Central Tuscany 2003 and 2004: A Tale of Two Vintages

by Antonio Galloni

Readers are sure to enjoy exploring new releases from the 2003 and 2004 vintages in Central Tuscany. Although they could not be more different in terms of their personalities, 2003 and 2004 have yielded a large number of exciting wines. In 2003 Tuscany, like the rest of Europe, suffered through a heat wave the likes of which was virtually unprecedented. The effects of the scorching heat were exacerbated by near drought-like conditions. Over the last few years, however, producers have learned to better cope with such weather, meaning that the vintage has yielded some gems even if overall quality is irregular. Vintage 2004 saw much more favorable weather conditions, although it too presented growers with a few challenges. Those who were diligent, especially with regards to yields, have turned out spectacular wines. Simply put, 2004 is a superb vintage in Central Tuscany. I had an enormous amount of fun tasting through the region’s wines and imagining how they might develop over time. While most of the wines in this report come from in and around the Chianti Classico region I also include notes on a handful of recent releases from Maremma. Readers seeking more information on the wines of that region will find a comprehensive look at the wines in Issue 169. Brunello di Montalcino will be covered in a forthcoming article.

A complete analysis of the 2003 vintage is no easy task as results vary significantly from zone to zone. During 2003 the weather was excessively hot and dry to the point that in many places plants simply shut down, a condition known as hydric stress which is accentuated in younger vineyards that have shorter root systems and therefore less access to water. Because the maturation of sugars was so advanced growers had no choice but to harvest, and most estates reported picking on average at least 2-3 weeks earlier than normal. Although the grapes achieved ripeness of the sugars, phenolic ripeness (the ripeness of the skins and seeds) was much more elusive. As a result, many wines are penalized by hard, green tannins. Long- time readers know I am not a huge fan of vintage ratings as they are by nature general. Wines, particularly those of Italy, encompass an enormous range of micro-climates, terroirs and varietals, and that is before beginning a discussion of winemaking styles. As always in difficult vintages it comes down to producer, producer, producer. Almost without exception the top estates found a way to make important wines notwithstanding the significant difficulties posed by the vintage. Many growers spoke of the lessons learned in previous hot years such as 2000 as keys in interpreting the unique circumstances nature presented in 2003.

In general, 2003 is most successful in higher-altitude appellations where Sangiovese, the main indigenous varietal in Tuscany, has traditionally struggled to ripen under normal weather conditions. Many of those wines can be somewhat austere and lean in typical vintages, but the heat of 2003 has helped fill them out with an attractive plumpness of fruit. The naturally higher acidity of Sangiovese has also helped in preserving at least some freshness in the wines. The finest 100% Sangiovese bottlings, including Flaccianello, Percarlo, Le Pergole Torte, and Cepparello are among the most successful wines in 2003. Another bright spot is Syrah, which thrives in hot, arid weather.

Stylistically the 2003s are, of course, very ripe, and while the personality of the vintage may or may not appeal to readers based on individual preferences, I found few examples of over- ripe or cooked wines. The best 2003s have enough fruit to cover the harder tannins which are almost inevitably present. Many of the wines have come together markedly over the last few months and some may ultimately be deserving of higher scores. That said, the vintage as a whole is highly irregular, so it pays to choose carefully.

Vintage 2004 is best described as the opposite of 2003. The weather was much more balanced throughout the growing season, which caused plants to unleash the large amounts of energy they had held in reserve from the previous year. The naturally higher yields obligated quality-minded producers to green-harvest more aggressively than normal. Like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese responds especially well to the alternation of hot daytime temperatures with cool moderating evenings that characterized 2004. Alcoholic and phenolic ripeness were reached gradually and simultaneously which allowed growers to harvest under calm conditions and within a time frame considered normal to late by today’s standards. Even though conditions were quite favorable, the vintage also posed some challenges. Some growers spoke of rain during August which caused the grapes to bloat a little, while others, especially those in later-ripening areas, had to deal with rain towards the end of the harvest. A strict selection of fruit at the sorting table was critical and many producers reported making a second selection of finished wines in the cellar. Those challenges of the vintage notwithstanding, the long growing season and relaxed harvest presented growers with the conditions to make great wines. Quality minded producers have turned out a number of exceptional wines at all levels.

The 2004s feature livelier color, well-articulated aromatics and finer tannins than the 2003s. The expression of fruit tends to be more layered, nuanced and delicate than the decidedly opulent 2003s. The acidities are also higher in 2004 which will allow the wines to age longer as well as more gracefully. Readers will find a bountiful number of outstanding 2004s from which to choose. The Chianti Classicos are terrific and full of flavor. It is a great vintage for Tuscany’s finest 100% Sangiovese luxury-cuvees, including Flaccianello, Percarlo and Cepparello all of which are stunning. Unlike Nebbiolo, which shows its aromatic complexity even when young, Sangiovese is a varietal that only develops its full range of aromas and flavors with extended bottle age. Readers will be tempted to enjoy these 2004s young, but the wines will only show the full extent of their potential in some years. Not to be left behind, 2004 is also a superb vintage for the “Super-Tuscan” blends of indigenous and international varietals. Wines such as Solaia, Tignanello and Camartina are especially noteworthy. All of the wines mentioned above feature extraordinary length and finesse as well as sweet, silky tannins which makes them incredibly appealing even at this early stage. Simply put, the best 2004s are reference-point wines for the region and are not to be missed.

Looking ahead, 2005 appears to be an average vintage. It was a very promising year until September when rain became a factor during the harvest in many sub-zones. In general the wines are modest in structure as well as complexity. So far I have tasted only a small number of finished wines, mostly from Chianti Classico. Although 2005 is completely different in nature from 2003, quality always comes down to the individual producer, and top estates that were highly selective made excellent wines. Growers in Chianti Classico were thrilled with their 2006s when I visited them towards the end of the year. The weather during last month of the growing season was hot during the day but cool at night. The 2006s are rich, ripe and full-bodied wines, but without the excessive concentration and unripe tannins of 2003. At the same time the later harvests produced wines that appear more generous and opulent than the 2004s. Although it is still too early to arrive at a more definitive evaluation of the vintage, 2006 appears to be quite promising. In the meantime consumers will find a wealth of wines to enjoy from the 2003 and 2004 vintages.

I would be remiss if I didn't make a few comments on pricing and availability. Put simply, in a market environment where prices are being bid to the moon on the 2005 vintages in Bordeaux and Burgundy, the wines of Central Tuscany offer an attractive alternative in the relative value they offer, even if the weakening US dollar has eroded some of that pricing benefit for American consumers. The most desirable wines also remain significantly easier to obtain than similar trophy wines from other regions. In conclusion, Tuscany has much to offer readers looking to enjoy some of the world’s most delicious and food- friendly wines.