In these strange and unpredictable times of self-quarantine and social distancing, for me, the comfort of a nice bottle of wine and good food with the family has become more and more sacred. With the unearthing of spring, after such an unusually quiet winter, we can all hope for better days and weather ahead. Tuscan wines are one way to help me hope for better days.
I have many wonderful memories of my time in Italy. When I need buoyancy of the heart, that’s where I go in my mind. Italian wines, for me, are like comfort food and a big, warm hug. The wines of Tuscany are quite diverse. There are wonderfully different whites and unique expressions of reds to be found under the Tuscan sun.
Light and Bright Whites
Vernaccia di San Gimignano comes from the hills around the stunning medieval town of San Gimignano. These Tuscan wines typically have bountiful, crisp acidity with refreshing citrus and mineral qualities that make them a tremendous summertime wine. Vermentino is another white varietal that I believe we will be seeing more and more of in this country. It also has vibrant acidity with tropical and grapefruit-like flavors but has a richer mouthfeel and salinity, when from coastal areas, drawing influence from the maritime effect. Also, Chardonnay, from this region can be quite special. They are not buttery like many American and some French Chardonnays, but still have a spirited richness with distinct minerality and fruitiness.
Sangiovese Wears Many Hats
By far, the most important grape variety in Tuscany is Sangiovese. It is the dominant grape in Chianti/Chianti Classico wines, (Chianti Classico is the original, and most historic area of the two) needing legally, to be at least 80% or more of the blend. Other grapes such as Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Canaiolo, and others can make up the other 20% or less depending on the preference of the winemaker. Sangiovese can be soft and supple with aromas of violets, earth, wild berries, and even figs, cloves, and roses, but it almost always smells like cherries upfront. It can also be alarmingly full-bodied and tannic in some expressions. Sangiovese, in general, produces wine with unabashed tannins and high acidity, which makes for good food companions.
Quality Tiers in Chianti/Chianti Classico
Chianti and Chianti Classico are the first levels of quality with Chianti Classico deemed the higher quality of the two. Chianti Classico Riserva demands more stringent regulations upping the quality again. The highest tier of these Tuscan wines is a fairly new category created for the estates that wanted a higher designation for their very best estate wines. This category is called, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (grand selection) and is the top wine from the region of Chianti Classico. Seek these out.
A Grape by Any Other Name
Sangiovese has many synonyms and/or regional names, and is the lion’s share of blends and red wines across Tuscany. For instance, in the area outside of the spectacular medieval town of Montalcino, Sangiovese is known as Sangiovese Grosso, and the wines are called “Brunello”, as in the famed Brunello di Montalcino. In the area near the town of Scansano, it is known as Morellino, and thus, Morellino di Scansano. Other names include Rosso di Montalcino, Prugnolo Gentile, as known in the town of Montepulciano and the wines labeled Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. While all of these are mostly, if not 100% Sangiovese, each one tastes distinctive on its own, and I urge you to try all of them. In itself, it will be an exploration of this wonderful variety.
DOC (Denominazione Origine Controllata and DOCG (Denominazione Origine Controllata Garantita)
If you’ve ever wondered what those stickers on the tops of bottles show this abbreviated nomenclature, you are not alone. The labels assure that the wines are of a certain quality level and authenticity. France does a similar thing with its AOC designations. To receive these stickers – which the wineries actually have to purchase – the wine has to go in front of a panel of experts. The winery must provide information to this group that shows the wine meets the rigorous technical standards of the consortium for the respective category they are in. The wine will be tasted to determine if the wine meets the criterion enough to match the expectations for the vintage. If the panel deems them not worthy of this status, the juice will then need to be relegated to a lower tier of wine. Therefore, much rides on the quality of the producers as their profit margin depend on it. This is an absolutely great thing for consumers! Honestly, if you were to line up five Chianti Classico wines and taste each, you will likely find that they would all taste relatively the same in quality. You may prefer one, as that will be subjective, but the quality level will be very similar. DOCG adds the “Garantita”, or Guarantee of authenticity and varietal integrity in which the standards are higher yet. There are 330 DOC wines and 74 DOCG in Italy currently.
IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica)
This designation means winemakers don’t have to follow the stringent rules of the DOC and DOCG. It allows them to play with international varieties and create blends that make the wines very different from those of the Chianti Classico regions. You will find this on the labels of simple, inexpensive wines, as well as wines we know as “Super Tuscans” (not an official term) which often contain a fair amount of Cabernet or Merlot in them. In some cases, they are entirely these varietals. The vaunted Sassicaia and Ornellaia are examples of famed IGT’s which are world-renowned and among the priciest wines in Italy.
It is not only the “light” that is spectacular in Tuscany, but the Tuscan wines are also a study unto themselves, and those that love the Sangiovese grape, may need not look further.
Gordon Heins, Wine Merchandising Specialist NH Liquor Commission