My offering for Wine Wednesday this week is a guest post from Danell Nelson, a qualified sommelier in Salerno on the Amalfi Coast, Italy where she also teaches English. Danell is new to blogging but has rapidly become one of my best internet wine friends, several of whom we have visited and met with in France, Spain, USA …… but not Italy …. yet! Her posts are an outstanding mix of tasting notes, winery information and cultural aspects, all enhanced by Danell’s own stunning artwork. She doesn’t just insert a photo of a wine, she DRAWS it with subtle elements of the fruits, herbs, spices she notes in the wine itself. Her long term goal is “to create a wine club with packages of wine information about the wine plus its history and culture …. with personal illustrations. I strongly encourage you to head over to her blog at Vinthropology and follow her, you will learn loads about the wines of Italy just as I am too!
Smooth rolling hills, roads lined with cypress trees, the striking irony of its people, the birth of the Renaissance, home to Galilei, Machiavelli, Dante, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raffaelo, Donatello, Botticelli, the Medici family dynasty, and some of the best known wines in the world. This is Tuscany. Not only was it the center of innovation and revolution in the time of the Renaissance, it has also been at the forefront of the history of Italian wine.
In 1202 Florence founded “l’Arte dei Vinattieri” which administered the commerce of wine throughout Tuscany. In 1716 “Il Bando Granducale di Cosimo III” was founded, establishing and protecting four viticulture areas: Chianti, Carmignano, Pomino and Valdarno Superiore, which was the first example of Denominazione di Origine, Italy’s wine classification system. In 1963 this system was set in place with regulations that classified wines based on quality and territory in a hierarchy starting from IGT (Indicazione Georafica Tipica, or table wine), DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and DOCG (Denominazione di Origini Controllata e Garantita). Vernaccia di San Gimignano became the first Italian wine to receive recognition as a DOC wine in 1966. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino became among the first wines in Italy to receive recognition as DOCG in 1980. This legacy plays into a history of strategic marketing making Tuscan wines famous the world over.
Tuscany has over 57,861 hectares dedicated to wine production, made up of 85% red grape varietals, 69% of which are classified as DOC or DOCG. Sangiovese, the base for the majority of Tuscan red wines, is the most cultivated varietal. Although it is diffused in all of Italy, the best quality and expression of the grape is in this region. Despite being a highly productive varietal, it can sometimes be too “rustic” and so is often blended with other grapes. The traditional blend includes the autochthonous varietals Canaiolo Nero, Malvasia Nera and Colorino. More modern blends include international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Other common varietals cultivated in the region include Cilegiolo, Aleatico, Trebbiano Toscano, Malvasia di Chianti, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and Vermentino. International varietals became more diffused in the 1990’s when regulations allowed them to be incorporated in Chianti blends, and include Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Tuscany can be divided into two main viticulture areas and philosophies, the central Tuscan hills dedicated to tradition and the Tirrenic coastline inspired by innovation.
Below is a list of 4 important wines that I believe sum up the Tuscan wine tradition.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano
As the first Italian DOC wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignno was, rightly so, considered the best white wine in Italy from the time of the Renaissance. It is celebrated for its distinctive crisp qualities and saline characteristics with aromas of citrus fruits, pear, apple and mimosa which evolve into notes of dried fruits, nuts, flint stone and even petrol with time in the bottle. The earliest record of the grape varietal is recorded in 1276 and was even cited by Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy as the cause of Pope Martin IV’s gluttony.
It is only cultivated in San Gimignano, a medieval town impeccably preserved where you might even spot an impersonator of Dante himself, reciting poetry among the many towers and cobbled stoned streets. If you want an even more visceral experience of the middle ages there is also a torture museum including tools of torture with vivid explanations of how and why they were used, not for the faint of heart. But a true sensorial experience is to be had at the pinnacle of the town, overlooking the vineyards, at the Vernaccia di San Gimignano Wine Experience, La Rocca. La Rocca di Montestaffoli is the site of the former museum of Vernaccia di San Gimignano and is currently run by the Consorzio, a group of producers with the intention of communicating and promoting their wine to consumers directly. The visit entails a series of themed rooms with lights, sounds, voices, images and a virtual tour which tell the story of the wine from its past, to the vineyards, to the bottle. The visit culminates with a wine tasting dispenser with a selection of wines from different producers and different years. A 360° experience not to be missed!
For more information visit San Gimignano
Chiantishire, as the English termed this area, lies in the heart of Tuscany and includes Chianti Classico with 7 surrounding subzones. These include Colli Senesi (the largest), Rufina, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Aretini, Colline Pisane, and Montalbano, established in 1932, and Montespertoli (the youngest) established in 1996. Chianti Classico was separated from the other zones in 1996, as the area with the highest quality consistently. It is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, excluding white grape varietals, and other complimentary grapes according to style. There are three different styles of this blend, the traditional (a blend with autochthonous varietals aged in large wood barrels), the innovative (a blend with autochthonous varietals aged in medium to small wood barrels), and the international (a blend with international varietals aged in barriques).
Chianti produces more than 700,000 hectolitres, 250,000 of which is Chianti Classico, with about 80% being exported, mainly to the USA, Germany and Canada. This commercial success is partly due to the cunning use of the traditional “fiasco”, a round glass bottle with a long neck and straw covering used to contain and store wine which traces back to the XIV century. This bottle was traditionally used for table wine from the area given its practicality in being cheaper than a Bordeaux bottle, easy to transport without breaking and effective in keeping the wine cool. It soon became a symbol of Chianti and Italian wine abroad, a popularity that the Tuscans embraced in the 1900’s decorating bottles destined to exportation with red and green ribbons to represent the Italian flag.
Brunello di Montalcino
While Chianti has remained more or less committed to tradition, the roots of Brunello di Montalcino are founded on a revolutionary vision of Sangiovese as a great single varietal wine. In the early 1800’s local farmers started to experiment with making wines from 100% “Brunello” destined for long periods of ageing. This grape varietal was later discovered to be a biotype of Sangiovese known as “Sangiovese Grosso”, with a darker skin and more phenolic components than other biotypes. Ferruccio Biondi Santi carried on the experiments of his grandfather, Clemente Santi, setting out to improve wine producing techniques with a more limited production focused on rigid quality standards. The result is a superb expression of Sangiovese with a deep brick red colour, elegant aromas showing beautiful complexity of berry jam, sweet spices, dried violets, leather and tobacco, and a rounded, full bodied flavor with soft, refined tannins. Born in 1888, it became a DOC in 1966 and a DOCG in 1980. It is aged for a minimum of 50 months, with at least 2 years in wood barrels or barriques, 3 years for the Reserve.
The 1960’s were revolutionary times around the world. Teenagers were rebelling against the old-fashioned doctrines of their parents, music and art were experimenting with new forms of expression, and a new generation of wine producers were looking towards the future. In the period leading up to this time in Tuscany, wines were often produced with a focus on quantity over quality. Numerous Chianti wines with DOCG titles yet varying levels of quality flooded the market and confused consumers, causing a lack of trust in Tuscan wines.
One producer in particular, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, decided to break away from the mold and produce, above all, a great quality wine regardless of DOC regulations. He noticed that the flat, coastal lands of the region of Bolgheri were very similar to the characteristics of Bordeaux terroir and set out to make a Bordeaux style wine, importing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Chateau Lafitte and enlisting the help of enologist, Giacomo Tachis, in 1.5 hectares of Tenuta San Guido. The first vintages were consumed solely for personal use, however Rocchetta noticed that they were consistently good wines with great ageing potential. When the Marquis Antinori, member of one of the most important winemaking families in Italy, tried the wine he lost no time in deciding to invest and convincing Rocchetta to sell it to the public. The 1968 Sassicaia is the first vintage from Tenuta San Guido, still available for purchase with a current worth of about $7,600, but at the time it was considered a table wine because of its nonconformity to DOC rules. When a group of American importers in the 1980’s tried the wine, they too fell in love with it, but were concerned over how to convince people that this “table wine” was a great Bordeaux style red, so they coined the term “Super Tuscan”.
Sassicaia is just one example from a group of producers who rebelled against the system. Antinori himself produced Tignanello, considered among the first Super Tuscans, which was a Sangiovese based blend with Cabernet Sauvignon. Other well known Super Tuscans, producing a variety of Bordeaux blends and Sangiovese, include Vigorello, Solaia, Ornellaia, Masseto and Messorio. Sassicaia became a Bolgheri DOC in 1994, making it the first single winery to be made a subzone of a region. These wines on the whole marked an important turning point with a shift from putting trust in a wine producing region to a single producer, as well as the introduction of international varietals in Sangiovese blends and the use of barriques. Bolgheri today remains on the crest of innovation and serves as a reminder of the sometimes stifling effects of regulation and stereotypes. However, it also highlights the ever present tension between tradition and the modern move towards more international consumer-friendly wines that is the current climate in much of Italy today.
While Tuscany has fully embraced the power of marketing, perhaps more than any other region in Italy, praise is due to the belief in the value of their heritage that has been wonderfully preserved and made easily accessible to visitors, making a trip to Tuscany a truly unique and rewarding experience.