Reviews

Tuscany today
«Enoteka» ¹4-5 2007

Tuscany draws attention like no other wine region of Italy.

Last century it was the main epicenter of changes that brought forward a new level of quality winemaking in the country. Nowadays Tuscany remains a major leader for Italian wine — new stars continue to emerge among its zones and producers.

Tuscany of the 21st century is not only about Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Coastal areas and other, less known parts of the region have come to challenge them. Today the whole Tuscany is on the rise, but each production zone has own way of development. Diversity is the main force of modern Tuscany, but it can be understood only by viewing all elements of its complex structure.

Chianti Classico

The Tuscan wine production zone was formally designated in early 17th century and is one of the oldest in Europe. Not long ago it went through a difficult period. A new philosophy of quality taken up by progressive winemakers in the 1970-80s did not fit the laws which existed only a generation ago. Old norms in fact supported mass production that satisfied demand for inexpensive wine for everyday drinking, so Chianti Classico estates were not stimulated to experiment and make top quality products.

The supertuscan revolution was started by Piero Antinori, of a noble Tuscan family with vineyards in the very heart of the region. It shook the foundations and even questioned the idea of Chianti Classico wines traditionally produced from Sangiovese. Introduction of international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the first place), untypical organoleptic characteristics after aging wines in French barriques, a higher concentration as a result of better quality grapes thanks to careful clonal selection, higher density of planting and lower yields — all of it was a shock therapy that provoked a change in mentality. Chianti Classico production rules were reviewed and tightened, too. Another important breakthrough in the end of 1990s was the withdrawal of the historic Classico area from the Chianti zone. Today it allows producers to build strategies of premium production and differentiate the wines from the Chianti of the supermarket level.

Supertuscan wines have indeed pushed the region to improve general quality, however there is a new tendency of returning back to classic values. Baron Ricasoli proved Sangiovese’s inseparable link with Chianti Classico terroirs back in the mid-nineteenth century. Now the grape is coming renewed and once again takes the centre stage in the image of the territory. Several conditions led to the Renaissance.

Firstly, on the legislative level production norms for Chianti Classico wines now allow a freer use of Sangiovese — between 80 and 100% (before, paradoxically, pure Sangiovese couldn’t be sold under Chianti Classico name). The share of secondary varieties is cut to 20%. White grapes are excluded starting from 2006 vintage. (Back in his time baron Ricasoli recommended them for improving the wine’s bouquet, but his idea was later perverted. In the mid-twentieth century winemakers diluted Chianti wines with white varieties by a third, getting light, weak wines which had nothing to do with the original).

Secondly, in the past decade of the last century a great job of selecting quality Sangiovese clones was done. Before no systematic research of the variety was undertaken, and the philosophy of mass production encouraged quantity at the expense of quality. It has to be noted that Sangiovese is prone for mutations. It is very sensitive to habitat, especially to soils and climate, as well as to training systems. That’s why even one vineyard can have a large population of various clones. In this respect Sangiovese has a lot in common with Pinot Noir — one of the most capricious grape varieties in the world. According to Andrea Paoletti, a Tuscan enologist who consults a number of leading Chianti Classico estates (Antinori, Isole e Olena and others), “it is not easy to work with Sangiovese, but with right clones, with high density vineyards, with right yields it can be absolutely great — with different styles of quality wines”.

Thirdly, two years ago Chianti Classico witnessed a merger of two organizations which before oversaw different aspects of work within the zone. Technical Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico controlled implementation of production norms and historic Consorzio del Gallo Nero did communication and promotion of wines under the Black Rooster symbol. Concerns voiced by certain producers and journalists regarding the effectiveness of a new structure did not come true. Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico now has a full authority to control and protect the wine area and has already started several promising initiatives. The latest is a project for a large scale study of landscapes, soils and best winemaking practices on the territory of Chianti Classico. The project may lead to a formal classification of the vineyards which in itself will be a great breakthrough to understanding the potential of Chianti Classico terroirs. Appointment of Marco Pallanti, a great winemaker from Castello di Ama who never forwent principles of quality, as president of the consortium is another good sign about the right course of Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico. Now the organization can fix the link between a great historic tradition and a new reality where Sangiovese plays a key role.

Another fact — the latest trends on international markets show that in the premium segment consumers are more increasingly choosing wines with a designated place of origin and made from autochthonous varieties. Thus the popularity wave for supertuscan wines is losing power. In Chianti Classico it is being replaced by wines which show a close interaction between grapes and their surroundings. Even famous Sangiovese wines which are still marked as IGT — Cepparello by Isole e Olena, Le Pergole Torte by Montevertine and Flaccianello della Pieve by Fontodi are now considered as genuine reflections of Chianti Classico terroirs rather than simply supertuscan. The switch of consumer interest from powerful styles towards refined and gastronomic also plays in favour of Chianti Classico producers as Sangiovese has these features and thus meets demands of the market.

Chianti Classico lives in an important period that in a historic perspective will probably be referred to as the formation of a new quality level for the wines of the area. A detailed study of local terroirs which still keep a lot of surprises is also under way.

Brunello di Montalcino

While Chianti Classico producers are just starting to work together under the banner of a unified organization, Brunello di Montalcino estates have reaped fruit of the joint success for at least a decade.

Winemaking in Montalcino like everywhere in Tuscany remained integral part of agriculture for hundreds of years. Over a century ago Biondi Santi family proved that a great wine could be made in the area, but Brunello di Montalcino’s real path to fame started in 1980s. Production was launched on the premium levels in a phenomenally short period of time. Brunello di Montalcino has firmly entered the list of top three red Italian wines together with Barolo and Amarone and has conquered leading markets of the world.

Unlike in Chianti Classico, the modern history of Brunello di Montalcino started from a small acreage and a short list of producers. Back fifty years ago there were only about a dozen of estates with vineyards covering 60 hectares and belonging to the noble families. In the eighties the number of estates grew to 70 and now includes 250 wine producers (200 bottle wine independently). The explosive development of the area in the past quarter of a century started with arrival of Italian-American family Mariani-May who founded the largest winemaking estate Castello Banfi (it takes over 700 of total 3,000 hectares of vineyards). Mariani-May were followed by the best names of the Italian winemaking — Antinori, Frescobaldi, Gaja, as well as companies and businessmen who invested a lot of money in the region. They had means to study the area and Brunello grape (subvariety of Sangiovese). In the end it paid back through high quality of wines and the possibility to demand top prices for them.

Of course, the modern evolution didn’t go undisturbed. Ten-fifteen years ago Montalcino winemakers were involved in a dilemma concerning wines’ aging. Historically Brunello di Montalcino was produced for long keeping, so vinification took place in several thousand litre wooden vats called botti which were made of Slavonian oak. When Montalcino saw the arrival of 225-litre barriques of new French oak, wines began to have obvious woody and vanilla flavours which overshadowed characteristics of the grape itself. Yet due to market demand many producers quickly abandoned traditional practices. Thus two camps — traditionalists and modernists appeared in Montalcino. With time the winemakers came to a judged choice of vinification vessels. Today one can find a mix of barriques, tonneaux and botti made of French and Slavonian oak with volume from 225 to 10,000 litres where wines are aged in different proportions and then blended.

Round about the same time formal period of aging in wood was also reviewed. Today Brunello di Montalcino spends in oak vessels two years instead of four, though total period of aging in the cellars remains unchanged with five years.

The main advantage of Brunello di Montalcino zone in comparison with other Tuscan and even Italian wine regions is that since its formation producers set one course of development and created a powerful consortium to support their activities. Brunello is the only grape allowed for production of Brunello di Montalcino wines. Thanks to a clear self-identification the region managed to escape the confusion that happened in Chianti Classico and other parts of Tuscany. The system of cascade production (Brunello as first and Rosso as second wine in Montalcino) gives a clear differentiation between two levels of quality. DOC Sant’Antimo was created to fit other interpretations of the area and to work with other varieties on the territory of Montalcino.

The second important moment is a united approach towards positioning and promoting of wine on the external markets. All producers working in Brunello di Montalcino zone belong to the consortium — a unique for Italy case. This collective force has built a strong and à prestigious brand of wine which is now represented among the finest wines of the world. “It is true that our producers work in different ways and make individual wines, but there is always a joint effort when we promote Brunello di Montalcino name”, says Filippo Fanti, consortium’s president.

Montalcino has a historic cru Montosoli, yet the zone’s terroirs are not studied as closely as, for example, in Barolo. A nearly square-shaped form is usually presented in two large areas — northern and southern which dictate the style of wines. Classic vineyards around the town go in a tight semicircle from the north to the east. They are situated on high hills with a cooler climate. Wines have fresh acidity and elegant flavours. The influence of the Mediterranean climate is felt more in the south, where wines are more powerful and expressive. Nonetheless, such division is seen as too simplistic. Location and character of vineyards need to be documented in more detail. This will help understand the style of individual Brunello di Montalcino wines.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

The current reputation of Montepulciano doesn’t not reach the heights of the Middle Ages where the wines were praised by governors and poets. Still, the wines of the area are among the most respected in Tuscany and Italy.

It is interesting to see that a big leap forward in the modern development of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano zone happened in 1970-80s when the area under vines grew from150 to 760 hectares. Now the total plantings are around 2,000 hectares, of which 1,200 are registered in Vino Nobile di Montepulciano zone. There are nearly 300 estates, but only 81 producer bottles wines and sells under own brand. Thus, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano lacks behind the neighbouring Tuscan zones both in production volumes and in recognition of wines on the international scene. On the other hand, as consortium’s president Massimo Romeo states, “Montepulciano area has been better than other parts of Tuscany — increased vineyard area didn’t destroy the territory”.

The character of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wines is formed by Prugnolo Gentile, the major grape that — like Brunello — is a subvariety of the Tuscan Sangiovese adapted to the local terroirs. Traditionally winemakers added other local varieties to it — Canaiolo, Mammolo, Trebbiano. The latest revised production norms allow to create monovarietal wines or blends where Prugnolo Gentile’s share must be minimum 70%. Like in Montalcino, a two-tiered system exists in Montepulciano with production of younger Rosso di Montepulciano together with the main Vino Nobile. Today they are produced in proportion of 1:3, or nearly 2 million bottles of Rosso and 6 million of Vino Nobile.

Stylistically, the wines are more intense than Chianti Classico, but not as complex as Brunello di Montalcino. The reason lies in local soil composition with more sand and less limestone and in a climate with higher average temperatures.

Other processes in Montepulciano are similar to those in the two neighbouring zones. The winemakers are engaged in research of terroirs and in selection of the best clones for producing better quality wines.

Tuscan coast

“A new wine Eldorado” — this is how the Tuscan coast is often described nowadays. It has become one of the most demanded places for production of wine in Italy. Always associated with cult supertuscan Sassicaia and Ornellaia, it tells a nearly fairytale story of transformation of a sleepy agrarian region into a blossoming winemaking heaven where winemakers have a full freedom to create and wines are bought for indecently high prices.

If we leave aside the story of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, founder of Tenuta San Guido, author of Sassicaia and godfather of the supertuscan revolution, twenty five years ago only a couple of aristocratic estates (Ornellaia, Guado al Tasso) and a handful of boutique wineries (Tua Rita, Le Macchiole, Grattamacco, Michele Satta, Paleo and some others) practiced quality winemaking. The past 10 years witnessed an explosive expansion that spread on all five coastal provinces of Tuscany — from Massa-Carrara and Lucca in the north through Pisa and Livorno in the centre to Grosseto in the south.

The winemaking of the Tuscan coast has diversity that surpasses anything seen in other parts of Italy. Majestic estates with up to 200 hectares sit next to mini-vineyards. Wineries of ultra-modern design and technologies share the area with organic and biodynamic producers. But the main difference probably lies in concentration of prestigious names and the volume of capital directed to the region. Nearly every influential Tuscan family with historic vineyards inside Tuscany (from Mazzei and Frescobaldi to Antinori and Biondi Santi) own one or sometimes several wine estates on the coast. This part drew interest of other renowned Italian producers — Gaja and La Spinetta from Piedmont, Ferrari and Foradori from Trentino, Allegrini and Francesco Bolla from Veneto and others. The Rothschild branch of Chateau Lafite and Eric Jelgersma, owner of Chateau Giscours and Chateau du Tertre in Bordeaux, have also recently moved to the Tuscan coast.

A vast territory with infinite variations of soils, altitudes above the sea level, expositions, microclimate and other natural nuances coupled with a lack of strong winemaking traditions today allows producers to experiment and choose varieties which match specific terroirs. This is wine in Bolgheri they prefer to work with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and find great potential for cultivation of Cabernet Franc, and in Maremma they praise Syrah, Alicante Bouchet and autochthonous Ciliegiolo.

There are about a dozen of zones with controlled origin of production, but, with a few exceptions, the best wines of the area are sold as IGT meaning supertuscan level of quality. It is curious that Sassicaia that started its life with a humiliating designation of a table wine, now has own DOC Bolgheri Sassicaia. Estates in Bolgheri prefer to classify their production as DOC Bolgheri or Bolgheri Superiore. Meanwhile starting from this year’s vintage the wines of Morellino di Scansano will be elevated to DOCG status — first on the coast. The winemakers hope that the two-tier model, adapted from Brunello di Montalcino will help them raise the quality even higher.

At the beginning the coastal producers were too busy with own estates and brands to try and unite efforts in promoting the area. In 2003, though, 12 famous estates formed an association Grandi Cru della Costa Toscana which started to share the general idea of the winemaking in the area. The first step was a joint Anteprima Vini della Costa Toscana tasting modeled on Bordeaux en primeur. In the past three years the number of members grew to 71. The honorary president is Nicolo Incisa della Rocchetta (Tenuta San Guido), the acting — Ginevra Venerosi Pesciolini (Tenuta di Ghizzano).

The modern history of the Tuscan coast is like an open book with many new chapters to be written. Its processes make one closely follow the progress of the area.

Lesser Tuscany

In the end it would be nice to mention several small Tuscan winemaking areas which deserve more attention than they get at present. In San Gimignano where the first Italian zone with controlled origin Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOC appeared, there are enough serious winemakers who produce a unique white wine of Tuscany with a local Vernaccia grape. Chianti Rufina producers in the meantime pursue a more elegant style of wine that before was often buried under rough tannins. On the other side of Chianti hills, in the upper stream of the Arno River a movement to restore a historic production zone is on a rise. Several centuries ago Valdarno di Sopra competed in prestige with Chianti Classico. Next to the town of Cortona lies the eponymous wine area with a promising potential for Syrah grape.

This is but a small analysis of what is happening in Tuscany today. A great Italian region is at the head of the country’s winemaking. Its new processes consolidate historic traditions with quality standards of the 21st century. Tuscany during Renaissance laid foundations of Italian culture and art for several centuries ahead — our era is a witness of how its future winemaking values are now being formed.

Rambler's Top100