When Americans imagine the Italian countryside, it is often the Tuscan landscape that
springs into view. Fortified medieval towns crown hilltops, presiding over sun-bathed,
patchwork hillsides adorned with vineyards, olive grows, and other crops. Firenze
(Florence) and Siena are among Italy’s most visited cities, and the entire region enjoys a
rich artistic lineage populated by luminary figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, and
Dante Alighieri. The cathedrals of Firenze and Siena are monumental works of art, and
the Leaning Tower of Pisa is recognizable even by schoolchildren. Toscana’s most
famous wine, Chianti, is equally well known among wine drinkers, but praise for its
quality is more likely parsimonious. In the 1960s, Chianti became the Italian red for
Americans, but its character was often dilute, saddling the wine with an unremarkable
reputation. Today, things have changed: investment in both vineyard and winery,
coupled with newfound ambition and respect for tradition, has returned
Sangiovese—the principal variety in Chianti wines—to its place among the noble grapes
of the world.
Mountains define one-quarter of the Tuscan landscape, and hills account for a further two-thirds of
the region. Less than 10% of the landscape is flat. The cooler interior hillsides create prized vineyard
land for Sangiovese, while the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the warmer temperatures
along the coast.
Toscana lies on Italy’s western
coastline between Lazio and Liguria.
In some of the lowest areas of
Toscana, summertime temperatures
can become drastically hot. As one
travels inland toward the
snowcapped Apennine Mountains,
elevation moderates the climate.
characterized by mild, rainy
winters and warmer, dry
Sangiovese is Italy’s most planted wine grape and
the signature variety of Toscana. Legend suggests
that local monks christened the grape Sanguis
Jovis, “the blood of Jupiter”, and the name
“Sangiogheto” appears in a treatise on Tuscan
viticulture in the year 1600. Today, Sangiovese
goes by many names in Toscana—Brunello,
Morellino, Prugnolo Gentile, Sangioveto—and
there is an equally wide range of styles in the
The Taste of Sangiovese
Classic Sangiovese is fairly light in color,
firm, tannic, and driven by
mouth-watering acidity. Aromas include
sour cherry, fennel, chestnut, mushroom
and thyme. In the past, winemakers used
large, old Slavonian oak botti for aging
vessels rather than smaller French
barriques. Deeper color was achieved by
blending a local red grape like Colorino
or Canaiolo Nero with Sangiovese, and
pure Sangiovese wines were extremely
rare--law in Chianti actually required
inclusion of white varieties in the blend.
Today, years of work in the vineyard have
resulted in a number of new Sangiovese clones,
some of which provide darker fruit profiles and
more concentrated color. 100% Sangiovese
wines are common, and white grapes have been
all but eliminated in the region’s red blends.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are more
common supporting players than Colorino or
Canaiolo Nero. New French barrels are a
common site in cellars. In modern Toscana, one
can find dense and toasty Sangiovese, firm and
gripping traditional styles, and everything in
Chianti and Chianti Classico
Chianti is Toscana’s most recognizable red
wine, and the oldest appellation in the region. In
fact, the Chianti zone was one of the first wine
areas to be formally delimited in Europe. The
oldest document detailing the production of
“Chianti wine” in the hills between Firenze and
Siena dates to 1398, and in 1716 the Grand Duke
Cosimo III de’ Medici legally limited the
production zone to the villages of Greve, Radda,
Gaiole, and Castellina. Today, these four villages
form the core of the “Classico” zone—the
historic heartland of Chianti. In 1872, Baron
Bettino Ricasoli famously transcribed the Chianti
recipe that would be enshrined in legislation a
century later, prescribing a blend of Sangiovese,
Canaiolo, and a white grape, Malvasia—the latter
making the wines "lighter and more readily
suitable for daily consumption.”
In 1932, authorities defined the modern Chianti
zone, expanding its borders to include areas
beyond the provinces of Firenze and Siena, such
as Pisa and Arezzo, and established the Classico
zone as its original sector. In 1967, Chianti gained
Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)
status in Italy’s new appellation system, and the
wine’s popularity as an export led many
producers to emphasize quantity over quality.
Furthermore, the DOC rules set Ricasoli’s formula
in stone, and white grapes became a mandatory
ingredient alongside Sangiovese until the
mid-1990s. During this period, most Chianti was
sold cheaply in a straw-covered bottle known as
the fiasco. The term fit.
SUB APPELATIONS OF CHIANTI
Chianti can be produced in the following geographical
sub-appellations, which may appear on the label:
Senesi (Siena), Colli Fiorentini (the hills of
Florence), Colline Pisane (the hills of Pisa),
Colline Aretini (the hills of Arezzo), Montalbano,
Montespertoli, and Rufina.
Chianti and Chianti Classico both achieved
Denominzione di Origine Controllata e
Garantita (DOCG) status in 1984, climbing to
the highest rung on Italy’s appellation ladder.
Regulations softened as many of the best
producers chose to release their wines
outside of the appellation system entirely,
and international grapes like Cabernet
Sauvignon began to appear in Chianti
vineyards. Some wineries incorporated a
small percentage of Bordeaux grapes in the
Chianti blend, while others were finally free
to produce pure Sangiovese as an
appellation wine. Chianti and Chianti Classico
today offer a wide palate of wines, from
lighter, easy-drinking reds to serious,
powerful Riserva styles, often aged in some
Brunello di Montalcino
& Super Tuscans
Brunello di Montalcino
The small hill of Montalcino is the top region for Sangiovese in the world. Brunello di
Montalcino wines, produced from 100% Sangiovese. The wines are full-bodied,
powerful, and long-lived. Prior to release, the wine must remain in oak for at least two
years, and it may not be released to the public for a minimum of four years. Riserva
selections are held back for an additional year. While waiting, one might consider
Rosso di Montalcino, or “baby Brunello”, a more approachable wine released after
only one year.
Other Appellations for Sangiovese-based wines in Toscana:
• Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
• Morellino di Scansano
• Montecucco Sangiovese
“The Super Tuscans”
Beyond Sangiovese, the most impactful red grapes in the region are international
varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. The “Super Tuscan” movement,
launched by Tenuta San Guido’s famous “Sassicaia” bottling in 1968, established
Toscana’s coastal Bolgheri region as a world-class area for Bordeaux varieties, and
producers along the coast and throughout the region now produce Bordeaux-style
blends. Some of the best examples of Italian Syrah, meanwhile, emerge from the
small appellation of Cortona, south of Arezzo.
Although some “Super Tuscan” wines were originally produced in response to the
restrictive Chianti regulations of the time, and remain largely Sangiovese, the idea of
the “Super Tuscan” conjures up an image of a Bordeaux-style blend in most guests’
minds. Such internationalized wines are extremely useful in introducing California
wine drinkers to the wines of Italy, but they may not be popular suggestions among
those looking for traditional styles. “Super Tuscan” wines like Sassicaia and Ornellaia
will be easily recognizable to serious Cabernet fans.
Many Super-Tuscan wines are released without a DOC/DOCG appellation, to
preserve greater winemaking freedom.
White Grapes in Toscana
Toscana is red wine country, and white wines
from the region rarely achieve the same level of
success. Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the top
appellation for dry white wines, and in 1966 it
was the first wine in all of Italy to be awarded
DOC status. Despite this history and the beauty
of the walled medieval city of San Gimignano
itself, the wines are fairly simple: unoaked,
refreshing, slightly bitter, and often tinged with
flavors of pink grapefruit and salinity.
The most widely planted white grape in Toscana is
Trebbiano Toscano. Better known in France as the
Cognac grape Ugni Blanc, Trebbiano Toscano is
neutral, acidic and rarely inspiring as a dry white
wine. It is generally blended with the local Malvasia
grape, which adds some aromatic punch to the
wine. Together, the two grapes achieve the most
success as Vin Santo—“holy wine”—a dessert wine
produced from dried grapes throughout Toscana.
What is the principal grape in Chianti wines?
What is the minimum period of oak aging required for Brunello di Montalcino?
What does “Classico” indicate for a Chianti wine?
What coastal region in Toscana produces top-quality Bordeaux-style wines?
Name one appellation for white wines in Toscana.
What is Vin Santo?
Toscana creates crossover appeal for red wine drinkers who are interested in approaching
Italian wines, but come from a background of appreciation for rich New World wines,
Cabernet, and Bordeaux. While Barolo may appeal to Burgundy drinkers due to its
haunting aromatic character, Brunello di Montalcino may appeal to the Bordeaux drinker,
due to its powerful, aristocratic structure and cedary, oak-inflected character.
Classic examples of Sangiovese are great food wines, pairing artfully with the acidity of
tomato-dominated pasta dishes while providing enough body to stand up to richer beef
and pork preparations. Herbal notes in the wines support similar accents in food. Cured
meats work beautifully with lighter styles of Sangiovese. Overall, Sangiovese has a savory
profile, so think of savory dishes rather than those with too much fruit or sweetness.