Explore Italy’s wines beyond Pinot Grigio and Chianti

Italy is the second largest and in some years largest, wine producing country in the world. With 20 regions, 97 provinces, over 2,000 grape varietals and a classification system that is complicated, to say the least, Italy is the go-to wine for many wine lovers both novice and pinky up.

For many, Pinot Grigio and Chianti are their limits for this wine region but there so, so many more regions to explore.  Gargenega, Gavi di Gavi, Amarone di Valpolicella, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nero d’Avola, Prosecco, Fiano de Avellino, Frascati and Soave are all wonderful if not familiar to the average American.

But everyone has heard of Tuscany, where there are six distinct Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG for short) regions for a sea of red wine. Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano, Carmignano and Bolgheri all have one grape in common – Sangiovese.

Despite the recent changes in regulations to include international grape varieties, Italian wines for the most part are bonded to the traditional, indigenous varieties which are estimated to be around 2,000. Of those many grape varieties, Sangiovese takes the cake for the most widely planted in all of Italy.

Tuscany or if you’re Italiano, Toscana, is the most beloved region in Italy. Not only for wine but as the birthplace of language, arts (the Uffizi Gallery has masterpieces of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rubens, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and more), sciences and literature. All under the patronage of the Medici who followed in the Roman footsteps of planting vineyards everywhere they ruled.

Tuscany is an undulating landscape with hillside vineyards surrounding hill topped towns that supply the vast majority of the best wines. Sangiovese vines are widely planted in Tuscany and have been as far back as three centuries ago. There are a plethora of Sangiovese clones, some are known by their place name and have local names such as Brunello or Prugnolo Gentile.

You’ll find it in places such as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Maremma, Morellino de Scansano, Carmignano and Super Tuscans.  It’s the mainstay of Toscana wines with other grapes playing a supporting role only in Chianti and Carmignano. Bolgheri DOC, home to the first Super Tuscan, is more international in its regulations.

For the most part, Italian wines have place names on the labels unlike New World wines with grape names on the label. For example, Chianti is a place within the borders of Tuscany in Central Italy. In the Chianti region, DOCG regulations require that seven Chianti zones be composed of at least 70% and could be up to 100% Sangiovese with no more than 30% other grapes that could include traditional red grapes, Canaiolo and Colorino and/or International varieties Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot. White grapes, Trebbiano and Malvasia, may not exceed 10% of the blend and Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc may be 10% separate or together. These regulations are more stringent and mind boggling for the eighth zone, Chianti Classico.

Surrounding the hill top town of Montalcino are the vineyards of Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino. Brunello, which translates to little dark one, is the local name for the large berried Sangiovese Grosso clone used for these wines.

Winemaking in Montalcino dates back to the 14th century but it wasn’t until the 1870s when Ferruccio Biondi-Santi isolated the Sangiovese Grosso grape and made a particularly wonderful batch of wine from his grandfather’s Il Greppo estate. At a time when most wines were white and sweet, this was pretty daring. He also went further to limit yields and extended the maceration process for more concentrated and intensely colored wine.

One hundred years later, Brunello was named one of the first DOCGs and with that came the regulations. Only one grape, Brunello is allowed, age it for four years with at least two in wood. For Riserva, it’s six years with at least 2 in wood. As you can imagine, all that time drumming your fingers, waiting for the Brunellos to mature could make one very thirsty. There is a solution to that dilemma. It’s the Rosso di Montalcino or red of Montalcino. This baby Brunello has more relaxed regulations and only needs to be aged for one year.

Two DOCG regions that allow grape varieties other than Sangiovese clones are Carmignano and Morellino di Scansano. Carmignano is located northwest of Florence on the north bank of the Arno River. Here, Sangiovese has been blended with Cabernet since the 18th century. Today’s regulations allow 10 to 20% Cabernet or Cabernet Franc, up to 20% Canaiolo, up to 5% Mammolo, up to 5% Colorino as well as up to 10% white grapes. Carmignano can be released two years after the harvest with one of those years in wood. Riservas require 3 years with half spent in wood.

Scansano is another hilly Tuscan region located in the Maremma region on the coast of Tuscany. It achieved DOCG status in 2007 and now must contain at least 85% Sangiovese and the balance can be – get this – any red varietal approved in Tuscany. That opens the blend up to include the Cabernets, Merlot and Syrah in addition to the traditional grape varieties.

Morellino di Scansano does not require wood ageing and can be released the first May after harvest. Riservas on the other hand will not be release until the January two years after the harvest. One of those years must be in wood.

Tuscany also has offers an amazing array of culinary dishes like fresh Ricotta from Siena, panzanella salad, tomato bruschetta, olive oil, truffles, Zuppa Toscana, Pizza Margerita, cannelloni, gnocchi and Salame di Cinghiale (wild boar sausage).

Tuscany is truly a culinary adventure. Go forth and explore!