Tuscany

December 13, 2009

Of all of the tastings that I have gone to in the past couple of months, and there have been some good ones, I think this is the one that I was most anticipating. It’s not that I’m especially high on wines from Tuscany; in fact, that’s the irony. I was excited about this tasting precisely because Tuscan wines have generally been unexciting for me. I’ve had a handful of good Brunellos, a lot of bad Chianti, and a fair amount of Super Tuscans. In fact, that pretty much sums up my impression of the region prior to the tasting: Brunello I liked; Chianti I didn’t – to the point where I couldn’t recall a single one I enjoyed; and I thought Super Tuscans were interesting but overrated – even when I had a chance to try Sassicaia I wasn’t overly impressed. But, ever open-minded, and with wine you absolutely have to be, I knew that if there was any saving Tuscany for me, an Abbondanza at the Wine Bottega was the perfect venue for it. As expected, I tasted some stellar wines, got to understand the region, and shed some of my biases.

We began with a pair of whites; the first was a bottling from Poderi Sanguineto from the Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. It was light and crisp with apple and pear flavors, not terribly exciting but better than a lot of Pinot Grigio, Albariño, and Sauvignon Blanc I’ve had lately at a similar price point. The second white was actually one of my favorite wines of the whole tasting, the 2005 Testamatta Bugia, from the Ansonica grape, which I had never heard of. It had a gorgeous nose, almost Viognier-like, very perfumey with both tropical and citrus fruit and a butterscotch component. This translated onto the palette, and the wine was dynamic, starting with vibrant fruit flavors predominating on the attack and becoming more restrained and creamy on the finish, reminiscent of good White Burgundy.

Tuscany is known for its reds, mostly made from Sangiovese. The first of such was a Rosso di Montepulciano, one hundred percent Sangiovese with a smoky burnt tire accent on the nose set against a backdrop of vibrant red fruit. It was actually quite good, with pretty fruit carrying over to the palette, a good amount of acid, and a light body. This entry level wine was already better than most of the Chianti Classico that I had tasted prior to tonight, and at $17 a bottle, a great Tuesday night wine. Next was another 2007 Rosso di Montepulciano that was similar to the first. This was followed by a Chianti Classico, the 2005 Podere Le Boncie, Le Trame, which I am proud to report, is the first Chianti I can say that I liked. It was similar to the two Montepulcianos, but also had an unmistakable dark chocolate covered cherry flavor going on that was quite intriguing. This was followed by two more Sangioveses, the 2004 Montevertine and the 2006 La Pieve, the little brothers of two big time wines represented later in the tasting by these producers, Le Pergole Torte from the former and a Brunello from the latter. Little bro is doing okay for himself though, and this pair of entry level Rossos again showcased the vibrant red fruit, raspberries, cherries, even a little strawberry component that seems to be characteristic of this region. The La Pieve was a little bigger and had a nice spice component and lingering finish that made it my favorite of the four generic Rossos.

The next two wines were my two favorites of the entire tasting. The 2005 Tenuta di Trinoro, Le Cupole is the second wine from Andrea Franchetti, and is a Bordeaux style blend heavy on Cab Franc. The nose was awesome, with a strong floral and blackberry component kept in check by a subtle earthiness and a mocha note in the background. It was very fruit forward on the palette, but in an Old World style, yet definitely expressing that Western Italy terroir. Think of a person who’s young but well-travelled back at home in their native city – with all the worldliness and experience, but not straying from one’s roots. At $35 a bottle, this wine is better than most California Meritages and definitely more interesting. My absolute favorite wine of the evening was the 2003 Massa Vecchia, La Querciola. The wine is predominantly Sangiovese with a bit of Alicante Bouchet blended in. It had a gorgeous nose, with the bright red fruit of the other Sangioveses complemented by notes of cinnamon, roasted apples and pears, and an interesting firewood component. Often in wine you get a smokiness, and the word burnt is usually written just like that, in the past tense. This was more like a fire that you just lit though, where the wood is just starting to burn, more that aroma than the ash and smoke of a fire that’s been going for awhile. On the palette it was similar to the Rossos, red fruit, light body, high acid, easy-drinking, but was incredibly more complex and reflected a lot of what was on the nose.

On to the Brunellos, a pair of wines from the legendary 2004 vintage. Brunello is typically big and tannic, and often needs time to develop. In fact, this is one appellation where the rules actually do a halfway decent job at preventing us from drinking the wines in their infancy; besides being made from 100% the Brunello clone of the Sangiovese grape and grown within the town of Montalcino, Brunello must age a minimum of 2 years in oak and 4 months in the bottle, and is released 5 years after harvest; i.e. these 2004s are the current release. However they both were surprisingly approachable and drinking quite well now. The only other 2004 Brunello that I can recall tasting, the Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo, was awesome, but clearly needs another 5 years or so. First up was the La Pieve, whose little brother had already made an appearance this evening. In comparison to the wines tasted so far, even wines that I liked better like the Massa Vecchia, this was playing on a different level of complexity. If the Massa Vecchia is a college football player up for the Heisman and definitely going to go first round in the draft, this was a solid NFL player, not a star but someone who does his job at the highest level day in and day out. The nose was huge, with a preponderance of red fruit with a complex mixture of spices rounding it out. Same thing on the palette, which is where the most interesting thing about this wine jumped out. It tasted hot, which was confirmed when I checked the label to see the 14.5% alcohol content, but I would venture to say this wine does the single best job containing such a high alcohol content that I have ever tasted. This was no California Zin. Think a 250 pound guy with 5% body fat who can bench 400 but your seeing him during the week in a business suit versus the guy at the Jersey shore with biceps popping out of a way-too-tight shirt, if he even happens to be wearing one, a fake tan, and more product in his hair than most women you know. The La Pieve falls into the former category. The Podere Salicutti brought similar aromas and flavors, though I thought this one was a little less interesting, and checking in at $95 whereas the La Pieve was $65, a pass for me but undeniably a quality wine.

Next up was the 2004 Le Pergole Torte, big brother to the other Montevertine. This is one of the classic big-name Italian wines; I had actually heard of it before tonight, and it checks in at $115 a bottle, the most expensive showing of the tasting. Le Pergole Torte is one of those wines that are only made in outstanding vintages, 2004 being one of them. It definitely showed well, with beautiful fruit on the nose and palette and the same underlying spice component that the better wines of this tasting have been bringing seamlessly woven in. Well made, elegant and delicious, but for me this wine is like the girl who is the perfect girlfriend on paper, everything going for her – gorgeous, interesting, fun, going somewhere in life, but for whatever reason lacks that intangible component all so necessary. This was actually refreshing for me because that means I’m shedding my bias of being automatically drawn to the most expensive iconic wines. Definitely a great bottle, but not my personal favorite of the evening.

We followed Le Pergole Torte with two reds with a little bit of age on them. First was the 1998 Fontodi Flaccianello della Pieve, a Super Tuscan made from 100% Sangiovese. Another good wine that for me was unexciting, it was similar to the Brunellos, but seemed almost too mellowed out for me – it definitely developed complexity with age, but seemed to also lose something. The 1997 Falchini Campora, however, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, was awesome, with an instantly recognizable black pepper component on the nose. It was very Bordeaux-like, but with that characteristic Tuscan charm, and even at its $85 price tag rivals a lot of Bordeaux and certainly most California cabs. This was probably the most interesting part of the tasting for me – seeing how well international varietals do in Tuscany. I liked the Sangioveses, but this wine, along with the Le Cupole, have convinced me that Cabernet and Merlot can do some amazing things in this region and produce wines in a style that bring elements from Bordeaux and California but also something else to the table.

We finished with a Tuscan dessert wine, the 2003 Fattoria Viticcio, Dolce Arianna, Vin Santo, which, interestingly enough, means holy wine. Made from the traditional white Tuscan grapes – Trebbiano and Malvasia, this was actually one of the better dessert wines I’ve had in awhile. I feel like every tasting I’ve been to lately has started with bubbles and ended with something sweet, and I’ve gotten to sample quite a bit of sparkling wine outside of Champagne, California, Prosecco and Cava, and dessert wine outside of Sauternes, late harvest Riesling, Muscato d’Asti, and Icewine, and have discovered some very good alternatives. This is definitely one of more interesting in the latter category, with a beautiful hazelnut aroma and subtle orange flavor on the palette, sweet but not cloying.

As I hoped, the Abbondanza changed my impression of Tuscan wines. The Le Cupole and Massa Vecchia were incredible; I was very impressed with the Testamatta Bugia, a white wine; I finally found a Chianti I liked; and perhaps most promising of all, every single one of the fifteen wines showed well – if I were to score them I don’t think I would give a single sub-85 rating. Not bad for a region I was becoming disenchanted with, and a reminder to keep trying things you think you don’t like. Not only is there so much out there that it’s foolish to pigeonhole a region or style because of one or two, or even fifty wines, but your palette is constantly evolving too, which is what makes drinking wine so enjoyable.