Tuscan viticulture and historic red wines of Italy

Raise your hand if you’re exempt from the worldwide fascination with Tuscany. Hm. We thought so: it’s an attraction so powerful that generations of Anglo-Saxons have dreamt of moving to “Chiantishire” and basking “under the Tuscan sun”, as the likes of Tony Blair, Sting, Bryan Ferry, Richard Gere and Frances Mayes can attest to. Not Brits and Americans alone, in fact; even the normally France-centered French have consistently fallen in love with the region. We will merely mention one among many, great writer and Nobel Prize laureate Albert Camus, who would have liked to die “on the road from Monte San Savino to Siena, skirting a scenery of vineyards and olive trees”, seeing Siena “looming in the sunset”.

Tuscany has been at the heart and core of Italian civilization as early as Etruscan times: Tuscan contributions have been crucial to the country in every possible field, from the Italian language itself to the arts. Beauty is at home in the region as nowhere else, pervasive and all-encompassing from the humblest rural setting to the Florentine museums. In this context of elegance and harmony, the winemaking heritage does not fall short. Where all of Italy is well supplied with powerful, long-living red wines, Tuscany’s star players stand out for their unique charm, as plush, mellow and exquisite as the gently rolling hills of Chianti, the shady coastland round Bolgheri. Scents of pine trees and violets, marasca cherry and berry fruit, hover in the vineyard and linger on the palate, never somber or austere, consistently appealing and elegant.

Tuscan viniculture is a blue-blooded affair – not only because such a major portion of the local aristocracy – from the Antinoris to the Guicciardini Strozzis – have been at the forefront of the region’s winemaking; but in its broadest sense, for the antiquity and nobility of its tradition. For one thing, recent research has proven that France itself is indebted to the Toscani of some 2500 years ago – the Etruscans. Apparently, the first varieties to be imported into Gaul were shipped by the Etruscans around 500-400 BC. (Anybody interested in delving deeper may refer to an interesting study, published in 2013 and available on the PNAS web site, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

It was also on Tuscan soil that the first wine denominations in the world were set up, over three centuries ago, in 1716, when Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici defined the production areas for Chianti, Pomino, Carmignano and Valdarno and forbade imitations of their celebrated wines.

Today, the region counts no less than 43 DOCs, 6 IGTs and 11 DOCGs, including a formidable trio of great Italian reds: Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. All three (as well as Carmignano DOCG in the province of Prato, Montecucco DOCG between Montalcino and Maremma, and Morellino di Scansano DOCG further to the southwest) hail from Sangiovese grapes – which of all Italian varieties, is arguably the one that mutates the most with a change in terrain and microclimate, even changing names: Prugnolo Gentile in Montepulciano, Brunello in Montalcino, Morellino in Grosseto… Arenaceous soils endow Sangiovese with floral nuances, calcareous ones nuances of berry fruit, tuffaceous terrain, smoky, tobacco-like notes. One particular scent is a constant, so much so it is mentioned in the respective DOCG regulations: violets.

Macro areas of Tuscan winemaking

Given the complexity of the Tuscan wine map, most reference books necessarily simplify and split the region into two main vinicultural macro areas: (1) The hills of central Tuscany and (2) the southern coastland, facing the Tyrrhenian Sea (the northern portion is the Ligurian seaboard).

The first is the historic core of the region. This is where we find the first Italian DOC (1966), now upgraded to DOCG, and one of the country’s most ancient wines: Vernaccia di San Gimignano (from Vernaccia grapes), which was already famous in the 1200s, so much so Dante mentions it in his Divine Comedy. Today, it shows an intense, floral, fruity, appley bouquet, excellent freshness and a subtle almond finish. Other widespread white varieties are Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia, though whites make up a mere 15% of Tuscan production, and notably include the famous, exquisite dessert wine, Vin Santo (which is actually mostly amber in color, from dried grapes), a match made in heaven with the region’s famous cantucci (you might want to try the ones Ventuno selected for you in their Tuscan Dessert Experience Box, paired with Guicciardini Strozzi’s delightful Vin Santo). The central hills’ predominant variety, on the other hand, is the region’s premier native red grape, which we mentioned earlier, likely a legacy from Tuscany’s Etruscan forebears: Sangiovese (aka Prugnolo, Prugnolo Gentile, Brunello, Morellino, Sanvicetro, Nerino, Sangioveto…), with its dozens of clones and numerous DOCGs that go from Brunello di Montalcino to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, from Chianti Classico to Chianti and its subzones (Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, Montespertoli and Rufina); from Carmignano to Morellino di Scansano, which, however, belongs to the second macro area – The Tyrrhenian coastline, further south. More precisely, Morellino di Scansano hails from Maremma, close to the sea, on hillside terrain, acid to slightly alkaline and rich in seabed sediments that endow Morellino with a distinct personality compared to its northern brethren.

Costa Tirrenica, as the southern coastal macro area is known in Italian, is the newest among Tuscan wine zones, not least because most of the territory used to be marshy and unproductive. Surprising and trendy, it is home to the celebrated Sassicaia and many of the Super Tuscans that followed its lead. The present Bolgheri DOC began as an extraordinary “vino da tavola” – Sassicaia, a barrique-aged Cabernet. Today, Tenuta San Guido’s famous maverick red holds its own DOC, Bolgheri Sassicaia, while in the same area, in the environs of Castagneto Carducci, other Bolgheri DOCs have sprung up, either from the two Cabernets and/or Merlot, Syrah, and max. 50% Sangiovese.

Super Tuscans

Speaking of great Tuscan reds, in both macro areas, inevitably means not just the historic classics like Brunello, Vino Nobile or Chianti Classico, but Super Tuscans, the newer generation of grandi rossi. The name itself, “Super Tuscan”, was coined by Nicholas Belfrage, Master of Wine and English journalist, and the foreign press soon adopted the catchy moniker; initially, for Sassicaia and similar blends, then for pure Sangioveses, and finally for blends of Cabernet and Sangiovese. In short: either rebel blends or revolutionary, ultra-Tuscan renegades.

The latter category includes some IGT wines with a personality, complexity and breed that are worthy of the finest DOCGs; red wines determined to express the full range and power of the Sangiovese grape, cutting through the red tape of conventional blends. Wines like the splendid Super Tuscan you will find in Ventuno’s Tuscan Dinner Experience Box, Sòdole.

Sòdole, Guicciardini Strozzi

The elegant, black-and-white etching on the label is a portrait of Francesco Guicciardini, a celebrated public figure and writer who lived at the heart of the Florentine Renaissance; one of the many illustrious forebears of this aristocratic family, the Guicciardini Strozzis. (Another is Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, none other than Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.)

First issued in 1983, this Super Tuscan from San Gimignano is exclusively released in the finest vintages, from select Sangiovese grapes and a single vineyard, Sòdole, premier hillside terrain on the proprietary estate, Tenuta di Cusona, which has been in the family since 994 and is now run by Prince Girolamo Strozzi, flanked by his daughters, Natalia and Irina Guicciardini Strozzi.

After manual harvest and rigorous selection, the grapes are fermented in barrique, with 8 to 9 days’ maceration on the skins at a controlled temperature of 28° C. The wine is subsequently barrique-aged for 12 months, prior to a further 14 months’ bottle age.

Its brilliant ruby color with subtle garnet hues preludes a bouquet of violets, spice and berry fruit confirmed on the palate. Luscious and full-bodied, its silky, supple tannins, distinct breed and rare finesse speak of superb terrain and meticulous winemaking. Best served at 18-20° C to match tasty first courses like Fusilli di Pisa with Chianina veal ragout, or game and seasoned cheeses.

Try an authentic Tuscan dinner with our Tuscan Dinner Experience Box