Tuscany – The Heart of Italian Vitiviniculture.


Tuscany’s landscape with its gently rolling hills, beautifully lined trees, and diffuse light, continues to inspire poets, writers and painters, as it always has. Florence is literally a treasure trove of beautiful churches and monuments, embellished by painters and sculptors, whose work still today evokes wonder by artists, scientists and ordinary tourists.

Tuscany is not only interesting for the art lover. All wine enthusiasts would be richly rewarded with a visit to a wine estate , many of which boast swimming pools and all modern amenities imaginable.

Tuscany’s vitivinicultural history can be traced back to Etruscans, who were the first recorded inhabitants of this fertile land ( 8th century BC ) They had contact with Greeks who had settled in southern Italy and knew about wine – made it, enjoyed it, and even exported some to southern France. Their symposia were famous and historians have been able to uncover many references to establish their degree of sophistication and their level of lavishness.

During medieval times Florence was the banking capital of Europe and the rich bankers wasted no time to encourage artists to beautify the city. Farmers flocked to Siena and Florence to try their luck increasing the population of the latter to 90,000 in the 13th century.

Viticulture flourished despite frequent civil wars. They were more skirmishes then wars incapable of destroying the economy of the region. At the time Tuscany produced equal amounts of olive oil and wine, but wheat was the most important agricultural cash crop. Monasteries, the aristocracy, and the merchants of Siena and Florence owned most of the land.  The mezzandria system was used to lease the land to farmers (it requires that 50 per cent of oil and wine produced goes to the estate) as rent.

Badia (Abbey) di Passignano and Badia a Caltibuono were two abbeys that had entered such arrangements. Still today Marchesi Antinori, the famous Florentine wine merchants, sell the wines of both in Italy and export markets.

A guild was formed in 1282 to control the wine trade, which by then was generating significant tax revenue for the city. Giovanni di Piero Antinori joined the guild in 1385. Florence used to import wine from Crete (Candia), Naples, Corsica, and exported via the port of Pisa to France, Flanders, and other European countries. Even then some regions were famous for their fine wines. Some were famous for their alcoholic wines, others for their whites, yet others for their aromatic and delicate wines.

The first mention of Chianti occurred in 1404 for a white wine of Vignamaggio, still a productive estate today. Both Dante and Boccaccio mention Vernaccia, a white wine, Dante using it in eel stew and Boccaccio attributing libidinous powers to it. Francisco Redi is the most prolific Tuscan wine writer (17th century) who mentions several famous wines of the time. Vernaccia, Carmignano, Chianti and Montepulciano. In the 1970’s Chianti had acquired a bad reputation, as a result of 1963 legislation that allowed Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia into a Chianti . The wines were light, aged poorly and had no concentration at all. When estates started to fall on hard times, capital from Milan and Turin started pouring in buying property, which appeared to be bargains. Originally bankers and industrialists were thinking of using their estates for weekends and vacations, but along the way discovered that wine could also be profitable if the quality was there. They therefore started investing to improve vineyards, vine stocks and equipment. In the process agri-tourism was discovered. It generates significant revenues for estates that had the foresight to invest in buildings and converting them to first class tourist accommodations.
Today Chianti and Chianti classico once again are in demand and command high prices commensurate to the quality. Many small producers excel, but old established wineries market fine Chiantis to well-heeled long-time clients successfully. Along with Chianti Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Vernaccia enjoy excellent reputations not only in Italy but also in export markets. D.O.C. (Denominazione di origine controlata) laws decreed in 1963 gave impetus to a number of wines, though not classified as D.O.C. or D.O.C.G., but simply as Vino da Tavola (table wine), because the officials prohibited the use of French grape varieties in classified Tuscan wines.

Marchesi Antinori was first of the mark with its Tignanello, then Sassicaia

(Tenuta San Guido owned by Nicolo Incisa della Rochetta)  was created, followed by Galestro, Morellino di Scansano, Maremma, and Ornelaia. The latest development was a joint venture between the Frescobaldi and R. Mondavi families in creating Luce and Lucente two wines from locally grown Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The brand is now fully owned by Marcehsi Frescobaldi.

Chianti – Undoubtedly is one of the most popular and best-known Italian wines, if not the most famous. Records referring to Chianti go back to mid 13th century, but only towards the end of the 14th century the name Chianti as such has been found. It is a wine based on the best Italian red grape Sangiovese, and can be grown on seven specific areas within the delimited area of Chianti. (Montalbano, Colli Fiorentini, Rufina, Colline Pisane, Colli Aretini, Colli Senesi and Chianti Classico). Peripheral zones are allowed to call their wine simply Chianti.

The backbone of Chianti is Sangiovese (50 – 85 per cent) but the following grapes may be blended to achieve different taste profiles and aging potentials. In addition to day up to 10 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are allowed (,canaiolo 10-35 per cent, colorino 5 – 40 per cent, trebbiano 1-2 per cent and moscato 1 –2  per cent ).

Between 1965 – 1980 Chianti quality was in decline, too much white wine was blended and ultimately the wine lacked character. Today the best Chianti carries D.O.C.G. (Denominazione di Origine Controlata e Garantita) designation.

White wine may be blended only up to two per cent and yields per hectare are restricted to 52.5 hectolitres, which compared to 80 hectolitres prior to 1984; this is a big improvement. Meanwhile prices increased considerably. Today with huge investments, government help, and renewed interest in producing fine Chiantis, quality is continuing to improve. You can age a good Chianti Classico from a fine vintage for a few years and confidently pair with robust meat roasts, fine sausages, rich pastas and antipasti. Obviously flavourful hard cheeses such as Pecorino, Asiago, Parmesan, Romano, Oka, Cheddar, Emmenthal, Sbrinz, Gouda, Gruyere, Edam just to name a few would be fine accompaniment to a fine Chianti classico.

There are literally hundreds of reputable producers. Some are very small and rarely export; others make concerted efforts to promote and export.

The following producers are well known and recommended : Marchesi Antinori, Marchsi Frescobaldi, Rufino, Barone Ricasoli, Dievole, Castello di Monsanto, Vinamaggio, Isole e Olena, Castello di Poppiano, Querciabella, Cennatoio, Casasilia Pogio al Sole, Badia a Passignano, Casaloste, Badia a Coltibuono and Casa Emma.

Many of the Chianti producers also market their own olive oil. Tuscan estate produced olive oils are fine and flavourful, if expensive products but highly recommended not only for cooking but also for salad dressings.

Brunello di Montalcino – is considered to be one of the finest Italian red wines and was the third to be granted D.O.C.G. status back in 1967. It must be produced exclusively from Sangiovese Grosso or Brunello (a Sangiovese clone first selected by Biondi-Santi in the 19th century) and barrel aged for a minimum of 24 months plus four moths in the bottle.

Rosso di Montalcino requires only one year of barrel aging and two months of bottle aging.

Brunello is a robust wine and ages well in good vintages. It has a deep red brilliant colour, with a bouquet reminiscent to leather, smoke, and earth. It is always a full bodied and smooth, with an excellent and long finish. It tastes best with grilled steaks, roast strip loin, game specialties and aged hard cheeses such as Pecorino or Parmeggiano Regiano.

There are more than 100 Brunello producers, some of whom enjoy an excellent reputation. Small wineries sell mostly locally and never endeavour to even ship to Rome or Milan – two major Italian wine markets. The town of Montalcino boasts an excellent enoteca (wine shop cum education and promotion centre) where most of the region’s wines can be tasted and purchased.

The following are well-known and highly recommended: Biondi-Santi, Fattoria dei Barbi e Casale, Col d’Orcia, Villa Banfi, Cantina Costanti, Fuligni, Vigneti dei Cottimelli, Pertimali, Poggio Antico, Tenuta Caparzo, Fattoria Lisini, Aleramici, Caprili, Piccolomini d’Aragona, and Mocali.

Tignanello – a.k.a as a super Tuscan was invented by Antinori (one of the oldest wineries in Tuscany with a history of over 600 years) using Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon in 1970’s. It is however a vino da tavola (table wine), the lowest Italian wine designation, because it contains a significant amount of Cabernet Sauvignon which authorities refuse to recognize as a typical Italian grape variety despite the fact that it grows very well in Tuscany. Tignanello ages very well, possesses a fuller than any Chianti to date and generally considered to be an all around excellent wine sold at very high prices. The markets know they encounter a fine wine. To my knowledge no Chianti to date has been able to achieve the prices that Tignanello has been able to get.

Sassicaia is a trail blazing super Tuscan conceived by Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta in the image of Bordeaux, but contains Sangiovese, arguably the best Italian red wine grape. It is also a V.D.T. ( vino da tavola ) because it contains high amounts of Cebernets and Merlot and fetches prices Brunello producers envy.

Sassicaia is known to age very well and actually requires cellaring for at least a few years prior to consumption, preferably more than five, particularly if the vintage was good.

It comes from the area called Bolgheri, which only a few decades ago no one wanted to consider as a region fit to grow grapes.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – is one of the four Tuscan D.O.C.G. wines (the others being Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano). It consists mostly of Prugnolo Gentile, another Sangiovese clone, very small amounts of Canaiolo, Trebbiano and Malvasia, although the best producers use exclusively Prugnolo. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano comes from the sandy soil surrounding the town of Montalcino some 120 Km south-east of Florence. Presently there are 800 hectares planted. The wine ages well and tends to be full-bodied, well-extracted and multidimensional, and represents good value, especially in North America as it is not as well known as Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico. Some of the best producers are Avignonesi, L. Bigi and Fassati.

Carmignano – is a historic red Tuscan wine made from the fruit of the hilly vineyards located some 20 Km northwest of Florence. While the main grape is Carmignano, another Sangiovese clone, there is a considerable amount of Cabernet Sauvignon allowed to make the wine fuller and more assertive. Sangiovese in these parts yields more light and acid wines than further south in Chianti area proper. The best producer is Ugo Contini-Bonacossi who had the courage to graft cuttings from Chateau Lafite in early 1970’s in an attempt to produce better and more appealing wines.

Carmignano was granted DOCG status due to his considerable efforts. The wine ages well and best complements roast leg of lamb, rack of lamb and grilled lamb chops. Semi-hard and hard cheeses also go very well with this exceptional wine.

Vin Santo “ holy wine “ – is a traditional Tuscan wine, although today, many if not all regions in Italy have their own version. In Tuscany vin santo is produced from Malvasia which are first dried on straw mats under the rafters. The grapes then are crushed between the end of November and March pending on the residual sugar desired. The wine is then aged in small barrels ( 50 – 300 Litres ) which originate in southern Italy.

Vin santo comes in a staggering array of styles and sweetness. Some are bone dry resembling fino sherries, others are deliriously sweet and every imaginable shade of sweetness.

The wines are aged under the rafters for five sometimes 10 years without the benefit of racking, thus undergo several malolactic fermentations. Some vin santos show many defects including excessive volatile acidity, mustiness, oxidation, just to name a few. As with every wine purchase, take precaution. Select a reputable winery such as Marchesi Antinori, Villa Banfi, Marchesi Frescobaldi, Fattoria dei Barbi, Vignamaggio, Castello di Volpaia, Badia a Coltibuono just to name a few.

Galestro – was invented for two reasons – to create a palatable, easy-drinking white wine at a reasonable cost and to create a use for surplus Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes, which were banned from blending into Chianti. Originally Antinori, Frescobaldi, Ruffino, and Ricasoli formed a consortium to formulate, produce and promote the wine which consists of Malvasia, Trebbiano Toscano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay and Riesling.Up to 15 per cent originate or may be sourced from further north, namely Trentino-Alto-Adige where grapes tend to be more aromatic and acid. Today there are 14 producers in the consortium, and Galestro enjoys excellent sales (10 million bottles) in Europe. Curiously, Galestro never caught on in North America as it did in Europe.

It is a light, aromatic, fruity, uncomplicated wine, best with light seafood appetizers, pastas with seafood, grilled and sautéed chicken dishes. Needless to say, Galestro, can be sipped with or without a little sparkling water. It is a terrific thirst-quencher.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a distinct dry white wine produced from the Vernaccia

Grown on the sandy soils of the town San Gimignano. The wine is popular because of its fruitiness and minerality, light flavour and body. Vernaccia di San Gimignano is meant to be consumed a year or two after harvest, and goes well with all kinds of light seafood dishes, light pizzas, and particularly well with pastas containing cream sauces.

Luce was created by a joint venture effort of Frescobaldi and Mondavi. This excellent wine comes from the best vineyards of Marchesi Frescobaldi and was originally made with advice from Tim Mondavi, the wine maker of R. Mondavi in California. Luce’s blend proportions depend on the vintage but always contains Sangiovese, Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and on occasion may have a soupcon of Syrah. An age worthy wine of great depth and refinement, it is meant for beef specialties, steaks, roasts, lamb, and aged cheeses.

Tuscany in central Italy has been producing wine since Etruscan times and has a long, illustrious history. Its location, geography, climate, and ingenuity of the population are well reflected in all of the elegant wines of the region.