Tuscany is one of the living, breathing epicenters of the wine world. The subject is rich in history and culture that is well beyond the scope of this club writeup. Across the ages, countless books have been written about it. The wineries, their vineyards, and the vintages have been intensely cataloged and recorded for centuries. Royal families centered their summer estates upon the verdant hills of this land. Celebrities, current society’s strange iteration of royals, have bought historic estates and lived out their contrived, agrarian fantasies in the vineyards. On a personal level, Chianti, or rather the straw-wrapped ‘Fiasco’ version of it graced the tables of many of our grandparents. For many of us, it is one of the few, or first, or only, wine regions in Europe we’ve visited. And why is this all? Because the land, and people who work it, have created brilliant, captivating wines for centuries. Thankfully, they still do to this day and we’re able to enjoy some.
When you look at a wine map of Tuscany, there’s a seemingly endless amount of regions and subregions. It can be, and is, overwhelming. The good news is that, unless you’re studying to be an MW, you can ignore almost all of these. There are really just 4 regions you need to focus on, for now - Chianti, Montalcino, Montepulciano, and Bolgheri.
Chianti is the logical starting point for Tuscany, and one of the wines in your bag this month. First demarcated in 1716 as a small zone roughly in between Florence and Siena. The Provincia del Chianti, as it was called, described the area around the provinces of Radda, Gaiole, and Castellina. In 1932, the maps were redrawn and expanded to roughly five times the size, which included several new sub-regions within the new, larger ‘Chianti’ zone, as well as the original area, which would now be called ‘Chianti Classico’. Today, you’ll find a large number of wines labeled Chianti, Chianti Classico, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti in Rufina… etc. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that a winery from a certain village or zone will be of a certain quality, so it’s a bit of a game to know the producers in order to decipher quality. One helpful note is that wines labeled Riserva are aged longer (usually 30 months), and the producer must own all of the vineyards they source from.
In Chianti, it is guaranteed that the wines are predominantly Sangiovese, often 100% but sometimes with a small amount of Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or other ‘approved’ red grapes. (Since 2006, white grape varieties have been prohibited. Historically, Trebbiano and Malvasia were included in many blends.) When comparing Chianti to other regions within Tuscany, you can expect Chiantis to be lighter in extraction and more ethereal in aromatics, with ample red cherry fruit, rustic tannins, and bright acidity. Compared to their southern counterparts - Montalcino and Montepulciano - I find them more lifted and elegant rather than brooding and structured.
Moving south from Chianti, you find the dueling villages of Montepulciano and Montalcino. Both are incredibly picturesque mountain towns surrounded by fields of grape vines, wheat, and olive groves as far as the eye can see. Montepulciano, home of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is further inland, towards the border of Umbria near the town of Cortana. Montalcino is a bit further West, located halfway between the mountains and the sea. Both regions use a larger-berried clone of Sangiovese named Sangiovese Grosso. Within Montepulciano, it is called Prugnolo Gentile and in Montalcino, it is called Brunello (due to the ‘brown’ color the wines take on after aging). Both regions have stricter aging requirements than Chianti for their top wines (Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano), however their lower-tier wines (Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano), can be released earlier like most Chiantis. While Vino Nobile is technically allowed to add 20% of Canialo and Malmallo alongside Prugnolo Gentile, Montalcino wines must be 100% Sangiovese Grosso. That said, most producers in Vino Nobile will only use Sangiovese Grosso, rather than blend.
While Tuscans would debate the nuances handily, I personally haven’t found a massive difference between the wines from the two villages. Quality can vary greatly so, like above, it is more impactful which producer you drink rather than which town you drink it from. Regardless, one can expect wines from these two mountain towns to be bigger, bolder, and denser than Chianti. The Sangiovese Grosso clone produces higher alcohol and higher sugar content than the regular clone used in Chianti. The result is riper, more full-bodied wines. Those used to American style wines from Napa or Walla Walla, for example, would find these immediately more appealing than the wines from Chianti. However, they would probably be much bigger fans of our next region - Bolgheri, home to the fabled Super Tuscans.
Bolgheri was, historically, not a wine-growing place, at least in terms of Ancient History like we view the rest of Tuscany. It is a region, and style, born out of rebellion rather than tradition. As briefly touched on above, Italy has very stringent production laws that restrict everything from grapes to alcohol levels to aging requirements and more. Rewind to the 1960s, the world of wine was booming and consumers worldwide started fawning over the Cabernet-based reds of Bordeaux and, in part, Napa. Naturally, Tuscan producers wanted in on the international feeding frenzy. But there was an issue: Italian labeling laws restricted any reds made of these grapes to be simply called Vino di Tavola, the lowest tier of table wine reserved for cheap jug wine. How do you market simple Vino di Tavola to compete with the lauded, first-growth Bordeaux?
Enter Tenuta San Guido in Tuscany. In the 1940s the owners of this sea-side Bolgheri estate recognized that the coastal climate and rocky geology had a lot in common with Bordeaux’s famous Graves region. The family of this estate had already started experimenting with French grapes but were bottling the wine strictly as a family/friends product for two decades. In 1968 they released the first commercial vintage of their Cabernet-based blend, labeled as ‘Sassicaia’. Over the next twenty to thirty years, this style of wine became increasingly more popular. The ‘[Robert] Parkerization’ of wine made rich, ripe, full bodied Cabernet-based wines entirely in vogue and more estates wanted a piece. Producers like Ornellaia (Bolgheri), Tignanello (Chianti), Isole e Olena (Chianti), and Piedmont’s Gaja (Maremma) wanted a taste. Eventually, Cabernet was planted across Tuscany and winemakers were employing the use of small oak barrels and heavy-extraction to make flashy, market-ready wines. The ‘Super Tuscan’ was having its moment.
Today, the pendulum has swung back a bit more towards ‘classic’ however these wines still remain as some of the most sought after and highest priced of those produced in Tuscany, next to top wines from the aforementioned regions above. Are they the best? That's up to personal preference. I believe they have a place in the wine lexicon, for sure. And I believe that Bolgheri as a region is indeed better off planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and friends rather than Sangiovese. But all things being equal, would I spend the same amount of money on the finest Super Tuscan as the finest Chianti Classico Riserva Gran Selezione? I think you know the answer.
Colle Petruccio, ‘Stralunato’ Vermentino, Toscano IGT 2021
Sandro Ruffo grew up in Calabria, where he was surrounded by wine from a young age. He spent his earlier years, during the 70’s, in Calabria growing grapes and making wine. He eventually moved to Rome, where he worked as a lawyer for nearly 20 years. Fed up with city life and dreaming of returning to the vineyards, Sandro again looked north - this time to Maremma, the rugged and less populated coastline of southern Tuscany.
The property Sandro landed on was called Colle Petruccio since Roman times. The quaint hilltop estate (colle means hill), has been home to olive and wine cultivation for thousands of years. It is a rocky, rugged landscape, roughly 13 miles from the seaside and a short 20 min drive to the town of Grosseto. Sandro cultivates the 20 acre estate with organic principles and uses minimal intervention in the cellar.
This wine, the ‘Stralunato’ is one of two whites that Sandro makes. Both are Vermentino heavy, which is the leading white grape of the region (still only ~30% of production). The Stralunato, however, has a splash of Trebbiano and Malvasia Blanca to add roundness, aromatics, and texture. All three wines are pressed together, allowed to ferment spontaneously (no cultured yeast), and then aged through the winter before bottling in spring with just a touch of sulfur dioxide. The result is a wine that is simplistic and joyous. It is an easy drinker, with notes of orange citrus, ripe stone fruit, and a white flowers. There is an innately-Italian bitterness on the palate, which makes it a particularly good food pairing wine. This would be great with simple grilled summer meats and/or vegetables, maybe with a squeeze of Meyer Lemon and a drizzle of nice olive oil.
Pagliarese, Chianti Classico DOCG 2019
Pagliarese has had a long and storied history before today’s iteration was formed. It is located in the Castelnuovo Berardenga area of Chianti, next to famous estates such as Fèlsina and Castell’in Villa. The winery reached its heyday in the 60’s and 70’s and was regarded as one of the finest estates in the region. Over time, the winery fell into disrepair and the vineyards were in need of rehabilitation. By the late 80s, the winery was only producing a small amount of unexciting wine. In 1995, the Poggiali family, owners of neighboring Fèlsina purchased the 80 acre property. They stopped production of wine under the Pagliarese label and started rehabilitating the vineyards. For the next 20 years, a majority of the grapes were sold off and a small amount was added to the Fèlsina Chianti Classico. Fast forward to 2015, the vineyards and winery were in much better condition and the Poggiali family decided to restart production under the historic name.
Not wanting to make a copycat of Fèlsina’s Chianti Classico, the family decided to use Pagliarese to showcase a ‘modern interpretation of the classic style’. That is to say, they produce their Chianti Classico with about 5% each Canaiolo and Mammolo added. These grapes compliment, rather than dominate the Sangiovese, adding floral notes and softening the wines. Additionally, the Pagliarese property has more sandy soil, with a little bit of volcanic matter, while Fèlsina is more rocky. The result is a wine that is softer, and more elegant than its famous counterpart.
After organic cultivation, the three grapes are harvested in late October and given a two week fermentation. Once dry, they are aged in large, 500L Slavonian Oak casks for roughly 1 year before bottling. The resulting wine is lightly fruited, with notes of wild berry, blue flowers, rustic earth, and Mediterranean herb. The palate is soft, but has fine-grained tannins typical of Sangiovese. This would be a great wine with marinated pork or tempeh, and fits the summer barbecue theme well.