What is a “super-Tuscan”? How do you pronounce Sassicaia? What’s the black rooster mean on a bottle of Chianti Classico? What’s the difference between a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and a Brunello di Montalcino? In today’s blog by The International Kitchen’s wine lovers, we’ll do a brief survey of Tuscan wines to answer these questions and more.
Tuscan wines are dominated by two main grape varieties, trebbiano (white) and sangiovese (red). Both are thought to be native Tuscan vines, first cultivated by the Etruscans. The Sangiovese grape has been growing in Tuscany for such a long time that there are a number of clonal varieties, so different towns or provinces have their own variety of sangiovese grape. Thus you’ll hear about “prugnolo” in the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and “Brunello” in the famed wine from Montalcino, but both are versions of the sangiovese grape. Sangiovese has a distinctive black cherry aroma and a foresty flavor considered particularly Tuscan.
The most known Tuscan reds are Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile d Montepulciano, Bolgheri, and the so-called “super-Tuscans” (our apologies to fans of Carmignano and Rúfina wines, not as known perhaps due to their much smaller areas of production).
Chianti and Chianti Classico
The original Chianti zone now comprises the “Chianti Classico,” as the area was expanded for commercial regions. During the middle of the 20th century, Chianti production suffered in terms of quality due to a focus on mass-production. DOC rules stipulated that up to 30% of the wines could use white varieties (and that some white had to be used to make it a Chianti), and vineyards were replanted with an eye toward quantity, not quality. Thus was born the stereotype of the acidic, questionable Chianti sold in staw-lined bottles. Cute in the movies, but not what people wanted to drink. In the 70’s, two wines changed the trend, Sassicaia (more on that below) and Tignanello.
The marchese Piero Antinori decided he could create a superior “Chianti-style” wine if he eschewed the DOC rules. He did this, making his Tignanello and labeling it a lowly “vino da tavola” (table wine, the lowest of the wine classifications at the time). You can stay on a Antinori estate overlooking the Tignanello vineyards on our Antinori’s Noble Tuscany tour, which includes a visit to the amazing new Antinori winery in the Chianti Classico.
In the ’80’s and ’90’s, there was a real push (partly in response to the super-Tuscans) to better the quality of Chianti wines. Rules changed, as did viniculture. And from the late ’90s to today, Chianti wines have regained their reputation as medium-bodied wines with nice, dry tannins, and still characteristically Tuscan.
One of the finest Tuscan wines, Brunello di Montalcino is grown a bit farther south, in a hotter climate. Brunellos are big, “dark” wines, 100% brunello (again, type of sangiovese), intensely flavorful and very ageable. Indeed, they require a minimum of 4 years post-production to go to market (a younger version of the same zone is the “Rosso di Montalcino”). If you are looking for a fine Tuscan wine, Brunello is always a safe bet.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Lying between Brunello and Chianti both geographically and in terms of production, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano also suffered in terms of quality during the 60’s, but less than Chianti because the DOC and DOCG rules were always looser. Thus producers had more control over what wine they wanted to make (although this also leads to more disparate examples of Vino Nobile). To generalize, however, they are considered less tannic and softer than Brunellos, and less acidic than Chianti Classicos.
A bordeaux-style wine was produced for personal consumption, then released to the public in 1968. It, like Tignanello, bucked the rules and simply tried to be the best wine it could be. It’s name was Sassicaia (sah-see-ki-ah) and it gave birth to the phenomenon of the super-Tuscan. The super-Tuscan wines, many of them produced in the western part of Tuscany, called Maremma, along the coast, used international blends, French barrique aging, sometimes 100% sangiovese grapes: all things that DOC and DOCG rules of the time forbade. Soon there were a variety of producers following suit, producing so-called “vini da tavola” (Ornellaia, Grattamacco Rosso, Guado al Tasso, to name a few) that soon commanded higher respect and prices than the DOC and DOCG wines. The powers that be did catch on, realizing the absurdity of Tuscan wine producers making better-quality wines when they were not hindered by DOC regulations. Chianti DOC rules were changed, a Bolgheri DOC was created to encompass those super-Tuscans made in the Bolgheri area of the Maremma, and the classification of IGT (Indicazione geografica tipica) was instituted and applied to Tuscany. However, many producers still prefer to buck the rules and produce non-DOC wines. And, on the other side of the coin, some producers think the super-Tuscans have gone too far, creating robust international wines that carry none of the Tuscan terroir.
What about white wines in Tuscany? The first Italian DOC was for Vernaccia of San Gimignano, e light, drinkable wine from the famed town with the towers. There has also been an increase in productions of Vermentinos in the sea-side Maremma. But really, when talking about wine in Tuscany, both in terms of quantity and quality, red rules. And sweet wines? Don’t forget the delectable Vin Santo, but that deserves its own post at a later date!
Looking to taste some wine in Tuscany? We have, what is called in Italian, an “embarrassment of choices”. Whether you want to visit the wineries of Bolgheri, enjoy a week Living the Real Tuscan Dream, or taste the wines of southern Tuscany, we have the perfect gastronomic getaway for you.
Check out also some of our favorite recipes featuring Tuscan wines, including:
By Peg Kern
Sign up to receive our newsletter, which includes travel tips, recipes, promotions, and information on our best cooking vacations.