Ian D'Agata on Chianti, Carmignano and Montepulciano

If noted gourmand Hannibal Lecter, in “The Silence of the Lambs,” singles out Chianti, rather than Bordeaux, Burgundy or, for that matter, Santa Barbara pinot noir, he has good reason: quite simply, this part of Tuscany is one of the world’s most beautiful viticultural areas and its best wines are among the finest made anywhere. Although there are undeniable differences between the wines of areas as diverse as Chianti, Carmignano, and Montepulciano, the common denominator, with the exception of some Super-Tuscans, is the presence of sangiovese, one of the world’s 15 most planted grape varieties. And the fact that names like Chianti and Carmignano have been referred to as fine wine-making areas since as far back as the ninth and tenth centuries indicates that the terroir here is more than just a little special.

The good news for wine lovers everywhere is that after a spell of real trouble—a period during which many downright faulty or nondescript and overpriced wines were made, and consumer interest, even in Italy, slumped—these wines are now starting to make a real comeback. And it should be so, as at their best they are fruit-driven wines with firm acidity and good tannic backbone, capable of aging gracefully and developing extremely complex bouquets and flavors. In fact, when grown in this neck of the Italian woods—cooler climate, higher altitudes, long growing season—the late-ripening, high-acid sangiovese can deliver wines that are every Eurocentric wine lover’s objective, wines in which balance and refinement are everything. Even more important, in an age in which high stress and fast-paced lifestyles are changing our eating habits, these fragrant, juicy wines, with their aromas and flavors of sour cherry and tart berries, their low alcohol and their medium body, are ideal partners at the lunch or dinner table.

In the past, this part of Italy has seemed bent on repeatedly shooting itself in the foot. First, in the 1970s, there was too much insistence on the presence of white grape varieties (at least in Chianti), one of which was never even a part of the original Chianti blend. Baron Ricasoli, the inventor of the original Chianti “recipe,” had never intended to include the lowly trebbiano toscano—the ugni blanc the French know better than to use to make quality table wine (in fact, they distill it and use it to make Cognac!). Consider also that much of the sangiovese planted then wasn’t even the Tuscan sub-variety, but often the less noble kind typical of Emilia Romagna.

Then the 1980s brought a wave of wines that were topheavy with cabernet sauvignon and merlot—wines in which nobody but the most optimistic of us had any chance of discerning any sangiovese character. Time and again, the more delicate sangiovese personality was sacrificed by producers looking to make brooding wines with greater international appeal. This so-called modernization of Tuscan red wine was exacerbated by a slew of arrivals of new, moneyed owners who had little, if any, winemaking experience but who wished to own a part of this enchanted corner of Italy. You can easily understand why these wines, more than others, became the hunting grounds of ubiquitous consulting enologists, who often worked for many estates a stone’s throw away from one another and who couldn’t really be blamed for applying their tried-and-true winemaking recipes everywhere they went. After all, they were being asked to make wines that would instantly do well in the market: no sense bothering with the finer aspects of little-studied Italian native varieties or subtle differences in terroir.

The result, of course, was that many of the wines began resembling each other, or exhibiting the signature of the winemaker rather than a specific sense of place. In short, the area was abandoning its century-old identity without really establishing a new one. And while many wines were still poorly made and full of technical flaws, the new wines were really not much better: too many were simply the result of “by the numbers” winemaking, bad clones and young vines, all of which led to atypically dark, uninteresting efforts with limited concentration and depth. It should never be forgotten that sangiovese at its best is a paradigm of elegance and charm; it is not a wine of brute force. Freakishly black wines that live in an alcoholic haze all their own and that are supposedly 100% sangiovese but show fragrances and flavors not normally associated with the variety are now being made less often in Tuscany, although the occasional howler can still be found. In recent years a great deal of time and effort has gone into studying new clones, and into applying better viticultural and cellar practices. The result is that the wines today are more often than not technically sound, less extreme, and more pliant and accessible.

Chianti, Carmignano and the wines of Montepulciano are all made in two basic styles: a less expensive, user-friendly and easygoing entry-level wine (in Montepulciano this would be the Rosso di Montepulciano) that is meant to be drunk fresh and young, and a more important, structured and expensive wine that is meant to be aged (for example, Riserva for Chianti, Vino Nobile for Montepulciano). Most of these estates also produce what are commonly called Super-Tuscans, wines that are either blends of sangiovese with any of the international grape varieties (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah) or these same varieties or sangiovese all on their own. These wines are often the most expensive bottlings in a producer’s portfolio. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a Super-Tuscan wine has to include only international grape varieties, or that it cannot be pure sangiovese: the “Super-Tuscan” moniker was born in the ‘70s to describe those wines that were made in defiance of the then behind-the-times DOC (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata) regulations, which decreed, for example, that Chianti had to contain white grapes, and that it could not be made from sangiovese alone or contain cabernet or merlot. These wines were made anyway, and some of them were so good that they were nicknamed “Super-Tuscan wines,” a name that has stuck.

Keep in mind that because the best sangiovese is often used to make an estate’s Super-Tuscan, and because there’s only so much high-quality sangiovese to go around, some Riserva bottlings of Chianti and Nobile can be disappointing, particularly in view of their hefty price tags. For this reason, many of the best estates that make a Super-Tuscan that is all or part sangiovese will limit themselves to that single red wine, and do not make a Riserva at all.

Most of the wine estates in this part of Tuscany also produce Vin Santo, usually from native white grapes but occasionally from sangiovese, in which case the wine carries the phrase “Occhio di Pernice” following Vin Santo on the label. These wines are made from grapes left to dehydrate on straw mats or plastic shelves for two to four months following the harvest, then fermented very slowly and aged for a minimum of three but as long as ten years in small oak, chestnut and cherry wood barrels called caratelli (most producers prefer to use a mix of the three). These wines can have a definite oxidized quality to them, much like some oloroso sherries, but the trend nowadays is to make them in a sweeter, richer and fresher style. The best Vin Santos are among the greatest sweet wines of the world, and absolutely nothing like the cheap pale-gold, thin liquids that you’ll be served in many Italian restaurants at the end of the meal, accompanied by almond cookies meant to be dipped. Truly outstanding Vin Santos show Pedro Ximénes-like richness and remarkable complexity; they are also very expensive.

One last note of warning: wines from this part of Tuscany are still a very mixed bag, with some awful wines available right alongside stellar ones. Keep in mind that in recent years some members of the Italian press (and some international critics as well) have given high marks to the wines of relatively new estates with hopelessly young vines, as well as to modern, internationally styled wines that, though technically flawless and appealing in their overall sweetness, often show little sense of place and barely speak of Chianti or Nobile in general. This is a very large production area, and it pays to memorize the names of the better producers here even more than in other parts of Italy. Although new discoveries are one of the great pleasures of wine, many of the new names do not yet deliver sangiovese wines with the depth and class that the early positive press would lead you to believe.

A word on current vintages. Happily, this part of Tuscany has benefited from three consecutive good to excellent vintages (four, if you count 2006, which may turn out to be the best of the lot). The 2005 growing season was long and sunny, hampered only by untimely harvest rains. But the grapes were generally healthy and were able to shake off most of the effects of the fall rains. However, careful selection of the fruit in the vines or on sorting tables was often essential to making successful wines. Many good to very good wines were made, but quality was variable.

The long growing season of 2004 was nearly perfect, with cloudless warm days and cool nights combining to give wines that, at their best, display a textbook balance of perfumed aromas, ripe fruit flavors and vibrant acidity. The 2003 harvest was much the same as elsewhere in Europe, coming on the heels of an extraordinarily hot summer with record high temperatures being the norm everywhere until the last days of September. Still, it must be said that the low acidities and overripe, even cooked fruit aromas and flavors that were common elsewhere in Italy (and in Europe in general) were less obvious in wines from cooler regions such as Chianti, some of whose vineyards are situated as high as 1,500 to 1,800 feet above sea level. Although there wasn’t much escaping the furnace-like heat in some spots, many 2003s here are far more successful than other Italian wines of this vintage, and in fact show an effusively soft and sweet fruit character that will make them immensely appealing from the get-go. While it is true that most of the more serious Tuscan red wines are best at 5 to 8 years after the vintage and splendid at 10 to 15, in 2003 there’s no need to defer gratification. And in some cases it may actually be better not to wait.

Rome-based Ian D’Agata has been writing and lecturing about wine for more than 20 years and is currently the director of the International Wine Academy of Rome. Among his writing credits, he has written parts of several editions of Gambero Rosso’s Italian wine guide and has co-authored a number of wine books, including one on Italy’s native grape varieties. D’Agata’s in-depth reports on the wines of Southern Italy, Northeast Italy and the Tuscan Coast have appeared in past issues of the International Wine Cellar.