Tuscany: Beauty and the Juice

With its unsurpassed, almost spellbinding visual appeal, coupled with some of the finest vineyards in the world, Tuscany has long been a favorite spot for wine lovers everywhere.

Tuscany boasts of a long history of viticulture, dating back to when Etruscan populations settled in the region in the 8th century BC.  Naturally abundant in wild grape vines that covered its hilly terrain, the Etruscans are credited with taking the grapes and using them as a basis for domestic crops.

Archeological evidence, including remnants of amphorae (ceramic vessels used to transport products) suggests that as early as the 7th century BC, the Etruscans were not only producing wine, but were exporting it to southern Italy and France (then Gaul).  By the 3rd century BC, literary references were made by Greek writers citing their undying admiration for Tuscan wines.

During the Middle Ages, the main purveyors of wines in the region were monasteries. That changed as aristocratic and merchant classes emerged, inheriting a system of agriculture the Italians called mezzadria.  Mezzadria allowed landowners to provide their land and resources for the planting of new crops in exchange for half, or mezza, of the annual crop.  Many savvy landowners would turn their half of the harvest into wine that would be sold in Florence, an established economic hub.  References to Florentine wine retailers go back as far as 1079, and a guild was created in the city in 1282.

By the 14th century, an average of 7.9 million US gallons of wine was sold annually in Florence. The earliest references to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, one of Tuscany’s best known products, date to the late 14th century. The Vernaccia and Greco wines of San Gimignano, still a top white wine region today, were considered luxury items more valuable than saffron. During this time, Tuscan winemakers also began experimenting with the process, eventually inventing governo, a technique which helped stabilize the wines and ferment the sugar content to yield a drier-tasting product.

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, noted Italian politician Bettino Ricasoli inherited his family estate in Broglio, located in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. Directing all his energies towards enhancing the property, Ricasoli traveled to Germany and France, studying grape varietals and wine production practices. He imported several varietals back to Tuscany for trial and error development; however, Ricasoli soon discovered that three native varietals — Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia— produced the best wine. According to many, this opinion still holds true.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata

Tuscany has its own designation of origin system to ensure quality. The Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which is modeled on the French AOC, was instituted in 1963. It has, however, faced major challenges from winemakers. During the 1970s, the Chianti region’s DOC regulations featured very rigid restrictions on what grape varieties could be used in Chianti wine and in what proportions. Many Chianti producers became frustrated, believing that they could produce a better class of wine without such dictates. This led to the emergence of what is now called the Super Tuscans. Rebellious in nature, this unofficial category of high-quality wines has earned the endorsement of such notable oenophiles as Robert Parker, whose affiliation has catapulted them towards international fame. Today, Super Tuscans aren’t restricted to the Chianti, but come from areas all across Tuscany.

Top-Tier Super Tuscans

If there is a king of the Super Tuscans, it is Masseto, produced by the Tenuta dell’Ornellaia estate. This dry, opulent red is made from the Merlot grape, which grows exceptionally well in Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’s vineyards located in the coastal area of Bolgheri. Masseto vintages have enjoyed consistent critical acclaim and a market performance to match it. The 2001 vintage saw a value increase of 60% in twelve months from 2011 to 2012, and early in 2012 a rare large-format bottle become a record-breaker when it sold for $49,000—four times its estimated price.

Other examples of highly investable Tuscan wines are Ornellaia, the stablemate of Masseto, and Sassicaia, one of Tuscany’s leading blended wines. Like those of Masseto, Ornellaia’s recent vintages have received excellent scores in the high 90s, and in a twelve-month period between 2011 and 2012, the 1996 vintage increased in value by an impressive 200%. Sassicaia has achieved similarly fantastic scores, and represents great value for a wine of its quality.

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