Untying Tuscany – a quick guide to the wine region and its styles
Untying Tuscany – a quick guide to the wine region and its styles
Tuscany in central Italy is famous for many things – the glorious art, architecture and culture of Florence and Siena, the Tuscan countryside, its beautiful rolling hills and breath-taking villas and, of course, its food and wine.
In terms of wine, ‘Tuscany’ and ‘Chianti’ are synonymous to many people. Not only is this incorrect, but the wine landscape of the region is far more complex and dynamic than this ubiquitous, over-arching classification can give accurate credit. The central core of Tuscany produces fine red wine based almost entirely on the noble Sangiovese grape, divided into several sub-regions (see below). Towards the Tuscan coast to the west on the shores of Tyrrhenian Sea, a very different style of wine – the so-called ‘Super Tuscan’ – may be produced, made on the whole with a little Sangiovese blended with non-native grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. These wines command some of the highest retail prices. Tuscany produces about 5% of Italian wine production by volume but rather more than 10% of total value.
A Tuscan wine can be bought for well under £10 a bottle in the UK for a basic Chianti blend (some of which may actually be quite good), up to many £100’s for the best single estate Tuscan or Super Tuscans. Despite the stellar reputation of the very top producers (with associated stratospheric prices), in the middle there is incredibly good value, arguably far more so than the fine wines of France, for example. If you are lucky enough to visit Italy and dine in a Tuscan restaurant, even the most exclusive establishment with a long wine list will offer very good value compared to the London restaurant scene.
Many excellent and detailed books have been written on Tuscany and what follows is a necessarily very brief overview by way of an introduction and strongly reflects the opinion of this author.
Characteristics and style
The Sangiovese grape is king in Tuscany and in the best locations with the best winemakers, produces sublime wine that is second to none in the global pecking order. The Sangiovese does particularly well in its native terroirs and microclimates, and unlike some other famous Old World noble grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, has rarely done well outside its home. Attempts to produce fine wine with Sangiovese in California, Chile and Australia have not met with critical acclaim.
Sangiovese is a late ripening, tannic grape that needs plenty of sunshine. It generally is not grown north of Tuscany as overcast and rainy days are more common and hence there is a lack of ripening hours. It typically produces dry wines which may appear rather light in body. Upon opening a bottle of Tuscan red, one is often struck by a very strong smell of cherries (some say Morello cherries) and redcurrants. The mouthfeel is often a little acidic with young wines, with red berry fruits and an occasional herbaceous character to the fore (some say oregano or thyme). More concentrated wines are produced with the mid-range Chiantis and above and with the best Brunellos and Vino Nobile riservas, darker, fuller and richer wines are common.
Fermentation commonly takes place in stainless steel tanks or glass-lined cement vats. Oak is used to age the wine in almost all cases and a general rule, riservas have had more time in oak than more humble wines but the system is not as rigid as say, in Rioja. Oak barrels are varying sizes and origin are used to age the wine. Tuscany has recently added the ‘Gran Selezione’ grouping above riserva in an attempt to demarcate the top estates. This is proving a controversial exercise as the Tuscan plutocrats attempt to create some daylight between their estates and the domestiques in the peleton, so to speak
Classification and sub-regions
The classification and nuances of Italian wine are complex but in essence, there are three levels that we should be concerned with viz-a-viz Tuscany. IGT or indication of geographical type is a classification above table wine (VdT) where non-native grapes are permitted to a greater extent and these wines are considered to me regional in character rather than the quality you would expect from a single estate wine. However, Super Tuscan wines were classified as IGT until recently, as they used a large proportion of non-native grapes but they also commanded very high prices in many cases! DOC or controlled origin is similar to AOC in France. DOCG is one notch higher and adds ‘guaranteed’ – this is the highest tier of wine. Though, as like many things in the wine world, DOCG classification alone is no guarantee of a superb glass of wine, it should generally be more reliable than a DOC and will command a higher price.
Tuscany is far from homogenous in terms of soil, rock type and climate – what the viticulturists refer to using the French word terroir. The coastal zone is more humid: away from the coast it is warmer and drier with longer spells without rain in the summer. Soil varies from sandy and gravelly at the coast to deposits of clay and marl in the central zone, calcareous soil is preferred by Sangiovese.
Tuscany is divided into various regions or communes of which the main ones of note are:
- Chianti Classico
- Chianti Rufina
- Brunello di Montalcino
- Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano
- San Gimignano
All these sub-regions can produce absolutely outstanding wines based on the Sangiovese varietal. Most use mainly Sangiovese but in Bolgheri, the Super Tuscan trend has seen Sangiovese blended with large proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Syrah to great effect.
Tuscan wine and food
As a wine writer, wine enthusiast, wine buyer and wine consumer (!) I do still have to endure a lot of nonsense spoken and written about wine. It is a fact that wine is essentially an everyday drink in many parts of the world and historically is made to be drunk alongside food. When we think about First Growth clarets or discuss £100 bottles of Burgundy, it is sobering not to lose sight of that fact.
If you enjoy wine with your food – and most of us do – the good news is the Tuscan red wine is some of the most food-friendly wine in the world. It can even cope with the ‘tomato curse’ – as any chef or sommelier will tell you, matching dishes strong in tomato, particularly raw tomatoes, is a real challenge for a wine – the acidity can often overpower wines and make them very unpalatable. Sangiovese copes better than most and a rich tomato sauce matched with a Chianti, can be a match made in heaven.
A youthful, slightly tannic Chianti Classico goes very well with pasta and a rich sauce or grilled chicken. Moving up and a dark, brooding, concentrated Brunello or Vino Nobile can be a superb match with a beef casserole or a steak. Even if meat does not ‘float your boat’, those lovely, rich Mediterranean vegetable dishes also go well with our Tuscan wines.
In an Italian restaurant in the UK, you’ll probably find better value for money than you might experience at a French restaurant – or for that matter, a trendy urban gastropub. Sound Chiantis can be had for £15 – £20 on the wine list (see recommended buys below). If you want to spend a little more, sound single-estate Chianti Classicos with 5 or more years age are often very good.
Recommended buys – a personal selection
These are the names to look out for:
Chianti Classico – Antinori, Felsini, Fonterutoli, Fondoti, Panzanello. Poggerino, Querciabella, Mazzei
Brunello – Barbi, Biondi-Santi, Il Poggione, Piancornello
Vino Nobile – Poliziano, Boscarelli, Il Macchione, Palazzo Vecchio
Bolgheri – so called Super Tuscans – save up for these – Antinori, Frescobaldi, Sassicaia