blend of 80-per-cent cabernet sauvignon with 20-per-cent sangiovese came in at a ripe 14.5-per-cent alcohol. But the ample fruit keeps it in line. Expect cherry, bitter chocolate, spice and just the right amount of acidity in this medium-full-bodied red.
Le Sughere di Frassinello 2007 (Italy)
Another new-style blend, made with sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, from the trendy Tuscan coast. Dark and chewy, it's more confected than traditionalists might like. But it's solid and well-balanced, finishing with peppercorn and fine-grained, dry tannins.
Isole e Olena Chianti Classico 2007 (Italy)
A fine effort from a respected producer, this Chianti is relatively big in body and uncommonly smooth, with a rounded profile that makes it a nice sip on its own. Much as I like it, the wine teeters on the brink of excessive ripeness, with a hint of raisin slightly marring its fresh-fruit core. It gets a nice lift on the finish, though, with an aftertaste that reminds me of a pine-forest breeze.
Cecchi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2007 (Italy)
Medium full-bodied and bone-dry, it's well priced for a Vino Nobile. Dried cherry mingles with violet and underbrush, finishing with moderate tannins.
La Madonnina Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 (Italy)
It may be the best Tuscan buy from today's Vintages release. Medium full-bodied and concentrated, it offers up dark fruit, chocolate, fine tannins and a bitter, almost salty finish.
CedarCreek Pinot Noir 2008 (B.C.)
PRICE: $26.90 in B.C.
Medium-bodied, this new release from one of the Okanagan Valley's pinot noir stars dishes up fresh berries complemented by baking spices and lively acidity. Good flavour intensity without the clumsy weight of many New World pinots. Try it with grilled or pan-seared salmon. Available at BC Liquor Stores and direct from the winery (www.cedarcreek.bc.ca).
Tawse Van Bers Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2008 (Ontario)
Okay, it's expensive. But it's a world-class example of the cabernet franc grape. Aged in French oak barrels, it strikes a fine balance between crisp, cherry-like fruit and savoury notes of tobacco, violet, cedar and just the right touch of bell pepper, which is typical of fine Loire Valley cabernet francs. Pair it with poultry, ham or dishes prepared in tomato sauce. Available through the winery (www.tawsewinery.ca).
Konigschaffhauser Pinot Gris Trocken 2009 (Germany)
The world's most illustrious pinot gris wines hail from over the border, in France's Alsace region. For value, this German rendition, a part of today's Ontario release, does the white variety proud. Medium-bodied and round, it offers up a silky texture and intriguing, herbal-floral overtones. It would make a nice partner for smoked fish or a cheese course.
Editor's Note: The Tawse Van Bers Vineyard Cabernet Franc is a 2008 wine. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.