The Riedel wineglasses held four 2004 Tuscan Merlots: Le Macchiole Messorio, Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Masseto, Tua Rita Redigaffi and Petrolo Galatrona. Waiting to try them in a blind tasting were the owner or manager of each estate and a handful of my wine-savvy friends. I had invited them all to dinner at my house near Arezzo, Italy, to discuss which wine was best.
I could feel the excitement as we went through the reds. The table was silent except for the occasional slurping sound. After about 10 minutes, I asked for a vote. The Messorio finished in the top spot.
"The Messorio is the most complex of the wines. It has the most structure and power," said Alex Wong, a friend from Hong Kong with a massive wine collection that is particularly strong in fine Pomerols. He was visiting me for a few days and stopping at some of the top wineries in the region. "It's really impressive," he said.
I didn't tell him, or anyone else in the group, but I felt a combination of vindication and relief. They didn't know that I had rated Messorio a perfect 100 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale in one of my blind-tasting sessions this summer (they're finding out now, with the publication of this story), but they knew the wine was exceptional.
The '04 Messorio is one of the best young reds I tasted all year. It is a wine that seduces you the minute you put your nose in the glass. It is opulent yet subtle, with an underlying complexity throughout. It doesn't show you everything at once but teases you with its ripe fruit, firm tannins and kaleidoscope of berry, earth and light vanilla character.
"It is absolutely one of the best wines I have made in my career," said Luca D'Attoma, the consulting enologist at Le Macchiole, who also made the Tua Rita Redigaffi 1997, a Tuscan legend (97 points, $100 on release). "The 2004 Messorio is so fine, with fabulous structure and wonderful elegance. It resembles the mythical Pomerols, but it has the style of Bolgheri."
The other Merlots were certainly stiff competition. I rated the 2004 Masseto 98 points in a blind tasting this year, while the '04 Redigaffi and '04 Galatrona earned 98 points ($275 on release) and 97 points ($85 on release), respectively, in my report last year ("Searching for Great Tuscan Reds," Oct. 31, 2006). Besides Bordeaux, I dare anyone to find a more exciting place than Tuscany in terms of world-class Merlot. And don't tell me that nobody drinks Merlot anymore after Sideways!
"They were all excellent wines," said Luca Sanjust, Galatrona winemaker and owner of Petrolo. "How do you make a choice with so many excellent wines?"
That's my view of Tuscany at large right now. If you don't like Merlot, plenty of other outstanding and classic quality wines are available this year. They range from silky and complex pure Sangioveses from regions such as Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico to racy Cabernets and Syrahs from the Maremma and Cortona.
This year I tasted more than 1,500 wines from Italy's most famous, and Tuscany seems firmly back on track after the two challenging 2002 and 2003 vintages. Moreover, Tuscany now has a string of very good to potentially classic quality vintages coming along, including 2004, 2005 and 2006. So make space in your cellar, and save your dollars or euros for future Tuscan wine purchases. (See the chart for this report's top wines; an alphabetical listing can be found here.)
"We have been very lucky with so many excellent years recently," says Giacomo Neri, owner of Casanova di Neri, producer of last year's Wine of the Year, the 2001 Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova (97, $70 on release). He also made the 2001 single-vineyard Brunello Cerretalto, which scored 100 points earlier this year ($160). "The 2003 is very good and will be out next year, but the 2004, 2005 and 2006 that follow will be sensational," Neri adds.
Of the 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintages, 2005 is the weakest, although still potentially outstanding overall. The growing season was hot and clear, but rain during part of the harvest marred what might have been a near-perfect year. The harvest in 2004 was much brighter and sunnier, and made better wines in cases where producers reduced their grape yields. 2006 could be the best of the three, being a late harvest with gorgeously clear and sunny weather. It could rival 1997. (Click here for vintage ratings.)
"I think that the 2006 could be the best harvest of my career," says Carlo Ferrini, one of the top consulting enologists in Italy. "It has everything going for it."
For now, however, look for the 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Riservas. It is a great vintage for Brunello—I rated it 98 points—and the 2001 riserve are some of the most exciting young reds I have tasted in a long time. Two earned perfect 100-point scores: Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino Madonna del Piano Riserva ($175) and Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto ($160). They are the first Sangiovese-based Italian reds to receive perfect scores.
I tasted about 70 2001 Brunello riserve and single-designation wines this year and only 10 received fewer than 90 points. The main difference between a riserva and a normale bottling of Brunello is the extra year of aging (usually in bottle) that the riserve get before being released. In addition, many producers save their best wines of a particular vintage for the designation. Single-vineyard wines are just that: They are made from grapes from a specific area or site.
Like many of the 2001 Brunello normali released last year, the riserve and top single-vineyard reds from the vintage show impressive richness and power, yet wonderful balance and length. They are extremely aromatic and beautiful as well as silky-textured and structured. Most need another two or three years of bottle age to truly come into their own. If you can't wait, I suggest that you decant them an hour or two before serving.
"The 2001 Brunellos represent a new age for Brunello and Tuscany at large," says Vincenzo Abbruzzese, owner of Valdicava. "It's only after years of hard work in our vineyards and cellars that we have achieved such quality."
Another area in Tuscany that shone through the hundreds of wines I tasted this year was the appellation of Bolgheri and its satellite vine-growing areas around towns such as Bibbona and Suvereto.
The growth in these lush, coastal wine regions has been phenomenal. Bolgheri now encompasses nearly 3,200 acres of vineyards (about two-thirds of that is in the appellation Bolgheri DOC); a decade ago vineyard plantings were about one-third of that. From the handful of pioneering wine producers, such as Antinori and Tenuta San Guido, the number has grown to more than 40.
"Bolgheri is the hottest area for wine in Italy right now," says Sebastiano Rosa, whose family owns the wine estate of San Guido, makers of Sassicaia. His famous Cabernet Sauvignon was the first to prove to the wine world the great quality of Bolgheri. "When there is good competition you will improve yourself."
Rosa certainly has that right. Not only is his 2004 Sassicaia excellent (94, $193), I tasted nearly 60 wines from Bolgheri and just next door in Bibbona, and about two-thirds of them were outstanding. These wines are mostly modeled after great Bordeaux, but they are slightly more flamboyant and lively in style. They are in some ways an exotic blend in style—Napa Valley meets Médoc or Pomerol.
One of the big developments is the release of two vintages of a new wine from Tenuta di Biserno (formerly Campo di Sasso). Biserno is the new family-owned winery of brothers Piero and Lodovico Antinori, located just outside the appellation of Bolgheri. Ludovico created the famous Bolgheri estate of Tenuta dell'Ornellaia in the 1980s before selling it a few years ago. Piero, the icon vintner of Tuscany, created the concept of super Tuscan wines in the 1970s with his reds Tignanello and Solaia.
Until now, they had been making a simple Bordeaux-style blend called Insoglio, but this year two vintages of their Cabernet Sauvignon blend Il Pino di Biserno scored outstanding: 2005 (93, $70) and 2004 (92, $70). Even though they come from young vines, the wines show impressive concentration, with currant and spices on the nose and palate, wonderfully silky tannins and a long, penetrating finish. These are only the second wines of the estate; what is to be the flagship red will be produced this harvest. I find the style of the property's wines already to be a fascinating combination of Ornellaia's and Sassicaia's, emphasizing the generosity of the former and the firmness and backbone of the latter. Wait and see.
"I still believe we can do so much more in this region," Lodovico Antinori told me when I visited the property. "The soil and climate are unique, and no other region in Italy or the world can produce wines with such richness and freshness."
The Antinoris are also making a new wine under the Bolgheri DOC at the winery of Tenuta dei Pianali. They are renting the cantina with vineyards and have an option to buy the estate in a few years. The wine, Coronato, is a classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, and shows the balance and structure of well-made wines from the region. The debut wine, the 2005, scored 91 points ($NA; not imported).
Another Bolgheri newcomer to keep an eye on is Orma, a similar red blend from Sette Ponti, makers of the consistently classic Oreno, in the Valadarno. Owner Antonio Moretti bought this Bolgheri winery, which is located next to Ornellaia, a couple years ago from Napa's Delia Viader and the Piedmont wine family of Gagliardo. His debut wine, the 2005 (91, $NA; not imported), shows lots of round, caressing tannins and plenty of ripe, opulent fruit character for a typical Cabernet-based wine of the region.
"With the history and quality of wines from San Guido and Ornellaia, Bolgheri was a very attractive, even logical, place to invest in Tuscany," says Moretti. "Wines like Sassicaia and Ornellaia are the models for everyone now making wines in the region. And I hope to make wines as good as them very soon."
In fact, two of the best wines of this report came from Ornellaia—the estate's 2004 Cabernet blend (97, $150) and its pure Merlot Masseto 2004 (98, $250).
"The wines have a wonderful balance and finesse," says Leo-nardo Raspini, manager of Ornellaia. "The 2004 vintage had a warm, clean and long growing season, which brought the grapes to a beautiful ripeness. You had to manage your vineyards well, though, and keep the crop levels down."
The potential for making great wines in 2004 was very, very high. That said, most vineyards in Tuscany had to reduce the quantity of their crops during the growing season, or else risk producing too many grapes and making less-concentrated wines.
"It's a consistent problem in Tuscany now," says Ferrini, who oversees the production of such wines as Casanova di Neri's Brunellos, Sette's Oreno and Petrolo's Galatrona. "People have to reduce their crops or they can't make great wines."
Perhaps this is why the super Tuscan category continues to be such a minefield. Sure, there are many great wines, but often consumers just don't know what they are getting. Most are sold under the Toscana IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), appellation; these bottles can be anything from a meager $10 Sangiovese to a muscular pure Cabernet for $100 or more. In many cases, the label doesn't even reveal exactly where the wine comes from. To buy with confidence, stick with top producers.
Other similarly ambiguous categories include all the zones of Chianti, particularly Chianti Classico, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Here, you also have to buy by producer.
Chianti Classico still offers some wonderful values, and, as I have written in the past, the region can produce wines that are as good as, or even better than, many Brunellos. But the best are now often expensive. Riserve and single-vineyard Chiantis are usually much better quality for the money. Here are a handful of 2004s to look for now: Castello di Volpaia Coltassala Riserva (92, $46), Castello di Ama Bellavista (92, $150), Poggerino Bugialla Riserva (91, $38), Antinori Badia a Passignano Riserva (91, $45), Casa Emma Riserva (91, $40), Viticcio Beatrice Riserva (91, $33), Nittardi Riserva (91, $50), Le Corti Don Tommaso (91, $40), Castello di Monsanto Riserva (91, $22) and Renzo Marinai Riserva (91, $41).
Vino Nobile is even more unpredictable with its reds than Chianti is. Look to the 2003 vintage, which made riper and rounder wines. Avignonesi (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Grandi Annate Riserva; 93, $56), Corte alla Flora (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva; 91, $35) and Ruffino (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Lodola Nuova Riserva; 91, $35) made the best wines from the appellation. The Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Grandi Annate Riserva is made only in the best vintages, and the 2003 is very close in quality to the classic 1997 (96, $40 on release), a wine that made the magazine's Top 10 in 2001.
"We were very surprised after such a hot and difficult growing season how great the quality was," says Eduardo Falvo, whose family owns Avignonesi. "What's particularly impressive is how aromatic the wine is. The problem is that we made very little of it."
Whites have never been very interesting in Tuscany, with a few exceptions. But Vin Santo, a unique wine made from dried grapes, can be anything from a dry Sherry-like aperitif to a syrupy, supersticky white. I don't drink a lot of Vin Santo, but when I do, I prefer the latter style. Look for (375ml) bottles such as the Avignonesi Vin Santo di Montepulciano 1995 (95, $150) and its Vin Santo di Montepulciano Occhio di Pernice 1995 (97, $210); Rocca di Montegrossi Vin Santo del Chianti Classico 2000 (93, $100); Capezzana Vin Santo del Carmignano Riserva 2001 (93, $50); Fattoria Lavacchio Vin Santo del Chianti Rufina Riserva 2001 (91, $25); and Fattoria di Felsina Vin Santo del Chianti Classico Berardenga 1999 (91, $44). Try them with fresh fruits or ice cream, or on their own.
What to buy from Tuscany this year and in the foreseeable future will be dictated by price and quality. The former is only going to increase as the U.S. dollar continues to decline against European currencies. Quality, however, is on the rise too, which means better wines at every price level.
Thinking back to that dinner when I tasted four of the best Merlots in the world—all of them from Tuscany—reinforces my enthusiasm for Italy's most popular wine region. With excellent vintages on the horizon, every lover of Italian wines can get excited about Tuscany, today and for years to come.
European bureau chief James Suckling is lead taster on Italian wines.