Life has taught me to steer clear of narcissistic humans, but I fall for self-absorbed grapes.
Pinot noir, nebbiolo, zinfandel – they hate sharing the stage, and I’m fond of all them. You rarely see these prima donnas in a blend, unlike, say, cabernet and merlot or that classic Rhône trio: grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. Grown and vinified correctly, they’ve got their own internal harmony.
Sangiovese is much like that. Tuscany’s dominant red grape is a consummate solo player, responsible for one of Italy’s longest-lived reds, Brunello di Montalcino.
It’s also the dominant (and often exclusive) variety in Tuscany’s other two great classics, Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
When you’ve got great sangiovese, you’ve got bright cherry, intriguing earth, perhaps a bit of leather, a whiff of violet and a lively tingle on the finish that I often liken to saltiness. No need for company. Medium-to-full-bodied, Tuscan sangiovese can enhance a broad range of dishes, from pizza to sausages to steak.
More and more frequently, though, I’m also tipping my hat to careful Tuscan producers who have come to add a modern-style fruity concentration and weight to sangiovese – by blending in such French varieties as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah – without destroying sangiovese’s fragile essence. You’ll find three of these success stories below along with more traditional, all-sangio reds. They’re from today’s Vintages release in Ontario, and a couple are available in other provinces as noted.
Ruffino Modus 2010 (Italy)
Score: 92 Price: $28.95
A blend of 50-per-cent sangiovese with the balance from cabernet sauvignon and merlot, this red pulls strongly toward the two latter, French grape varieties, with its rich texture, dark-skinned fruit and solid tannins. But sangiovese steps in with a trademark saline, bracing quality and I suspect it is also responsible for the pleasant licorice note. Still a bit shy, the wine could benefit from decanting or another two years in the cellar (and would improve for at least another 10 years). $29.80 in Que., $39.99 in N.S.
Nottola Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2009 (Italy)
Score: 91 Price: $19.95
Well-poised, silky yet simultaneously crisp, with a pretty floral overtone of cherry blossom and crisp, spiced-cherry palate. Well priced.
San Filippo Brunello di Montalcino 2007 (Italy)
Score: 90 Price: $48.95
This is seductive and unusually spicy Brunello, chewy and full-bodied but not heavy. Classic dried cherry and leather mingle with licorice, cassis and baking spices, framed by bright acidity and supported by moderate tannins.
Leonardo Chianti Riserva 2009 (Italy)
Score: 90 Price: $18.95
Riservas typically denote richer wines based on the most concentrated vineyard fruit, aged for an extended period in oak barrels to encourage longevity in the cellar. There is evidence of that here, but not conspicuously so. It’s medium-bodied, almost delicate in weight, very dry, with juicy plum and dark-cherry fruit. I like the overtones: leather, licorice and old church wood among them if you’ve got my imagination. Well-tailored and graceful. Drink it now or over the next four years.
Capezzana Barco Reale di Carmignano 2010 (Italy)
Score: 90 Price: $16.95
Bargain alert. Here’s an unusual blend of sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon and canaiolo.
That third variety was often found in sangiovese’s company in the past, but most modern-minded producers who work with cabernet sauvignon tend to steer clear of the old-school Tuscan grape. Medium-full-bodied and very dry, this is a salty-spicy red, with notes of cherry and earth and a subtle cigar-tobacco essence that I usually associate with something a little older, and that’s no criticism. Complex for the money. $18.55 in Que.
Vicchiomaggio Ripa Delle Mandorle 2012 (Italy)
Score: 88 Price: $15.95
Medium-bodied and enticingly spicy, this blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon suggests cherries and strawberry jam spiked with clove. You can’t find flavours like this in California, Chile, Australia or even France; this is Tuscany – at a very fair price.