There are few countries in the world with a viticultural history as long or as illustrious as that claimed by Italy. Grapes were first being grown and cultivated on Italian soil several thousand years ago by the Greeks and the Pheonicians, who named Italy 'Oenotria' – the land of wines – so impressed were they with the climate and the suitability of the soil for wine production. Of course, it was the rise of the Roman Empire which had the most lasting influence on wine production in Italy, and their influence can still be felt today, as much of the riches of the empire came about through their enthusiasm for producing wines and exporting it to neighbouring countries. Since those times, a vast amount of Italian land has remained primarily for vine cultivation, and thousands of wineries can be found throughout the entire length and breadth of this beautiful country, drenched in Mediterranean sunshine and benefiting from the excellent fertile soils found there. Italy remains very much a 'land of wines', and one could not imagine this country, its landscape and culture, without it.
Sangiovese is the primary grape used in Northern Italy in the region of Tuscany to make Chianti and also for Brunello di Montalcino. Sangiovese produces wines that are spicy, with good acid levels, smooth texture and medium body. In the right climates and with controlled yields, Sangiovese can be made into very structured and full bodied wines. It is usually blended with other grapes for best results and in northern Italy is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in the 'Super Tuscan' blends.
Because of its ability to create smoother wines with acid levels that pair well with many foods, a great deal of experimentation is taking place with it as a blending agent with several red varieties.
The central Italian region of Tuscany is widely understood to be one of the world's most famous and highly regarded wine regions. The beautiful rolling hillsides and medieval towns and castles which are a key feature of the area are also home to many of Europe's finest wineries, and extremely high quality vineyards growing the distinctive Sangiovese and Vernaccia grape varietals which are the flavorful backbone of Tuscany's wonderful red and white wines. For almost three thousand years, this region has been recognized as an ideal home for wine production on a large scale, and the ancient Etruscans, Greeks and Romans all noticed that fine grape varietals flourished on the unique soils and under the hot sunshine which typifies the area. Today, Tuscany is home to a wide range of wines, from the traditional to the complex, but all dedicated to excellent flavors and aromas, and maintaining the region's international reputation.
In the heart of Italy lies its most well-recognized region: Tuscany. Chianti is a large wine zone extending through much of Tuscany. All of the zone is DOCG status, and it is divided into seven districts. Two of these have readily-available wines on the world market: Chianti Classico (Classico refers to the defined area--not to a reserve or superior bottling) and Chianti Ruffina. In addition to their district of production, Chianti wines vary in style according to aging. Reserve wines, often aged in French oak, may be released after two or more years at the winery.
Chianti is always a very dry red wine, with very concentrated fruit character, most often made entirely from the sangiovese grape. Chianti goes well with food, and can range in style from light to full bodied with tart cherry and violet aromas and flavors. Chianti can age ten or more years in a good vintage.
The second great red wine of Tuscany is Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, from the town of the same name just south of the Chianti district. Brunello is a local term referring to the grape variety sangiovese. These wines are of superior quality and limited production. Intense, concentrated and tannic, they tend to require long aging (up to 20 years), although some producers are now making a more approachable style. Rosso di Montalcino is a less expensive, ready to drink version from either young vines or slightly inferior fruit.
Three more Tuscan wines of note include:
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG. From the town of the same names, these wines are made from basically the same grapes and same blend as Chianti, although the sangiovese clone in this district is Prugnolo Gentile. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was the first DOCG, and there are some excellent examples.
- Carmignano DOCG. This is a dry red wine made from Chianti-like blends, although Cabernet Sauvignon can also be used.
- Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG. Tuscany's best white wine, it is vinified from the grape variety of the same name. A fresh wine with an almond flavor and slightly oily texture, it is best drunk young.
What is a Super Tuscan?
The Super Tuscan phenomenon began in the 1970's when some producers decided to get attention by creating a new style of wine. The wines are called Super Tuscans either because they are produced outside the Chianti zone, or because their grape blends include varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc) that do not conform to the DOC requirements for Chianti, or because they are 100% Sangiovese which previously was prohibited in the Chianti area. Although the blends differ from producer to producer, what these wines do have in common is their expensive price tags. The most famous Super Tuscans, such as Sassicaia and Solaia , can induce collectors to spend upwards of $200 a bottle in a good vintage. The wines can vary widely in style from Chianti-like to Bordeaux-like to California Cabernet-like, depending on the blend.