Tuscany may be the best known of all Italian regions. For centuries, its culture, landscape, and of course, wine, served as an inspiration to writers, filmmakers, painters, travelers and enthusiasts of the culinary arts. It carries a rich history, dating back to 1000 BCE when the Etruscan tribes occupied the region then known as Tuscia. Now, Tuscany is where the cities of Siena and Florence stand with their centuries-long turbulent rivalry, artistic prolificacy and architectural magnificence. It is where the tower of Pisa stands slanted, looking at the world in disbelief. It was between the years of 1434 and 1737 at the peak of the European Renaissance and under the rule of the Medici family when the region reached its heyday. With Florence as their capital, the Medicis supported and commissioned such artistic and scientific giants like Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei, giving birth to modernity.
Tuscany’s landscape is a combination of coastal plains, gently rolling farm hills and rugged mountain peaks. With its mild Mediterranean climate, agriculturally, Tuscany is one of the most fertile regions in Italy. It specializes in cereals, olives, an abundant variety of fruits and vegetables, and of course, wine grapes. The region is where cattle, poultry, horses and pigs are raised extensively. All this is coupled with locally sourced seafood and game results in a rich and diverse cuisine which has given inspiration to some of the best chefs and restaurants worldwide.
In June 2007, after two memorable visits to the Brunello di Montalcino wineries, I drove to Siena. The old town felt dense with history, exuding architectural richness and intensity from every cobblestone, staircase, statue, chapel and fountain. After a few hours of shopping and sightseeing, I sat outside a cafe on the brim of the crowded and lively Piazza del Campo. A friend of mine, Maria, came to meet me; a middle-aged waiter with a flawlessly detailed mustache brought us a couple of perfectly drawn espressos and tall glasses of Averna on ice. A sweet scent of cigar smeared against my nostrils. Maria rolled us two cigarettes, licking the paper with exquisite detail. We smoked, talked and marveled at the meticulously preserved architectural wonders. A dreamlike woman in a Polka dot dress walked by giving me an inviting smile just moments before falling into the arms of a brutally handsome man. I shot the espresso and took a long sip of Averna, put my hand on top of Maria’s and pressed it gently. She smiled, blew me a kiss, and I closed my eyes to cherish the moment. All sounds became one deep, cosmic murmur spanning centuries, transcending space and time and I wished that day was forever. In that peaceful moment, I reflected on the strong winemaking heritage of the region.
Sangiovese is the signature grape in Tuscany and is the most widely grown grape in Italy. It is a dark berried grapevine, valued for its high acid and firm tannins, greatly contributing to its balanced structure. Good quality Sangiovese wines offer aromas of cherry, dark stone fruit and savory notes of dried herbs and licorice with a touch of smokiness. Its widespread distribution throughout Tuscany contributes to its nuanced differences as well as a variety of nicknames. In the region of Montalcino, it goes by the name Brunello. In Montepulciano, it is known as Prugnolo Gentile. Around the medieval village of Scansano, it is called Morellino, which lends its name to a DOCG region of Morellino di Scansano. Outside Tuscany, one of the most exciting expressions of the grape comes from the island of Sardinia, where it carries the name Nieluccio.
Chianti is the largest and arguably most popular Tuscan DOCG area whose wines are based on Sangiovese. It was the Medicis again who demarcated the first Chianti wine zone in 1716. The area was given the DOC title in 1967, followed by the promotion to DOCG in 1984. During the 1970s, Chianti’s reputation drastically diminished, caused by loose and poorly implemented wine regulations. Lower quality grapes were allowed to blend with Sangiovese (even some white grapes), and mass production focusing on quantity rather than quality was a common occurrence. The 1990s brought about a dramatic change. The laws were revised, and both farming and winemaking regulations became stricter. New sub-regions, like Chianti Colli Aretini and Chianti Colli Senesi, among others, were created allowing for a more precise territorial distinction. In addition to local red grapes, Canaiolo and Colorino, quality international reds were introduced into the mix and since 2006 the use of white grapes has been prohibited. The categories of Chianti Classico, Classico Reserva, Classico Gran Selezione wines were introduced to further the quality of the region. Each one respectively requires the implementation of more rigorous rules of vinification. Another vital factor that has contributed to the resurgence and improvement of the wines of the Chianti region is the involvement of some reputable Italian wine families in the area like Antinori, Frescobaldi and Mazzei to mention a few.
Montalcino's hillside town rising 1850 feet above sea level and located about 20 miles south of Siena is where one of the most coveted red wines in the world is made. For a wine to carry the name of the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG on its label, it has to be made from 100% Sangiovese. The first records of wines in the region date back to the 14th century, but the birth of the modern all-Sangiovese Brunello, did not come until the 1870s, and it was inspired, in no small measure, by Ferruccio Biondi-Santi. After returning from Garibaldi’s campaigns, he took charge of his grandfather’s estate and immediately began to implement new, and unique for the time and the region, winemaking techniques. Vinifying Sangiovese separately, introducing the second (malolactic) fermentation, and aging wines in wooden barrels, often for years, were all considered highly unorthodox practices in the area.
Montalcino is one of the driest and warmest regions in Tuscany, producing grapes of a dense concentration of flavor and high tannin content. The vineyards at the foothills with warmer temperatures and more productive soils, produce juicier and more fruit-forward wines. In contrast, the hillside vines result in a racier, lighter style. Regular bottlings of Brunello must be aged for five years before the release. Riserva must be aged for six years. High-quality Brunello di Montalcino, especially from top producers. can cost way above a “regular” person’s price range, reaching up to $80 to $150 a bottle, if not more. Rosso di Montalcino, which comes from the same area, is also required to be comprised of 100% Sangiovese and can be a great alternative to Brunello. These wines are usually made from younger vines awaiting the maturity level worthy of Brunellos and come at a fraction of the price, often with great quality.
The Super Tuscan category of wines was born from the rebellion of some innovative winemakers wanting to produce wines from “unauthorized” grapes, which were not permitted by the DOC or DOCG regulations. Bolgheri, where the first and by now legendary Sassicaia wine was produced in the 1960s, stands out in that category with its Tenuta San Guido wine. Eventually, both Bolgheri and Sassicaia were granted the DOC status. The region set a standard and cleared the path for a slew of wines made from single varietal and blended wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Sangiovese. Some of these wines, like Masseto, Tignanello, Solaia, Ornellaia and Sassicaia have established themselves as some of the most sought-after wines in the world. A bottle of 1990 Sassicaia, which traditionally is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc retails for around $500.
In the region of Carmignano, only 10 miles northwest of Florence, the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were a part of the grape ensemble before the introduction of the Super Tuscans—another area with a long history of winemaking going back to the 14th century with documented records. Here, at least 50% of the blend has to be Sangiovese with the remainder of both Cabernets and the local Canaiolo Nero. Stylistically the wines resemble those of Carmignano’s famous neighbor, Chianti.
Two other Tuscan regions specialize in Sangiovese wines; Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Morellino di Scansano. Both hold the DOCG status, and both allow a small percentage of other grapes in their blend. They produce a slightly more unaffected expression of the grape with a generally riper and fruitier style considering warmer temperatures in these southern areas. If picked carefully, these wines can offer a great quality to value bargain with a versatile drinkability factor.
Are red wines based on Sangiovese grape dominant in Tuscany? Yes! By far! Are there any whites made there, and are they worth mentioning? Absolutely!
The most notable white wine and the only DOCG region for whites in Tuscany is Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Vernaccia is the grape; San Gimignano is a small, walled, medieval hilltop town in the province of Siena. In its pure form, Vernaccia is a crisp, dry white wine of a golden hue with brisk flavors of lemon, tart apple, herbaceous notes thyme and a finish of bitter almonds.
Aside from Vernaccia, there are other white grapes, indigenous and international, cultivated in Tuscany. Used for both dry whites as well as the decadently sweet Vin Santos wine, the ubiquitous and versatile Trebbiano and Malvasia belong to the indigenous category. From the international camp, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have experimented with promising results.