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Wines in general are divided into the two categories of Old World wines and New World wines. Old World wines refer to wines made in places such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, France and Germany, where winemaking first originated. New World wines are from places where wine was imported and viticulture (the growing of grapes and making of wine) started relatively recently; countries such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa.
The grapes from Old World wines were original only to those regions, but nowadays different types of grapes have been imported and replanted to grow in other regions or countries. This allows wines like Merlot, for example, to be made in Italy instead of just France from where it originated. Having different grapes in different regions also allows for winemakers to play around with new blends, as many Tuscan winemakers have started doing.
The largest wine producing region in Italy is Chianti, but the good stuff doesn’t stop there. From all over Tuscany, there are smaller wine-producing areas such as Brunello di Montalcino, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, to name but a few.
First things first. There are many types of grapes in Tuscany, but a few of the main ones you’ll see a lot of are Sangiovese (Tuscany’s signature grape), Trebbiano (white), Merlot (originally French), Cabernet Sauvignon (originally French), Vernaccia di San Gimignano (white), and Malvasia. All wine is made with purple (or red) grapes; white wine is made with the pulp of purple grapes, without the skin, making for a sweeter taste than red wine. The soil where the grapes grow, as well as the aging and storage of the wine, has a lot to do with the flavour, but that is a more advanced topic for another time.
Names of wines can be either referred to by the name of the main grape in the wine, or by the region where the grape is grown. Chianti, for example, is the most famous wine from Tuscany, and is the name both of a region and the type of wine made with grapes from there. There are a few types of grapes that grow in the region, but Sangiovese are the area’s original grapes, and wine from this region can only be called Chianti if the wine uses a minimum of 75% Sangiovese grapes. The different levels or types of Chianti are as follows: Chianti, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico DOC and Chianti Classico DOCG, or Chianti Reserva/Classico Reserva.
Chianti Classico DOCG (minimum of 80% Sangiovese, only using red grapes from the region thereafter, minimum 12% alcohol, and having spent at least 12 months aged in oak barrels), and Chianti Riserva/Classico Riserva (the same criteria as Chianti Classico, but instead with a minimum 2 years aging in oak barrels and 3 months in bottle, with at least 12.5% alcohol) are the most popular wines in the region. Riserva means reserve in Italian, although there are other types of reserve reds, not just Chianti. If you’re looking for a good gift for someone back home who knows wine, any red with Riserva on the label is a great choice since it is also good for further aging in the bottle. Remember, wine will turn to vinegar if kept in the bottle too long, which is why you should only keep reserve wines. The next time you have a bottle of red wine sitting around at home, you should probably open it.
Chianti bottles with a DOC or DOCG label depend on the area, technique, grapes, and specific percentages of each type of grape. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, and DOCG means Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. Those are Italian acronyms basically stating that the “wine government” in Chianti guarantees that it’s made traditionally in a specific region, or guaranteed that the grapes are authentically from that region and made the old fashioned way. DOCG holds a higher status, but DOC is still a good guarantee of quality. This does not mean, however, that wines without one of these labels are bad. It can actually mean the contrary. Many wine makers stray from the traditional path to experiment with different blends of grape varieties and make fabulous wine. These wines can sometimes be expensive, even though they bear a simple table wine label. These blends are on the rise and have become known as ‘Super-Tuscans’. Many of these blends are made in Bolgheri, a province of Livorno with great flavours. If your palate is a little more refined, see if you can taste what grapes are used next time you order a Bolgheri.
Due to the climate of the Tuscan hills, the grapes are a bit bolder and most wines from here are more dry than sweet like the signature grape, Sangiovese. Tuscan reds are paired well with red meat like prosciutto, steak, salami, and gamey meats, along with bold robust cheeses such as parmesan and aged pecorinos. Although Tuscany is known for its reds, white wines, such as Vernaccia di San Gimignano, are crisp, neutral and dry with faint fruit aromas and flavours. Great for drinking with chicken or fish, vegetables, and bitter greens due to the zestiness of the wine.
For an in depth breakdown, here are some links for increasing your understanding further.
Some of Tuscany’s Red wines:
Sassicaia produced by Tenuta San Guido
Solaia and Tignanello, produced by Antinori
Some of Tuscany’s White Wines Bianco di Pitigliano DOC
Vinsanto Toscano (can also be made from red grapes)
It is nearly impossible to find a bad Tuscan wine; even the house wines and “cheap” wines are good. With any wine you choose while in Tuscany, be prepared for something bold, dry, and great with food. If you still need help, don’t be shy to ask your server or bartender as they will be more than happy to assist you in finding the right wine for your dish or your preference.