Tuscany offers two world-class appellations for your average aristocrat: The Brunello of Montalcino and the Super Tuscans of Bolgheri. What lies beneath/beyond?! Both of those regions offer some difficult contradictions and overshadow the extraordinary quality bubbling up from their less appreciated neighbors.
On one side we have the so-called Super Tuscans, which are (typically) Bordeaux/Meritage blends conforming to international styles and are often criticized for lacking the Tuscan personality, in addition to their $$$. Brunello is a regional clone of Sangiovese and its (deservedly) high reputation for quality also results in high prices. These two pillars of Tuscan wine fueled by the power of the global collectors market have an unfortunate influence on traditional Tuscan wines, but there’s hope!
I love to explore Sangiovese in Tuscany, its both so ‘everyday’ and so distinctively Tuscan, but I found myself facing the same conundrum of price v. quality while tasting two ‘lower’ priced Brunelli, the 2006 Ferrero BdM and the 2004 Caparzo BdM. Both from solid vintages and reliable somewhat modern producers. Both cost $40-$45, which is pretty much the bottom of the spectrum for Brunello pricing. So how did they fare? They were similarly full textured, broad wines with good Sangiovese characteristics of dark cherry and tobacco. Both stopped short however of wowing me with any true personality or complexity. In short they tasted like a dictionary entry for Brunello, and not a whit more. At $40, you should be able to find good examples of Tuscan wine with at least some personality? And is complexity too much to ask?
So I set out to find the best Tuscan wines at <45$, wines that offered more personality and complexity than comparably priced Brunello di Montalcino. My Cellar Rating is not an overall score, but an indicator of how many years from the vintage date I think it needs to hit its prime drinking window.
It was really really hard, because there is just too much darn good wine in Tuscany, and because most styles lack a regional brand cache attractive to international collectors, these wines fly far under the radar. Some, like those from Chianti are even more disadvantaged because that region has a long undeserved reputation for poor quality.
2012 Felsina Chianti Classico and 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva
Price: 18-20$/26-29$ Where to buy:
http://www.klwines.com (they have most of their wines available)
Where to buy Classico: Wine Searcher
Where to buy Riserva: Wine Searcher
Cellar Rating (Chianti Classico) * 2-5 years 90
Cellar Rating (Riserva) ** 5-10 years 92
A large producer of Sangiovese in Tuscany, with a broad portfolio of Sangiovese based wines at every price point. Felsina takes the proverbial cake for extraordinary quality at the most reasonable price. I’m doubling up this entry, for both their 2012 Chianti Classico and 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva. The wines differ in their drinking window: the Riserva takes a few more years to really open up and shine, while the regular CC is for near-term drinking.
The Felsina Chianti offers plenty of good typicity for Sangiovese: dark cherry cola, sweet tobacco. It offers plenty of complexity as it opens up with notes of tea leaf, herbs de provence and menthol. The palate is light-weight but more elegant than thin, with robust acidity and clean mineral tinged finish. The 2010 riserva offered greater intensity and a broader palate, as well as some tertiary aromas of damp leaves, mushroom and leather. Both wines scream for pizza with spicy sausage, salumi, or a hearty stew.
They also produced some declassified Sangiovese (Fontallaro) and a single vineyard Chianti (Rancia) that are outstanding in the 45-60$ price range.
2011 Castello dei Rampolla Chianti Classico
Price: 25-35$ Where to buy:
Cellar Rating *2-5 years 91
What the 2010 Tuscan reds have in structure and power, the 2011s have in elegance and accessibility. Like Felsina, Castello dei Rampolla was an both early advocate for high quality sangiovese AND one of the original producers of Super Tuscan blends. Add to that their Bio-dynamic practices dating back to the early 90’s and you get a winery known for trail-blazing.
The 2011 Chianti Classico is dark but fruity, with dark red cherry and warm broad textured tannin. There’s about 5% of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in there which add some darker bigger fruit flavors, and yet it still screams typical Sangiovese with its fresh acidity. I picked this one not just for the overall house style but because its an excellent example of the elegance of 2011 Chianti.
2010 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva
Where to buy: Wine Searcher
Cellar Rating ***10+ years!! 90
This is NOT the Monsanto you are thinking of! Rather, Castello di Monsanto is a modern producer in Tuscany, and one of the first to produce a ‘cru’ Chianti (from a single vineyard). The 2010 Chianti Riserva is a bit of a wild card here, a real cellar experiment for those who have never ‘laid down’ a bottle. Its rare for me to find a wine priced under 20$ that not only can last over ten years, but damn near requires it. In an act my wine merchant called ‘infanticide’ I opened the 2010 up and gave it a try: it was absolutely undrinkable for the entire evening. Leaving the bottle open I revisited it for several night in a row and it slowly unfolded from an undrinkable wine to a a recognizable Chianti. By the third day it was still quite a massive wine but showing potential to be a classically style Chianti.
A homegrown blend of 90% Sangiovese and the rest Colorino and Canaiolo, it had deeply buried notes of smokey black tea, dark licorice, and dusty black cherry. Long racy acidity with a rough grained tannic finish. This is one the best values for a long-term cellarable wine I have found. Stash it somewhere cool and forget.
2010 Podere le Boncie “Le Trame”
Where to Buy: Wine Searcher
Cellar Rating ** 5-10 years 94
I couldn’t well leave Le Trame off this list, though the 2010 I last tasted is not as easily found anymore (so my wine-searcher link will direct you to all vintages). Beyond the quality of the juice, this wine should soon be a major icon of modern Tuscan wine, first because Giovanna Morganti is of a new crop of female wine makers (still a rare-breed) making some of the best wines in the world (Also look up Elena Fucci in Southern Italy). Second because a few years ago she handed in the black rooster, her Chianti Classico certification after a long conflict of how to best represent Sangiovese in this terroir. I can’t say I know the specifics, though it may be that her single wine “Le Trame” is primarily Sangiovese with a few nearly extinct native varieties making up a small percentage.
Le Trame has been described as “ferociously” and “supremely” elegant by some of its more enthusiastic fans. I can get behind both; An intense combination of floral perfume and intense blue and red berry fruit may seem a-typical for a sangiovese from Chianti, but the rustic damp earth, racy acidity, and dusty tannin are indisputably Tuscan. Long graceful finish with lithe balance defies expectation (and physics). When reviewers use the words ‘focus’ or ‘linear’ to describe a wine, this is what they mean.