Of Italy's great reds, one that never seems to get its proper respect is vino nobile. I think of it as the Ed Harris of Italian wine: often-nominated, but ultimately the Oscar contender few people know.
Which is odd when you consider the name. "Nobile" isn't so much a promise of quality, however, as it is an 18th-century curtsy to the wine's best customers: noblemen and clergy who would order it by the hogshead. That was before Chianti, vino nobile's more gregarious and plebeian Tuscan cousin to the north, was much to write home about. It was also a century before brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany's most venerated wine, was even born.
To be fair, the wine can be hit and miss quality-wise, which may partly explain why few self-professed connoisseurs outside Italy ever give it a passing thought. But when it's good, it's as much wine as you can rightly expect for the money. The best, which cost $20 to $35, are sort of a cross between medium-bodied Chianti and more concentrated brunello. Based mainly on sangiovese (specifically a southern Tuscan clone called prugnolo gentile), it bridges the flavours of those two other sangiovese-based wines, often suggesting cherries, mushrooms, plums or prunes and tobacco. And like virtually all Tuscan reds, it's as dry as a Bob Newhart punchline.
I think the big obstacle to its wider recognition, ironically, is the name. The long form is vino nobile di Montepulciano. If you frequent the bargain aisles of the liquor store, you probably have already detected the problem.
In wine, there are two montepulcianos: the grape and the place. The grape is closely associated with the Abruzzo region of central Italy, where it yields a decent and sometimes very fine wine called montepulciano d'Abruzzo. The stuff from Abruzzo costs as little as $7 a bottle and rarely exceeds $16 (though there are a growing number of $35 and $40 exceptions). Meanwhile, Montepulciano the place - spelled with a capital M - is in southern Tuscany and makes wine based on the aforementioned sangiovese; there's never a drop of montepulciano grape juice in it.
It may all sound like an Italian version of an Abbott and Costello routine. If you want a more effective and pleasant lesson in what vino nobile is than my feeble tutorial above, I can't think of a better suggestion currently on the market than the following. Fazi Battaglia, the house best known for its iconic verdicchio white in the fish-shaped green bottle, has just released an attractive example through Vintages stores in Ontario as part of today's spotlight on Tuscan reds. Fassati Pasiteo Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2005 ($24.95, product No. 642009) is textbook vino nobile, medium-bodied and reminiscent of cherries and wood, with almost bracing but balanced acidity, fine tannins and a Bob Newhart finish.
If you're looking for a more affordable Tuscan red, consider Rocca delle Macie Campomaccione Morellino di Scansano 2006 ($18.95, No. 969428; $18.15 in Quebec, No. 10324607), based on sangiovese and, while not as well-chiseled as the Pasiteo, fruity and fun to drink.
The other worthy Italians are all much more expensive. For the cellar, consider Marchesi de Frescobaldi Montesodi Chianti Rufina Riserva 2005 ($59.95, No. 365536 in Ont.; $56 in B.C., same product number; $54.25 in Que., No. 204107). The distinguished big brother to the widely available and popular Nipozzano Chianti Riserva, this collectible is concentrated and packed with fruit but conspicuously astringent at the moment, with nuances of plum, licorice and aged wood. Give it five to 10 years in the cellar if you can or, for current enjoyment, consider decanting it into a pitcher first. The air will soften the tannins.
More approachable today and still quite serious is Leonardo da Vinci Brunello di Montalcino 2004 ($59.95, No. 97592). How's that for a Tuscan name? Full-bodied and showing plum, violet and a big note of espresso, it's juicy and almost tangy on the finish.
Also very good is Col d'Orcia Nearco Sant'Antimo 2003 ($37.95, No. 121251; $46 in Que., 10540107). It's on the raisiny side of ripe, which I say not entirely in praise, but the complexity here is enough to hold my interest and justify the price from this respected producer. Full-bodied and rich, with almost liqueur-like fruit flavour, a lavish texture and notes of coffee, vanilla and tobacco.
The biggest standout of today's Vintages release is not Tuscan, however. If you are partial to Amarone (the regal grand red of Italy's Veneto region, made from rich, semi-dried grapes) and if you roll with the kind of folk who drop $60 a bottle even during a recession, don't miss Marchesi Fumanelli Amarone della Vapolicella Classico 2004 ($59.95, No. 105155). This is sexy wine. Megan Fox without all the creepy tattoos. Brad Pitt with personality.
Proprietor Armando Fumanelli, a suave Tuscan who looks like he was born with a pocket square on his left breast, was in Toronto this week presenting his Amarones and Valpolicellas at several public appearances, visibly proud of this 2004 Amarone vintage. Full-bodied and succulent, the wine displays magnificent balance. It's all too easy to make an Amarone that tastes like something from the Sun-Maid factory, hard to make one with this finesse. Rich with flavours of cherry, plum, cigar and spice, it carries through with juicy acidity and never sits heavy on the palate. The finish is long and harmonious. Drink it now by itself or with rich meats or lay it down for five to seven years.
Pick of the week
A textbook vino nobile, Fassati Pasiteo Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2005 ($24.95, product No. 642009) has a bracing but balanced acidity, fine tannins and a Bob Newhart finish.