Get those passports ready, we are flying to Tuscany! Well, technically we'd need to fly into Pisa or Florence first, then drive about 1-hour to 1.75-hours to Tuscany. Humor me here, I didn't put on my pilot aviators for nothing. I'm spending the month of February waxing poetic about regions I love during the month of love, and Italy is up first!
Italy is a wine producing country I fell in love with early on in my career due to my passion for pairing wine & food. The dance between the two is incredibly important to the culture of Italy. When suggesting pairings to patrons at restaurants I managed, I often found myself steering them towards the wines of Italy. As a tomato sauce junky (self-proclaimed & proud), the wines of Tuscany were always my personal go-to for a surefire weeknight pairing. Not only were the wines ridiculously food friendly, but the region of Tuscany was also one of the first I found to be absolutely beautiful. Sign me up for rolling hills & sun kissed valleys on the Italian Peninsula! I mean, who doesn't want to live in a Mediterranean climate where intense summers remain balanced thanks to some seaside influence? While I'm sure there are some detractors out there, one simply cannot deny the beauty of the wines produced in this region.
About 85% of Tuscany's total output is dedicated to red wine production with a little rosé & white wine thrown into the mix to round things out. Calabria is the only region to match, or in some years outmatch, Tuscany when it comes to red wine production. Who's the main culprit behind all that ruby red juice you ask? The Godfather of wine himself: Sangiovese. While he isn't the ONLY grape grown in Tuscany, most would argue that Sangiovese is the most important. It's the foundation laid out by this red varietal that all your faves like Chianti Classico & Brunello di Montalcino build their house upon. I've heard winemakers say Sangiovese is what makes Tuscany a perfect study in terroir. The grape expresses itself so differently as you traverse the various towns, even when those towns are just a hop-and-a-skip away from each other.
Other native grapes like Caniolo Nero & Colorino are used for blending purposes, and actually come up as main players in some rosé wines I've had from the region as well. International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot are also permitted for blending, but play major roles in Super Tuscans, which we will get into later in this post!
How is Sangiovese the main grape of Italy but I rarely see its name on the bottles when shopping for it?
In the old world (a reference to Europe, the originators of modern-day winemaking) the region is typically listed on the label as opposed to the name of the grape. As a consumer, we have to do a little legwork and determine what grapes are produced in that region to know what varietal we are purchasing. Italy, however, plays a little fast & loose with those general labeling rules of the old world. Sometimes you'll see just a region listed front and center; other times you will see a grape AND a region listed. I think it's mostly because the Italians love a good hot mess (as do I, honestly), and this is their layer of contribution to the confusing casserole that is wine. Much of that is due to Sangiovese having a multitude of clonal variations running around the region using different synonyms.
If you're drinking a red from Tuscany, chances are it is Sangiovese or one of it's many, MANY clones.
Consider how flowers such as roses, can have clones that yield different colors & shades yet be genetically identical to one another. The same is true for Sangiovese and its tight knit network throughout Tuscany. Each clone has different qualities on the nose or palate to immediately offer, and a local synonym to signify where they depart in sameness to the original.
Chianti Classico (and its many sub areas) - This is where Sangiovese, the OG, has been culitvated for wine production for centuries. A classic Chianti possesses notes of sour cherry & orange peel on the palate, high acidity, and a rose scented nose. There are many sub-regions within this designated area BUT Classico is where you will find the best Chiantis. The rules regarding production have grown quite strict over time to ensure the quality of the wines, especially of those wishing to obtain the status of DOCG. Wines MUST be 75% Sangiovese. There used to be white wine varietals (Malvasia & Trebbiano) blended in, but it has since been prohibited & now the ambiguous "other permitted red varieties" is allowed.
FUN FACT: Though I glossed over it, there were, and still are, other restrictions regarding production within the Chianti DOCG, and this is why Super Tuscans were born!
Brunello di Montalcino - Sometimes referred to as "the little brown one", Brunello is the local name for Sangiovese in the medieval town of Montalcino. The grapes have a brown hue to them and the berries are larger than classic Sangiovese. Brunello di Montalcino is required to be aged for 4 years in oak barrels and spend 4 months in bottle before release for public consumption. This results in a more approachable, modern style due to the oak integration.
Rosso di Montalcino - While not quite the leftovers, whatever Brunello grapes are not selected for the long-aged version of Brunello di Montalcino, get vinified into this drink-me-now version. Rosso di Montalcino is often aged in concrete eggs or stainless steel to accentuate & maintain all that freshness that we want in a youthful red. Winemakers can choose for to keep it 100% Sangiovese or blend in approx. 20% of other permitted red grape varieties.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - This one always throws people for a loop! DO NOT confuse this with the grape "Montepulciano", whose home is in the southern region of Abruzzo, and possesses a character of cigar box & leather. Montepulciano is a hilltop town in Tuscany with a Sangiovese clone referred to as Prugnolo Gentile. Confused yet? Wines labeled as Vino Nobile must be at least 75% Prugnolo Gentile and varietals like Cabernet Franc & Cabernet Sauvignon can be blended in for the final 25%. This is an earthier style with notes of forest floor & black cherry being more prominent in the resulting wine.
The term "Super Tuscan" was coined in the 1970s to denote wines using international varieties. Before you ask: NO you aren't gaining superpowers from this one, unfortunately.
Now that I've mentioned them at least 4 times already in this write-up, let's talk about Super Tuscans. I was trying to provide tension leading up to the dramatic reveal, ya know? This category of wines was the byproduct of the strict regulations within the Chianti DOCG, where winemakers wanted to be more experimentive with their juice but in doing so had their wines relegated to the classification of simple table wine.
When big name producers in Italy such as Tenuta San Guido & Marchesi Pieri Antinori released Sassacaia & Tignanello respectively, the Super Tuscan movement took off. A shake up to the classification system came shortly thereafter. These wines appealed more to the American palate and, in my experience, drink more like the big red wines of California. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot are some varietals you will see in these wines, often times acting as the Beyonce in the blend while Sangiovese sings back-up. There was a focus put on fruitier notes and softer tannins that added to the widespread appeal. The Super Tuscans differ significantly from the more rustic, terroir driven wines we commonly see from the region. See some of the most famost iterations below:
Sassacaia - Varying blend of Cabernet Franc & Cabernet Sauvignon
Tignanello - 50/50 blend of Sangiovese & Cabernet Sauvignon
Ornellaia - Classic Bordeaux style blend of Merlot, Cab Franc & Cabernet Sauvignon; a little Petite Verdot is sprinkled in as well.
We've talked a whole lot about red wines, because Tuscany is essentially the Red King of Italy, but there are some other notable wines of different shades worth noting. Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the white wine of Tuscany---Vernaccia is the grape, San Gimignano is the town. Iterations of this white wine can be super simple or a lively romp of almonds & white flowers. It's almost always an easy drinking, everyday kind of white wine. The other wine of note from Tuscany is Vin Santo, a dessert wine style. Malvasia & Trebbiano used to be seen as blending partners in early days of Chianti to help balance the acidity and tannins in Sangiovese. In this "holy wine" once used for communion, the two varietals find new life through a process of drying that concentrates all their sugar for a sweeter finish.
Whew, I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a glass of juicy Chianti & a saucy pizza right about now! Thanks for joining me on this deep dive into one of many regions that I love. Italy as a whole is super confusing, mostly because the Italians are a proud bunch of winemakers who like rules yet want to change them on a whim to fit their current agenda. If you fell in love with Tuscany or discovered something new, let me know in the comments! I'd love to hear about what gems in Tuscany you've sipped through recently and add them to my list for consumption in 2023.