Spotlight on Tuscan Wines
Tuscan wines are some of Italy's most lauded expressions. Think Brunello, Chianti and the eponymous Super Tuscans… Tuscany is a region of such outstanding quality that the first DOC and DOCG regions in the country were founded there: Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOC in 1966 and Brunello di Montalcino DOCG in 1980. It's worth mentioning that the most planted grape in Italy is Sangiovese, the variety that unassumingly makes up nearly all the finest wines of the region. You won't find its name anywhere on the label, but it is the grape powering the Tuscan stalwarts from Brunello di Montalcino to the deceptively named Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Geographically, Tuscany is on the mid-west coast of Italy, between the spine of the Apennines and the Tyrrhenian Sea. A Mediterranean climate suits wine growing, but within the region are myriad microclimates and soils, yielding many unique iterations of Sangiovese. Basic tasting notes for Tuscan wines made from Sangiovese include red fruits ranging from sour cherry to red apple, herbs, balsamic and more, depending on the oak usage. Sangiovese tends to be medium to full-bodied and high in tannins and acid. Still, each region will have its hallmarks that make it identifiable.
The most globally recognized subregion is Chianti, a region as rich with history as with wine. The zone within it is now called Chianti Classico and was established as Chianti by Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici way back in 1716, making it Europe’s oldest wine appellation. Interestingly, the requirement that Chianti be made of at least 80% Sangiovese is a relatively recent amendment. In fact, the wines used to require some white wine in the blend - a mandate that was changed in 1996. Chianti continues to evolve; a relatively new designation of Gran Selezione has been established for wines that are at least 90% Sangiovese, aged a minimum of 30 months, three in the bottle and have at least 13% alcohol by volume. And most recently, the use of MGA (Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive) has been approved to designate wines unique to smaller geographic units.
The Brunello di Montalcino DOCG brings to light the importance of Sangiovese clones. Here the Sangiovese comes in the form of the Brunello clone that brings more tannins and structure to the wine. Unlike other Tuscan regions, the wine must contain 100 percent of the Brunello clone. The area has the perfect exposure and elevation to ensure the most consistently ripened grapes around. The aging requirements are the longest in Italy; the wines must spend at least two years in oak and are not allowed to be released until January 1st five years after harvest. The results are some of the most elegant and lifted, yet at the same time, richest wines you can imagine.
One of the more confusing regions, at least in terms of name, is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. It's confusing because the wine is not based on the Montepulciano variety, rather a clone of Sangiovese called Prugnolo Gentile, but such is the joy of learning about Italian wines. The styles are currently in flux, as traditionally they were fairly austere, meant for long aging but trends towards earlier drinking wines have been on the rise.
Two Tuscan wine regions to watch are Morellino di Scansano and Carmignano as they are producing increasingly high quality expressions. These Sangiovese-based wines have yet to reach their star potential, but time will tell.
And now we come to the Super Tuscans, the original and rebellious winemakers that made wines using grapes outside of what varieties were permitted in Tuscany, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The winemakers couldn’t put “Tuscany” on the label and were reduced to selling the wines as ‘vino da tavola’, despite being of the highest quality. The winegrowers persevered in making breathtaking bottles, however, which is why they now have their own DOC of Bolgheri. As anyone who has had Sassicaia (which is also now a DOC too) will attest, they weren’t crazy to keep making the wine they believed in.
While one doesn’t think of white wine in Tuscany, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG is historic; references to the region go back to the middle ages. The wines are based on Vernaccia, with a small percentage of Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling allowed.
For a region whose wines are based on only a few grapes, there is a wealth of wine variety to be found in Tuscany, so anyone who doesn’t think they like Tuscan wine perhaps has simply not found the one that is best suited to their palate.
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