January 30, 2013

Wine: In Tuscany grows a grape that is unfairly maligned


At long last, I think I might be starting to get Sangiovese. I've often been mystified by this ubiquitous grape; mystified and frustrated.

The Tuscan standard-bearer, the workhorse of every straw-wrapped "Chianti" you ever suffered through, Sangiovese goes into so many disappointing, dispiriting, disagreeable wines it's enough to drive people to Malbec or California Pinot Noir. Which it has, at least indirectly, in droves: people want more lushness, more up-front fruit, more satisfaction than a typical thin-lipped Sangiovese can offer.

I probably could find God (or at least thicker lips) in Sangiovese if I were drinking more Brunello di Montalcino. That's a variety of Sangiovese from the town of Montalcino in Tuscany, which was chosen by Yahweh eons ago as the rightful home for the grape. But any good Brunello costs a bare minimum of $50 a bottle, and most of it gets opened way too early. When that happens, you avoid sour, thin, nowheresville Chianti, but you trade it for rough, firm, taunting, tannic Beastly Wine. Neither is a happy time.

I'm not the leading proponent of excessive extract and concentration in a red wine, but please, give me something to work with, something to hold onto, something not to admire but to love. Give me a Brunello with 20 years under its belt, or a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (from the area of Montepulciano, not the grape that goes by that name) with eight to 10 years, or give me a Rosso Toscana. "Rosso" just indicates an Italian red blend, usually produced somewhat differently from how the flagship wine of a given region is produced.

In Tuscany, a Rosso will be a Sangiovese-based wine with additional international varietals (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, etc.), or with grapes from multiple areas or lesser vineyards, or that has not been aged as long before release. Standards, in one way or another, have not been met.

Lucky for us. The standards do not produce an inherently better wine, just an often greater wine. A great wine expresses maturity and complexity, and rewards quiet attention from someone who knows what that means. (You listening, expense-account-wielding steakhouse-business-dinner big shot?)

A better wine is often the one that's easier to befriend, tastes better with what you're eating, and fails to distract you with either its jagged edges or scorecard reputation. A better wine is often the one your companions and intimates find as much delight in as you do.

That's Rosso Toscana. Most Brunello and Vino Nobile producers offer a Rosso as their "second" or "third" wine. I've recently come across a few Rossi Toscani that communicate the essential, deeply satisfying pleasures of Sangiovese without breaking the bank or the ego. Compared to their primogeniture brothers, they give up a little of classic old Italy in exchange for something a bit sleeker, more silken and fresh.

These are not so-called "Super Tuscans," pimped out with gobs of Cab fruit and staggering alcohol, strutting the vanillin effects of treatment in new oak barrels. They're just very honest, very good. They satisfy, the way comfort food satisfies.

Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona Toscana Rosso 2010 ($14, Wicked). This is the wine, from a stellar Brunello producer, that brought me rushing back to Sangiovese. It follows the arc of a firework, launching potential into the sky. First, deep macerated strawberry fragrance with a touch of new leather; then a focusing acidic sparkle, sustained; at the tail end a slow, bittersweet fade to black, setting up for the next sip, the next firework to come. Seamless integration, lingering secondary earthy flavors. It gives and gives.

The Villa Antinori Toscana 2009 ($22, National) is more serious wine, a bit less animated. Although it may be the fruitiest Rosso I tasted, the fruit is deep and black, and offset by more tannins and smoky, cedar-bark tones. Rather than bright and firework-y, the wine is stocky and handlebar-mustachioed, and would be more at home than the Ciacci Piccolomini in a room heated by fire, with rare steaks cooked by same.

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