BETWEEN THE WINES Hugh Johnson's pretty mini-coffee table book, Tuscany and Its Wines is purely an excuse to daydream over Andy Katz's chiaroscuro-edged photographs of that lovely region. Castles, churches, vineyards, grapes, hearths, mists, and monasteries you're unlikely to dawdle long over the text, but if you've ever visited the region, or longed to, you'll nod along with his every compliment.

This is not a wine book in the usual sense: There isn't much in the way of description or even label definitions, though there are tributes to the ancient palaces and vineyards of the older families. This is an elaborate postcard collection, with a bit of history about varietals and a few palate-sharpening whiffs of wild mushroom and artichokes and olives. But as a gift book, an invitation or a personal indulgence, it practically demands a drinking partner, and a rich, earthy, dreamy one, at that.

Because the American distribution of Tuscan wines is so uneven, we offer a short course in our favorite styles instead of listing a specific wine.

In recent years, the big push in Italian wines has been for the so-called Super Tuscans, a term that refers to blends of Sangiovese given depth, a little steel, and stamina by the addition of Merlot and dashes of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon or Franc. Super Tuscans offer lots of body and fruit without lengthy aging five or six-year-old vintages are ripe and rewarding, although some, particularly the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, can take another year or so and more often play up the sunny Sienna tones (berries, aromatic woods) rather than the shadows (mushroom, burnt sugar).

The Mondavi-Frescobaldi collaborations, the more expensive Luce (a reference not to that painterly Tuscan light but to the brilliant color of the Sangiovese wines) and the slightly more reticent Lucente, have helped lift the profile of Super Tuscans in American, just as the Mondavi-Mouton Rothschild collaboration, Opus One, sparked a new interest in meritage wines in California. Luce, like many of the Super Tuscans, is fairly expensive, around $50, but the blend of Brunello (the Sangiovese clone dominant in Montalcino) and Merlot is sumptuous and luxuriantly aromatic, worth saving for a special occasion.

The Tignanello wines from the ancient house of Antinori are similarly priced, but even more impressive, especially the older ones (buy now, put down). Unusually long and strong, they have layers of chocolate, cassis, cedar, and tobacco, and in some vintages even allspice and vanilla. Antinori makes several Chianti Classicos, ranging from as little as $10 or $11 to $38 or $40, that frequently show more spice and anise at the lower end, and grow up gracefully.

Montepulciano is a narrow, clay-colored town high on a ridge Henry James likened it to a ship riding the hill, and if the James doesn't make you want to drink deep, you shouldn't be reading this column best known for its Vino Nobile (named not for its pretensions but for its aristocratic admirers).

Five centuries back, Pope Paul III's sommelier was calling the region's wines "absolutely perfect," and while it's hard to gauge the competition, it has a nice sort of blessing to it.

Like Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a big and somewhat pricey Sangiovese made there from a clone called Prugnolo Gentile. But the lesser designation, Rosso di Montepulciano, often made by the same winemakers, is less expensive, aged only a year or so and thus lighter, with softer tannins and a bit fruitier, which many people like. Antinori also makes both a Vino Nobile and a Rosso, via its La Braccesca label; and the Folonaris of Ruffino own a label called Lodola Nuova.

And if you stumble on the Danzante Sangiovese, grab it: It's a bright, accessible $10 table offshoot of the Mondavi-Frescobaldi merger.

Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.

comments powered by Disqus