The Tuscan Masters: analysis and results in full

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.

The wines for the Tuscan Masters were judged over the course of one day at Les 110 de Taillevent in London on 11 July by (left to right): Matthieu Longuère MS, Patrick Schmitt MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, and Jonathan Pedley MW

The results in full from the Syrah Masters 2018

We reveal the results in full from this year’s Global Syrah Masters, which saw great names and regions rewarded, as well as some less-familiar areas that are turning out remarkable wines from this wonderful, if somewhat unfashionable grape.

Sampling Syrah: Keith Isaac MW and Jonathan Pedley MW (right)

If one were to draw up a list of the most sought-after, saleable grape varieties in the world right now, I’m saddened to say that Syrah probably wouldn’t feature. Other so-called Mediterranean varieties such as Grenache and Tempranillo seem to elicit more excitement among wine lovers, although all of the above lag Pinot Noir for the ultimate in premium image and general popularity, with Cabernet not far behind.

So why isn’t Syrah more sexy? Based on another major tasting within our Global Masters series for noble grapes, the quality of wine made from Syrah today is not the problem. In fact, of all the red grapes we consider in a raft of annual wine competitions, Syrah consistently yields the most number of Gold medals, and above: we had no fewer than 8 Masters from this year’s tasting. This is remarkable considering the calibre of our judges and the high scores necessary across the board to achieve such a result.

So, if Syrah is the source of delicious wines, surely this grape should be in vogue? Of course, but there are issues around its image, not helped by the fact wines made from the variety are generally labelled Syrah if they are from Europe, and most commonly Shiraz when they are from outside, especially from Australia. This may be yielding some confusion for consumers, and, while there are broad stylistic implications associated with each name, they don’t always hold true. Generally, Shiraz denotes a richer riper style of red from the grape, with Syrah used for something lighter and more floral. But, as our extensive tastings have shown, there are plenty of concentrated wines labelled Syrah, and some of the new styles of Shiraz from Australia, particularly where whole bunches go into the fermenters, can be surprisingly delicate, even Pinot-esque.

Then there’s the grape’s lack of lustre as a producer of fine wine. This is, of course, misplaced: for some, the greatest red wine in the world is made from Syrah: La Chapelle in Hermitage. However, this historic home of the grape, the northern Rhône, produces wines sold according to appellation, eschewing varietal labelling, meaning that some of the world’s best expressions of Syrah don’t actually overtly promote the grape.

Meanwhile, the upmarket image for the grape in the US especially has been damaged by the success of inexpensive Australian Shiraz, particularly sold under the brand Yellow Tail. Or so I’m told. And in this market particularly, where fashion is so important to sales – and wine is almost entirely merchandised by variety – one major player in the market commented that if the wine says Syrah on the label, it doesn’t move, but if you take it off, it can become a best-seller. The implication being that people actually love the taste of Syrah, just not the image.

But while commerciality is key in the wine industry, our Global Masters tastings seek to identify the sources of quality – by place and producer. Now, while the base level may be unusually high for Syrah, there are of course areas where the results are much better than others, and, as this year’s results show, some of these come as no surprise (Barossa, Hermitage), others are a revelation (Turkey, Greece, Switzerland…). So, whatever the source, let’s consider the standouts.

Now, while there were plenty of pleasing reds sub £10, the first Gold medal winners were seen once we had surpassed that key price point. As is so often the case with wine, the price-quality sweet spot comes above £12, and, if I was to choose a price band where you can maximise the amount of wine you can get for your buck, it would probably be beyond £12 and below £19 for Syrah. But even at £15 or lower, we saw some brilliant wines, notably from Washington State’s Ste Michelle, as well as the Barossa (Graham Norton, Andrew Peace, Wakefield/Taylors), Colchagua (MontGras) and Florina in Greece, where it seems that Syrah reaches delicious completion when blended with a touch of this nation’s native Xinomavro at the country’s Alpha Estate.

Over £15 but still below £20, and the number of Golds increased dramatically, with Argentina (Trivento, MP Wines) this time featuring, as well as Turkey (Kavaklidere), and New Zealand (Church Road). Among the blends, we also had our first Master, which was impressive at this still relatively low price, with Kalleske’s Moppa Shiraz benefitting from a touch of Petit Verdot and Viognier, giving some added structure and aromatics respectively to this intense, juicy and soft Barossa Shiraz.

Between £20 and £30, we had no fewer than 14 Golds and one Master, showing the potential for Syrah to perform at the entry-point price-wise of the fine wine market. Noteworthy in this band was the excellence of a Syrah from California, hailing from the Yorkville Highlands AVA, based in the southern Mendocino County, and produced by Copain – a winery within the Jackson family portfolio. Coming close in quality, however, were some more rarified Syrahs from names already mentioned (such as Wakefield/Taylors, Alpha Estate) as well as new ones to the Gold standard (representing Australia’s Barossa were: Jacob’s Creek, St Hugo, Langmeil, Tempus Two; Argentina’s Uco Valley: Trapiche, Salentein; South Africa’s Tulbagh: Saronsberg, and New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay: Craggy Range).

And, coincidentally, between £30 and £50, we had the same tally at the top-end, with 14 Golds and one Master. Regarding the latter, the judges were seriously impressed by the Ebenezer Shiraz from Barossa, and produced in tiny quantities by Hayes Family Wines. The tables show the other lovely wines in this category, but we were pleased to see after the tasting was concluded that great wines from Barossa; the Valais (Switzerland’s Domaines Chevaliers) and Marlborough (New Zealand’s Giesen) had been rubbing shoulders quality-wise with Hermitage (Romain Duvernay).

Once we were over £50, however, we couldn’t help but award a clutch of Masters, with the Barossa’s Savitas and Levantine Hill wowing the judges, as did the Hermitage Monier de la Sizeranne from Chapoutier, and the Hickinbotham Brooks Road Shiraz from McLaren Vale – all celebrated wines attracting glorious scores. But there was another region among the Masters, and that was a wine from a relatively new area for top-end Syrah (if becoming famous for great reds from Sangiovese and Merlot) – the Maremma in Toscana. Hailing from Conti di San Bonifacio Sustinet, this turned out to be just on the entry-point of this price band, retailing for £50, making it all the more appealing among these illustrious labels.

Although that was the only Master for Italian Syrah, there were also two Golds in this price category awarded to this country – a delicious sample from Lazio, produced by the Famiglia Cotarella, as well as one from Cortona, made by Fabrizio Dionisio in Toscana.

We were also thrilled to see strong performances from famous names in Syrah such as Mission Estate (New Zealand) and Château Tanunda, Bird in Hand, Langmeil, Henschke, Gatt and Schild Estate (Australia).

In all, the tasting had rewarded the renowned along with the less familiar, as it was talent, not repute, that the Syrah Masters sought to reward through its blind-tasting format.

Please see below for the list of medallists from the Global Syrah Masters 2018.

For more information on this competition, or any of the Global Masters, please contact Sophie Raichura on:
+44 (0)20 7803 2454 / +852 3488 1008, or sophie@thedrinksbusiness.com

The judges (left to right): Roberto della Pietra, Tobias Gorn, Jonathan Pedley MW, Keith Isaac MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Jonny Gibson

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