by Franco Ziliani

Given the serious scandal that erupted in late March in Montalcino over the "improvement" of Brunellos with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot (just the latest Italian absurdity), it might have been difficult to focus attention on the anteprime, the first look at the new vintages of Tuscany's main DOCGs. What made it easy, in the event, were the conclusions to which the tastings gave rise.

The dominant theme running through both the Chiantis and the Brunellos was Sangiovese's star role. Tuscany's noble variety, its thoroughbred -- the backbone of Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino -- returned to put its distinctive stamp not only on Brunello, whose production code specifies its exclusive use, but also on Chianti Classico. Over the past decade or so, this became the wine of 1,001 styles, like the Super-Tuscans, thanks to a production code that allows up to 20 percent of other grapes (read Bordeaux varieties).

I warmly welcome those wines that are once again allowing Sangiovese to sing. Yes, die-hards out there continue to push to the limit the "correction" of their Chiantis with "improving varieties." The results are no doubt impressive in some cases, but such producers sacrifice terroir character, the wine's quota of "somewhereness," on the altar of the international.

Nevertheless, a new wind is blowing, ushering in a Sangiovese renaissance and a return to Chianti Classico in the venerable Tuscan style. Renaissance does not mean a revival of unexciting, old-fashioned Chiantis, nor those old, kitschy, straw-covered bottles, nor wines with no ambition or soul. Instead, thanks to serious research into Sangiovese (particularly the Consorzio's Chianti 2000 project), it means a better appreciation of the qualities of this variety than was possible in the past. Tuscany can gradually distance itself from international varieties, free Chianti Classico from its Super-Tuscan bondage, and restore to the variety the unique aromatics, crisp succulence, and goût de terroir that were largely stripped from it over the past 15 years.

The tastings of Chianti Classico revealed that 2006 is one of those vintages that deserve the consumer's attention and confidence, as well as those of industry professionals most attuned to Tuscany's soul. Many of these wines offered delicious drinkability and unalloyed pleasure (all the more remarkable in that many were present only as barrel samples): a bright, purple-ruby color, less concentrated than in recent years; clean, fresh, well-defined aromas; an exquisite balance of acidity, tannin, and crisp, ripe, succulent fruit, with dark cherry in full spate; a fleshy, round mouthfeel; and excellent harmony, sapidity, and varietal typicity, with generous underbrush, lily, and violets.

Among the best 2006s were offerings from Badia a Coltibuono, Bibbiano, Casa Emma, Castello di San Donato in Perano, Castello di Vichiomaggio, Concadoro, Felsina, Fontodi, Isole e Olena, Monteraponi, Querciabella, San Felice, San Giusto a Rentennano, and Tenuta di Liliano. Also worthy of attention were Castelli del Grevepesa (its 100 percent Sangiovese Clemente VII vineyard selection), and two outsiders -- Spadaio e Piecorto in Barberino Val d'Elsa, and Castellinuzza e Piuca in Greve's Lamole area.

Retasting 2005 Chianti Classicos after a year and more in the bottle was also very encouraging, even if the 2006s have an extra gear that will propel them into a brighter, longer future. In 2005 there were excellent performances by Bibbiano and Castellinuzza e Piuca, while Castello di Tornano, Il Molino di Grace, Monteraponi, Ormanni, Pieve di Campoli, and Rocca di Montegrossi also deserve plaudits.

The 2005 Vino Nobiles left much to be desired, so we will skip over Montepulciano to Montalcino, where the superb 2006 vintage has made a clear winner, for once, of that zone's "second wine," Rosso di Montalcino. Helped by the far-from-thrilling results of the 2003 Brunellos, the 2006 Rossos become the chief attraction for Brunello lovers, with 3.5 million bottles coming on to the market at a range of prices and in a variety of styles -- from the simplest through to fuller-bodied wines fully capable of improving over five to ten years in the cellar.

The number of Brunello samples swells every year (150, plus 20 or so vineyard selections), but overall 2003 was decidedly disappointing. Many were devoid of the character, complexity, harmony, and nobility that one expects of such a celebrated wine. Many displayed evidence of heavyhanded intervention, with generous help from younger vintages (2004 or 2005) to freshen up cooked, tired wines. There were awkward acids, overripe fruit, green tannins that will never soften, and clumsy, excessive oak. Fortunately, I found some exceptions -- wines that were well balanced, well made, with complexity, harmony, and sapidity. These were from Abbadia Ardenga, Gianni Brunelli, Capanna, Citille di Sopra, Col d'Orcia, Le Gode, Pecci Celestino, Pinino, Poggio dell'Aquila, Tenuta Le Potazzine, Uccelliera, and Villa a Tolli.

Only a notch behind were Innocenti, Le Macioche, Il Marroneto, Poggio Antico, Sesta di Sopra, Tenuta di Sesta, and Vasco Sassetti. There were outstanding wines, too, from Case Basse, Poggio di Sotto, and Giulio Salvioni, tasted on visits to the cellars.

In contrast to 2003 Brunello, which suffered from a torrid, near-tropical summer, 2006 Rosso di Montalcino displays the elegance, succulence, fleshy, savory fruit, and overall harmony that the more serious wines from the hotter vintage could not (with only a few exceptions) achieve.

High, even full, marks to the likes of Abbadia Ardenga, Argiano, Brunelli, Campogiovanni, Capanna, Col d'Orcia, Il Colle, Fuligni, Lambardi, Lisini, Il Marroneto, Mastrojanni, Il Poggione, Pinino, Quercecchio, Sesta di Sopra, Siro Pacenti, Tenute Nardi, Terre Nere, Uccelliera, and Villa a Tolli.