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Wine & Spirits

Meet the other Tuscans

Lively reds from less-known regions are just right for fall and a bargain too. Check out Chianti's cousins.

September 12, 2007|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

THE first day of autumn is less than two weeks away; soon suppers will get heartier, and wines will follow suit. Cooler temperatures make the evening safe again for a lighter red. Tuscan rossos fit this moment aptly, toothsome wines that bear a friendly, red-fruited liveliness, but possess enough grip and sinew to marry with more substantial autumn meals. The most famous of these is Chianti, but there are also stellar wines -- call them Chianti's cousins -- produced in Montalcino, Montepulciano and Carmignano, three Tuscan regions that sometimes live in Chianti's shadow.

Tuscany is the largest viticultural area in Italy, extending from the Mediterranean coast (and beyond -- the island of Elba is a Tuscan zone) to the edge of the country's mountainous backbone, the Apennine range. Rainfall captured by the Apennines has tumbled seaward for millions of years, resulting in a landscape that is famously hilly, with Renaissance villages and ancient pathways bordered by vineyards and silver-leaved olive groves. Tuscany is not Italy's most prolific viticultural area, but it is arguably the country's most bewildering. In fact, David Lynch and Joe Bastianich, in their terrific book "Vino Italiano," conclude that Tuscany "takes the prize for Most Confusing Region," with nearly 40 separate viticultural areas (called DOCs and DOCGs in Italy).

Chianti today is in most respects a region producing wine that bears no resemblance to the wine we all grew up with: spineless, overcropped plonk. Those days are long gone: In a country where quality winemaking is taking huge strides with every vintage, the Chianti DOCG, from its Classico center to its seven far-flung sub-regions, leads the pack.

Chianti's cousins have raised the bar in quality as well, ever since the rise of Super Tuscans and the apotheosis of Brunello as the great regional DOCG in Tuscany, causing prices to shoot into the stratosphere. Nevertheless, it's still possible to find wines that are interesting departures from Chianti at Chianti-style prices.

The grape that links these regions and their wines is Sangiovese, which is grown throughout Tuscany and is used in nearly every red wine, from $6 fiascos (flasks) to Sassicaia and the noblest Brunellos.

Sangiovese is thought to be as ancient as its name implies (its name, "blood of Jove," suggests Roman ancestry). Many clones have been isolated, but all of them are thought to have evolved from two distinct strains, Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo.

Sangiovese's flavors, its aromas and especially its textures take on subtle changes as plantings move from Florence southward to Sienna and on to Rome. It regularly endures not so subtle changes in name -- each region seems to have applied its own vanity nameplate on the grape: It's Brunello in Montalcino, Prugnolo Gentile in Montepulciano, Morellino in Scansano. In any event, few grapes seem more inextricable from the place they're grown than Sangiovese. Grown anywhere else in the world, it's not the same. Grown in Tuscany, it's worlds within worlds.

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Montalcino

BRUNELLO, the great wine of Montalcino, can't really be considered one of Chianti's cousins -- it's more like a distinguished uncle famed for an illustrious career as a count or a diplomat.

Montalcino is the farthest south of the Chianti districts, and the warmest and driest, which allows the grapes to reach peak ripeness. Yet the soils there, limestone-based in the north, more clay-based in the south, have a composition that compares to the soil in parts of Burgundy. Many producers draw fruit from both places and blend, a practice that often gives the wine an elegant, silky tone.

Moreover, Brunello's excellent Sangiovese clone, Sangiovese Grosso, generally ripens to a deeper, more concentrated expression than other Tuscan rossos, enhanced, especially lately, with a generous oak treatment.

Along with the great Super Tuscan wines from the region's west coast, Brunello unquestionably is the most powerful expression of Sangiovese in Tuscany, and among the most highly prized in Italy. It's also one of the country's most expensive.

And for those less willing to shell out a C-note for a bottle of Brunello, producers have introduced an option: the much more affordable Rosso di Montalcino.

As demand for their wines skyrocketed, Brunello producers faced a problem each vintage -- DOCG laws required a compulsory waiting period of four years before the wines could be released. The solution? Rosso di Montalcino, often a declassified wine from the same vineyards (or from younger vines) that doesn't have the same aging stipulations. The result was a Chianti-style wine from the region's best clones, made for early release: a baby Brunello, with producers still devoting care and attention to their quality -- the wines were simply out of the gate earlier.

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