Wines in Italy, Tuscany

Midway between Milan and Rome, Tuscany is bordered on the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Apennines mountain range on the east.

First inhabited by the Etruscans, in the Middle Ages and continuing through the Renaissance, Tuscany developed into a center of the Arts and Learning under the control of the Medici clan. And no art was more developed here than that of winemaking. Even before the Etruscans migrated to the area, wild vines grew in abundances around Tuscany's sun-drenched hills. Those early settlers developed those early grapes into the world-famous Sangiovese and Lambrusco.

Combined with these are the Cabernet Sauvignon, Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo that go to make Montalcino, Scansano, Carmginano, along with the more well-known Chianti. Adding to the variety are plentiful Mammolo, Malvasia, Colorino, Raspirosso, Gamay, Moscatello and others. Not limited to reds, there are the delightful whites of Elba Island, Vermentino, Bolgheri and Val di Nievole.

Tuscany boasts four of Italy's nine top-rated DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) classified zones. At only one shop in Tuscany the number of available labels has grown from 1,000 a few years ago to over 5,000 today. Small wonder Italy now vies with France for the world leader in wine production.

Produced by vineyards that range from the Castello di Fonterutoli owned by the same family since 1435 to ones founded only a few years ago, Tuscan wines are experiencing an all-time high in quality and popularity.

The importance of quality is nowhere more evident than at Rocca delle Maccie. Organic fertilization, careful pruning and hand harvesting, and the use of oak barriques for aging are just some of the practices instituted at this estate. An active member of a consortium of Chianti Classico growers, they produce one of the best selling wines in Italy.

As another example, the Fassati Nobile di Montepulciano, made from a blend of Prugnolo Gentile (a clone of Sangiovese Grosso), Canaiolo Nero and Mammolo, was praised as far back as the 18th century by Voltaire.

Wines produced here range from the simple Chiantis to the complex super Tuscan reds, with fruity aromas. Beginning with the change in vineyards and viticultural methods of the 1970s the 1996-on vintages have entered world class.

The 'super Tuscans' became popular as more international style reds began to be produced from Bordeaux-style blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot along with the Sangiovese. Labeled 'table wine' to circumvent counter-productive government regulations, they are now anything but. Among these outstanding new reds are the Brusco dei Barbi, celebrated among connoisseurs.

Not to be outdone by makers of red, the Bolgheri Vermentino is a delightful, fruity white which pairs perfectly with shrimp. And once the province of France only, the Cabreo Chardonnay competes on equal footing.

The Renaissance lives on in Tuscany.

Chianti

Chianti — the name says 'wine'. A mere 300 square km (115 square mi), in the center of Tuscany between Siena and Florence, Chianti overlooks the Elsa Valley. Hilly, the terrain varies from green forests to stony meadowland. The rows of wine grape vines share the land with olive groves and the occasional oak tree.

The Phoenicians introduced winemaking to the area and it became known as 'Oenotria', the 'land of wine'. The sun and mountain air attracted Greeks, Etruscans and Romans who in their turns introduced new vine species and growing techniques. Italy during the decades after the turn of the millennium was known for having the largest harvests and the finest vintages in the Mediterranean.

But beginning in the 18th century, the perceived quality of Chianti wines dipped to a low. In the 1880s, phylloxera —an insect that feeds on the roots and leaves of vines— destroyed many of Europe's vineyards. But, the vintners of Italy struggled heroically to recover from the loss of indigenous varieties.

In 1968, land in Chianti was, as the saying goes, 'dirt cheap'. The situation has come full circle. Visionaries took advantage of the low land values and have rebuilt the vineyards and the wine into product that rivals the best in the world.

The Continental climate in Chianti favors grape production with stable, consistent, moderate weather. The stony and dry soil infused with limestone rock provides ample light and warmth to the vines. Irrigation is allowed only in emergencies so vines naturally delve deep to acquire water and nutrients.

The eight sub-regions, Chianti Classico, Colli Arentini, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colli Pisane, Montalbano, Rufina and Montispertoli, all have their own distinctive techniques and products. Like the French AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôllée) designation, Italy has its own classification methods for ensuring quality product: DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) which specifies requirements for growing and winemaking.

Today, Italy grows more than 100 official varieties of vitis vinifera, the vine species that forms the starting point of 99 percent of the world's wines. The noble reds of Chianti have become known throughout Europe as fine wines, of which there's no better expression than the Classico.

Out of a total of 10,000 hectares (~24,700 acres), two-thirds are registered for the production DOCG Chianti Classico, produced by using at least 80 percent of Sangiovese.

Varieties other than the Classico include Sangiovese blended with Canaiolo (up to 20 percent) and Colorino. For whites, a Trebbiano or Malvasia are used. Yields are limited by law to nine tons/hectare in an effort to keep quality high.

There are no legal requirements, though, dictating aging in oak, but many vintners prefer it for their Riserva wines with 12% alcohol content by volume.

The Chianti red is a deep ruby, which tends to pomegranate when aged. The flavor is dry, slightly tannic, with an intense aroma, sometimes hinting of violet.

As Italian vintners, in traditional style, continue to work around restrictive regulations, the Chianti's world reputation increases apace.