The Tuscany region of Italy is world famous. Heralded as one of the cultural hotspots of the entire planet and the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Beyond, but not below, the history, food, art and culture, is Tuscan wine. Without a doubt the jewel in Tuscany’s crown is Chianti.
Like so many of the greats, Chianti has had a rocky road. It began to garner worldwide acclaim in the 19th century, then slowly this reputation faded. Mass-appeal and production, in the wake of the second world war led to an unremarkable final product. However, from the 1980s the tides had turned.
Now, Chianti and Chianti Classico are some of the most desired wines in the world. This article can serve as a tour of Tuscan wine, with a focus on the story being many wine lovers’ favourite Italian red wine.
The Terroir Of Tuscan Wine
All things start with terroir. Tuscan wine grows on a variety of terroir, which is due to the range of micro-climates spread out across this disparate region. It’s worth noting that there are some common factors which appear throughout Tuscany. Namely, undulating hills and rocky soils. 68% of Tuscan wine is planted on hills, (MacNeil 377). So, spare a thought for the legs of those Tuscan winemakers walking up hills in the Summer heat to hand-pick those grapes!
The rocky soil is not as ubiquitous, as the hills of the region. However, it is a vital part of some of the most prestigious vineyards. Rocky soils such as schist, limestone and clay are also present throughout Tuscan wine region.
Rocky soil, often schist specifically, is particularly well-draining and can help the water drain throughout the hilly vineyards. Irrigation is a key factor when you are in the baking Italian Summer sun.
Beyond these two factors, the Tuscan wine region covers an expansive, ever-changing terrain. The Tuscan wine region covers roughly 9000 square miles, making it the 5th largest Italian wine region, in area alone, (MacNeil 377). The western part of the Tuscan wine region begins from the Tyrrhenian Sea, which separates Italy from the islands of Sardegna and Corsica. Then, it passes through the cities of Pisa, Siena and Florence before reaching the low mountains which separate it from the regions of Emilia-Romagna, Umbria and Marche.
The Grapes Of Tuscan Wine
The quintessential grape of Tuscan wine is Sangiovese, although interestingly this grape seems to have ancestral roots in Calabria. Sangiovese appears to have stemmed from the Calabrese di Montenuovo, which is found throughout modern-day Italy, (MacNeil 376). However, we will tell the story of Tuscan wine and Sangiovese shortly.
There are a number of other key grapes to look for in this region. The most rarefied and expensive of all being the Brunello di Montalcino, which translates to ‘nice dark one’. This wine stems from the walled hilltop medieval village of Montalcino.
It is around an hour south of Chianti. The southernmost position of the Tuscan wine region is historically home to more full-bodied and powerful wines. Brunello di Montalcino more specifically will possess flavours of blackberries, black cherry, raspberry, chocolate, violet, tar, cinnamon and leather. This is one for ageing though. Vintages are only available for sale, after five years of ageing.
Beyond Brunello, many grapes are more bit part players. Cabernet Sauvignon was brought to the region by Cosimo de Medici III in the 18th century and plays a part in many Tuscan wine blends, including Chianti. Merlot, Canaiolo and Colorino also have similar roles in Tuscan wine.
Red wine has historically ruled the roost when it comes to Tuscan wine. However, white wine has become more and more prominent in the Tuscan wine region. Often, the top white wine grapes were reserved for the famous dessert wine, Vin Santo. Yet, in recent times they are being used for simply white wine. If you’re a fan of white wine, top Tuscan wines to look for will focus on grapes such as Trebbiano and Malvasia Lunga.
Chianti – A Tuscan Wine Story
We’ve touched upon the fact that Chianti is the cornerstone of Tuscan wine. Indeed, nearly half of the territory in the Tuscan wine region, (38000 acres), is dedicated to Chianti, (MacNeil 380). Much of this territory is historic, with some vineyards dating back to the 1100s. The castles, stone farmhouses, olive groves and cypress trees that you see today were likely staples of many of these vineyards at the time.
Chianti – The Ricasoli Way
It wasn’t until the 19th century when this bastion of Tuscan wine changed. A tweak to the classic formula would prove the eventual downfall of Chianti. The unsuspecting culprit was Baron Bettino Ricasoli, whose family had been producing Chianti as far back as the 12th century, (MacNeil 382). The tweak to the classic Tuscan wine was to begin adding white grapes. Specifically, Malvasia. The idea being that this would mean the wine could be drunk at a younger age.
As things progressed, more white grapes were added. At this point it could be to cut price, or maybe to satiate a new palate. Then, by World War 2, numerous Chianti red wines were 30% white Trebbiano grapes, (MacNeil 383). Things only devolved further.
After World War 2, lots of the surrounding cheaper vineyards were purchased and added to the Tuscan wine region, in a kind of stimulus package to help the farmers of the region. Lesser terroir was being used and inferior clones of Sangiovese were being brought in from other regions, to meet ever growing demands for Chianti.
Cloning is one of the key problems Chianti overcame. A grape clone is a cutting taken from an existing vine, with the aim of reproducing desirable traits, like quality or resistance to disease. However, sometimes inferior and cheaper clones are opted for.
There were around 289 permissible clones of Sangiovese. An EU funded study has now narrowed the Chianti Classico region down to 7 acceptable variations. Things had reached a boiling point by the 1970s, the so-called ‘Spaghetti Chianti’, which comes in a straw cased bottle was the face of Chianti. The fabled Tuscan wine was now an unimpressive, mass-produced wine.
Chianti – The Comeback
However, as you all know, this story has a happy ending. Small farmers began reimagining this classic Tuscan wine. Sangiovese once again became the focus, with white grapes being pushed out of the picture. Ricasoli and Spaghetti Chianti were forgotten about. The new Chiantis and ‘Super Tuscan’ wines were not cost-efficient but they paved the way for further refinement and improvement.
The rise of the Super Tuscan in the 1980s gave Tuscan wine the prestige it had begun to lack and was a key factor in the Chianti region claiming DOCG status in 1984. DOCG meaning ‘Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita’. This is a stamp to earmark regions which produce wine of the highest quality, within Italy. For Italy, Barolo is another example of a region that is a DOCG. Each country will have their own classifications for certain appellations.
With this DOCG status came tighter regulations and restrictions. This led to higher quality wines, both in Chianti DOCG and Chianti Classico DOCG. Old Italian Tuscan wine methods of ageing in Slovenian oak casks were adopted. All Chianti must be aged for a minimum of two years in wood, then three in the bottle. This time increases with Riserva wines. Blends became 80% Sangiovese and a mix of other red grapes for the remainder.
For reference, Chianti Classico is one of eight regions within Chianti. Undoubtedly, it is the most famous of these sub-regions. However, fantastic Chianti can be found outside of the Chianti Classico borders. Indeed, Chianti has reclaimed the crown of Tuscan wine. The best are bold, structured and complex, with big flavours of plums, cherries, spice and a touch of salinity. A truly great Tuscan wine back to the prestigious place which it belongs.
Pietro Beconcini – Tuscan Wine Producers In Focus
With this in mind, we want to take a look at an exciting producer of Tuscan wine who creates great examples of everything you’d want from this region. They are Pietro Beconcini. Whether it’s Italian classics like Sangiovese, or rarities like pre-phylloxera Northern Italian Tempranillo, Pietro Beconcini boosts a broad portfolio of beautiful wines. Wines which are created with a respect for tradition and the surrounding environment.
Pietro Beconcini is located in the small region of San Miniato which is around 45 minutes west of Florence. His choice to manage and maintain the vineyard following organic methods has provided him with quality fruit.
Leonard Beconcini is the current winemaker at Pietro Beconcini Wines, taking over the reins from his father, who had inherited it from Leonardo’s grandfather. He has run it since 1997, alongside his partner Eva Bellagamba. Without a doubt, this is a Tuscan wine producer making Chianti as it should be!
That’s our look into the Tuscan wine region. Without a doubt, this is truly one of the most stunning places to visit in the world. An enjoyable epicentre of arts, culture, food and drink. Soak in the history as you sip on a Chianti.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.
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