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Taking A Glimpse at Tuscany's Hot 2003 Vintage

Barrel tasting of coastal reds turns up some outstanding wines from an inconsistent year

James Suckling
Posted: June 30, 2004

Temperatures are already reaching the low 90s here in Tuscany, yet that's nothing compared with last year, when much of the summer was scorching and the thermometer hit the low 100s most afternoons. After such breathtaking heat, many people expected Tuscany's 2003 reds to be cooked and jammy -- cotto, as the Italians say.

So it was with great curiosity last Friday that I tasted through about five dozen barrel samples of 2003 reds from the coastal regions of Tuscany. The lineup was organized under the auspices of Grandi Cru della Costa Toscana, a relatively new association of about 60 wine estates located along the coast from Lucca south to Grosseto, including big-name areas such as Bolgheri.

I was sure that most of the reds would be heavy, alcoholic and overripe, but as I tasted them in my office near Arezzo, the majority of the wines were amazingly fresh and balanced, particularly those from hillside vineyards.

The tasting confirmed what I found while visiting numerous estates throughout Tuscany this year and tasting from barrel: The 2003 vintage is going to be extremely inconsistent in quality, but some extraordinary reds have been made.

"It was a very difficult vintage when you had to do everything right at the right time in your vineyards," said Moreno Petrini, of Tenuta di Valgiano, near the town of Lucca. "But there are some exciting wines available."

The best wines of the Grandi Cru tasting came from the Maremma, the up-and-coming region east of the coastal town of Grosseto. This is where great names such as Fattoria Le Pupille Saffredi originate and is the location of the popular Morellino di Scansano DOC. In recent years, dozens of new wineries have arisen here and hundreds of new acres of vineyards have been planted, as people hoped to cash in on the demand for Tuscan wines. Unfortunately for them, the bullish market for these wines is now over, and numerous estates are finding it difficult to sell their bottlings, many of which are simply overpriced.

The two best wines of my tasting, scoring 95-100 points (potentially classic) on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, came from established producers in Tuscany, the Mazzei family and Sette Ponti. Both the 2003 Mazzei Belguardo and Sette Ponti Poggio al Lupo showed fabulous richness and ripe velvety tannins, yet they remained fresh and racy.

Chianti Classico's Nittardi and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano's Poliziano also offered outstanding 2003s from the region of Maremma. I gave their wines, Nectar Dei and Lohsa Mandrione di Lohsa, respectively, scores of 92-94 points.

Other potentially outstanding wines (89-91 points) included: Fattoria Uccelliera di Poggianti Castellaccio, Valle del Sole Ebrius, Tenuta di Valgiano Colline Lucchesi, Rubbia al Colle Usilio, Sangervasio A Sirio, Tenuta Marsiliana, La Regola, Michele Satta Piastraia, Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia, Le Macchiole Paleo, Poggio Argentiera Capatosta and Moris Farms Avvoltore.

I think the future of many new Tuscan regions, such as the Maremma, is primarily in the hands of wineries that first established themselves elsewhere in Tuscany; they understand the area and know how to produce and market their wines. Most of the new names in Tuscany do not have this knowledge or experience, and I have to wonder how they are going to find a market. Many are not producing good enough quality and have already overpriced their wines. The Grandi Cru tasting underlined these points, as more than half of the wines I tasted were only good to mediocre and most would retail in the United States for at least $40 a bottle.

The 2003 vintage in Tuscany could prove to be a vinous minefield because of the difficult harvest and the influx of new brands. But through careful buying, anyone who loves great Tuscan reds should not be disappointed when the '03s arrive. Stay tuned for my reports on the wines as they come onto the market.

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