There are so many times after something has happened that I think to myself, ‘If only I had known, I would have done this differently’. The sad truth about it is that this is still as true today as it ever was and I make some of the same mistakes over and over again. So much for a learning curve. What follows is a prelude to Italian wine; it is a story called I Wish I Had Known.
So there we were, my travel agent husband of two years and a much younger me, journeying on a shoe string budget for two weeks in Europe, back in the days before internet bookings and terrorist attacks. There were great discounted trips for people in the biz then, and this is what we counted on to get us around the globe. The ridiculous thing was that once we had purchased our cheap flights, hotels, and car rentals, there wasn’t any money left to actually be in the places we were travelling to. That meant minimal eating and definitely no admission fees or guided tours. Yet, I had my Fodor’s European guide book and things would be fine, wouldn’t they?
Although our itinerary encompassed parts of England, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, it was the Italian portion of the trip that had me the most excited. The Italian highway tolls were a bit of a shock but we adapted. In Rome we munched pizza from our hands while wandering through piazzas, having quickly learned that there was a sliding scale for food there. You paid one price for food and a seat in the establishment, a lower price for food and a spot to stand at the counter, and yet another price for food to go. We did our best to navigate the guide book and find the places we wanted to see. We also saw places we didn’t want to see like all those stairs that were so totally not the Spanish Steps. After three days in Rome and after experiencing so many incredible things, we were on our way to Venice when I pulled out the Fodor’s and said that I needed to find out where this Sistine Chapel was because I definitely didn’t want to miss seeing it when we were in Italy. You already know where it is, don’t you? Eventually I found it in the book, yes in the Vatican City in Rome, where we had just been. I was totally annoyed at myself for not doing better pre-trip planning and research, and a lot frustrated with circumstances that allowed us to travel to places but not fully enjoy them once we were there. A guided city tour of Rome would have been the right best to do.
I realize I mustn’t complain. I got to go to Europe, but if only I had known, I would have done it differently. You might be happy to hear (or you may wish to beat me senseless because I have been so fortunate) that I did get back to Rome about five years later and with the help of a friend who was living there at the time, I got to see the Sistine Chapel and the Spanish Steps.
So what does any of this have to do with wine? Absolutely nothing. I have been in Tuscany twice, and I did not encounter any Chianti while I was there. I was in Veneto and Piedmont, yet I did not sip Prosecco or Barolo at all. I simply wasn’t into it yet. Can you believe that? It blows my mind that there was a time in my adult existence when I did not care about wine. I so wish I had been into wine. What a colossal waste to have spent time in one of the fundamental wine countries of the world, yet been so clueless and unevolved as not to have cared about the wine culture there. So then, let’s travel through it together shall we? From the beginning. Hand in hand. Let’s dream together that we are there.
Italy is a Southern European country that is surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Sea and runs up against the Swiss Alps along its northern border. Italy is shaped like a boot. As far as its wine regions go, the country is very roughly divided into northern, central, and southern regions, each with its own distinct grape varieties and wine styles. We will focus on each area individually this year, beginning with Tuscany and Central Italy in March, moving to Northern Italy and its warm weather friendly wines in June, and ending up in warm Southern Italy for October.
Italian wines confused me when I first began learning about them until I was informed that most of the wine bottles coming out of the country are labelled according to the specific region in which they are made, and not according to the type of grape the wine is made from. Keeping this in mind, Central Italy is divided into four wine regions with Tuscany being the most distinguished. The other three regions are Marche, Umbria, and Lazio. Marche lies south of San Marino on the Adriatic Sea and is centered around the city of Ancona on the coast. Its vineyards are dominated by Verdicchio which makes crisp, medium bodied white wines. Red grapes take a back seat to the white, but there is some Montepulciano grown there. Umbria is in the centre of the country, surrounding Lake Trasimeno and extending outward from its shores. There is a good mix of both red and white varieties grown in this region including Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling Italico, Trebbiano, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Nero, and Sangiovese. Lazio is centered around the Italian capital city of Rome. The main wine produced here is a white blending of Trebbiano and a local grape called Malvasia di Candia. Red wine is produced to a lesser degree, with Sangiovese and Montepulciano playing the key roles, and Merlot and a few local varieties lending support. Tuscany is by far the most illustrious wine region in all of Italy. It stretches from Pisa on the coast to Florence and Siena inland. It borders Lazio and Umbria to the north, and touches Marche with its southeast corner. Sangiovese rules the region, proudly strutting its full potential from dry, rocky soils and brilliant sunshine. Other red varieties grown in Tuscany include a handful of important indigenous grapes used for blending, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and to a lesser degree Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. The dominant white varieties in Tuscany are Trebbiano, Malvasia, and Pinot Grigio, with some vineyards planted to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Within the wine region of Tuscany, there are many sub-regions whose names are better known than the grapes which they grow.
The first sub-region is Chianti, and even within Chianti there are several smaller sub-areas, each producing distinct styles of wine. Chianti occupies the central part of Tuscany including the city of Florence, and stretches southwest from there to include Siena. Each sub-area produces Chianti made from predominantly Sangiovese grapes, and each sub-area’s wines have characteristics different from those of other sub-area’s wines. This isn’t confusing at all, is it? Maybe this will help. A wine labelled simply Chianti must be made from a minimum of 80% Sangiovese with the remaining blend being composed of any or the entire approved list of red and white grapes. It will most likely be medium bodied with sour cherry, red plum, cinnamon, spicy tobacco, leather, and earthy characteristics. Chianti Classico (from a specific sub-area of Chianti) is generally medium bodied with firm tannins and relatively high acidity; its aromas and flavours include cherries, flowers, and a distinct nuttiness. Chianti Rufina (from yet another sub-area) is usually a refined wine with ripe fruit aromas and flavours, fine tannins, moderate acidity, good complexity, and an elegant structure. Chianti Riserva is a Chianti wine that has been aged in barrel and bottle a minimum of thirty-eight months, as opposed to the regular four to seven months, and is fuller bodied as well as smoother and rounder in structure because of the aging time allowed it. Chianti Superiore is the highest expression of a Chianti wine, with wines labelled in this way produced from grapes harvested from specially selected, lower yielding vineyards. They have a higher alcohol content and must be aged for a minimum of nine months in barrel and three months in the bottle before being released to the consumer. All Chianti should be considered a ‘food wine’, meaning that it is intended to accompany a meal rather than being sipped on its own.
Brunello di Montalcino is another famous Tuscan wine made from a specific clone of Sangiovese grapes known as Brunello (meaning the small dark one) grown near the city of Montalcino which is south of Siena. This area has a very warm, dry climate and the grapes grown there are of superior quality. Brunello di Montalcino wines are made from 100% Sangiovese and enjoy a reputation as being amongst the finest wines produced in all of Tuscany. Traditionally, these wines are soaked on the skins for extended periods to extract as much flavour and colour as possible before fermentation. They are then aged for two years in oak before being aged another minimum of four months in the bottle prior to their release. They are typically weightier in texture with more black berry and cherry fruit aromas and flavours, supported by chocolate, violet, and leather notes.
Another category of Central Italian wines worth mentioning are the Super Tuscans. According to strict winemaking codes, only Sangiovese and a smaller percentage of specific red and white grapes could be used to make Chianti. Therefore, any deviation from this prescribed recipe would result in the finished wine being labelled Vino da Tavola, loosely translated to mean cheaply made table wine. Super Tuscans are still an unofficial category within the Italian wine classification system, and they were first developed in the 1970s when winemakers wanted to incorporate Bordeaux varietals into their blended wines to craft something better than mere Chianti. Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape most commonly blended with Sangiovese to create these Super Tuscans, though other Bordeaux grapes are also used, most notably Merlot. Today, Super Tuscans have a following and a highly reputable name of their own and in most cases can please the discerning palate of the western wine drinker more sufficiently than many strictly Italian varietal blends can.
Okay. That’s enough for now. I’m tired of these pretend travels… it’s time for a glass of wine I think. Perhaps a little glass of reality that I like to call the Super Tuscan. Ahem, yes. That’s better. Cheers!