For a modern winemaker, the weight of tradition must be especially heavy when one of your ancestors is the legendary Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the man who invented the method for making what may be Italy's most popular wine, Chianti.
In 1872, Baron Ricasoli wrote a treatise on how to make the best wines in his vineyard area, located between Florence and Siena. He advocated, among other things, adding white grapes to the fermenting vats of Sangiovese and blending in other local varieties to make a more attractive and more drinkable red.
The formula for making the best Chianti has changed over the years, with a higher percentage of Sangiovese and little or no use of white grapes, while some international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are now commonly added. Yet the core character of the wine remains the same, a fresh, fruity and thoroughly enjoyable red. And today, nearly 140 years later, the current Baron Ricasoli, Francesco, is still making excellent, even world-class, wine at his estate in the hills of Chianti Classico. Ricasoli's Chiantis remain beautifully drinkable, but they are also bold, powerful wines of great finesse and length. The 2006 Chianti Classico Castello di Brolio (96 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) was one of the best wines I reviewed this past year at my office in Tuscany. It may be one of the greatest Chianti Classicos ever produced. And its suggested retail price of $54 makes it an extraordinary value. Delivering great wines at affordable prices is one of Tuscany's strengths.
"Wine has to be of serious quality, and the price also has to be reasonable," says Ricasoli. "Wine has to be good to drink. It needs to improve with age, but that doesn't have to be a religion. The incredible thing about my ancestor was that he was way ahead of his time. Our family's winery was always a point of reference."
2006 and 2007
The Ricasoli winery is most certainly a point of reference in the 2006 vintage, which continues to impress me as the greatest year in Tuscany since the benchmark 1997. All of the winery's '06 reds received 90 points or higher, ranging from the Chianti Classico Rocca Guicciarda Riserva (90, $31) to the super Tuscan Casalferro (92, $54), a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese. An even better value is the $20 Chianti Classico Brolio 2007, which also received an outstanding 90 points.
Indeed, 2007 is an exceptional vintage as well, producing hundreds of excellent wines, many of which are already on the market at good prices. I maintain a slight preference for 2006, particularly among the Sangiovese-based reds, but the wines in 2007 also show bold, opulent fruit and ultraripe tannins, though more so with international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. With these two great back-to-back vintages on the market right now, there are so many exciting Tuscan reds to be found. And more are on their way.
"I love 2007," says Luca Currado, who not only makes wine at his family estate in Piedmont under the name of Vietti, but also produces wine at Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro near the town of Cortona in Tuscany. In his first Tuscan vintage, 2006, he made two classic-scoring single-vineyard Syrahs-the Syrah Cortona Il Bosco (95, $70) and the Syrah Cortona Migliara (98, $100)-and I can't wait to taste the 2007s.
"The 2006 vintage produced wines with a perfect mix of power, complexity and elegance that you do not see every year," Currado says. "The Syrah was perfect. I could not find a better vintage to start our project. But the 2007 is very close."
This report is based on the more than 1,050 Tuscan red and white wines I have blind-tasted since my last report on the region ("Tuscany Strikes Twice," Oct. 31, 2008). I rated nearly 450 of the wines 90 or more points. Of those, about four dozen reached at least 95 points, or classic quality. (An alphabetical list of all wines tasted for this report is available at www.winespectator.com/103109.)
Although no wines in this report received a perfect 100-point score, I did rate the 2006 Fontodi Colli della Toscana Centrale Flaccianello 99 points ($110). In addition to the Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro Migliara, four other wines garnered 98 points: the Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto 2004 ($175), the Petrolo Toscana Galatrona 2007 ($120), the Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Toscana Masseto 2006 ($NA) and the Tua Rita Toscana Redigaffi 2007 ($330).
"It is Sangiovese in purity," says Fontodi owner Giovanni Manetti about his 2006 Flaccianello, a 100 percent Sangiovese from the hillside vineyard in Chianti Classico bearing its name. "It is incredible. It has power but great length."
The 2006 vintage really illustrates how Sangiovese has come of age in the past decade, producing great wines in many areas, especially Montalcino and Chianti Classico. Since the classic year of 1997, there have been eight outstanding vintages for the indigenous grape variety: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001 and 1999. And it seems to be getting better and better. As I have reviewed more wines from the 2006 harvest-and tasted the evolution of others-I have upgraded my overall vintage rating for 2006 in Chianti and Chianti Classico from 93 points to 96 points, just behind my rating for 1997.
Chianti and Chianti Classico
"The long and even growing season [of 2006], with lots of warmth and sunshine, was perfect for the [Chianti] region," says Gioia Cresti of Carpineta Fontalpino. "The nights were very cool and the days sunny. So the wines have wonderful ripeness, but are aromatic and fresh."
Though best known for its fantastic super Tuscan red Toscana Do ut Des (the 2007 rated 94 points), the estate also makes very good to excellent quality Chianti Classicos. I scored the 2006 Chianti Classico Riserva 92 points, and it sells for $32.
With a few exceptions, my top-scoring Chianti Classicos are priced between $30 and $60 a bottle. For consumers, it's like buying top Brunello di Montalcino for a fraction of the price.
I especially like the 2006 riservas. Some producers obviously take the riserva category seriously, bottling a selection of their best wines or focusing on a top vineyard and then aging the wine an extra year before release. Here are just a few of the 2006 Chianti Classico riservas to look for: the Castello di Querceto Il Picchio (94, $55), the Casaloste Don Vincenzo (93, $70), the Casalvento (93, $29), the Castello di Bossi Berardo (93, $41), the Castello di Volpaia Coltassala (93, $54) and the Viticcio (93, $32).
Many of this report's top wines come from the Chianti Classico region but don't carry the appellation on their labels. These wines were bottled simply as Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or IGT. They include the aforementioned 2006 Fontodi Flaccianello as well as Antinori's 2006 Toscana Solaia (97, $285), La Massa's 2007 Toscana Giorgio Primo (97, $65), Podere Poggio Scalette's 2006 Alta Valle della Greve Il Carbonaione (96, $65) and 2006 Alta Valle della Greve Piantonaia (96, $NA), and Antico Podere Gagliole's 2007 Colli della Toscana Centrale (95, $100).
"Not only have we been lucky with the growing seasons in Tuscany, our knowledge in the vineyards and cellars continues to grow at an extraordinary pace to make better wines," says consulting enologist Stefano Chioccioli, who makes wines at a number of top estates in Tuscany, including Tua Rita, Antico Podere Gagliole and Fanti.
Brunello di Montalcino
Chioccioli's argument is borne out by the amazing 2004 Brunellos di Montalcino. As I wrote earlier this year ("Vintage Spotlight: 2004 Brunello di Montalcino," April 30), the vintage produced wonderfully perfumed and majestically refined Brunellos that offer an excellent balance of fruit and refined tannins. Many are beautiful to drink now, but will be even better with two or three more years of bottle age. And they should improve for decades to come. I rate the 2004 vintage for Brunello di Montalcino 97 points, the same as 1999 and just two points less than the 1997. The up-and-coming 2006 vintage could rival those years; I currently rate it 95-100 points, but it won't be released until 2011.
Besides the 98-point Casanova di Neri Cerretalto, the top 2004 Brunellos I tasted this year include the Uccelliera (97, $65), the Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova (96, $81), the Poggio Il Castellare (96, $50) and the San Filippo Le Lucére (96, $60). The '04 Brunello di Montalcino riservas will be available to taste early next year, and they could be some of the best wines ever from the region.
"The  Brunello di Montalcino riservas are going to be very, very special," says Roberto Guerrini, who runs the Brunello estate of Eredi Fuligni for his family. "It may be the greatest wine that I have ever made. It has so much power and finesse. I am very, very happy."
Bolgheri and Maremma
Producers are equally happy in Bolgheri and Maremma, another key area in Tuscany. This report includes dozens of excellent wines from the coastal region, with Tenuta dell'Ornellaia and Tua Rita leading the way. Many excellent reds were made in both 2006 and 2007, and it's hard to say which is the better vintage. The region shows no signs of letting up, with some winemakers in the area heralding the quality of 2008, and many new producers now introducing their wines to the market. Overall, I rate the 2006 vintage 95 points and give 2007 a preliminary rating of 93-97.
My favorite bottlings from Bolgheri and Maremma in this report include Tenuta dell'Ornellaia's 2006 Toscana Masseto (98, $NA) and 2006 Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia (95, $184), Le Macchiole's 2006 Toscana Messorio (96, $319), and Tua Rita's 2007 Syrah Toscana (95, $230) and 2007 Toscana Giusto di Notri (95, $110).
"I have a slight preference for 2007," says Chioccioli, who believes that Tua Rita made its best wines ever that year. "The wines are slightly richer and more fruitythan the 2006s in Suvereto."
In my opinion, the 1997 Redigaffi, rated 100 points, was Tua Rita's best wine ever, but some of the estate's lesser wines are clearly better now than a decade ago. In fact, many Tuscan producers have vastly improved the quality of their less-expensive bottlings in recent vintages. And it seems that 2006 and 2007 were generous vintages for quality at all levels of price.
Three wines-two reds and a white-stand out as truly great values this year. The Monte Antico Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon Toscana 2006 (90, $12), the Castello Banfi Toscana Centine White 2008 (88, $12) and the Bibi Graetz Toscana Casamatta 2008 (88, $12) will probably be priced closer to $10 a bottle, and they offer real Tuscan character at a terrific price.
Bibi Graetz is better known in Tuscany for his superpremium Sangiovese called Testamatta. The wine's most recent release, the 2007, rates 95 points ($125). But he is just as dedicated now to making affordable wines. Working with small growers around the region and buying grapes and wine in less-fashionable areas, he makes large-volume blends for the Casamatta label.
"Prices for bulk wine are down in Tuscany and there are many opportunities to find very good wines at a low price," explains Graetz. "Not everyone can afford Testamatta. And people want to drink affordable wines from Tuscany. So I am very excited about making Casamatta."
My guess is that we will be seeing many better-priced wines from Tuscany in the near future. The economic crisis in Italy, as in the rest of the world, is forcing wineries to reduce prices. I get telephone calls just about every day from wine producers who are desperate because of lost sales. Most are down 30 percent to 50 percent in the United States alone-a key market.
But the U.S. consumer apparently responds to price reductions. Roberto Guldener, the energetic owner of Chianti Classico's Terrabianca, recently dropped the price for Campaccio, one of his super Tuscan reds, from $47 for the 2005 (90 points) to $30 for the 2006 (91). And the orders have piled in.
"People still want to drink Tuscan wines, but they have to be at the right price," Guldener says. "People love the authenticity of our wines. And Tuscany is so diverse in its wine-producing regions, with each one making very different wines. But they have to be priced right for people to drink them."
I am sure that Bettino Ricasoli, if he were alive today, would understand that drinkability is also a matter of reasonable pricing. And this year, Tuscany seems to have it all: many great, if expensive wines, and plenty of good quality wines at very reasonable prices. That means fine bottles for every budget.
European bureau chief James Suckling is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Tuscany.