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WINE

Tuscany Gets Into Some Serious Sangiovese

March 14, 2001|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilei got in a lot of trouble when he argued that Earth revolved around the sun. But nobody disagreed at all when he ventured his suggestion that "wine is composed of sunlight and wit."

As a specific reference to the wines of his native Tuscany, it might well be literally true. Grapes, after all, are merely the medium through which people turn sunshine and water into something that engages the senses and the intellect.

Lately the ratio has favored sunshine over wit by a fair margin. That was apparent last week during the annual presentation of the latest Tuscan vintage. Tasting through dozens of Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino wines from the last five vintages, along with barrel samples from 2000, it was clear that global warming may not be all bad from a viticultural perspective.

It's not that Tuscan winemakers weren't able to do a lot of clever winemaking lately. They just didn't have to.

There are still a lot of luscious '97 Chianti Classicos around, and they're being succeeded by the somewhat more angular but no less delicious '98s. Montepulciano is offering toothsome, chewy '98 Nobiles and slurpable '99 Rossos. And in addition to Montalcino's exuberant '99 Rossos, it is offering unusually approachable '96 Brunellos-wines to drink while we wait for the majestic '95s to soften up.

Tuscany is one of the oldest wine regions in the world, going back to pre-Roman times, perhaps before the days of the Etruscans. And yet Tuscan wine has been evolving rapidly during the last few years. Tasting recent vintages in Tuscany is like looking at single frames from an action film. These wines are literally the fruits of revolution.

Of course, revolution has been the stuff of Tuscan history since the beginning. But never in the struggles between Florence and Sienna, the Medicis and the Albizzis, has there been a revolution like the improvement of Tuscan wines during the last decade. It has left everyone happy. Indeed, the only blood to flow is that of an ancient Roman god; Sangiovese means "the blood of Jove."

Sangiovese is a wonderful wine grape. It has a marvelous capacity for expressing site, which makes tasting wines from different estates a fascinating as well as scrumptious exercise. In that sensitivity to location and in its range of red and black fruit flavors, it is more like Pinot Noir than the more austere and herbaceous-tasting grapes of the Cabernet family, including Merlot.

However, centuries of cultivation have produced dozens if not hundreds of variants of the Sangiovese vine, many yielding unremarkable wine and thus pulling down Chianti's general quality. During the 1980s the concept of refocusing the Chianti vineyard gained currency. That led to the Chianti 2000 campaign, whereby the Chianti Classico wine community took a long, hard look at its raw material.

The ideas behind the Chianti 2000 project were to sort out and evaluate prevalent clones of Sangiovese and other primary grape varieties and to figure out which ones gave the most concentrated, structured, complex wines expressing the variety's unique perfume and flavor (to me, the signal notes are dried roses and sour cherries). After more than 10 years of micro-vinification, analysis and tasting, they narrowed the field down to 18 clones of Sangiovese and numerous clones of the blending varieties Canaiolo, Mammolo and Colorino.

Vineyards newly planted or converted to the favored clones have begun to bear fruit in ideal circumstances. The last five vintages have all been hotter than usual and the wines show it in various ways. The best producers have used the extra heft to advantage, offering wines that are remarkable for their combined power and elegance. Among the outstanding '98 Chianti Classicos were those from the Castellos di Verrazzano, Fonterutoli, Volpaia and Meleto, as well as Badia a Coltibuono, Carrobio and Le Cinciole.

As for the worst, there don't seem to be many. In tasting through scores of wines over the course of a week, I encountered very few wines that were downright awful. The technical standards are high; most of my complaints had to do with too much oak and the creeping menace of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are among the "other grapes" allowed (up to 20%) in the blend. Similar revolutionary campaigns have been waged with the Montalcino version of Sangiovese, called Brunello, and with Montepulciano's Prugnolo Gentile.

Much of the work in Brunello has been conducted at the Banfi estate. Banfi has isolated and propagated several distinctive Sangiovese selections in its vineyards. They took time and trouble to put several of them through the lengthy international certification process, which has made them available for planting all over the world. In fact, new vineyards in California and Australia have been planted to the Banfi clones.

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