It’s almost a truism to wax lyrical about the beauty of Tuscany. Countless poets and artists such as Dante and Da Vinci have been caught in the orbit of Florence, that heartland of Renaissance art and culture, while pictures of undulating vine-covered hills, dotted with cypresses and crowned by hilltop towns have put bread (and wine) on many a travel agent’s tables. Here at Honest Grapes, it’s the vines that really catch our eye – elegant and pretty as they are, they also yield some of the most serious and revered wines on the planet.
Of the numerous grape varieties cultivated in Tuscany, Sangiovese is king. This iconic Italian grape is the source of most Tuscan wines and only in this unique terroir finds its ultimate expression. Sangiovese flourishes with direct sunlight, which the sloping hills and higher altitudes of DOCGs like Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano gift in ample supply. While the varied microclimates and terroirs within Tuscany mean that no two wines are the same, Sangiovese’s taste lies, in the words of Jancis Robinson, “somewhere between mulberries, prunes, spice, tobacco, sometimes leather and chestnuts”.
Sangiovese wasn’t always king though. In some regions, Canaiolo Nero used to be the most prevalent grape and even today is probably present somewhere in your glass of Chianti. Growers and winemakers have also experimented with foreign varieties, especially those from neighbouring France such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Some of the results are legendary and in great vintages, the wines from so-called Super Tuscan estates like Sassicaia and Tignanello can even compete with first growths from Bordeaux.
Sadly, Tuscan whites have never lived up to the high benchmark set by the reds. Most notable is Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG, in which Lake Bolsena eels would routinely be pickled alive to satisfy the gluttonous appetite of 13th century Pope Martin IV. Although the wines today are more mundane by comparison, they are infinitely more drinkable! Other standout whites can be made from Trebbiano and Chardonnay, with the best wines inviting comparison from James Suckling to the most illustrious estates in Burgundy and Sonoma.
That being said, Tuscany is most famous for her reds. They make up 80% of total production and of the five original regions denominated under DOCG, all are known for red wines and three are in Tuscany: Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (the other two are of course Barolo and Barbaresco).
Taking the road 80km south of Florence will land you in the scenic hilltop town of Montalcino, known and beloved worldwide for its noble Brunello. Practically unchanged for centuries, the medieval walls give way to vineyards that slope gently down the hillside. Wines that carry the Brunello label are made from 100% Sangiovese (though there are on-going debates), which is given full expression by Montalcino’s warm and dry climate and unique terroir. The grapes typically ripen earlier and those on south-facing vines are more muscular with great depth and body, while those facing to the north are more aromatic. Winemakers typically opt for the best of both worlds and blend them together for elegant, juicy wines with fine tannins and great structure.
Brunello is notorious for long ageing and even though rules have been relaxed, the wines still must spend two or three years in oak castes and another few years in the bottle. The wines often need further cellar time after release, leading to the creation of Rosso di Montalcino DOC in 1984, giving winemakers the freedom to pursue shorter ageing methods. These wines can be beautifully expressive yet also approachable from a young age, with stand-out estates like Castello di Romitorio making Rossos not to be taken lightly.
Brunello boasts a large number of elite winemakers and the best vintages, like the newly released 2015, a landmark vintage by all accounts, are jostling for attention with top-end Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Some of our favourite producers include Valdicava, the Le Pin of Montalcino, as well as Tenuta di Argiano and Castello di Romitorio.
North of Montalcino lies the beautiful and historical city of Siena, right in the heart of Chianti. The area is split into two DOCG regions, Chianti and Chianti Classico, a distinction with origins in 1872 when statesman and wine enthusiast Baron Ricasoli distinguished between simple wines best enjoyed young and more impressive and challenging wines that need time to mature in the cellar.
In reality, vinous gems are readily found in both regions but Chianti Classico is much more likely to command the attention of a gathering of wine connoisseurs than Chianti. Covering an area larger than Bordeaux and stretching from Florence in the north to Siena in the south, the wines are made from at least 80% top-quality Sangiovese, often topped up with the traditional Canaiolo and Colorino, as well as international varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot. On the palate, Chianti Classico tends to be medium-bodied with firm tannins and high acidity.
Our favourite Classico producers include Querciabella, based in Greve, one of the pioneers of bio-dynamic winemaking in Italy with highly commendable wines that continue to impress. Antinori’s Badia a Passignano is also a perennial favourite, made from 100% Sangiovese, while Chianti DOCG is more than ably represented by Castello Romitorio's Chianti Collo Senesi 2017, a remarkably well-valued wine that is irresistibly charming.
Chianti wasn’t always in as good a place as it is now. Strict DOC laws in the 60s insisted that the wine include 10-30% white grapes from varieties like Trebbiano, resulting in wines that were far too tart, thin and acidic to afford long-lasting drinking pleasure.
Winemakers seeking quality went rogue, launching their own insurgent wines and committing the Chianti label to the flames. Most notably were the Antinori family who setup Tignanello in 1975, sold it rebelliously as Vino de Tavolo. They added some Cabernet to the Sangiovese, then a lot more Cabernet with Solaia, and soon enough Bordeaux-style wines with great body and character were catching the attention of wine drinkers worldwide.
That being said, Tignanello wasn’t the first Super Tuscan wine estate to try a different, Francophile approach to winemaking. The credit for that belongs to the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchette, who started experimenting just off the Tyrrhenian coast at his Tenuta San Guido with several French varieties during the 1940s. The result was Sassicaia, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon that tasted more like Bordeaux than Bordeaux. A real Tuscan powerhouse, Sassicaia also offers a variety of second and third wines, such as Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto, that are highly collectable (and drinkable).
Montepulciano, east of Montalcino, is often confused with the grape appended by d’Abruzzo and rightly enjoyed for being both drinkable and affordable. Wines from Montepulciano however are a more serious matter entirely. Largely denominated under Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, they received their DOCG status shortly after Brunello.
Vino Nobile must contain at least 70% of the local clone of Sangiovese known as Prugnolo Gentile, and although some winemakers will use 100%, many wineries don’t and have more in common with Chianti Classico than they do with neighbouring Brunello. The wines spend two years on oak, three for a riserva, and recent usage of French oak has created wines with deeper body and intensity, such as those produced by the exemplary Tenuta di Gracciano della Seta. Like Brunello, the region produces a Rosso di Montepulciano which drinks well from release, although Vino Nobile commands the greatest respect.