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A French View of Tuscany and Merlot

Posted: Feb 24, 2008 10:21pm ET

I mentioned last Friday that Francois Thienpont of the well-known Bordeaux clan had been hanging with me for a few days in Tuscany. It's fun to get a well-regarded French vintner's view of the Tuscan wine scene. So, over two days he tasted a few dozen wines and met a dozen or so wine producers. He also saw a number of vineyards.

I think he was impressed with the quality of the wines he tasted, and he was always impressed with the range of prices, too. He thought that the quality was very good for wines that sold for as little as $5 ex-cellar to $60 ex-cantina. He had the idea that consumers are more willing to accept the price difference with Tuscan wines than with Bordeaux. "Many consumers just label all Bordeaux as expensive because of the 30 or 40 labels that sell for very high prices," he said. "It doesn't seem that way with Tuscan wines."

He may have a point.

But what really impressed him was the quality and character of the Merlots in Toscana. He even looked a little nervous. I guess I understand, because his extended family makes some of the top Merlots in Bordeaux: ­ Pomerol's Le Pin and Vieux-Château-Certan. That makes them the best in the world.

I hope he didn't get the idea that all Tuscan Merlots are like the ones we tasted and drank, including the 2001 Masseto and 2004 Messorio. Those are two 100-point Merlots, both from the region of Bolgheri and next door neighbors. He also tasted from barrel at Petrolo, which produces the highly regarded Merlot, Galatrona.

During a lunch at the Chianti Classico estate of Querciabella, Francois drank a glass of the 2004 Messorio and was blown away. He liked it so much that he couldn't just taste it! Cinza Merli, the owner of Le Macchiole, which makes Messorio, was at the lunch. I asked her to say a few words about the 2004. "It changes continually," she said. "It's incredible, amazing."

And Francois said something very revealing about the Messorio and the Galatrona barrel samples. It made me think about Merlot in general. "These are great wines because they don't have the varietal character of Merlot," he said. "They are simply great wines."

Great wines are multi-dimensional in character and not just simply varietal in nature. And I think as a grape, exceptional quality Merlot is very hard to find outside of Bordeaux.

But taste a sip of a wine like the 2001 Masseto and understand what I mean. We drank a bottle of the glorious red with Lamberto Frescobaldi for dinner in Florence following lunch and it was amazing. What a wine! I think Francois almost had a religious experience tasting it, with its kaleidoscope of spices, black fruits, and chocolate character and full, rich and silky tannins. It was powerful yet balanced. 100 points, non-blind.

Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  February 25, 2008 11:29am ET
First, I agree it is hard to find good quality Merlot outside of Bordeaux, and almost imposible to do so in CA.The second part of your point, I struggle with. When I buy a pinot noir, I want it to taste like a pinot, not something else. Some producers are making what I call a pinotlais(as in Beaujolais). Pinot made with huge upfront flowery fruit, little mid-palate, no backend. People will describe some Syrah as tasting like a Zinfandel, with no white pepper tastes. When I buy a syrah, I have syrah expectations and want it to taste like a syrah! If I want a zin, I'll buy a zin. Is this being too non dimensional?? I like anyone, enjoy just a good glass of wine, regardless of the varietal. Just seems like you reference two wines that got it right, whereas the other 98 % of wines that try the trick get it terribly wrong.
Luciano Gaja
February 25, 2008 1:48pm ET
James I agree with you on the 2001 Masseto. WOWWWWW a great wine! The aromas and flavours are incredible.
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  February 26, 2008 7:44pm ET
James, You mentioned that Francois Thienpont felt that people accept the price differences more in Tuscany vs. Bordeaux. Yes, Masseto is expensive, but it is still not four digits yet!!! The price gap and high high end in Tuscany is still no where near Bordeaux. I would far rather by a case of 2001 Masseto than 1 bottle of 2005 Petrus.
Douglas Brininstool
Portland, OR —  February 27, 2008 12:25am ET
I am wondering why there is so little discussion about a great wine from a fairly new Italian producer, which has been consistantly rated at 95 each year since 2000. Tenuta Setti Ponti, and their Toscana Oreno. What a wondeful wine. The aromas, flavors, structure and finish are all fantastic. The problem is they just don't get a lot of press time. I cannot figure out why. Any ideas? Hey Wine Spectator, how about a complete article in your magazine, and on your web site, to help get this wine into the public's eye. It is great.
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  February 27, 2008 8:53am ET
Douglas,Are you nuts? Making comments like that and it will also be impossible to get. I agree 100%, particularily if you include quality to price in comparison to some. Sure it isn't cheep, but it is not as high as many in its class.
Gerry Stuart
Calgary —  February 28, 2008 11:35am ET
What impresses me most about the high quality Italian merlots is that they are not driven by varietal character alone - unlike most new world versions. Rather they exhibit a distinct sense of place (i.e terroir) like the great Bordeaux's do. I would also include Roberto Voerzio's Merlot Vigneto Fontanazza and Feudi di San Gregorio's Patrimo as outstanding expressions of Italian merlot.
Michael Rhodes
San Diego, California —  February 28, 2008 10:29pm ET
I'm still able to find good Italian wines at near or below retail prices, but can't find Bordeaux, even lower end Bordeaux for anywhere near retail. WS notes retail for Chateau Duhart-Milon 93 points for $54, but my local sources have it in the Mid $70 range. Most of the wines listed in the "Bordeaux to Buy" section of WS are on shelves at an average 25% to 50% above retail. However, I found 2004 Tignanello for a couple dollars below retail. (in a grocery store of all places) Any thoughts on what's driving the higher prices? I thought perhaps the Euro to Dollar, but that wouldn't account for the Italian prices. I wanted to buy some 2005 Bordeaux, but can't bring myself to pay 50% above retail.
Kevin Andrews
houston —  March 1, 2008 8:31pm ET
One of my favorites is Frescobaldi's 1997 Lamaione. I found another case which is being delivered soon. I hope it as good as I remember!
James Suckling
 —  March 3, 2008 10:00am ET
Oreno was in the Top 10 in our Top 100 twice -- 2005 and 2003. The magazine has written extensively about it.

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