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by Kim Westerman

October 15, 2000

Tuscan wines have been increasing in popularity among American wine drinkers ever since the region became the darling of American travel writers in the 1990's. That is to say, as travelers have discovered the beauty of the Tuscan countryside, they've discovered the wines that everyday Tuscans drink, both ordinary and extraordinary. In general, quality Tuscan wines are greater in number than the wines of many other Italian regions, but the 1997 vintage offered wine lovers a momentous occasion: choose any bottle, in any price range, and you can't go wrong.

The much-touted Brunellos and Super Tuscans of the vintage haven't even been released yet, but the Chiantis and Rosso di Montalcinos I've tried are stellar. And I've discovered a few table wines that taste like reserve bottlings, some of which are even ageworthy.

First on my list is the Fattoria de Bocce Chianti Classico Riserva, a steal at $18. It's drinkable now, but will cellar for 4-5 years. Like all Chiantis, it's fabulous with pizza and pastas with tomato sauces. It's also perfect alongside the great American hamburger.

The Selvapiana Chianti Riserva is the best I've ever seen from this winery's widely distributed bottlings. It's $19, and a couple of cases will get you through the upcoming crisp fall nights. It's a fruity wine with the structure to match. The tannins are rounded at the edges, making it a good wine to drink now. It doesn't have much aging potential, so don't hoard it. Serve it with grilled meats or even salmon. Selvapiana also offers an even more widely available regular bottling for $13. It's not as showy as the reserve wine, but I'd give it a solid grade of B.

Fattoria dei Barbi is a heavy hitter with its Brunellos, but the 1997 Rosso di Montalcino is a delightful bargain. It's an earthy, medium-bodied wine that will pair nicely with stews or a red sauce with a spicy kick. At $12, it's hard to pass up, and also hard not to fantasize about what their Brunellos will taste like upon release. Decadent splurges come to mind.

Last but not least is a wine from the Maremma, a little-known coastal part of Tuscany that produces delicious wines. The Rossetti Morellino di Scansano is a beauty: lush, spicy, and smooth. At $10 a bottle, it's even more impressive, and you can bet that next year's release will be more expensive, regardless of the growing season. I like this wine with duck liver pate.

When the Brunellos and Super Tuscans are released later this year, I'm going to relish my stash of affordable, ordinary Tuscan wines from 1997, all of which happen to be quite extraordinary.

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