Normally, whenever I read something with a title like “The Finest Wines of Lower Zanzibar,” my reaction is on the order of Sez who? and my subsequent reading is heavily charged with skepticism, if not outright disbelief. Most such screeds issue from the fertile brains of the Lower Zanzibar Chamber of Commerce or a similarly disinterested party and contain about as much genuine evaluation as they do useful information, quantities in both cases approaching absolute zero. That’s normally – but there are exceptions, and one exemplary one is a book with the breath-consuming title The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy: A Regional and Village Guide to the Best Wines and Their Producers.
This is probably not a book for the casual wine drinker – there is too much information, of too specific a nature for that – but for the wino who already loves Tuscany or who is embarking on that romance, The Finest Wines of Tuscany is more than useful: It’s close to indispensable.
Several elements of the book make it exceptional, despite its suspicion-rousing title (more about this later on). First, it’s written by Nicolas Belfrage, which automatically goes a long way toward building my confidence. Full disclosure: I know Nick Belfrage in a professional, collegial capacity. We encounter each other several times a year at tastings and such, exchange opinions, socialize briefly. I like him and respect his knowledge. I liked him and respected his knowledge years before I ever met him: Belfrage has been one of the pioneers of Italian wine journalism, from even before his 1985 publication of Life Beyond Lambrusco.
I suspect that, over the years, he has put up with more than his share of condescension from some of his British colleagues because of his early championing of the cause of quality Italian wines. (Believe me, gentle readers, there are still a fair number of British connoisseurs – and a few North American as well – who refuse to accept that the words “quality” and “Italian wines” can occur in the same sentence.) Belfrage has persisted, and his beliefs have prevailed. The excellence of Tuscany in particular (much more so than Piedmont for the British palate and market) is now a widely if not universally acknowledged truth.
Few people know the wines of Tuscany better than Belfrage. He has been professionally involved with them for decades, both as a journalist and as a member of the wine trade. In the US, that usually raises eyebrows and immediate questions of conflict of interest; in the UK, it is a commonplace situation and nobody takes notice of it. In the days before organized press tastings, there was no better way to learn wine and to taste a lot of it than by joining the trade. For years now, Belfrage has lived most of the year in Tuscany – not, if I remember correctly, in the conventional Chiantishire, but in that remoter, wilder northeastern corner called Rufina. So this present book is the distillation (sorry!) of his many years of experience in Tuscany and with its wines.
Belfrage’s introductory material is terrific, covering all the essential points of history, geology, law, grape varieties, viticulture, and vinification clearly and entertainingly. Anyone naïve enough to think that winemaking is a simple and essentially natural process will find this material eye-opening.
The bulk of the book is a series of individual entries about producers, the vast majority of them Tuscan red wine makers. Belfrage’s focus is the kingdom of Sangiovese, and white wines and parts of central Italy outside Tuscany really lie just on the border of that realm. Each entry tells you about the ownership and management of the estate and its history, where relevant, and then focuses on the best wines, often with vertical tasting notes. One can argue about what estates should have been included or excluded; I myself, while I share his reverence for Castello di Volpaia and Selvapiana, would certainly have listed Castello di Verrazzano and Villa Cafaggio, for instance. But that’s beside the point: The selection is his, and the reasons for each inclusion are full and persuasive. There is simply a wealth of data here for the active or budding Tuscan wine fan to glean, in haste or at leisure. The book can be read right through to his concluding lists (ten tens, to make “The Finest 100”), or it can be dipped into or used as a reference work.
I shouldn’t fail to mention that this is also a very handsome book, with a multitude of fine color photos throughout (Jon Wyand is the photographer). It’s a beautiful production job – good paper, nice size, good feel in the hand, and excellent look to the eye. It’s published by the University of California Press but produced by Fine Wine Editions, the people behind The World of Fine Wine, a roughly quarterly journal, a subscription to which costs about $150 a year.
My one reservation about the book – a very small one – rests in the pretentiousness of the journal and the “Finest Wines of” title chosen for its series (yes, there will be more). Hugh Johnson, as editorial advisor, provides the face of this organization, and some of the worst lapses of his normally sound writing seem to set its tone. His one-page introduction to Belfrage’s book manages to segue from wines provoking conversation, to wines speaking to us, to the best wines being silent, “like French cartoons, sans paroles,” to wines as horses (thoroughbreds, to be sure), to the wine world as a plain with peaks and crevasses, and finally back to wines as language working out a new grammar for themselves. As they used to say in The New Yorker, block that metaphor!
One final note: excellent as this book is, it is not the first of its kind. Back in 2002, Maurizio Rosso and photographer Chris Meier brought out The Mystique of Barolo, an equally beautiful, informative, and finally very moving memoir of the Barolo community – another book that belongs in every serious wine lover’s collection.