The mofo guide to Tuscany – Italian wine regions
I can think of a few wine regions that, once I cast my eyes over a picture of them, immediately make me want to pay them a visit. Down this neck of the woods Margaret River, Tasmania and Central Otago are undeniably spectacular, as is the Mosel in Germany, Burgundy in France and Piemonte in Italy. Perhaps none have a more magnetic appeal than Tuscany… medieval hilltop towns, that magical light playing over the vineyards and olive groves, hearty Italian food and perhaps lazing on the terracotta tiles around the pool at your villa sipping a Chianti or Vernacchia.
Here in Tuscany, sangiovese is King/Queen. As always, it’s important to get your pronunciation correct and sangiovese is one of the few grape varieties that rhymes with Patrick Swayze, an honour it shares with country mates, cortese and nerello mascalese. Pretty solid wine trivia that!
White and red varieties
For white wines you will find trebbiano, malvasia, vermentino, vernaccia and as with many Italian wine regions, you can find the odd smattering of international varieties such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
Red varieties? Well we’ve already mentioned sangiovese, but we should also add that there are many different clones of the grape and each town seems to have one that is peculiar to that particular sub-region. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot are associated with the famous ‘Super Tuscan’ wines that shot to international fame in the 80s and 90s, and you’ll find other indigenous red grapes such as canaiolo, mammolo, colorino and malvasia nero flitting around in sangiovese’s shadow. I was visiting the region earlier in the year and was also surprised to see a lot of shiraz/syrah wines from one particular Tuscan region called Cortona.
All about Chianti
So if Italy is a thigh-length boot… Tuscany is near the knee? The wonderful Florence is the major city in the region, along with the picturesque and rightly famous wine towns of Siena, Montalcino, San Gimignano in the south before the region stretches westwards to the coast. Florence is a great place to base yourself when visiting Tuscany before heading south to some of those picture-perfect wine towns. There are some satellite regions to the north of Florence, but it makes a great base to hit out and visit the world-famous wineries of the Chianti DOCG and Chianti Classico DOCG regions.
I guess Chianti suffers a little from its past. Wicker bottles and cheap and cheerful wines, some of dubious quality can leave lasting memories, but truth be told, the wines have never been better. The farming has improved exponentially and the wholesale uptake of organic viticulture by Chianti growers is one of the regions great success stories and it certainly shows in the wines.
Chianti is a savoury red blend and while a few grape varieties are permitted, it’s the sangiovese that provides the wine’s backbone. Medium-bodied, high in acidity and jammed with wild cherry, red fruits, balsamic, wild herbal and tobacco notes - it’s delicious. The Chianti region is quite large and there are plenty of lovely wines, but in its heart, you’ll find the Chianti Classico sub-region and this is the place to aim for the best wines.
Just to the west of Chianti Classico you will find the famous white wine of Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG which hails from the slopes around a picture-perfect village dotted with fourteen towers. Vernaccia is a crisp white wine, fairly neutral in its flavour profile with citrus and melon fruits and a savoury line across the palate. I’ve spoken before of my fetish for Italian white wines and Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a beauty.
Montalcino and montepulciano
Further south still and we come across the famous wines of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG. Brunello di Montalcino is 100% sangiovese and hails from one of the most beautiful towns (Montalcino) in the region. The wines here are bolder than Chianti with deeper fruit profiles and structure, and have an enviable track record of ageing beautifully.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG comes from the vineyards around the town of Montepulciano and is a blend of sangiovese and canaiolo nero and mammolo and again, has a strong reputation in the cellar. To me, it seems a little fleshier, a little more expressive than Brunello and if you are looking for an earlier drinking style, head for the wines of the Rosso di Montepulciano DOC.
There are quite a few sub-regions to the south of Montalcino and Montepulciano but at a regional tasting I attended earlier in the year, one region stood out for the overall quality of its wines and it’s certainly bound to do big things in the future - Montecucco DOCG. Gorgeous sangiovese wines were the order of the day and it’s a region to keep an eye on.
To the coast and we enter the realm of the ‘Super Tuscan’. It’s a word that was coined in the early 80s to describe the wines of the Tuscan coastal regions that were made with grapes that were not officially allowed in the DOC/DOCG regulations. Producers would add cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah in their sangiovese blends or release straight varietal wines from these non-indigenous grapes.
They quickly made a name for themselves for both their quality and cellaring ability and the name, Super Tuscan stuck. In 1992, the powers that be came up with a new name for these wines, IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). They kind of had to in the end. The red-tape of the DOC system meant that some of the most famous wines in Italy had to label their wines Vino da Tavola (the lowest classification) due to their varietal makeup and to quell the producer revolution and inadequacies of the DOC, a compromise was reached. I personally liked the Super Tuscan moniker but IGT it is.
Some of Tuscany’s, and indeed Italy’s most famous wines fall under this Super Tuscan/IGT banner - Tignanello, Sassicaia, Solaia, Ornellaia, Masseto and Redigaffi. Tricky to pronounce but unbelievable wines and much sought after across the globe.
Well, that is a short overview of Tuscany and maybe we can delve into it in more detail at a later stage as it deserves a deep-dive and like anything in life, the more curious you are and the deeper you look, the more beauty and surprise you will find. Life’s good like that.