Chianti, the Uffizi, Vernaccia, Ponte Vecchio, grappa, the Duomo, amaro, Dante: drinking in Florence requires knowledge.
Florence is situated within a cork’s throw of Chianti. Like Champagne it is the name of the wine region and not the grape variety. Get out of the Renaissance city by bus, bike or on foot, and feel reborn again in the surrounding hills and their vineyards. Tip: adorn a big floppy straw hat, floaty clothing and do a Stealing Beauty. I’d even go as far as dancing in the rows.
If you see Chianti on the label, it is a red wine, never white. Sangiovese is the red grape used to make Chianti wine and it’s the berry you are most likely to see in Tuscany. It makes a dry, medium-bodied red wine: perfect for vino lovers in the making. Order it with food. It can be awkward alone, elbowing its way to the back of your throat. But with steak, salami or anything “beany”, Chianti becomes the epitome of Italian elegance, long-necked and smooth-limbed.
Once you have mastered Chianti, try the reds from Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast (it can be in quite small print on the label). Here they grow international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz. Brace yourself because these reds pack more of a punch, full-bodied with black fruit flavours, slightly sweeter and rounder, albeit more approachable.
If white wine is your thing, you’ll be relieved to learn that Tuscany does bianchi too. Tip: look for the two “V”s! Vernaccia is grown around the town of San Gimignano and stimulates the brain with its cool, curious taste. (Think fossils!) But it can be a bit high and mighty compared to Vermentino, a friendly, juicy and crisp wine from vineyards closer to the coast.
In the supermarket you can get big bottles for small prices. My advice: avoid like Florence’s 1348 plague. Like meat, cheese or bread, it pays to spend a bit more. A 2-euro litre of wine is like eating a loaf of cheap sliced white. If you have a small budget, check out your local “fiaschetteria” or “vino sfuso” place. You choose your wine (most of them will let you try before you buy), get the lowdown from the enthusiastic owners, then buy a glass bottle for 50 cents or 1 euro. Pay a few euro more to get the bottle filled. You can take it back to be refilled for barely the cost of a panino.
The Florentine’s favourite “vino sfuso” spots
How it works: you generally buy a bottle and go back for refills straight from the store’s stainless steel vats.
La Buca del Vino, via Romana 129r
Il Santo Vino, borgo Tegolaio, 46
Balthazar Vino e Altro, via dei Camaldoli
Alla Rinfusa, via del Leone
TASTING FOR BEGINNERS
*Hold the glass by the stem, i.e. no contact between your warm hands and the cool wine, so you enjoy it at the right temperature.
*Check the wine is clear and bright, with no fizzing unless it is meant to sparkle, and with no bits of floating cork, though they’re actually harmless.
*Swirl the wine so that it gives up its aromas. Warning: don’t do this on a first date unless you’ve already mastered it. It will go everywhere and you’ll really wish you’d just left things alone. Being covered in Chianti isn’t the height of romance.
*Take a sniff. If it smells like damp cardboard it could be “corked”, meaning that the wine was perfect until it was bottled with a faulty cork. It happens. Ask the waiter to check—you should get another. For free.
*Taste it. Taking in a small mouthful, swish it about and enjoy a mini-gargle. The swishing emphasises the qualities of the wine: its fruitiness, acidity, dryness and sweetness. You need only do this for the initial taste.
*Declare the wine “favoloso”, then wait for the alcohol to ask you to dance. Like Liv Tyler.