A Basic Guide to Tuscan Wines

You find yourself in Italy and you would like a “taste of Tuscany.” So, there you are in a Tuscan wine shop (enoteca), face to face with a wall stacked high with bottles, indecipherable labels, and you ask yourself “Exactly what am I supposed to do now?”

First, take comfort in knowing that you are in one of the most wine-friendly regions in all the world. Second, don’t worry if you do not speak Italian well — the language of wine is universal.

If you are looking for a red wine, you may first be guided toward the Chiantis
The classic recipe, now open to reinterpretations, showcases the native Sangiovese grape with up to 15% of others blended, usually Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

CHIANTI (wines from within the geographic region of Chianti), includes the geographical subzones Chianti Rufina, Chianti Montespertoli, Chianti Montalbano, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colli Aretini and Colli Pisane. CHIANTI CLASSICO refers to wines from the historic core of the region meeting government standards of quality and composition.

Chiantis fall on the lighter side of the red wine spectrum. Standard characteristics in better Chiantis are a certain violet aroma and crisp, tannic dryness – precisely the qualities for which Chianti has become famous. The wine cleanses the palate and allows for a progression of flavors throughout a meal, making it a wonderful companion to lighter Tuscan fare.

CHIANTI RISERVA wines may or may not be Chianti Classico, but must be aged a minimum of 24 months in wooden casks. Vintage Chiantis, five years or older, can become velvety smooth and match well with grilled meats.

Don’t overlook Tuscany’s other reds that neither share Chianti’s recipe, nor name recognition, but which are often sensational. Made from the Sangiovese clone Calle Sangiovese Grosso, Brunello di Montalcino is legendary and often stellar. It is an “earthy” wine evolved for roasts, mushrooms and truffles.

ROSSO DI MONTALCINO is often seen (probably unfairly) as Brunello’s younger brother. It is from the same type of grape as Brunello, and shows many of the same characteristics, but it is bottled and enjoyed sooner, and it is therefore a bit less full-bodied. Another local favorite, VINO NOBILE DI MONTEPULCIANO, can be intensely floral, flavorful and slightly tannic, making it well suited to fowl and game.

In the States, the term “table wine” conjures up an image of a five-gallon jug of cheap pink wine. Its counterpart in Italy lives in colorful supermarket cartons. Another category found in an enoteca (wine shop) is IGT.

The term denotes wines composed exclusively of grapes grown in Tuscany, including those of non-Italian origin. The makers of these wines have the freedom to experiment with various grape mixtures and winemaking methods.

Some of these wines, SASSICAIA and ORNELLAIA to name just two, are made from noble grapes of non-Tuscan origins such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, which are currently grown in region.

Others, like TIGNANELLO, are made primarily from Sangiovese with small percentages of some of these grapes added. Still others (CEPPARELLO and COLTASSALA) are 100% Sangiovese, but are produced and aged much differently than typical Chianti. Expect to taste concentrated and robust characteristics such as baker’s chocolate, blackberry and toasted oak in this group of table wines, which has earned its own nickname, the “Super Tuscans.”

Traditionally, local whites (vini bianchi) tend to be crisp, clean, dry and again, on the lighter side of the white world. The wonderfully herbaceous VERNACCIA from San Gimignano, Tuscany’s most popular white, is bright, flavorful and fresh. Slightly fuller and more floral is MONTECARLO from the province of Lucca.

These are versatile wines, which marry well with fish, shellfish and fresh vegetables. Many producers offer Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs that are somewhat richer and longer-lived than traditional Tuscan whites.

VIN SANTO enjoys a long history and is currently riding a wave of new enthusiasm among sippers the world over. A quality VIN SANTO is rich, nutty, honeyed, viscous and high in alcohol. Sweet to the taste but with a dry finish, this local dessert wine is a wonderful end to a Tuscan repast.

While prices may vary greatly depending upon the bottle, producer and vintage, keep in mind that many of Tuscany’s greatest treasures (wines included) are to be found off the beaten path.

Given just a few words as markers: secco for dry, dolce for sweet, rosso for red, bianco for white, any good enoteca will be able to help guide you towards a bottle that will fit both your wallet and your palate. This often means that you will be trying something you’ve never heard of before.

But why not let yourself get a little bit lost? The sheer number of wines produced makes a comprehensive tasting inconceivable — in one visit anyway. And remember, no matter which wine you try, your taste of Tuscany will, after all, forever be your own.