Given that this week's dining column highlights Cucina Toscana restaurant, I thought it would be a good time to get familiar with the wines of Tuscany. It is, after all, Italy's quintessential wine region and the source of that country's most important red wines: Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino.
It's been said there are no straight lines in Tuscany. Two-thirds of the region consists of undulating hills and rural roads that wind up and down, back and forth. Flat land is scarce, so vineyards are frequently planted on slopes of varying steepness. From the air, the middle of the Tuscany region where the wine zones are concentrated looks like a crazy quilt—a patchwork of vineyards and micro-climates that seem random and without logic. Napa it isn't.
Although there are serviceable white wines from the region, it's really known for its famous aforementioned reds, all of which are made from the sangiovese grape. One reason that wines made with this grape can taste so different is that there are numerous clones scattered throughout central Italy. But let's not get bogged down in clone minutiae.
Chianti: If you're old enough, you might associate Chianti with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and the wicker basket-wrapped bottles that some of it used to come in (and still does); the bottles often had a second life as candle holders. It has come a long way since then. Today's Chianti is made with food in mind. It's an often elegant, light-bodied red wine with soft tannins and a fair amount of acidity, which is why it's such a natural partner for pizza, pasta with red sauce, barbecued and grilled meats, cheeses and such. Most Chianti is affordable (less than $20 per bottle). Respectable producers include Coltibuono, DaVinci, Ruffino, Selvapiana, Straccali, Ricasoli, Querceto, Frescobaldi and Antinori.
Brunello di Montalcino: This is the most sought-after wine from Italy. It's also the most expensive. Brunello (meaning "the nice dark one") only accounts for around 3,000 acres of Tuscany's vineyards, as opposed to Chianti with closer to 41,000. It's a lavish, complex wine that typically is loaded with black fruit flavors, along with chocolate and leathery notes. It's required to be aged at least four years before release, and can continue to mature decades after that. I've never had the luxury of tasting it, but it's said that Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino can be remarkable after 100 years of aging. This is the definitive prestigious wine from Italy, and priced accordingly. Producers to look for include Altesino, Argiano, Casanova dei Neri, Il Poggione, Poggio Antico and La Poderina.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: Finding good Vino Nobile can be a challenge, since so many are unbalanced. You want to look for ones with good acidity and spicy concentration. There's a lot of inferior Vino Nobile to be had out there, and you're usually in good hands purchasing riservas, which must be aged a minimum of three years. Among my favorite producers are Avignonesi, Poderi Boscarelli, Poliziano, DEI, Salcheto and Gracciano della Seta.
You can find Tuscan wines in your favorite wine store, of course. Or you could visit some of our local restaurants that shine a light on the wines of Tuscany. A few that come to mind are (naturally) Tuscany and Cucina Toscana, plus Stanza, Caffe Molise, Grappa, Valter's Osteria, Brio Tuscan Grille, Sea Salt, Veneto and Stoneground. BTG also serves an impressive range of Tuscan—and Italian wines in general—by the sip, splash or glass. So go out and grab yourself a taste of Tuscan sunshine.