So you think you know wine?

A thorough introduction to Tuscan grapes

Emily O'Hare
November 5, 2015

Tuscany produces some of Italy’s most famous wines, but, like drummers in rock bands, the grape varieties sit anonymously behind their front man, their etichetta, and they are not always so easy to recognise. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti and Chianti Classico, Vin Santo—one might occasionally, pre- or post-bottle, wonder what grapes went into these holy noble wines? What are their names and what are their personalities?

 

It is really rather easy to get to grips with the Tuscan grape varieties because if it’s a wine from Tuscany and it’s red, the odds are high that the grape that made the wine, or made up the majority of the blend, was Sangiovese. It makes up at least 50 percent of the blend in Carmignano, 70 percent of the blend in both Chianti and Montepulciano and in Montalcino it must appear ‘in purezza’ 100% Sangiovese.

 

Some experts believe Sangiovese to be of Etruscan heritage, and that its name may reference myth and sacrifice—Sanguis Jovis means the ‘blood of Jupiter’. This is a theory I am happy to accept. Jupiter could throw thunderbolts and very often after drinking a fine Sangiovese I feel capable of doing the same.

 

It is a jubilant, vigorous wine—that made from Sangiovese. Ruby red (never dark or inky in colour) and perfumed, it can look and smell dainty, innocently transparent, with aromas of violets and irises, yet it can be so powerful in the mouth, with high acidity and high tannins. I like Daily Telegraph’s wine writer Victoria Moore’s description of Sangiovese: that it crenellates across the tongue. Take note next time before you swallow to see if you can sense the indents and peaks, the whoosh of floral aromatics, and the depth of fruit flavour, the acidity that creates lift and the tannins that fortify and ground the wine deeply into the tongue and can be felt on the gums above the front teeth—a mouthful of parapet and battlements—appropriate for a wine surviving on land between the cities of Florence and Siena.

 

These characteristics—the medium to full body, the high acid and tannin, the purple flowers, and red and black cherry fruit flavours—these are tick-box Sangiovese personality. But there is much more to this ancient grape, and this is where things get tricky, but the clues are with the front man—they’re on the label.

 

Sangiovese is a grape variety that is very sensitive to where it is planted. It doesn’t like to be too hot or too cold, or to be planted in too rich soils, preferring less fertile sites. In Chianti Classico the Sangiovese grows in a climate that is cooler and where there is more rainfall than further south in Montalcino, a town closer to the sea, much warmer and drier. So although the wines are predominantly Sangiovese they taste different.

 

The 17th-century poet Fulvio Testi wrote that the wines of Chianti Classico bite you and kiss you. Because of that cooler climate the Sangiovese tends to have higher acidity, and the wines feel leaner, tense, nervous—they bite. With a plate of salumi and crostini di fegato there could not be a better match. An Italian sommelier friend of mine tells me that Italians drink so that they can eat more. Italian wines stimulate and refresh the appetite. Heavy, soft, low acid wines are not so popular in Italy; they do nothing with food—they are a meal in themselves.

 

In Montalcino, because of that extra warmth and lighter rainfall the Sangiovese seems rounder and broader-shouldered than in the Chianti Classico. Brunello (the name for Sangiovese growing around this particular town) is considered to be the most heroic expression of Sangiovese. I always detect an iron rich quality in a sip of Brunello, particularly when it gains age. There is a point at which the flavours—very rose petal and cherry in its youth—begin to take on a slightly rusty quality, ever so slightly salty, like tasting tears on the tongue. Or, if you’ve managed an entire bottle, you taste gladiators. Metal breastplates and fresh sweat. When the games begin in my Brunello then I know things just got ottimo. 

 

1 Fontodi, Chianti Classico, Panzano, Greve (Sangiovese)

2 Montevertine ‘Le Pian Del Ciampolo’, Radda (Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero, Colorino)

3 Sesti, Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese ‘Brunello’)

4 Le Pottazine, Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese ‘Brunello’)

5 Capoverso, Rosso di Montepulciano (Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero)

6 Dei, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero)

 

There are other red grape varieties in the vineyards of Tuscany, Canaiolo Nero and Colorino, Malvasia Nera and Mammolo, but you really only ever see them in a supporting role to Sangiovese. Colorino, as the name suggests, adds colour to the more lightly hued Sangiovese. Mammolo contributes an intense violet and lavender aroma and flavour. The different qualities each grape variety has can be used by winemakers to season the Sangiovese, to heighten and clarify certain elements in the wine. 

 

Then there are also the more familiar international varieties growing in Tuscany: Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Sauvignon has been grown here for over a century, but regardless of this lengthy stay it is still not considered a native. Despite the vines being grown and the wine made in Tuscany these were not the classical varieties so there was no classification to label them. Superior and highly priced vino da tavola began to appear on the market, like Sassicaia and Tignanello. Robert Parker was said to have coined the term ‘Super Tuscan’ to describe these fine wines masquerading as mere ‘table wines’.

 

7 Capezzana, ‘Carmignano’, Carmignano (Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon)

8 Sassicaia, Bolgheri (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc)

 

Moving excitedly on to white grapes: Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Vermentino, Trebbiano and Malvasia. I write excitedly because the white wine scene in Italy is fabulous. At the restaurant where I worked in London I used to love seeing people’s expectations exceeded by the quality of white wines Italy has to offer. It’s my understanding that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Italian white wine was thought to be neutral and thin. Scrawny excuses next to the glowing golden Aussie offerings appearing on the UK market. Now, in 2015, Italian white wines are excellent. From Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta through Le Marche to Sicily, there is so much great quality white wine to enjoy. And Tuscany has got two grape varieties, which, helpfully, do appear on the label that you might like to try.

 

Vernaccia di San Gimignano, grown around the hilltop town of San Gimignano, has a noble history. In his book The Native Grapes of Italy, Ian D’Agata writes that it was a favourite of Lorenzo di Medici who apparently routinely asked the San Gimignano authorities to send wine to Florence. In his Divine Comedy, Dante banishes Pope Martin IV to purgatory for his gluttonous habit of drowning eels in Vernaccia.

 

Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a versatile variety, and this can be surprising and fun. Or frustrating. It can make white wines that a red drinker might enjoy: robust and mouth filling, not especially fruity, certainly not flimsy, strong and persistent, but it can also do light, zesty whites—there is no way to know what style you’re getting unless you get to know the producers. Which means visiting estates or simply tasting every Vernaccia di San Gimignano in the wine shop. Either way the research is lovely. One thing to note is that ‘Riserva’ wines tend to be aged in oak barrels, so if you’re not a fan of the toasty, vanilla flavours imparted by wood into wine then maybe it’s best to stick with the non-riservas.

 

Vermentino is a grape variety that is planted all along the curve of the Mediterranean sea, from the South of France, Corsica, along the Ligurian coast, down to Tuscany, and of course in Sardinia, where it is possibly best known. It is a white grape variety that yields a wine with plenty of flavour and acidity. Like Sangiovese, it too can tell you tales of its upbringing. In the slightly cooler Liguria Vermentino has a piercing freshness and immediacy that always colours thoughts green, and inevitably towards pesto. In Sardinian Vermentinos it is possible to detect a slight sea saltiness, a brininess. With that detection of brine must surely come warm skin and Odysseus washing up to yet another shore, to yet another nymph, naked and ‘brine covered’. There is a faint brininess to Tuscan Vermentino too, but certainly more bone. The best Tuscan Vermentino have drawn comparisons for me with the white wines of Chablis. They can be quite savoury, with subtle notes of Mediterranean herbs. It is a great match for tagliatelle with white ragu, pork and sage, or veal shank. They won’t disappear against strong textures or flavours.

 

9 Sono Montenidoli, ‘I Fiore’ Vernaccia di San Gimignano

10 Panizzi, Vernaccia di San Gimignano

11 Poggio al Tesoro, ‘Solosole’ Vermentino, Bolgheri

 

Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia Bianca Lunga are the two varieties behind that most delicious Tuscan white, well, amber wine: Vin Santo. These two grapes are not so tremendous when made like a normal white wine—they make unchallenging lightly aromatic, lightly flavoursome whites, but they work wondrously together to make Vin Santo. Vin Santo is made by drying the freshly picked grapes for five months before pressing so as to concentrate the sugars in the fruit and lose water content. With such high levels of sugar after drying it is good to have a white grape with naturally high acidity, such as Trebbiano Toscano, so that the final result will be a balanced wine, not a flabby syrupy wine. But whereas the Trebbiano is taut, the Malvasia has a complementary fleshy texture to add some pattern to the more linear Trebbiano. And after five months of drying, the wine spends approximately five years in tiny wooden barrels called caratelli. Through the pores of the wood the wine continues to concentrate further until it represents about 20 percent of the original yield. This is a fine wine that should be sipped reverentially. A cantuccio biscuit or two wouldn’t go amiss, possibly a piece of cheese might be appreciated, but nothing more complicated. The wine is complex enough; there is so much to consider, its aromas, flavours, and seamless, silky texture. Two seemingly poor grape varieties provide us with one of the world’s great white wines.

 

12 Selvapiana, Vin Santo del Chianti Rufina (Trebbiano Toscano, Malvasia)

 

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