An in-depth analysis of the top-performing styles, regions, and producers from the Tuscan Masters 2019 – the only competition to blind-taste all things Tuscan side-by-side, be it Brunello or Bolgheri, along with the blends of Toscana IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).
Considering how famous Tuscany has become as a holiday destination for travellers from right across the world, it is perhaps surprising that this region’s wine offer is not better understood, or at least, fully appreciated for its diversity. Of course it’s home to some of the globe’s best known denominations – Chianti Classico, Montalcino and Montelpulciano – but such areas are primarily associated with one grape: Sangiovese, and the distinctive reds it yields, with their wonderful combination of bitter-sweet cherry fruit, and firm tannins.
However, Tuscany, and its Toscana IGT official classification for those wines that fall outside the rules of this region’s protected designations, comprises wines made from a broad sweep of grape varieties, and a wide range of styles. Importantly, such wines are individual, delicious, and, in our view, undervalued for their quality. Among such stars are the whites based on Vermentino; the rosés from the Tuscan coast, particularly the Maremma, and the reds based on blends of Sangiovese with French grapes, from Syrah to Merlot.
Nevertheless, we at db wanted to taste-test the stylistic diversity on offer from Tuscany, as well as discover the hot spots for excellence, and, notably, see if the price-to-quality ratio peaked within the great DOCGs of Tuscany, or outside them.
With this in mind, we launched the Tuscan Masters, a tasting designed to assess all styles of wine from this part of Italy using our usual sampling format. This ensures that the entries are judged without any knowledge of their specific source area, or base grape. The wines are arrange according to style, and grouped into price bands, but the aim is to assess the entries according to quality, and quality alone. This could mean of course that a traditionally-made Chianti Classico might be judged alongside a modern-style Merlot blend from the Maremma. But, with both being approximately the same price, the question the judges must ask themselves does not concern typicity, but excellence for the money. And, it should be noted that both entries could be equally good, but offer a different kind of wine.
So what did we find after a day tasting around 100 Tuscan wines? In general terms, Tuscany offers a vast amount for the wine lover. It yields wines of excellence, with a singular style, from light whites to rich reds, taking in a wide spread of prices, from the entry level to top end fine wine. Crucially, it is an area making wines to a very high standard, and, relative the number of entries, Tuscany received more top scores than any other wine region taste-tested through the Global Wine Masters programme. Our Master of Wine judges were enthused by the complexity of this region’s output, and the way the wines are crafted – which sees an emphasis on refreshment, even when the base product is a lower-yielding south facing vineyard planted with the great red grapes of Bordeaux.
And it is Tuscany’s ability to produce wines with a typically Italianate bitter-sweet character, even with international grapes, that makes it so appealing. In other words, the great wines from this area of Italy are wonderful and inimitable.
Also, the best expressions weren’t from one particular area. Indeed, we awarded Masters – our ultimate accolade – to wines from all the major DOCGS of Tuscany, while we also saw excellence in the blends classified as IGT Toscana.
So, as you can see in the lists of results below, our handful of ‘Masters’ from the day’s tasting included reds from Montepulciano, Montalcino, Bolgheri and Chianti Classico, although, notably, the top expressions from Montepulciano and Montalcino actually employed non-native grapes, and hence they couldn’t carry the name of these famous denominations. This meant that our best wines of the day included two IGT Toscana reds: Banfi’s Bordeaux blend called Excelsus – using Cabernet and Merlot from the slopes of Montalcino – and Avignonesi’s Grandi Annate, a pure barrel-aged Sangiovese from Montepulciano. More in keeping with their source region, a further two Masters were awarded to a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione from Cecchi, along with a Cabernet blend by Campo all Sughera, hailing from the home of Super Tuscan reds, Bolgheri – where Bordeaux grapes dominate.
Considering the styles on offer from Tuscany, starting with the lightest, it was clear that Vermentino is well suited to the Tuscan terroir, particularly the coastal part of the region, Maremma, and can be crafted to produce a range of whites, from the fresh, citrusy, light type, to more full-bodied, peachy style.
The latter richer version can also be suitable for barrel-fermentation and maturation, benefitting from the added nutty complexity of such vessels, just as riper styles of Sauvignon Blanc complement a touch of oak influence.
Among the great examples tasted in this year’s Tuscan Masters were a lovely, peachy, bright Vermentino from Cecchi, called Litorale, hailing from the Val delle Rose in the Maremma DOC.
Also delicious, and made in a similar mould – so bright, fresh, unoaked, but with masses of yellow fruit – was Banfi’s La Pettegola Vermentino, which also comes from the coastal part of Tuscany, using grapes grown in both the Maremma and Bolgheri, which is better known for its great reds from Bordeaux grapes.
However, when it came to a more powerful, barrel-influenced white wine, it was a Chardonnay that impressed, with Banfi’s Fontanelle earning praise from the judges for its combination of creamy toasty characters, and intense lemon fruit.
So what about rosé, or rather, rosato? After all, this is the wine world’s most fashionable category, attracting celebrities, not just as consumers, but as investors – even if such stakes are being taken in France, specifically Provence.
Well, we know from other tastings, notably our Rosé Masters, that Tuscany is the source of some great pink wines, with Frescobaldi’s Syrah and Vermentino Tuscan blend called Alie a gold medallist this year.
Banfi too has proved adept with rosato, particularly its Cost’é Rosé, IGT Toscana, which sees Vermentino prove an excellent component for a Sangiovese-based rosé, with the white grape playing a similar supporting role to the Grenache-based rosés from Provence, where Vermentino is commonly used, but labelled under its French synonym, Rolle.
However, in the Tuscan Masters, it was the brand Ventisei (meaning 26), from Avignonesi that took the top marks for its Rosato, using pure, organically-grown Sangiovese to produce a pink wine that was both refreshing and bursting with ripe red fruit.
Back to the reds, and starting with our Gold medallists among those wines enjoying the freedom of the IGT Toscana classification, one name that attracted plenty of praise, picking up three golds, was Arcanum, for its wonderful, structured reds employing Bordeaux grapes.
Using fruit from the southeast corner of Chianti Classico, this brand – which is owned by Jackson Family Wines – specialises in Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, not Sangiovese, hence its wines are classified as IGT Toscana.
All the labels from this name were delicious, but the most impressive was the Merlot-dominated Arcanum ‘Valadorna’ from the 2013 vintage, with layers of fleshy ripe Morello cherry, sweet balsamic, vanilla and plenty of firm tannins to clean the palate.
Beyond Arcanum, two greats classified under the Toscana IGT tag hailed from Banfi, a name more closely associated with top Brunello, but skilled at much more.
Along with the aforementioned Master-winning Excelsus from Banfi, was this producer’s Summus brand, which sees Sangiovese from Montalcino blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to create something delicious, lifted, but also richer than a classic red from this part of Tuscany.
But Banfi also wowed the judges with its Fonte alla Selva Chianti Classico, and its Aska Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, along with its single vineyard Poggio alle Mura, proving that it can craft outstanding wines respecting the rules of its regions, as well as through more experimental winemaking that breaks them.
Likewise, Avignonesi, which took home a Master for its Grande Annata IGT Toscana Sangiovese from Montepulciano, also gained a top score – albeit a Gold rather than Master – for its Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano Poggetto Di Sopra, complete with its fleshy red cherry fruit, leather, spice, orange zest and dry, fine tannins. Another delicious red from this same well-known area was crafted by Lunadoro, offering a layered, refreshing, traditional wine for sub £30.
Further brilliance was enjoyed among the top wines of Castello Vicchiomaggio – both its Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, and its Ripa Delle More, which sees Sangiovese from the same region blended with Cabernet and Merlot, meaning this wine must forego the name its famous source area, and taken on the IGT Toscana classification.
The judges were also delighted to see a Sangiovese from the more obscure Morellino di Scansano DOCG gain a Gold. Found within the Maremma, this outpost for lovely fleshy cherry-scented reds came from Cecchi.
Nevertheless, the greatest number of top scoring wines based on Sangiovese came from Chianti Classico, with Fattoria Astorre Noti in Ruppiano, Rocca delle Macie, Nittardi, and Querciabella all picking up Golds.
So, while Tuscany is one of the world’s greatest areas for wines, crafting bright whites and roses, food-friendly reds, and concentrated complex fine wines too, the Tuscan Masters highlighted something else. This is the quality and value of top Chianti Classico, a famous name that seems to have fallen somewhat out of fashion relative to its Tuscan neighbours – be they the Bordeaux blends of Bolgheri or the pure Sangioveses of Brunello. In other words, don’t forget Chianti Classico in the search for fine wine from Tuscany. Indeed, it may be the source of Italy’s most keenly-priced great reds.
Chianti Classico Masters 2015: The medallists
The Chianti Classico Masters, featuring the first UK blind tasting of the Gran Selezione tier, did justice to the often overlooked Italian region.
It’s hard to ascertain exactly why, but when the world’s great wine regions are discussed, Chianti Classico does not always get mentioned. Other parts of Italy regularly feature, above all the country’s three fine wine “Bs” – Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello – but somehow Chianti Classico tends to get overlooked.
Now, that could be because this historic area is associated with the much larger and more variable Chianti DOCG.
On the other hand, it could be two to something else hampering Chianti Classico’s fine wine reputation, possibly something connected to the region’s image internationally.
However, following a tasting of the area’s top wines in the inaugural Chianti Classico Masters, which included the UK’s first ever blind assessment of the new Gran Selezione uppermost layer, it was clear such oversight should not have anything to do with quality. Indeed, the judges, who were expecting a tiring day of tasting tannic wine, left excited by the consistently high standard of the entries. In short, it was clear that this is a region making distinctive and very fine wines.
As with all tastings in the drinks business Masters series, the judges were selected not only for their experienced palates, but their expertise in the relevant region or wine style. So, for the Chianti Classico Masters, we lined up Tom Bruce-Gardyne, a former wine buyer and current wine writer specialising in Italy; Alex Canneti, former brand manager for Antinori in the UK, longtime Italian wine buyer and today’s off-trade director at Berkmann Wine Cellars; and Roberto Della Pietra, Italian native and former head sommelier at Clos Maggiore, home to one of London’s best and longest wine lists, as well as the chosen venue for this tasting.
Having sampled over 50 wines from sub- £10 to well over £30, one thing was apparent: these Chianti Classicos were precisely and deliciously Sangiovese-based wines, even if other varieties were present in the blends. In other words, the wines were all reflective of the region’s hallmark grape, with its naturally high acidity, strong tannins, and flavours of ripe red fruits and sour cherries. This ensured that each of the samples in the tasting had a pleasingly Italianate food-friendly character which results from that combination of bright fruit and firm tannin, despite the range of styles – which included everything from young to old, big-to-medium bodied, and those with and without new oak, along with varying proportions of international grapes.
Climbing the ladder
Something else that pleased the judges was the apparent quality difference between tiers as the tasting moved up from Chianti Classico Riserva and then to the new Gran Selezione. In particular, the latter classification, introduced in February 2014 as a new layer to the Chianti Classico quality pyramid, was clearly home to the most impressive wines of the day. Although the Riserva category saw many high-scoring wines, proportionately it was the Gran Selezione level that did best: from 11 entries there were four silvers, four golds and one master – the highest accolade, given only to wines scoring an average of 95 points or above.
Although the new classification has arrived amid controversy, not least accusations that it represents little more than a slightly riper and longer-aged Riserva, rather than a selection based on site, the tasting did show the superiority of Gran Selezione – as well as the consistently high standard within this tier (which may reflect the fact that these wines are taste-tested by a team of winemakers in the region before they can carry the classification).
So, importantly, the tasting highlighted the rising quality of Chianti Classico as one moves up through the hierarchy quality. This may not sound revelatory, but it’s common to find that more expensive and more rarified wines don’t actually give better results. But, in this case, for the most part, those entries made with a selective approach were, in fact, the better wines.
About the competition
The wines featured in this list were selected by a panel of experienced tasters at the inaugural Masters Chianti Classico by the drinks business, which was held on Thursday March 12 at Clos Maggiore restaurant in London’s Covent Garden.
All the entries were tasted blind during the course of one day using Schott Zwiesel glasses supplied by Wine Sorted.
Each sample was scored and discussed before the medal was awarded, with the top Chianti Classicos given Gold, Silver or Bronze medals. Meanwhile, those whose quality was judged to be outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Chianti Classico Master
About the Gran Selezione classification
Officially approved by the European Commission in February 2014 after a three year process, the Gran Selezione label can be applied to estate-grown, Sangiovese-dominated wines from the 2010 vintage onwards which meet upgraded meet minimum criteria concerning alcohol, extraction and the maturation process.
No purchased grapes can be used for Gran Selezione (meaning “Great Selection”), and the minimum alcohol is 13% compared to 12.5% for the Riserva, while the wine must be aged for 30 months, compared to 24 for Riserva, although there are no rules around methods of ageing.
Like Riserva, the minimum proportion of Sangiovese must be 80%, allowing for the inclusion of international varieties such as Syrah or Merlot, as well as local grapes such as Canaiolo or Colorino. However, some producers have opted to release pure Sangiovese wines as Gran Selezione, such as Antinori’s Badia a Passignano, which gained the title of top wine of the tasting.
Finally, and somewhat controversially, as long as all the grapes for Gran Selezione are sourced from the same owner’s property, there is no requirement for the wines to come from a single vineyard. So, should a large producer with extensive landholdings choose to blend grapes from across the entire Chianti Classico zone, the resulting wine could still be classified as a Gran Selezione.
Over the following pages you can see the results by category, or click here for a review of the top 11 Chianti Classicos of the tasting. While all that’s left to say here is that if the judges in this competition had ever been guilty of forgetting Chianti Classico, this tasting had ensured that the DOCG would feature prominently in any future discussion about the world’s key wine regions.