Tuscany, home of Italy’s best known single wine, Chianti, is without doubt, Italy’s most famous wine region. It’s only 8th in terms of volume of production, of all the Italian wine regions, but 3rd in terms of DOCs and DOCGs ( the highest quality appellations), after Piemonte and Veneto, and also 3rd in terms of the region with the most widely planted vineyard area, following Sicily and Puglia, although 5th in actual size of wine region. The fact that it is only 8th in volume highlights the fact that producers are generally focussed on quality and keep yields low.
About Tuscan Wines
80% of all wine production is red, predominantly from the Sangiovese grape, but there are pockets of white wine production also. the first estate in Chianti was founded way back in the 15th century, and there is a wealth of history and heritage in this beguiling, fascinating wine region, which is now also one of the top destination spots for wine-loving English holidaymakers.
The region is idyllic, from the famous Renaissance cities of Florence and Sienna, to the beautiful, landscapes, avenues of cypress trees, old farmhouses, and Roman architecture. In Summer, searingly hot, with azure skies, in autumn and winter, very cold, frosty and often misty, yet it still retains a charisma that few other regions possess.
Bordered by Umbria to the east, Emiglia-Romagna to the north, Lazio to the south , and the Mediterranean sea to the west, with the Appenine mountains building to the north, Tuscany has a unique climate, invariably with several microclimates, and benefits from the warm impact of the sea breezes, and the cooling air from the mountains.
The heart of Tuscany is the Chianti and Chianti Classico area, which is close to the cities of Florence and Sienna. Most of the good estates and best vineyards are in the higher regions, as Tuscany is very hilly, and the best wines come from the higher altitude vineyards, although the warmer, coastal areas, such as Maremma, are now producing some ripe, forward, softer styles of Chianti.
Tuscany has over 40 DOCs, and 7 key DOCG regions, of which the mains ones are Chianti and Chianti Classico in the heart of the region, the iconic Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, lying to the south and east of Chianti, Carmignano, and the one famous white wine producing area San Gimignano.
Chianti and Chianti Classico are governed by strict DOCG laws, with a couple of indigenous grape varieties, including Canaiolo, being permitted, alongside the famed Sangiovese in the blend. The region includes some of the greatest names in world wine lore, with famous estates almost jostling for position on the Tuscan hills. Outside the Classico area, are the adjacent areas of Chianti Ruffina, to the north, with its cooler climate, and sleek, restrained wines, Colli Senesi, with its bigger, full on styles, and the warmer, coastal region of Maremma, which is becoming increasingly popular.
It was in Chianti, that the phenomenon that was ‘Supertuscans’ was born. Back in the 1974, a number of premium wineries flouted the strict laws, and brazenly marketed highly expensive and premium wines under the ‘vino da tavola’ label, since, by using grape varieties not permitted under Chianti laws, or by maturing the wines in small French oak barriques, rather than the larger, traditional oak vats, they were not entitled to the DOCG status, despite the extraordinary quality of the wines. The initiators of this move, were the world famous and revered wines of Sassicaia, and Tignanello, the former using Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in the blend. Today, the laws have been relaxed, but these wines still command high premiums and an almost iconic status.
Brunello di MOntalcino – from top quality vineyards, lying at the southern extremes of Chianti, these wines are made from 100% Sangiovese ( known in the area as Brunello), are fuller and denser in style and often need a period of ageing. Legallyu the wines must be aged for a minimum of 4 years, 2 of those in barrel.
The village of MOntalcino lies about 30km south of Siena, and the vineyards are on the hills surrounding the hilltop town. A general in Garibaldi’s army, Biondi-Santi revolutionised the way top Tuscan wine was produced, in the late 19th century, by fermenting the grape varieties individually, rather than together, thus producing far purer, complex styles of wines. He brought in many other new techniques, which changed not only the style and winemaking techniques in Brunello, but also the wider area of Chianti. Very expensive, therefore choosing from reliable producers is crucial.
The area also makes a soft, simple, yet fruit driven red from the same grape, but bottled under the name Rosso di Montalcino.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano- these vineyards lie to the east of Montalcino and the style of wine is somewhere between Brunello and Chianti in intensity and characteristics. The hilltop town of Montepulciano, 25km south east of Siena has a long and impressive history, with the wines already of notes in the 15th century. The vineyards are nestled on the hills, and the wine is made from a minimum 60% Sangiovese ( known in this area as Prugnolo Gentile), with other permitted varieties, such as Canaiolo, making up the blend. It has to be aged for a minimum of 36 months, of which 12 in large traditional oak barrels.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano – the only DOCG in Tuscany for white wine, the vineyards are based around the stunningly beautiful, medieval town of San Gimignano, famous for its towers and scenic beauty, and with a history of wine that dates back to Renaissance times.
Vin Santo – a unique, and very decadent dessert wine, Vin Santo is produced across Tuscany from the Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes. Vin Santo, translates as ‘holy wine’, as traditionally these grapes were left to dry on straw mats, in the warmest part of the house, until just before Holy Week. This results in incredibly concentrated, dried grapes, which are then crushed and fermented, with each precious drop, collected and matured in very small oak barrels.
The Styles of Tuscan Wine
Tuscany is best known for its world famous red wines, which range from soft and easy drinking to intensely rich, structured and exclusive. In addition there is one top dry white producing area, and the famous, sweet vin Santo is produced across much of the region.
Chianti – the best known red wine in Italy has at its heart a core of bright cherry fruit and a herbal tang. Standard Chianti can range from fantastic value, to truly dire. The colour is bright, garnet red, not particularly dense, and the aromas are of cherries, crushed raspberries and fresh Mediterranean herbs, with hints of coffee, and a lively, fresh, punchy acidity on the finish. The intensity varies with the regions and styles, and there are also some fuller, softer, more mulberry spiced wines, yet all with that distinctive black cherry edge.
Chianti Classico – here the wines get more serious, as the longer period of oak ageing, and careful winemaking and craftsmanship brings out the very best. Rich, spicy aromas and flavours, but still along the same palate of flavours, with far more intensity, depth and complexity. Riserva wines will have even more depth,and be from the best estates. Bold morello cherry flavours and dense mocha and almost tobacco hints are often present; elegant, silky and supremely stylish in the very best of cases.
Brunello - these are the most intense, and concentrated of Tuscany’s reds, and require the longest ageing periods. Full-bodied and intense, these wines can be a sublime example of all that is great about the Sangiovese grape; powerful, yet perfumed, with dense morello cherry, blackberry and mocha fruit, yet with a lively freshness on the finish, and rich , spicy character throughout.
The lighter, more affordable Rosso di Montalcino has fresh, bright red cherry fruit, a hint of herbs, and a tangy, medium- bodied style.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - known for their elegance, they mature more quickly than Brunello, but have a similar, stellar renoun. Stylish, and balanced, they need a couple of years to open up, but are full of elegant, dried berry and red berry fruits, overlaid with lively acidity, structured tannnins, and a silky, spicy style, and alcohol and tannins generally higher than Chianti. Again, the choice of a high quality producer is important.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano - Tuscany’s only serious white wine, this is a smooth, yet structured dry white from the Vernaccia grape, displaying ripe, creamy and almost nutty characteristics, with aromas and flavours of baked apples and almonds, with a ripe, textured style, and full body.
Vin Santo – a unique and much revered wine, and one which is offered both as an aperitif, and after a meal, with cantucci biscuits, in its Tuscan home. The amber colour of the wine, is unusual amidst many golden dessert wines, and comes from the period of ageing in small oak barrels, which can be anything from 3 to 10 years. it’s intense, yet with a fresh, citrussy acidity, with characteristics of honey, and sugar roasted almonds, with a little edgy tang from the oak, and also a hint of marzipan. Complex and irresistible.
In addition there is a host of IGT and table wines, which produce juicy, medium bodied, juicy cherry fruit reds for everyday drinking.
Grapes, Wine Styles & Food Matching
Chianti – standard level Chianti, from a reliable producer, with its bright cherry fruit, and relatively low tannins is great with tomato based pasta dishes, and simply grilled steak, but is also a great match for richly flavoured roast chicken, as well as a chunk of decent cheddar.
Chianti Classico and Riserva – these wines are more serious, and need good quality food to showcase them. With intense, top of the range wines, it’s almost a case of ‘less is more’. Let the personality of the wine, and the flavours of the meat or the dish speak for themselves. Ideal with rib eye of beef, roast lamb, rich game or beef casserole, seared steak, as well as a simple plate of aged parmesan, rocket salad and walnuts.
Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile – quite simply follow the same suggestions as for Chianti Classico, but go up a notch in terms of intensity of flavours and luxury of dishes! Also amazing with rich game stew and venison.
Rosso di Montalcino – a great wine for simple tomato or meat based pasta dishes, including lasagne, and everyday dishes, such as shepherd’s pie, spicy sausages, steak pie and lamb chops. Would also work with macaroni cheese with bacon.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano – the ripe, strong character of this dry white, with its herbaceous, nutty edge, make it a good partner to roasted vegetables with olives and garlic, creamy seafood pasta and chargrilled chicken, and well as creamy vegetable or seafood risotto.
Vin Santo – the classic accompaniement is a simple, almondy, Cantucci biscuit, but this luscious, heavenly drop of luxurious sweetness would also be perfect with baked apple and almond tart, any frangipane dish, lemon tart and crème brulee.