Tuscany Wine Notes — 12/12/2007
Tuscany & Chianti Wine Region
Typically the Tuscan countryside has rolling hills with cypress trees, pines, olives and vines. The climate is warm, the influences are the warmth from the coast and the coolness of the hills, which combine to give a host of micro climates. It is not quite as dry as one would imagine, there is a fair amount of rain in the winter and some in the spring and summer too. In late summer, there can be storms, and in the autumn mists too. Many of the soils are well drained. Chianti has dry stony soil. There are sandy and clay soils, and limestone hills too, specially in coastal areas such as Maremma.
The region has long been wealthy, with important cities such as Florence, Lucca and Sienna providing a good ‘domestic’ market. Exports have long been important, going back a long way the Etruscans exported their wines to Gaul in very large quantities. More recently Chianti, in its straw covered bottle, the ‘fiasco’, came to be seen as the archetypical Italian wine.
Sangiovese: The traditional red vine of Tuscany, and one of Italy’s greats. It comes with a variety of local pseudonyms and different clones. It is not however that easy to interpret and it can overproduce. It has a slightly stalky, angular style that can go over to bitter and rustic. At its best it can be wonderfully elegant with cherry fruit or deep and brooding. It can stand on its own but is often blended with Cabernet which gives it a solidity, which is not necessarily an improvement.
Cannaiolo: Traditionally used to soften Sangiovese.
Mamolo: High yielding vine that can add finesse.
Aleactico: Grows on coast where it may be blended with Morellino – or can be made into an interesting sweeter style.
Malvasia: A white grape that gives fragrant, aromatic but gentle wines.
Vernaccia: White grape that give firm, powerful wines with a nutty character.
Vermentino: An excellent white grape found on the coast, (and on Elba, Sardinia and Corsica). It gives crisp and flavourful wines when handled well.
Trebbiano: A white grape with little power, flavour, acidity or interest.
The zone for Chianti was defined under Cosimo Medici III in 1716 and in 1874 Barone Ricasoli invented the ‘recipe’ for Chianti. It was a red wine made from the wide variety of local vines used at the time, including white grapes. This blend became the basis of the Chianti DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and thus enshrined a fault-line. Today the region is subdivided into various sub regions – although it is almost universally agreed that the premium regions for the best wines are from the Chianti Classico and the Chianti Rufina regions.
By the late 1970s the Chianti DOC classification was falling into disrepute, and was taking the whole system with it. Many top wines were made outside the DOC and sold as ‘Vino da Tavola’ (table wine) because the winemaker wanted to use 100% Sangiovese or add a little Cabernet, make wines purely from international varieties only or indeed make a ‘quality statement’ by discarding the tainted badge of DOC. International varieties and pure Sangiovese new blends became all the rage.
The system needed to adapt to survive and In a rare wise response to a chaotic situation, the Italian bureaucracy came up with a new class of wine ‘Indicazione Geographica Tipica’ (known as IGT) was created for the blends or anything else outside of the DOC regulations. The DOC did adapt too, Chianti was promoted to DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Guarantita) and actually, there has been a move back to the recognition and inclusion of native vines. The need to include white grapes has been removed and the DOCG now recognises that Chianti can be made from between 85% up to a pure 100% Sangiovese.
One of the reasons for major change in Chianti was that Tuscany was affected more than any other region of Italy by the severe shift of the agricultural scene with the abolition of the feudal ‘mezzadria’ system of sharecropping. This was outlawed in the 1950’s and as a result many families left the land, heading north to Turin and Milan to the factories. Much of the Tuscan vineyard was abandoned. Although this meant that the average farm size increased and became more economic, in the short term standards went down, as there was over production from the remaining vineyards and a crisis of confidence. However some of those who remained, be they Tuscan noble families or incomers from other Italian regions, saw the potential that Tuscany had to become once again a leading player in the Italian Wine scene – and it is due to such passionate believers, such as Paolo de Marchi at Isole e Olena, that Chianti has become such a source of world class wines today.
However there remain serious problems with the DOC system. Most important is, that is it no guarantee of quality – it is only a guarantee of geographical origin and a wine conforms with the regulations on grape varieties, yields and training systems etc. Given that the DOC yields are throughout Italy are usually far in excess of what a dedicated wine makers would desire from his vines, this does not give the consumer any guarantee that when they buy a bottle of that they are getting a decent level of quality.
Price likewise is also no guarantee, with large numbers of wine estates, not only Tuscany but throughout the world of wine, launching a premium ‘cult’ wine in an overtly heavy bottle, minimalist label, often with a hefty dose of Cabernet and a ridiculously high price. – This means that some of the most expensive wines are seriously overpriced a-tpyical and made only to prove something to the rest of the wine world. Paradoxically good ‘regular’ Chianti Classico (some of the best wines in Tuscany) is undercharged for in comparison and therefore sadly undervalued by many consumers. So Tuscany is still mired in misconception.
It is important not to oversimplify what was wrong in Chianti and therefore what had to be done to rectify those problems. There was too much blaming of tradition and perhaps too much looking for new quick solutions and modern styles. The standard analysis of was wrong is that the traditional practices that were at the root of the region’s problems, therefore they had to go. ie the governo system, the fiascos and adding white grapes to the blend. The ‘Governo’ system is the idea of adding unfermented must or raisins to the fermentation to give a slight prickle of fizz and bitter twist to Chianti. It is no longer used for standard Chianti but is still used a little on wines for local consumption that may still be bottled in those straw covered ‘fiascos’. Of course there is nothing wrong with traditional bottles, nor is there anything wrong with co-fermenting a few white grapes with the red, (think Cote Rotie), nor is there anything wrong with adding raisins to fermenting wine (think Amarone). What went wrong in Tuscany was a collision between degenerate peasant wine growing and industrial wine making. Excessive yields and bad wine making were a much bigger problem than a few traditional practices.
Looking forwards, many Chianti Estates have recognised that it is important to stand out from the lake of identikit wines from around the world. This is the origin of the Chianti 2000 project. A group of the most important wine estates in Chianti gathered together their studies of clonal selection, vineyard density planting, soil analysis and many other aspects of production for depth analysis of the region and its terroir. The results of the project are already being felt and will shape Chianti for many years to come. This concentration on the vineyard is an important development. No longer are the vineyards just a rag-bag of whatever had always been planted there.
Modern Chianti Classico from a good estate is very good, labelling is stylish and flavours are intense. It has taken its place in the international panoply of fine wines. Yet Chianti is an evocative wine, it is speaks of history, the beautiful county-side and tradition and there is a danger of loosing all this. There are more men in their 90s and 100s in the Chianti region than anywhere else in Europe, and, many of them are still working their vines. The younger contingent of winemakers is often made up of ‘foreign’ winemakers, which normally means non-Tuscan, but can mean from abroad. Undoubtedly they help to keep the region vibrant, diverse and innovative. Perhaps the interplay of tradition and innovation is, or is becoming, a healthy thing.
The Sub Regions of Chianti
Chianti: The basic grade Chianti is nothing much, for serious quality you have to look to the sub regions. Here the best wines have red and black cherry flavours, with tangled notes of wild herbs, mint and spice and a rapier like acidity.
Chianti Classico: The beautiful heartland of the Chianti region, with its wooded hills, castles, villas and many vineyards. It arguably produces the top wines and was awarded DOCG status in the mid 1990’s.
Chianti Rufina: The smallest Chianti sub-region, which produces the most elegant style of that which can age incredibly well. Selvapiana, one of the Tuscan greats produces the epitome of this.
Chianti dei Colli Fiorentini: From the Florence hills. Largely café wine, however there are some estates producing interesting and even fine wines.
Chianti del Colli Aretini: From hills around Arezzo, these are easy drinking wines.
Chianti dei Colli Senesi: Covering the hills south, east and west of Siena, this sub region encompasses Montalcino and Montepulciano and gives some good wines.
Chianti Montalbano: The area west of Florence and south of Prato. This is a quality area. The top wines from this region use the Carmigano DOCG.
Near Prato to the west of Florence. These are interesting, solid wines capable of ageing. Made from at least 45% Sangiovese, often with Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Caniolo Nero. There is one excellent producer here, but a feeling that the region as a whole should do better,
To the south east of the main Chianti Classico region in the province of Siena, wine has been produced in Montalcino since Medieval times. Brunello di Montalcino dates from the unification of Italy and one of the most famous original estates dating form those times is Biondi Santi. The grape variety is still Sangiovese but it here is a different clone which is known as Brunello. Historically the wine has been aged in large oak vats for inordinate amount of time, resulting in wines that were either incredibly complex and mature or dried and and tannic dependent on your point of view.
In the late 1980 and early 1990s much of the excitement is Tuscany was centred on Montalcino as it ‘woke up’. Also whereas Chianti at this time had a few stars, many doing reasonably well and many under performers, Brunello had a plethora of stars and the differences were more of style than quality.
The classification changed in several steps to allow ‘the modernists’ to use more modern methods of winemaking, although has retained a certain flexibility so traditionalists can continue to make the wine in the way they always have and ‘modernists’ can use shorter barrique ageing (using small 225 litre French oak barrels).
A new wine, Rosso di Montalcino, was introduced in order to address the problem of what to do with the younger vines from new plantings and is aimed at producing a fresher style with considerably less barrel ageing than Brunello. It was a great way for wine producers to have a source of cash flow whilst tying up much of their capital for the long oak ageing for Brunello.
This has now become a respected wine in its own right, with many excellent examples showing superb fruit and usually judicious use of oak. It would be wrong to see it as a young version of Brunello but as a wine with its own style, which is often the preferred style for many of today’s consumers. In fact there is often little substantial difference between a good Rosso and the Brunello of one of the leading modernists. In the modern camp look out particularly for Tenuta di Argiano, Neri, il Poggione and Altesino.
Moscadello di Montalcino is another of the wines of the region worth searching out – it had almost died out as a style but has been kept alive by such producers such as Il Poggione.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano takes its name for the beautiful hilltown of Montepulciano, south east of Sienna. As with most of the hilltop settlements in the area, it dates back to the Etruscans, and perhaps earlier. There are numerous elaborate Etruscan tombs in the area and there is even one in the cellars of Avignonesi in the town centre. The 15th century saw the heyday of this wine amongst the local Sienna aristocracy. More recently was in favour in the 1970s and 80s when its richer fuller style contrasted well with much of the Chianti of that period. Since 1980 when Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was given DOCG status, it has as a region been undergoing somewhat of a revival. There are rather fewer stars here than in Montalcino, but the best wines from top producers such as Cerro and Avignonesi are very good indeed.
Here the Sangiovese grape enjoys another name, ‘Prugnolo Gentile’, the character of the grape is somewhat different too, reflecting the fact that Sangiovese is a variety that easily mutates according to its growing situation. There are two other main red varieties that are permitted under the DOCG regulations, Caniolo and Mammolo.
There is also a Rosso di Montalcino made in a younger style. This is not quite as serious as Rosso di Montalcino, but is along the same lines.
The Tuscan coast
On the coast in the south of Tuscany and bordering Lazio, is the region of Maremma. Historically this region was the swamp land, home to herds of sheep and cattle and not much else. It was believed that you would die if you spent the night here. Indeed you probably would, the area was malarial. Then the land was reclaimed under Mussolini, as the coastal marshes near Rome were too as part of populist programme.
The region has its traditional appellations such as Morellino di Scansano and Bianco di Pitigliano and a spectacular newcomer in Bolgheri. In fact the whole region is on the move.
Morellino di Scansano
Scansano is a hilltown inland from the coast and the small amount of remaining marshland. Unsurprisingly for the reds the Sangiovese still reigns – but here under the name of Morellino – the little dark one. Until recently this region was a bit of a ‘rustic cousin’ of Montalcino. It has benefited enormously from the general uplift in quality in Tuscany. At a recent tasting ‘intense’ and classy’ were the words used – ‘rustic’ and ‘peasant Montalcino’ did not feature!
Part of the shake up of the Tuscan wine scene as described above under Chianti, was kick-started here in the coastal stretch around Bolgheri.
The one estate responsible for starting this revolution was Tenuta San Guido – home to the famous Sassicaia which was made from a Bordeaux blend of varieties in the 1960’s by the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta from his estate near the lovely small town of Bolgheri. The Italian winemaker Giacomo Tachis (with some consultancy from the famous Emile Peynaud of Bordeaux) created a wine which took the wine world by storm, especially when it beat 34 other leading Cabernets from around the world in a blind tasting for Decanter Magazine in London in 1978.
Sassicaia could then only able to be labelled as a Vino da Tavola due to the overly restrictive Italian Wine Classification laws, happily this did not stop it and so the idea of ‘Cult Wines’ and ‘Super Tuscans’ was born. It was in part due to this and the other estates in Tuscany who decided to work outside the DOC laws, that the IGT classification was introduced to abolish such anomalies. In 1994, Sassicaia became the first Italian Wine to be awarded its own single estate classification.
Today the region is one of the most revered in Italy for its Bordeaux Blends, and there has been an influx of wine makers from the more northern reaches of Tuscany, and even Angelo Gaja from Piemonte.
Even here though there are many producers who have recognised that perhaps the emphasis of international varieties has been too dominant, that there has been too much use of new French oak barriques and perhaps too much extraction. There is now a move away from the so-called ‘Super Tuscan style’ and back to focusing more on the terroir. That is not to say that varieties such as Cabernet will be abandoned, but the recognition that Cabernet produced in Bolgheri has its own characteristics and own ageing behaviour patterns and these must be respected.
The North Tuscan Coast
The idea that the Tuscan Coast can produce very good wine is spreading north from Bolgheri and now has reached as far as southern Liguria. Actually there have been decent wines here for quite a time. Unlike Bolgheri this IS a traditional wine region with autoctonous grape varieties. – And for whites it has Tuscany’s best variety, the Vermentino. Arblaster and Clarke visit this area on our Pucchini Festival and Tuscan Wines tour.
Colline Lucchesi & Montecarlo. The appellations in the hills around Lucca are emerging as potentially very interesting. Colline Lucchesi seems to make the good reds, from Sangiovese and Canaiolo) and Montecarlo the good, and fairly weighty whites. (If they would cut out the Trebbiano, it could serious).
Colli di Candia and Colli Apuani. Back near the coast and north of Lucca and Pisa, there are some excellent wines from the slopes behind Massa and Carrara. Whites are based on Vermentino, generally with some Albarola. Look out for wines by Cima and Scurtarola.
Colli di Luni. An interesting DOC a few kilometres north which is on the border with Liguria, being actually part in Tuscany, part in Liguria. Whites are generally made from Vermentino, which is a good thing! Reds are mostly Sangiovese with some local varieties too. – This, is an area to watch.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG: The town of San Gimignano, famous for its tower houses has white wines form the Vernaccia grape variety. Many of these are unexciting, but beyond the quantities of dross-wine for local and tourist markets, there are producers making classy wines including examples from single vineyards and with barrique ageing. Some reds are also produced which now have a DOC Rosso di San Gimignano.
Galestro: Created to use the glut of white grapes no longer required in the Chianti blend, it is thus mostly Trebbiano. Sometimes a little Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Grigio, Riesling or Sauvignon is blended in, in a vain attempt to gain some character.
Moscadello: Made from Moscato Bianco in the Montalcino region, traditionally it is in a sweet, frizzante style, but these days more often made in a late harvest dessert style.
Vin Santo: A delightful sweet wine, amber from oxidation and made from Malvaisa or Trebbiano grapes that have been dried in cool airy huts. They loose about 60% volume and are then fermented with ‘madre’ (concentrates from the previous harvest) in small ‘caratelli’ barrels. The wine is aged in the barrels for 3 years minimum. Avoid commercial ‘liquoroso’ as it is pretty awful. Vin Santo is often served with almond cantucci biscuits to be dunked in it – which is fine if the wine is mediocre – but we would ask you not to ruin heavenly offerings from the top estates by such behaviour!
By Tim Clarke & Cindy-Marie Harvey
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