Natural Treasures of Tuscany
By W Peter Hoyne
Tuscany is a picturesque countryside with a romantic identity that can never be forgotten. Its capital is Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the cultural revolution of scholars and influential artists of Donatello, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Outside this historic enclave is the inescapable beauty of lush rolling landscapes, olive groves and stunning hilltop vineyards surrounded by medieval towns and quaint rural villages such as Greve, Panzano and San Gimignano. Yet, Tuscany is most recognized for its illustrious wines.
The triangular geography of Tuscany extends from Emilia-Romagna, just north of city of Florence, to Marche and Umbria in the east. The Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Sea form its western boundary following south to the scenic coastal town of Lazio. The sea contributes a warm Mediterranean climate with cooling breezes from the coast. The interior valley temperatures are warmer while the higher mountainous elevations remain cool. These differences in elevations create wines with a unique expression. Tuscany encompasses nearly 9,000 square miles with over 157,000 acres of vineyards, most planted to red grapes (80%). The Etruscans became the first cultural society and wine growers in Tuscany dating back to the 8th Century BC. Traveling from Asia, they brought their winemaking skills to Tuscany and Southern France, before passing them on to the Romans.
Italy cultivates nearly 2,000 native grape varietals with 350 grapes having an “authorized” status. Sangiovese is Tuscany’s dominant red grape and the most widely planted red varietal throughout Italy. With numerous clones of Sangiovese spreading across this vast geographic region, this grape expresses itself differently depending on the site and elevation. The soils vary in Tuscany from sandy, clay-limestone and volcanic to a brittle rocky-marl base known as Galestro, found in some of Tuscany’s best vineyards. The most recognized of Sangiovese styled wines have emerged from Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. With regard to Tuscany’s expressive white grapes, those that stand out are Trebbiano and Vernaccia di San Gimigano in addition to the sweet wines of Vin Santo.
Many times we assimilate Chianti with Chianti Classico, when in fact the character and quality of these wines are vastly different. Chianti is a term referring to a homogenous style of wines grown in a wide swatch of Tuscany. In 1716, the official recognition of the Chianti growing region occurred when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de Medici, demarcated the boundaries of Chianti between the cities of Florence and Siena. In the past, Chianti’s high yields caused the wines to be overproduced offering a generic flavor profile. Sangiovese was blended with white grapes along with the reds of Canaiolo Nero, Mamollo or Colorino.
Chianti Classico is very specific to its geographic zone and flavor profile. The Gallo Nero, evidenced by the Black Rooster, identifies the wines of Chianti Classico. Chianti Classico DOCG officially became recognized in 1984. The wines of Chianti Classico DOCG have to be at least 80% Sangiovese and white grapes are not permitted. The managing members of the wines of Chianti Classico, referred to as the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, monitor and regulate the quality in this locale. Within the confines of Chianti Classico reside eight communes. Included are towns such as Radda, Greve, San Casciano, Gialoe and Castellina. With the addition of strict regulations, many site specific Chianti Classico’s have evolved with a spice rack of flavors woven into the fabric of the wine. These are not ultramodern or even Old World expressions, but instead wines of balance, finesse and a sense of place with an affinity for food.
In 2013, Chianti Classico ratcheted up the status level introducing a new category, Gran Selezione, atop a pyramid of quality. At the base is Chianti Classico Annata ”Vintage dated” wines that require 80% of Sangiovese in the blend along with a minimum of 12 months of aging. In the middle is Chianti Classico Riserva, more deep and vibrant, requiring 80% of Sangiovese and 24 months of aging.
At the highest point of this pyramid is the distinguished classification of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. The wines must have a minimum of 80% Sangiovese from estate grown grapes of the best vineyards. They can be a single vineyard expression and must adhere to strict technical and sensory parameters. Gran Selezione wines must be aged a minimum of 30 months, six months longer than Riserva wines and will have at least three months of bottle aging.
Unlike many winegrowing regions in the world, Tuscany’s producers have an individualistic approach to Sangiovese and a respect for tradition. At Castello d’Alma in southern Tuscany, where the soil is rich in minerals, they prefer Sangiovese that is fresh and elegant. They don’t want to make a copy, but instead want to make an original.
In this mecca of gastronomic pleasures, the grape varietals of Tuscany always match the food of the region. Popular dishes include Panzenella (tomato and bread salad), Bistecca alla Florentina (beefsteak of Florence) and pappardelle al cinghiale (pasta with wild boar ragu). Sheep have always been the mainstay and integral part of Tuscan life, so sheep’s milk cheeses such as Pecorino are a staple here.
One of Tuscany’s greatest appellations and wines are those of Brunello di Montalcino meaning “little dark one.” Near the province of Siena, within the heart of the Chianti Classico region is the secluded medieval hilltop village of Montalcino. These terraced vineyards rest on the slopes surrounding the town at elevations as high as 1,900 feet. The sunlight and microclimates of the slopes allow the grapes to ripen earlier. Brunello di Montalcino’s are 100% Sangiovese Grosso aged for a minimum of four years with two years in casks giving them a refined texture over time. Biondi Santi is credited with making some of the first technical advances in winemaking in this region. Lesser expensive renditions from this area are referred to as Rosso di Montalcino.
In southern Tuscany are vineyards that surround the town of Montepulciano and the Sangiovese wines of Vino Nobile de Montepulciano. Produced from 70% Sangiovese Prugnolo Gentile, these wines are allowed to be blended with 30% of other local varietals and no more than 5% white grapes. They are aged for a minimum of two years, with at least 12 months in wood. The Vino Nobile de Montepulciano wines are structured with a high aromatic profile, dark plum and wild strawberry overtones and balanced with bright acidity. Overall, they are some of the best values in Tuscany.
The western coastal regions of Bolgheri and Maremma offer a tropical perspective with sandy beaches and palm trees, which almost seem out of place as a winegrowing region. It is here that Super Tuscans, known as IGT’s “Indicazione Geografica Tipica” reign supreme. The new labeling law was established in 1970. The IGT designation represents the typical geographic characteristics of the region where it is grown, yet does not adhere to the regional blending guidelines. Instead, these wines incorporate non-traditional Italian varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other Bordeaux Varietals included with up to 50% Syrah or Sangiovese. These are definitely a New World rendition of Tuscan wine. The Super Tuscans push beyond the charismatic style of Sangiovese into a forceful, “super “ fruit-driven expression with concentration and depth that may remind you of an Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines have attracted a new generation of Italian loyalists.
In 1971, Tenuta San Guido became one of the first wineries to introduce a Super Tuscan blend naming it “Sassicaia.” Later, Piero Antinori released Tignanello, Solaia and Guado al Tasso; then came Ornellaia in 1985. Many times these fanciful Bordeaux-styled wines imitated their neighbors in France while also carrying a significant price tag. Within the last decade others have followed in creating less expensive versions of IGT’s that offer nearly the same level of excitement at a fraction of the cost.