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Wine from Tuscany

Wine from Tuscany

Savoring Tuscany: Discovering Its Distinctive Wines

Introduction

Is anywhere in Italy more associated with fine wine? True, Piedmont and Veneto have a higher number of DOC and DOCG zones, but the great names of Tuscany have a hold in the international imagination like no other region just as its dreamy, rolling landscape inspired international writers like Goethe and Forster. In many ways the heart of Italy, the country whose language is based on the Tuscan of this region’s three most famous writers (Petrarch, Boccaccio and of course Dante), home to some of the peninsula’s most celebrated art and architecture from Michelangelo’s David to the leaning tower of Pisa, the birthplace of scientific and cultural icons like Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo and Amedeo Modigliani, and home to extraordinary cities like Lucca, Siena, and of course Florence. And not to mention those rolling hills, which aside from being beautiful are teeming with game and excellent for agriculture – and perhaps especially for wine.

Geographically the region borders Liguria to the north, Lazio to the south, and Umbria and Le Marche to the east, with a significant coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea (marked by the cities of Pisa and Livorno as well as the Maremma area), off which are the islands of the Tuscan Archipelago, including the important historic island of Elba. Towards the coast the climate is marked by its long, warm summers, but inland (where most of the great viticultural zones are) the extra elevation means greater diurnal temperature variation, and in places is even notable for what is known as a ‘Highland’ climate.

The wine

This extra variation in temperature is crucial for retaining balance in a wine (basically, the grapes grow and develop sugar during the heat of the day but stop in the cool of the night, retaining acidity), and is particularly important for the most important grape variety in Tuscany, sangiovese, and its heartland that is really the heart of Tuscan wine production: Chianti.

Chianti is a rather frustrating region to classify. Its core area, the historic Chianti Classico, is solid enough, a great block between Florence and Siena (which is to say, smack in the middle of the region). The trouble is the way the zone fans out in a kind of spiral, including all sorts of subdivisons around towns as far as Arezzo and Pisa, some of which take their names from towns much further away than their local area, and indeed some zones which have their own, rather prestigious names (more on which later). But for now let’s focus on the Classico, an area based on an edict of 1716 issued by Cosimo III Medici that defined the territory (it’s not identical, but it’s similar). Classico is the most historic of the eight areas of the Chianti DOCG (all of which can be sold under Chianti, Chianti Superiore or Chianti Riserva labels). It comprises eleven different villages, running from San Casciano near Florence all the way down to Castelnuovo Berardenga in the province of Siena. There isn’t enough time to detail all of these, but each village’s wines are renowned for special characteristics derived from microclimatic conditions, differences in terroir, and traditions local to the different paesini. According to the DOCG regulations, Chianti Classico DOCG wines must be made of at least 80% sangiovese and can be made (though rarely are) of 100%, while the 20% that remain must be made of dark grapes like canaiolo; this is distinct from the rest of Chianti, where the minimum level of sangiovese is 70% and 10% is allowed to be white grapes like malvasia and trebbiano.

Those other Chianti DOCG subzones are Colli Aretini around Arezzo, Colli Fiorentini near Florence, Colli Senesi around Siena, Colline Pisane on the east side of Pisa, Montalbano south of Pistoia, Montespertoli between Florence and Castelfiore to the southwest, and Rufina northeast of Florence, the latter of which is perhaps the best known outside the region. Due to the slightly bizarre and shapeless extension of the Chianti regions (it would not be accurate to call Chianti a single region) it is impossible to summarise the dizzying array of stylistic tweaks and nudges from the soils that generate variation here.

Nevertheless, the basic Chianti aroma and flavour profile is famous: the sangiovese grape with its brooding fruits and tang of iron, the smooth tannins and whip of acidity, the various recipes that tip scales in one direction or another. The minimum ageing requirement for Chianti is 3 months, though many subzones demand 9 and the Classico mandates at least 10; Superiore from anywhere must be aged for 9 months, while Riserva wines require at least a whopping 2 years in barrel (and 3 months in bottle) before release, and many winemakers do even more, naturally producing a deeper, fuller, more rounded style of Chianti. There is also the gran selezione category, an extremely special Chianti Classico label very seldom used, which display the name of the village on the bottle and must be at least 90% sangiovese, which are exceptionally sought-after.

But Chianti isn’t just not the only great wine in the region – it’s not the only great red made from sangiovese within the designated Chianti area! Winemakers in the Sienese hill of Montalcino technically fall within that zone, but in fact have a completely distinct and proud winemaking identity themselves; in fact, they even have a different version of the sangiovese grape. Brunello di Montalcino DOCG has to be 100% brunello (the local clone of the grape), and benefits from the warmth (i.e. early-ripening), relative elevation (up to around 500m), and extraordinary variety of soils (especially galestro, a local marl) of the hill of Montalcino. These wines don’t run cheap, but their expressions of the brunello are grape are incredible – ethereal, complex, long-lived, mysterious. A blended, mid-price version of the wine is sold as Rosso di Montalcino DOC also exists, which often represent really exceptional value.

There are three more DOCGs based on sangiovese. First, the confusingly-named Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, also from Siena province, confusing because it has nothing to do with the famed Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine from the neighbouring region. That latter wine is made from a grape called montepulciano; Vino Nobile is made from 70% sangiovese around a town called Montepulciano. That sangiovese is blended with local grapes like canaiolo and mammolo, and is known as a particularly dry expression of the grape, not unlike Saint Estèphe Bordeaux.
Second, the ancient Carmignano DOCG in the northern province of Prato. These wines are notable for two particular aspects: one, that sangiovese makes up only 50% of the blend; and two, that the rest of the blend is notable for its use of French grapes like cabernet sauvignon and has been since the 19th century. All of this, along with its peculiar terroir, leads to a notably low-acid, high-tannin wine, with a strong pyrazine (read: minty, bell-pepper) aromatic profile.
Finally, the Morellino di Scansano DOCG, in the province of Grosseto. Morellino is the local name for sangiovese, which has to make up at least 85% of the blend. Morellino di Scansano is largely regarded as the freshest and lightest of the sangiovese-based DOCGs.

But the DOCGs and DOCs aren’t everything. Indeed, no survey of Tuscan reds would be complete without a discussion of one of the most influential wine categories in modern Italian history. Even the word ‘category’ can be misleading though. Though these wines are known as ‘Super Tuscans’ that phrase remains just a nickname. There’s no Super Tuscan zone, no Super Tuscan regulations, no Super Tuscan denominazione; instead, this is the moniker given to a certain type of Bordeaux-style blend (primarily made from merlot and cabernet sauvignon) that followed in the wake of one wine in particular – the ‘Sassicaia’ by Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri. That winery, in that small village in the province of Livorno, was to usher in something of a revolution in Italy. Despite being a clearly extraordinary bottle, its production – blending the two cabernets sauvignon and franc – satisfied no existing DOP-style rules, and was thus condemned to being sold as a vino da tavola, Italy’s lowest classification, generally reserved for cheap, bulk wine.

As more and more wineries from the region joined the fun, notably Antinori’s ‘Tignanello’, it became increasingly clear that this situation was untenable. This led to the 1992 creation of the IGT classification – indicazione geografica tipica, a difficult to regulate but invaluable part of the Italian wine world, that exists to protect products of quality but that which fall between the regulatory cracks. Interestingly the wine that inspired this innovation, ‘Sassicaia’ itself, is now produced under the label of the Bolgheri DOC.

Tuscany is rightly celebrated for all these reds, but they’re far from the only story in the region. A particularly celebrated native white variety is the famous vernaccia, responsible for the Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (the only white DOCG in Tuscany). A wine so good Dante mentions it as virtually its own category sin, this wine from the environs of the historic, tower-bound city near Siena must be made from at least 90% of its eponymous grape and is renowned for its crispness, freshness, and aromatic complexity.

The other most popular white grape in the region is vermentino, a grape native to Liguria but that has reached such prominence many mistake it for a Tuscan original. It’s perhaps best known for the Vermentino di Maremma DOC, mostly in the province of Grosseto, where it makes a soft, lemony, sometimes nutty wine.
Other unique whites from Tuscany requires a boat to get to. The grape ansonica is widespread on the island of Elba, where it makes a range of wines not dissimilar to those made from chardonnay. Elba is perhaps best known for its sweet wines however: on the white side, made from moscato, but on the red side made from a fairly rare grape called aleatico.

Sweet wines, of course, are something of a Tuscan speciality, and the region is especially famous for the production of Vin Santo. Technically known as a ‘straw wine’, Vin Santo is somewhat similar to recioto in that the grapes are laid out to dry so as to concentrate the sugars. There are several distinctive aspects to Vin Santo however that make it quite unlike other dessert wines: for one thing, they don’t have to be all that sweet, sometimes vinifying to relative dryness; for another, sometimes the wine is fermented from a starter yeast mixed with previous vintages of the wine in order to enrich it, a little like the solera system used for sherry; finally, again like sherry, the wine is deliberately oxidised while in barrel (unusually, barrels made often of cherry or chestnut) by not filling it up all the way, leading to its deep brown colour and characteristic toastiness. Vin Santo is a true gem, and is famously enjoyed with the almond biscotti known in the region as cantucci.

Reds and whites, dries and sweets, DOCs, DOCGs and a new category invented just for itself, Toscana’s reputation as one of the true great wine regions of not just Italy but the world is thoroughly, thoroughly earned.

The breakdown

Location: Central, west.

Climate: Mediterranean, warm.

Soils: wildly varied; from galestro and albarese (sandy clay and limestone) in Chianti, to sandstones in Montepulciano, to some tufo in Bolgheri and other volcanic soils in Maremma.

Elevation: 100-500m.

DOCGs, DOCs and IGTs: Chianti DOCG (Chianti Classico DOCG), Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Morellino di Scansano DOCG, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG, Bolgheri DOC, Rosso di Montalcino DOC, Elba Aleatico DOC, Toscana IGT (i.e. ‘Super Tuscans).

Main red grapes: aleatico, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, canaiolo, ciliegolo, mammolo, merlot, sangiovese.

Main white grapes: ansonica, malvasia, trebbiano, vermentino, vernaccia.

Hidden gem: Aleatico di Elba is a seriously unique offering!

About Wine Shop all’Amarone

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Wine Shop all’Amarone in Venice offers an exceptional selection of Italian wines, spotlighting the distinguished Amarone della Valpolicella. In addition to our Amarone focus, we proudly feature select wines from Puglia, showcasing the diversity and richness of Italy’s winemaking regions. Our curated collection is designed to offer wine lovers a taste of Italy’s finest, from the robust flavors of Amarone to the unique profiles of Pugliese wines.

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