On a recent trip to Tuscany during the 2017 harvest, I noticed a trend towards a more tradionnal approach. Many tastings and conversations lead me to believe that a return to the past has brought increased quality and typicity to many Tuscan reds.
Visiting the two most iconic districts of Tuscany, Chianti classico and (Brunello di) Montalcino appellations are setting the pace and raising the bar with upscale reds bursting with character and aging potential.
1970 – 80’s : Super Tuscans
We should thank the Antinori family for their foresight and courage to challenge the rules of production of Chianti Classico. By refusing to incorporate white varieties and replacing them with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, the taste profile and aging potential of the embassador of Tuscany was modified. This trend, which began in the early seventies, created a category know as the «Super Tuscans».
Obviously many followed this trend and the style of many Tuscan wines, especially Chianti, changed. Modern wine making techniques combined with the addition of international varities produced wines with more depth, character and body. This turn turn towards a fleshier modern style crafted wines with more colour, ripe fruit, structure and body. Some might say, this was a period that led Tuscany astray, away from its roots or terroir !
Modern winemaking vs typicity
Some producers stuck to their guns and did not follow this movement, or just experimented with this trend. Twenty years have passed, and there is no doubt, this new direction had its benefits. Too many Chianti were acidic, thin, with no potential for aging. On the other hand some complained too many Chianti had lost their identity and typicity. Fortunately some producers, less convinced or dissapointed, searched in the past for inspiration.
But, what was needed to maintain this modern style that displays more depth, while enhancing the soul, typicity and terroir characteristics of Chianti Classico wines ? Also extremely important was to regain the balance of Chianti : maintaining the expected acidity and not overextracting from overipe grapes.
1990-2000 : Ancient varieties
At San Felice, Leonardo Bellacini did more than his homework. Back in the 80’s he conducted a research project with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture and the University of Florence to find the best clones of Sangiovese and the traditionnal grapes of the area that had been forgotten and/or replaced by international varieties. Since 1992 San Felice has been reintroducing these lost varieties such as Pugnitello, Abrusco, Mazzese, Ciliegiolo and Malvasia Nera. Mainly used as a complement to Sangiovese, some producers (such as San Felice) dare create wines with these varieties, on their own or blended together.
Most of my visits confirmed the trend towards more elegant wines, while maintaining good depth and structure. This was quite apparent at Castello di Brolio with the amazing work accomplished my winemaker/viticulturist Massimiliano Biagi. The passion, attention to detail and in depth research are reflected in the high quality wines produced by Massimiliano at the Castello. To experience this, try the Colledila 2013 Chianti Classico (single vineyard), its an amazing expression of Sangiovese’s richness, freshness and balance.
Brunello di Montalcino on the rise !
This great red became an icon of Italian viticulture mainly due to the had work and dedication of the Biondi-Santi family at the Tenuta Greppo estate. For decades Biondi-Santi was the locomotive pulling the denominazione upwards. The reward came in 1980 when Brunello di Montalcino was the first Italian red to be elevated at the DOCG level. Suddenly Brunello di Montalcino joined the ranks of the elite wines of the world.
Because of its rising reputation, increased plantings were needed to meet demand. From approximately 25 producers in 1970, to 53 in 1980, there are now over 250 estates that grow grapes for Brunello wine. From less than 100 hectares to over 2000 today, such developpement is never whitout growing pains. Wines from young vines, often from secondary clones, not planted in the appropriate terroir ; this lead to overall lower than expected quality ! Personnally, for a decade or more, I was often disappointed with many Brunelli. Luckily time has passed and changes have occured.
Brunello back on track !
During my September visit to Montalcino, I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality experienced with the wines tasted. Brunello is back !
Many of the producers visited impressed with Brunelli displaying depth and richness in an elegant and balanced style, what has always been expected from this reputed Italian red.
To get the best overall appreciation of the denominazione, producers from different areas and terroirs were chosen. Visits at La Gerla, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, Campogiovanni, Castello Banfi, Fattoria dei Barbi and Biondi-Santi, confirmed the high level of quality, elegance and great aging potential expected of this iconic appellation.
A favourable position !
Let’s hope prices for Brunello remain reasonable/decent. During the recession of the mid 2000’s, prices had come down slightly. In the last few years prices are coming back up slowly. Interestingly during a meeting with the president of the Brunello di Montalcino Consorzio, Patrizio Cencioni and the two vice-presidents, they believe the average price of Brunello is too low when compared to other iconic wines from around the world. To some, Brunello might seem underpriced when compared to elite wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley. Let’s hope Brunello whishes to become the only elite red in the wine world to be available and affordable to all wine entusiasts and geeks. Not just for the «Rich and Famous» like the elite wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley. A very favourable image awaits Brunello di Montalcino : the connoisseurs (inside) wine !
A favourable transition period is influencing Tuscany. A return to ancient varieties and a more elegant style displaying increased typicity is upon us. Take this opportunity to rediscover the lovely Sanviovese based reds of la bella Toscana.
Photo: Castello di Brolio by Nick Hamilton