Under the Tuscan Sun: The Wines of Chianti

Mark DeWolf

Perhaps no region in Italy conjures as many romantic images as Tuscany. The landscape does almost seem too perfect. The spring poppies that dot the landscape are a perfect shade of red and the rolling hills just seem be a little more rolling in Tuscany compared to its neighbouring provinces. They say if you didn’t get a postcard perfect picture photo, just wait, because around the next bend in the road, you’ll have another chance.

Tuscany is, in many ways, also a paradise of viticulture. The Apennine Mountains cut a straight path through its eastern edge, leaving many of the classic wine regions sitting in the middle of the province, in the gentler foothills of the mountains. The positioning provides them elevation and some poorer soil types, ideal for growing premium grapes. The elevated nature of many of Tuscany’s best vineyards provides a pronounced swing of temperatures from day to night, which is perfect for producing red grapes rich in flavour but also acidity.

The climate is said to be so perfect for grape growing that vintners rarely need to make adjustments. In many wine regions around the world, a winemaker may add sugar to increase body or adjust acid levels to bring their wines into balance. To a Tuscan winemaker, the concept of sugar or acid additions would seem foreign, and maybe even a little perplexing.

Tuscany’s most famous wine region is Chianti. The now fairly broad region traditionally encompassed the territory between Florence and Siena, known as the Classico zone. The wines of the region have long been prized. Eventually, the name Chianti became synonymous with red wine, and in the 1870s, the future Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy, Baron Bettano Ricasoli, decreed that a Chianti should be a red wine made from Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia Bianca.

The recipe has been tinkered with over time in the late 1960s, the government went so far as to make Chianti a blend of Sangiovese with a mandatory amount of white grapes in the mix. The wines, which were often packaged in Fiasco (a round-bottomed bottle set in a straw basket), became associated with being light, fruity and tangy. The wines were perfect to serve at the thousands of Italian trattorias that opened as a result of the surge of Italian immigration to North America.

Not surprisingly, some producers revolted and chose to make wines as they wanted to and the Super Tuscan movement was born. The first winery to gain fame making red wine from non-classic grapes was the Marchesi Mario Incisa della Rocchetta’s Tenuta San Guido, located well outside of Chianti area, near a little-known seaside town, called Bolgheri. Their Sassicaia, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend had humble beginnings as a wine for their own home consumption, before being commercially released in 1971. It quickly became recognized as one of the great wines of the world and led others such as Antinori, to also buck regulations.

Some using a lot of foreign grapes while others simply wanted to use only 100 per cent Sangiovese, the classic grape of the region. Regardless of the blend, many of the wines became so famous that they became familiarly became known as The Super Tuscans. Now many wineries in Tuscany will refer to their non-traditional blends as Super Tuscans, but there is no legal meaning to the word, so quality is dependent on the producer.

The success of The Super Tuscans has led to revisions in the recipe for Chianti. Now the wines of Chianti are mostly Sangiovese, and only a small amount of white grapes permitted while those designated as Chianti Classico must be at least 80 per cent Sangiovese and the remaining 20 per cent only red grapes.

When looking for a Tuscan red wine at the NSLC, you can expect those labelled as simply Chianti to be lighter, fresher and more delicate while those that boast the ‘Classico’ tag to fuller, richer and darker fruit flavours and more structures (a little more tannic astringency and acidity). As for the dinner table, where Tuscan wines perform so well, think of Chianti as weekday sippers to enjoy with simple pasta dishes, light meats such as pork and pizza. Those labelled as Chianti Classico can support fuller flavours. Tuscans enjoy Chianti Classico matched with Bistecca a la Fiorentina (grilled porterhouse, brushed with olive oil and rosemary).

Tuscan Wine Fast Facts

1. Tuscan wines have certainly earned their ‘Old’ World moniker. Wine has been made in the province since the 8th century BC. The Etruscans, who arrived in Tuscany from the north, were the first to produce wine in the area.

2. On bottles of Chianti Classico you’ll see a Black Rooster on the capsule. The Black Rooster, is the symbol of the local consorzio (consortium), responsible for ensuring the quality of the wines of the region.

3. The classic red grape of Tuscany is Sangiovese. Sangiovese is a derivative of the Latin sanguis jovis or blood of jove (Jupiter) the god of sky and thunder, lightning and the king of the gods in Roman mythology. Sangiovese produces wines that typically are not richly pigmented, but boast fruity (red fruit) and floral (violet) aromas and flavours. Wines tend to have marked acidity and fine tannins, making them good food wines.

4. Tuscany’s other famous wine is Brunello di Montalcino. These wines from the southern part of Tuscany are made exclusively from a local clone of Sangiovese. The wines are aged for extended periods before release resulting in wines that have complex aromas combining fruit flavours with more savoury characteristics. The wines are rich in acid and tannin, allowing them to age gracefully for many years.

5. While Tuscany is known as red wine country, it does produce white wines. In fact, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, made from white grapes sourced around this famous town, was the first Italian wine region to be awarded a DOC, in 1966. While Vernaccia continues to be popular, many Tuscany vintners suggest Vermentino, grown along the Tuscany coast, makes the province’s best white wines.

Occasions Reccommends

  • Antinori Santa Cristina Chianti Superiore, Italy $19.99
  • Leonardo Chianti Fiasco, Italy $20.49
  • Santa Margherita Chianti Classico, Italy $23.99
  • Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia, Italy $164.79

Next Week

We discover the wines of Beaujolais, just in time for the release of Beaujolais Nouveau.

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