Tuscany's 1990s may be much ado about nothing


The 1990 vintage from the Italian wine region of Tuscany has a wonderful reputation. It is supposedly the best since 1985, a vintage that was one of the greatest any region has enjoyed since man first trod a grape.

Now the 1990s have arrived on the shelves of American wine stores, and the results are disappointing. Could this be what Kenneth Branagh was thinking of when he chose Tuscany as the place to film "Much Ado About Nothing?"

Perhaps that is too harsh, seeing that my most recent tastings included only 13 wines -- one of which was spoiled by a contaminated cork.

But surely, out of a dozen wines from reputable producers from a magnificent region in a supposedly great year, it is not expecting too much to find one or two that make the spirit soar with each sip. The 1990 Tuscans I tasted included some well-made wines, but my heart never got off the ground.

Classically styled vintage.

In general, 1990 seems to be a classically styled vintage for the sangiovese-based red wines of Tuscany -- including Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. That means there's fruit and there's structure. Technically the wines seem impeccable.

But where's the charm? Where's the joy? The 1990 Tuscans I tasted were a grim lot -- fiercely tannic, ungenerous, seemingly hollow.

Don't get me wrong. Time might turn 1990 into a great vintage. Certainly popping the corks now is premature.

But at this stage the 1985s were enchanting wines, and so were the 1982s. Based on what I've tasted so far, the 1990 vintage isn't nearly as good, and consumers should approach it with some wariness.

The best of the 1990s I tasted was the 1990 Monte Vertine "Le Pergole Torte," a proprietary red wine that carries a $30 price tag. It was awfully good, and promises to develop into something better, but somehow didn't quite live up to its gorgeous label.

The 1990 Pertimali Rosso di Montalcino came back strong after a repellent entrance, dominated by fecal aromas. Those blew off, however, revealing a spicy, complex wine with ample black cherry fruit beneath. At almost $20, it's no bargain, though.

Probably the best value was the 1990 Fattoria Le Corti Angiolo Anchin Chianti Classico ($12), which offered ripe black cherry flavors that overshadowed the muscular tannins. And for just $6 to $8, the 1990 Monte Antico Red Tuscan Table Wine is a sterling value.

The rest, however, failed to excite. Chianti Classicos from Castello Gabbiano ($12.49), Castello di Fonterutoli ($17.49) and Podere il Palazzino ($15) were decent but failed to generate much excitement. The 1990 Chianti Colli Fiorentini from Lanciola II was already showing signs of browning, and the finish vanished abruptly. The Cru Montetondo Chianti Classico ($15) was a bitter disappointment, while the 1990 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico was merely innocuous.

Facade of elegance

Even one new-breed white wine from Tuscany inspired little more than grudging respect. Behind a facade of elegance and a $20 price tag, the 1990 Ariella chardonnay from Castello di Gabbiano was no more than a typically thin, light-intensity Italian white.

Somewhere, at some price, there are no doubt excellent 1990 Tuscan wines. Too many knowledgeable people are praising the vintage for it to be a complete bust. Still, consumers should be aware that not all the wines are impressive and be wary of hype.


The following come from the electronic mailbag, which can be reached via the Internet from most on-line services at editurol.com.

Q: Is there a way to evaluate the cork before opening the bottle? I just bought a couple of bottles that looked fine on the outside, but after removing the lead foil on the top there was wine leaking in one bottle and the other bottle showed signs of old leaking. By the way, neither bottle tasted too good. Should I remove the lead foil from each bottle before buying? Does the metal protect the cork? Removing the metal seems a nuisance when I buy a case.

-- Steve

A: All I can tell you is that if I were a retailer and caught you removing lead foil before buying the bottle, I'd toss your rump outta my store.

Still, you've identified a real problem. The best thing to do is take any leaking bottle back to your wine merchant for exchange or a refund. Most reputable retailers won't hesitate to set things right. Most wines with leakage will show it in the form of dried residue streaked along the bottle. Some retailers, however, will clean up such bottles -- which is no service to the customer.

In some cases, though, the capsule will conceal leakage, and when that happens there isn't much you can do about it. Even Superman's X-ray vision would be stumped by lead-foil capsules.

Generally such leakage is a sign that the wine was exposed to excessive heat somewhere in shipping. It doesn't necessarily mean the wine is spoiled, but it's hardly an encouraging sign.

Q: Can someone please suggest a 1990 Cabernet that would make a special wedding gift for a couple married that year? I'd like something that they can put down to open and drink on their 20th anniversary (that would be 2010). So I need a good ager.

If this isn't a good year for Cabs, is there a Rhone or some other red that would be better for this purpose?

-- Jane Good, Cleveland

A: What good judgment your friends showed to get married in 1990! You have a wealth of choices, from California to the Rhone Valley to Bordeaux to Burgundy to Italy's Piedmont.

You could even go with some of the better sweet white wines from Alsace, Germany or the Loire. Here are a few suggestions amid a wealth of possibilities:

* California Cabernet Sauvignon: Opus One ($65); Dalla Valle Maya ($50/rare); Dalla Valle ($30); Robert Mondavi Reserve ($35).

* Bordeaux: Chateau Montrose ($50-75); Chateau Margaux ($75-100); Chateau Latour ($85-$120); Chateau Cos d'Estournel ($40); Chateau Le Terte Roteboeuf ($35); Chateau Troplong-Mondot ($35).

* Burgundy: Generally it's risky to lay Burgundy down for 20 years, except for a few of the best, and most expensive, producers such as Leroy and the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. But 1990 is a very special vintage. Consult a retailer who specializes in Burgundy.

* Rhone: 1990 Paul Jaboulet "La Chapelle" Hermitage ($50); Chave Hermitage red or white ($50-65); Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape. ($40).

* Alsace: any Zind-Humbrecht "vendange tardive" (late harvest) wine.

* Germany: Riesling "eiswein," "beerenauslese" or "trockenbeerenauslese" from a good estate.

This is just skimming the surface. The only qualification I'd make is to insist that the wine revert back to you in the case of divorce. It'll be a great incentive for your friends to stay together.

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