If Piedmont is "Lighnting" when it comes to Italian wine production, then Tuscany is "Thunder". Locally called Toscana, Tuscany is responsible for about 5.5% of Italy's total wine production, but it's the wines that you have likely heard of. One cannot have a discussion about Italian wine, and not mention Chianti, Brunello Di Montalcino, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, and Super Tuscans.
Since Italian wines are named after the places that they come from, it is often difficult to remember what grapes they are made of. When we discussed Piedmont, the most important grape to recognize is Nebbiolo. In Tuscany, the grape to think about is Sangiovese.
Chianti is probably the most recognizable wine from Tuscany. Made from Sangiovese, it can be blended with up to 15 percent of other grapes (usually canaiolo, merlot, or cabernet sauvignon.) The days of the insipid, watery wines coming from bottles covered by wicker baskets at white and red checkered-tablecloth restaurants are pretty much over. There has been a rise in quality of Chianti, and the new wines have more body, structure, and personality than before. The Chianti appelation is divided into seven subzones, which you might see on the label: Classico, Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, and Rufina.
The next area that most have heard of is Brunello di Montalcino. These are the darker, more brooding, ageable wines from the area around the city of Montalcino. As the name suggests, they are made from Brunello, which is a clone of sangiovese- its name means "little brown one". Brunellos are the usually the most sought after, expensive, and longest lived wines from Tuscany. They also have really long ageing requirements- they must be aged in barrel for at least 3 1/2 years before release. If you can't afford the Brunellos, try its little brother Rosso di Montalcino, which is much more accessible.
Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is named after the nobility that used to be in the city of Montepulciano, and would drink the wine. It, too is made from a clone of sangiovese called prugnolo (meaning prune), and can be blended with canaiolo, malvasia, and trebbiano. Don't confuse this wine with one called Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, which comes from Abruzzi (east of Rome on the Adriatic sea). I know, it's hard.
Finally we get to the great Super Tuscans. As discussed last week, Italian wines are broken into the quality levels of VdT, IGT, DOC, And DOCG. The wines that we have been talking about have all been DOCG level, which is considered the best. In the late 70's, some producers wanted to make wines out of grapes that didn't legally fit within the DOC or the DOCG rules. The main example of this was Sassicaia- a producer making 100% Cabernet Sauvignon out of Tuscany. Basically, the wine rocked, but couldn't be considered a top-quality wine by government standards. This started the "Super Tuscan" movement- wines being made that are of great quality levels, but are only considered IGT wines by the government because they are made of something besides 85 % sangiovese. The names you will hear bantered about are Sassicaia (made from Cab), Tiganello (sangiovese with a huge dose of cab), Ornellaia (mainly cab), and Masseto (mainly merlot) among others. The cult-nature of these rogue wines has made them very expensive, although I must admit it's worth it. They are stunning!
Other Tuscan wines worth mentioning are the wonderful dry white Vernaccia di San Gimignamo, and the sultry sweet called Vin Santo (usually made of dried trebbiano grapes).
That's enough for your probably already aching heads for today.