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Unveiling the Wines of Tuscany: From Chianti to Super Tuscans

Updated: Apr 9

Tuscany, the heart of Italy, boasts a rich tapestry of wines beyond the ubiquitous Chianti. While Chianti reigns supreme, this region offers a captivating journey for wine enthusiasts, with renowned appellations like Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Vernaccia di San Gimignano gracing the world stage. Additionally, unique gems like Sassicaia and the trendy Galestro white wine add further depth to the Tuscan wine landscape.

Chianti: Unveiling the Sangiovese Soul

Chianti isn't a grape variety; it's a land. Nestled between Florence, Siena, Arezzo, and Pisa, this central Tuscan region is where the most celebrated Chianti estates reside. Sangiovese, the "blood of Jupiter" as its name translates, is the star player in Chianti. The law mandates a minimum of 70% Sangiovese, with the flexibility to include local or international varieties in the blend.

Traditionally, 100% Sangiovese wines were considered the pinnacle of Chianti. However, history reveals a more diverse past. White grapes were once part of the blend, and Chianti was predominantly white wine 700 years ago.

The essence of Chianti lies in its vibrant acidity, a characteristic dryness, and a subtle hint of salinity. Imagine the aroma of ripe cherries and violets, with a touch of cherry pit and a whisper of tomato leaves – that's the quintessential Chianti experience.

Choosing Your Chianti Companion

A general rule for Chianti: there are no bad choices. Some Chiantis are perfect for casual weekday lunches or family dinners, while others are exceptional, age-worthy wines reserved for special occasions.

For everyday enjoyment, a simple "Chianti" with its signature cherry and violet notes will suffice. These wines typically undergo a shorter aging period, around six months, and may not necessarily see time in barrels. Look for the word "Riserva" on the label for Chianti matured in barrels for up to two years.

When you seek a wine to elevate a special meal, explore Chianti with designations of its seven sub-zones. Each zone, like Chianti Colli Aretini or Chianti Classico, boasts its own unique character.

Chianti Classico: The Black Rooster's Domain

If you find a bottle emblazoned with a black rooster, the symbol of Chianti Classico, consider yourself fortunate. This prestigious designation signifies exceptional Sangiovese grapes grown on the finest Chianti Classico lands between Florence and Siena. Every detail matters here – the specific village where the grapes flourish, the hillside's sun exposure, the producer's name, and the vintage year.

My Picks for "Chianti Classico" Greatness:

  • Frescobaldi Castiglioni

  • Isole e Olena

  • Badia a Coltibuono

  • Agricola Querciabella

  • Agricola San Felice

  • Casaloste

  • Castello di Ama

Frescobaldi Nipozzano: A Stellar "Non-Classico" Choice

Super Tuscans: Breaking the Mold

The 1980s witnessed the birth of the term "Super Tuscan," a marketing brainchild attributed to various figures like wine publicist Nicholas Belfrage or wine critics James Suckling and Robert Parker. Unlike Chianti with its defined rules, Super Tuscans are crafted with an audacious disregard for DOC/DOCG regulations.

These regulations dictate grape source, grape varietals, and even aging requirements for wines designated as Chianti or Chianti Classico. In the 1970s, a group of visionary winemakers challenged these established norms, believing them to hinder the region's potential. Consequently, their creations could only be labeled as "vino da tavola" (table wine), the most basic classification in Italy.

Time, however, has been a testament to the exceptional quality of these Super Tuscans, garnering appreciation from wine lovers and critics alike. Clever marketing has also played a significant role in their success. The leading Super Tuscan estates have adopted a Bordeaux-like approach, meticulous in crafting their wines – from artistic labels to state-of-the-art cellars, and even producing "second" and "third" wines. For instance, Sassicaia boasts the acclaimed Guidalberto and the everyday Le Diffese from Tenuta San Guido.

Super Tuscans have secured a prestigious spot on the Liv-Ex wine exchange, with some fetching record prices at auctions. Their experimentation with international grape varieties continues to push boundaries. A new designation, IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), has also emerged, signifying a higher quality than "vino da tavola" but still falling outside DOC/DOCG regulations.

Examples of Super Tuscan Excellence: Tenuta dell’Ornellaia - Ornellaia 

Tenuta San Guido - Sassicaia 

Antinori - Solaia 

Antinori - Tignanello 

Super Tuscans can cost $40 to well over $100 per bottle. I have enjoyed many Chianti Classico Riservas that are the equivalent to their Super Tuscan cousins. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: A Gem Awaits in the Hills

During our trip, we'll have the delightful opportunity to visit the village of Montepulciano and meet a local producer firsthand. Here, we'll delve into the world of Vino Nobile, a Tuscan wine that often gets overshadowed. Despite its name, Vino Nobile ("Noble Wine") isn't made with the Montepulciano grape variety from Abruzzo. Instead, the star player here is Sangiovese, known as Prugnolo Gentile in Montepulciano. The wine must be composed of at least 70% Sangiovese, with the possibility of adding other red and white grapes.

Many wine enthusiasts describe Vino Nobile as a bridge between the lighter and more aromatic Chianti Classico and the full-bodied Brunello. It boasts a delightful flavor profile characterized by ripe cherries and plums, with a touch of tea-like character. Thanks to its vibrant acidity, Vino Nobile ages beautifully, developing complexity over time in the bottle.

Brunello di Montalcino: Power and Prestige in a Glass

While we won't be venturing to Montalcino itself on this trip, you can rest assured that we'll have the pleasure of sampling Brunello di Montalcino at some of the wine bars and restaurants we'll be visiting. Brunello refers to a local Sangiovese clone known for its larger berries. The village of Montalcino, located 30 kilometers south of Siena, enjoys a warmer climate compared to Chianti Classico. This translates to wines with a more robust, dense, and muscular character.

Aging plays a crucial role in Brunello, even more so than in other Tuscan wines. According to regulations, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG requires a minimum of four years of aging, with two years spent in oak barrels. The "Riserva" designation demands an even longer aging period of five years. The resulting Brunello is a powerful and stately wine, brimming with vibrant aromas of cherries, sweet spices, and tobacco.

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