To many people, Tuscany is an Eden. The name alone brings to mind images of Medieval castles, quaint abbeys, rolling hills speckled with rustic-yet-luxurious villas (which, if “Seinfeld” is to be believed, are virtually impossible to get a room in), charming fishing villages on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the culture and history of Florence – all of it underscored by a languid lifestyle rooted in the region’s mild and warm Mediterranean environs. And wine. Oh, the wine.
In Tuscany, as in most of Italy, wine is a part of daily life. No meal, save breakfast, is considered complete without at least a splash of red or white. Wine is so closely tied to cuisine in Italy that when one becomes drunk it’s common to hear someone quip that they have simply not had enough food. It’s difficult to talk about Italian wine without mentioning Tuscany, so intrinsically tied to the wine industry is the fabled region. In turn, it’s difficult to talk about Tuscan wine without talking about Sangiovese, the undisputed workhorse grape of the region. Sangiovese is a grape of many faces: it can be made into simple quaffing table wine bought for a song, or conversely it is also the lead actor in some of the dramatic premium wines of the boot-shaped nation. While other Italian wine kingpins like Barolo and
Amarone hold the fort in their respective regions of Piedmonte and Veneto, none can compare with the ubiquity and familiarity of the wines of Tuscany. In particular Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montapulciano and Brunello di Montalcino (undoubtedly, the purest and highest expression of the grape) are all made from Sangiovese. And lest we forget, the region is called home by the great maverick wines of Italy, the Super Tuscans.
But it wasn’t always this way. It is within living memory that Italian wine had a less than stellar reputation. For decades after WWII the Italian wine industry found itself mired in an unenviable situation. Overcropping, poor varietal selection, and most of all, archaic and clumsy winemaking geared toward mass quantity instead of quality, had drawn heavy criticism in international circles. In response, the Italian government stepped in and instituted a country-wide set of wine laws to ensure that quality wines would be produced under strict guidelines, standardizing methods and grapes allowed according to regional historic traditions. This all resulted in the now familiar DOC and DOCG designations which appear on the labels for the country’s quality wines. Along with these rules, the winemakers themselves made strides toward greater quality by modernizing their equipment and methods.
In North America, the effects started to become evident around thirty years ago, according to Piero Titone, trade analyst for the Italian Trade Commission. “It was in the early eighties that a shift began. It was then that the Italian government decided it was going to promote higher quality Italian wine in a strong way, and it was the Italian Trade Commission that was entrusted with that. At the same time, consumer preferences were changing as well. We became a nation of travellers, of lifestyle seekers.”
Along with that trend, he contends, we started to demand better quality wines that reflected our experiences abroad.
Leading the charge was Chianti, Italy’s most famous wine ambassador. It had become the epitome of ‘cheap Italian wine,’ with oceans of simple, tart, thin, indiscriminately made wines being shipped off, packaged in the now clichéd straw-bound tear drop bottles. When the time came to put the best foot forward in terms of export, Chianti as a region was ready. Titone continues, “The Chianti region, and
its rules of production had been in place for a very long time already (since the mid-twenties).” It benefited from “an historic, very efficient and well run consortium of producers. They had a defined area as well as rules for which grapes could be used. Certainly, they were at the forefront of this quality movement.”
What to expect with a Sangiovese-based wine? Well, first and foremost it will most likely be a “food wine,” meaning it was made to be enjoyed with a meal (or at least a nibble and a peck). While it’s true that some Sangiovese wines can be enjoyed all on their own, most of the quality expressions are absolutely crying for some food to complete the experience. Sangiovese’s generous levels of acidity are
one of the reasons. Just as salt and sugar are flavour enhancers, so is acidity (think of squeezing lemon on a filet of halibut). Sangiovese’s inherent brightness is underpinned by classic aromas and flavours like red berry (cherry, in particular) and a quintessential Tuscan ‘earthiness.’
Tuscany continues to move forward. Titone notes that “lesser known areas like Bolgheri and Morellino di Scansano are now becoming more popular and well known for quality and distinctiveness of their terroir.” So, while Tuscany may have a rich history and a roller coaster back story, there are still some tricks up its sleeve for us to enjoy and discover.
Chianti: Originally demarcated by Cosimo III de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1716, Chianti’s place in the Italian wine pantheon certainly has some of the deepest roots. That original demarcated area is now known as Chianti Classico, and it is joined by seven other sub-regions. Chianti is one of the largest and most prolific quality wine regions in the world. While there can be a wide spectrum of quality, most Chiantis have Sangiovese’s signature combination of cherries and leather, with silky medium tannins and a bright, food-friendly acidity. Pairs well with simple tomato pastas, roast turkey and game bird, as well as fava beans and somebody’s liver.
Try: 2008 Castello di Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva
Supple yet rich, this steal of a Chianti brims with red berry fruit, blackberry, as well as savoury notes of spice and dried leaves, with gentle dusty tannins that leave the palate looking forward to the next sip. (Castello di Gabbiano wines are available at the LCBO or by consignment through Treasury Wines)
Brunello di Montalcino: without question, the most regal and expensive of the wines from Tuscany, Sangiovese-based or not. “Brunello,” the local name for Sangiovese in and around the tiny castlewalled town of Montalcino, is one of the world’s most cellar-worthy wines. While in its youth the flavours can be positively bear-hugged by uber-dry tannins, after a few (or more than a few) years of aging the wine begins to unfurl and show opulent notes of spice, baked cherry, sweet jam and funky earthiness. Pair it with grilled steak and marinated grilled mushrooms. Can’t afford or don’t want to wait for a Brunello to come of age? Try its more accessible and less pricey little brother: Rosso di Montacino.
Try: 2007 La Gerla Brunello di Montalcino
Delicate and intriguing, this Brunello swoons with ripe cherry, black plum, woodsmoke and cinnamon. Still a touch on the young side, it will develop for years to come. She’s a pretty girl, and she’s worth waiting for. (La Gerla is available at the LCBO or by consignment through Profile Wine Group) Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: One of the wines with the longest history in Italy (documents dating
to as early as the 8th Century record winemaking in the region), VNdM is the perfect middle ground between the regal beauty and austerity of Brunello and the friendly accessibility of Chianti. Not to be confused with Montepulciano D’Abbruzo, where Montepulciano is the grape from the town of Abbruzzo. Try it with hearty rabbit stew, roasted wild boar or even a hearty pasta pomodoro.
Try: 2010 Valdipiatta Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Fruit-packed with intense aromas of red berries, flowers and liquorice, all supported by a seam of bright acidity and rounded tannins. This wine is drinking beautifully right now and will continue to evolve for a few years yet. (Valdipiatta is available by consignment through Rogers and Company) Super Tuscans: The new foreign kid on the block. Daring, a bit crazy, but charming and full of expression. The history of the Super Tuscans dates back to the first of its kind, Sassacaia, created in the forties but not released until the early seventies. Its creator, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, recognized the potential of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bolgheri’s gravelly soils. But it was the success of Tignanello by Ital-wine guru Piero Antinori that really allowed the movement to cross over from interesting experiment to international star. Super Tuscans are wines that include (or are exclusively made from) non-traditional Italian varietals, nearly always those from Bordeaux. As such, they are best paired with stewed red meats, roasts and winter vegetables. While a unifying style can be hard to pin down because of the wide variation in blending of varietals (or sometimes a single varietal), Super Tuscans are most commonly characterized by the happy marriage of Cabernet Sauvignon’s black fruit and dense structure sprinkled with Sangiovese’s spicy red fruit and brightness. They are also some of the most expensive wines in the world.
Try: 2009 Ornellaia
This robust and highly structured elixir is essentially a Bordeaux wine plucked from the cool environs of France and dropped onto the balmy Mediterranean landscape to fatten up. Ripe, rich, full of lush black fruit, spice, hints of cedar and espresso, all harmoniously balanced and monumental in scope. (Tenuta dell-Ornallaia is available at the LCBO or by consignment through Authentic Wine and