Ruffino is one of the Italian wine brands most familiar to Americans, and in fact was the first Chianti to be imported into this country. It’s easy to forget that the image of Chianti wasn’t always glorious. When cousins Ilaro and Leopoldo Ruffino established their Tuscan winery in 1877, the region was impoverished and struggling, with millions of well-heeled tourists at least a century off in the future. Bettino Ricasoli, working on what is now the Brolio estate, had codified the wine’s recipe five years earlier: no more than 70% Sangiovese, at least 10% white grapes (Malvasia and Trebbiano), and the rest Canaiolo.
Poverty-stricken landscapes don’t produce great wine, and Chianti had been distinctly low-tech for centuries. From the beginning, though, Ruffino was different. The wine began winning medals in the 1880s, and in 1890 was designated an official supplier to the Italian royal family by the Duke of Aosta. In 1927 Ruffino memorialized that distinction by releasing their first vintage of Riserva Ducale. The Riserva Ducale Oro, or gold label Chianti, followed in 1947 and later became the favorite wine of Tony Soprano—who ultimately made the Duke of Aosta pale in significance.
Everything changed in 1971, when Piero Antinori blended a small amount of Cabernet into his Chianti Classico, Tignanello, and ignited the Super Tuscan revolution. Before long the Chianti recipe was history; Tuscan wine catapulted into the top tier of international collectibles, and it was made more and more from Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. Modus, Ruffino’s highly acclaimed Super Tuscan, was released in 1997, followed by Alauda in 2011.
The 2016 Modus ($25) is composed of 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 39% Sangiovese from Ruffino’s Poggio Casciano estate, vinified separately and blended for maximum effect. The deeply colored, nearly opaque wine has a fetching nose of anise, smoke, dark berries and new wood. It enters the mouth aggressively, displaying good acidity and vibrant flavors of blackberry and rhubarb in the mid palate. The finish is marked by young tannins and echoes of grape skins. Potential food pairings are exceptionally wide here, starting with pasta in Bolognese sauce and progressing all the way up to game and braised meats.
Luxurious aromas of crushed fresh herbs and black raspberry jam perfume the nose of the 2015 Alauda ($88), a blend of 40% Cabernet Franc, 35% Merlot and 25% Colorino. Talk about opaque: you could conceal a silver dollar in a glass of this wine and never find it. The texture is best described as rich and fat; the jammy black fruits dominate on entry, but a fine herbal edge rises in the mid palate and continues on the long finish. Ruffino describes Alauda as “the ultimate contemporary expression of Tuscany,” and they’re not far off.
It has become a cliché to say that any particular wine is a bargain compared to California Cabernet, but that’s definitely true here. And let’s face it: anytime you can drink better than Tony Soprano, it’s a good day.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. Friend of the Devil, his first novel, was released in 2016; his second novel, The American Crusade, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is now available on Amazon.