A Profile of the Wines of Tuscany
A Wine Lover’s Travelogue
by Paul Howard
Tuscany was the region where Italy’s wine renaissance began at the end of the sixties and it is still a powerhouse of wine excellence and innovation. Here in the UK, the wines of Tuscany are almost synonymous with Chianti. So by inference Sangiovese, their most widely planted noble red grape. However, there are many other red and white grape varieties to enjoy. Add in variations in the Tuscan terrain and winemaking style and Tuscany becomes a complex patchwork of wine designations. Famous areas overlap with those that are new, emerging or simply little known.
Here then are some brief ideas for discovering Tuscan wines. Remembering that there is so much more to Tuscany than wine alone. Chianti-shire is a cradle of art and literature, history and gastronomy. Hence the sheer brio of Tuscany’s best wines comes with their vital sense of place, redolent of the stunning Tuscan countryside and the peerless medieval cities of Florence, Siena, Pisa and Lucca.
There’s no better place to begin than with Chianti Classico. This comes from the landscape painted by Giotto and da Vinci. It stretches along the winding road between Florence and Siena known as La Chiantigiana.
Views are panoramic. Waves of hills with oak forest tops, castles and villages. All around are olive groves and vineyards. Cypress, poplar and pine trees dot the fringes.
“If in doubt look for their Black Rooster logo”
Chianti has seven different zones, of which Chianti Classico is the glorious beating heart. If a wine’s label reads only Chianti it is likely to be of a humble standard. The other Chianti zones are more variable in quality. International as well as local indigenous grapes are now allowable partners for Sangiovese. The riserva are made from the best vintages or the best vineyards and designed for ageing, frequently in French oak barriques. Some producers are members of a consortium whose function is to protect the quality of Chianti Classico. So if in doubt look for their Black Rooster logo.
Innovation is widespread. The plethora of wines made by the Classico producers are known as the “Supertuscan” wines. The freedom of the IGT wine laws were means experiments with grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are widespread. Many of these wines are of a very high standard and often have prices to match. Whether traditional Classico or Modern Toscana IGT, there are many great producers, including Castello di Ama, Querciabella, Castellare, Fontodi, Antinori, Fonterutoli and Barone Ricasoli.
“The best producers make superb Vernaccia”
Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a traditional white wine from the west of Chianti. It comes from the rolling green hills that surround the unique hilltop town of San Gimignano. This town is often described as a medieval Manhattan because of the towers that give such breathtaking balcony views. While there is some criticism of quality in the past, the best producers make superb Vernaccia. In addition, although San Gimignano is famous for this white wine, the reds are also gaining a reputation too. Look out for Teruzzi & Puthod, Falchini, Monte Oliveto and Strozzi, though again there are many others to explore.
Tuscany’s modern wine revolution may have started in Chianti Classico but it soon spread west to the Etruscan coast, a once pestilential marshland without any fine winemaking traditions. Yet this area is now simply buzzing with ideas, ambition – and some of the most famous Supertuscans of all. This is the new world of the Bolgheri and northern Maremma. Here vineyards with international acclaim are planted just inland, where the hills rear up magnificently from the coast. French grape varieties suit the warmer maritime climate. The wines therefore take their principle inspiration from Bordeaux and if Sangiovese appears it is usually in a supporting role.
“The Syrah grape seems to suit the area”
It all started with Sassicaia in the late 1960’s. This is one of Italy’s finest (and now most expensive) wines, created from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Others followed suit using a similar model, such as Ornellaia, Guado al Tasso and Ca’Marcanda. These are precision wines where the luxurious French content meets effortless Italian designer style. But these aristocrats are not alone; there are now more than fifty Bolgheri wineries including Grattamacco, Satta, Castello del Terriccio and Fornacelle.
Heading further north, the splendid town of Lucca is a jewel at the base of jaggy mountains. The town is sometimes overshadowed by its Tuscan neighbours, but it is an essential visit. This is the birthplace of Puccini, with medieval buildings set down on a Roman street plan. It is completely surrounded by perfectly preserved city walls. Indeed, these boulevard-wide ramparts provide the ideal viewing platform to see the city within and hum ‘Nessun Dorma’ while strolling along in the sunshine.
Looking outward, the two tiny enclaves that arc around the north side of the town have grown grapes since Roman times. These are Colline Lucchesi and Montecarlo. They are separate from one another only by a wide river valley. A vast range of red and white grape varieties grow here, which means that almost anything goes. But the Syrah grape seems to suit the area particularly well. These wines remain Lucca’s best-kept secret and deserve to be better known. Look out for Tenuta di Valgiano, Montechiari, Fattoria la Torre, Carmignani and Buonamico.
“Enough to discover to last a lifetime”
Tuscany still has many more regions to explore besides these and there is simply no room to give them more than a passing mention! For example, there are two areas to the south of Chianti Classico famous for the quality of their Sangiovese based reds. Brunello has had entire books written about it and Biondi-Santi and Il Poggione are just two of many important producers. Meanwhile, Montepulciano is very nearly as well known for their Vino Nobile, with Avignonesi, Cerro and Poliziano included in any poll of top names. Other regions have a far lower profile that adventurous wine lovers can capitalise on. For example, wines originating from the Carmignano, Morellino di Scansano, Val di Cornia and Montecucco areas can provide exceptional value.
Finally, Tuscany also makes the unique Vin Santo in a number of regions, an oxidised sweet white dessert wine. They make another rare speciality on Elba, the island of Napoleon’s exile. It’s a sweet red dessert wine made from the Aleatico grape that is a chocolatier’s dream. Tuscany has enough to discover to last a lifetime –and that’s just the wine!