Why open just one bottle when you can open two? That was my thinking in opening up both the 2001 Castello di Tavolese Rubicondo Toscano and the 2005 Per Me Sola Rosso Toscano.
Under the Tuscan Sun
I've never really gotten into Italian wines - I don't know much about them, and most of my previous experience with Italian wine has been with cheap Chianti in those bottles with straw wrapped around them. Speaking of Chianti, let's clear up some confusion about it: Chianti isn't a type of wine per se, its actually a region of Tuscany, famous for its red wine made predominantly from Sangiovese. Italy has 20 different wine regions, which label wine using a fairly comprehensive Italian appellation system. This system may ensure the quality, but it's also somewhat daunting to have to learn yet another system just to figure out what the label means on that Italian bottle of wine staring at your from the wine store shelf.
Well, I haven't learned that system yet, so I made my selection of these two wines based on the sole criteria of their being Tuscan. I'd love to visit Tuscany some day, and somehow by purchasing some Tuscan wine its like taking some baby steps in that direction.
It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Super Tuscan!
The Castello di Tavolese Rubicondo was described in Total Wine's write-up as being a "Super Tuscan". To explain what's meant by that term, we need a bit of a history lesson.
Italy has been making wine for a very long time, and because of this had some very old laws which prescribed exactly how certain wines would be made - which grapes would be used, in which percentages - if it was to bear the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) seal. In the 1970s, Italian winemakers started to question the wisdom of this stringent system, and began making wines that "broke the rules": perhaps they added in the non-Italian Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend, or aged the wines in French oak barrels. Whatever the transgression, these wines could not be classified classified under the DOC regulations (i.e., you couldn't call it a "Chianti" if it didn't follow the Chianti rules), so they had to be labeled simply "Vino da Tavola", or "Table Wine". This category had typically been reserved for the cheapest and simplest of wines, but Italian winemakers started using this term to describe their top-of-the-line offerings that didn't comply with Italian wine law. These "renegade" wines started gaining mass appeal, and were nicknamed "Super Tuscans".
(The DOC system has since been overhauled to allow for designation of these not-so-renegade-anymore wines using the Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or IGT)
Enough history! Let's drink some wine!
Both of these wines I'm describing were made with 100% Sangiovese. Upon the pour, both of these wines were much deeper in color than I was expecting from Sangiovese: the Rubicondo was a deep strawberry reddish color with a hint of brown; the Per Me Sola was a deep purple-red, and more juicy-looking.
The Per Me Sola had what I can only describe as "cheap wine nose" - a very young, grape juice smell that I have found in cheap reds like Two Buck Chuck or a low-end Aussie Shiraz. Sadly, Kris and I made up a batch of Old Vine Zinfandel ourselves a few years ago (using excess juice from Lodi vineyards), and it too had this overly fruity nose to it. This was not a good sign.
I really enjoyed the nose of the Rubicondo - it had so much going on. There were some dark fruits (cherries maybe?), and an almost floral quality to it - I think this could have been a touch of vanilla blending in with the fruits. The vanilla makes sense, as one reason this wine is a "Super Tuscan" is that it was aged using French oak - a no-no under traditional Chianti rules.
On the tongue, the Per Me Sola was a bit harsh, some fruit to it but generally very simple with not much of a finish. It was medium-bodied though, which I wasn't expecting in a Sangiovese - I had always thought of them as lighter-bodied reds. Similarly, the Rubicondo was also medium-bodied (leading to believe that perhaps my association of Sangiovese as lighter-bodied was incorrect). It was very smooth and had a nice tannin structure to it, drying out your mouth just enough to appreciate their presence. The dark fruits on the nose came through, as did some oak, and it had an almost dusty finish to it (in a good way). My mind kept comparing this wine to a Southern Rhône-style blend, which is odd since this was 100% Sangiovese, but once the association was in my head I couldn't shake it.
So I said that this Toscano v. Toscano duel was a bit of a pitched battle - both wines were purchased at Total Wine in McLean, the 2001 Castello di Tavolese Rubicondo for $13, the Per Me Sola Rosso Toscano for $7. Between the age (2001 vs. non-vintage) and the price (the Rubicondo costing almost twice the Per Me Sola), I had a pretty good idea of who I thought the winner would be. But since both age and price are definitely not always accurate predictors of quality (especially in this "everyday wine" price range), I tried to keep an open mind going into this match-up.
However, as you can tell by the tasting notes, the Rubicondo was the clear winner. I'd say this wine has good quality-to-price ratio, and is worth trying out if you're feeling like an Italian wine. Although almost half the price, the Per Me Sola really came up short on taste, and I would say had a poor quality-to-price ratio. It was slightly better with food, but that was mainly because the food masked the wines general lack of complexity and finish. And if all you're going to use it for is simple table wine, you can buy it buy the jug for far less than $7.
I enjoyed delving a bit into Italian wines though - as I mentioned, I have limited experience with Italian wines from Italy (having tasted several versions of Italian varietals grown in California) so it was nice to go "to the source". If anyone has any recommendations on other Italian wines I should try, I'd love to hear them!