When producers in Tuscany broke with tradition decades ago to embrace non-traditional grape varieties such as French cabernet sauvignon and merlot, their new blends spawned a shrewd marketing term: supertuscans. On the surface, that catchy label cast a shadow on the region's old classics, most of which rely mainly on the sangiovese grape.
If the classics were not "super," what were they?
As in modelling, the prefix can create a twisted heirarchy where beauty is concerned. Sangiovese is (and may forever be) Tuscany's most captivating variety, its potable heart and soul – or, rather, its blood, if you're hip to Latin and know Roman mythology. The word derives from sanguis Jovis , for blood of Jove, the supreme god.
Sangiovese-based wines not only survived the prefix insult, they gradually became superior themselves.
Chianti, vino nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino and morellino di Scansano – sangiovese's great classical interpretations – are all better now than ever. Competition has a way of raising everybody's game.
All these wines are splendid with roasted meats and pastas, though I would reserve bigger-bodied, cellarworthy Brunellos and Chianti "riservas" – the latter typically made from more concentrated fruit and lavished with extra time in barrel – for heartier cuts, such as steak, and the richest meat-sauce pastas.
Quality remains variable, of course. Sangiovese, an earthy, cherry-scented grape with a saline-like tingle, is especially sensitive to soil and weather conditions. When the gods of nature fail to co-operate, its flaws cannot easily be masked with an extra dollop of oak, unless you want to change the grape's inherent character (and then, really, what's the point?).
As I previewed the Feb. 16 Tuscan releases at Ontario Vintages stores, that mercurial (to employ another mythological reference) tendency was conspicuous. I have included mostly the super sangioveses below.
Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $27.95
I love wines that give off a bit of sweat, meat and leather. The core is concentrated, with succulent cherry and a roast-pork quality holding court till fine, dry tannins kick in on the finish. A riserva for current enjoyment.
Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $57.95
Lots going on here. Big and juicy, this wine offers up cherry jam, tobacco, baking spices and tar, pulled in at the waist by a corset of astringent tannins. It will improve with up to 10 years in the cellar, perhaps longer.
Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2009(Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $25.95
I've admired this winery for years, its name a tribute to the Renaissance poet and scholar Angelo Ambrogini, known by the nickname Poliziano, who was born in the central Tuscan town of Montepulciano. The flavours in this juicy, exemplary 2009 come across like a cherry-studded chocolate bar sprinkled with spice. Then a pleasant note of licorice appears on the warm, aromatic finish.
Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti ClassicoRiserva 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $44.95
Luscious and intense, this is starting to show a pleasant leafy nuance owing to age. There's a touch of cured meat coming through, too, along with licorice, spice and a caramel-toffee quality that suggests fine old whisky. It should drink well for up to eight years.
Giacomo Mori Chianti 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
There is plenty of flavour here without clumsy weight – a hallmark of good, affordable sangiovese. It hints at prune juice but not in a way that suggests premature oxidation. A crisp acid backbone imparts structure and verve.
Castello di Ama Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $34.95
I've enjoyed Ama's riservas more in the past. The sangiovese here gets minority support from fatter malvasia, cabernet franc and merlot, and though it's well-structured, I find the oak a little too up-front, so it's too awkward to merit a higher score. I also get a slightly wonky character of aged cheese that seems out of place, unless, I suppose, you intend to enjoy the wine with cheese.
Castello d'Albola Chianti Classico Riserva 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $22.95
Cherry comes through nicely in this well-priced riserva, underscored by mouth-watering acidity. It might have merited a higher score with greater concentration, and at just 13-per-cent alcohol, it should not be revealing the bitter, medicinal edge present here. Still, there's pleasure in the bottle.
Riolite Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2009(Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $19.95
Soft for a vino nobile, it displays light concentration and delivers candy-like, wine-gum fruitiness, licorice, cedar and spices. It tightens and brightens with acidity on the finish.
Geografico Chianti Classico 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 80 PRICE: $15.95
Something's amiss here. Normally, a note of wet earth lends interest to Chianti, but there's insufficient fruit in this wine to carry the day. And what is yesterday's Gruyère cheese doing in the bottle?