Tuscany: Wine and Renaissance Romance

To tell about Tuscany in a couple of lines is simply a mission impossible. However, it might not be a much more doable task to describe Tuscany in great detail. Tuscany must be seen and experienced because it is just that: exceptional scenery, obsessing flavors and irresistible tastes.

 

Despite the serious challenge we will try to give you some fragments of all that captured our senses and fascinated us during our short journey in this unparalleled part of Italy:

The district which has been functioning as an independent state until 1859 is situated in the central part of Italy. The capital city of Tuscany is Florence, reasonably known also as the Cradle of the Italian Renaissance.Thanks to its preserved beautiful nature, enormous cultural heritage and centuries-old traditions Tuscany ranks amongst the most preferred global tourist destinations.

 

The scenery of Tuscany is quite distinctive with its hills covered with olive groves and vineyards on the top of which Medieval stone houses sit so elegantly. These houses now are used for farming, winemaking, accommodation of tourists or are just family-owned estates. The colonnades of evergreen cypresses around alleys leading to the stone villas are also very typical for the scenery.

The old road between Florence and Siena crossing the region of Chianti is exceptionally scenic. Driving through Via Chiantigiana is a real pleasure for the admirers of the countryside views.

 

The Chianti region is world-famous for its great wines. The prominent Chianti wine is made right here under strict regulations for the grape harvest, blend of varieties included, as well as the period of ageing before the market launch of the particular vintage. Thus, the basic requirement that the local producers must follow in order to be allowed to put on their labels the names Chianti or Chianti Classico is the blend to contain not less than 70% – respectively 80% – of the local red variety Sangiovese. Specifically, the Chianti Classico wine shall be aged for no less than 7 months in oak casks, and if the wine is of superior quality, labeled as riserva, the stay in oak casks shall not be less than 2 years. In both cases the additional ageing in glass bottles shall be at least 3 months. The outlook of the Chianti wine is also very typical – a big-bellied bottle put in small straw basket. Certainly, this outlook is not part of the strict requirements the wine producer has to meet. It is a question of choice, respect to the traditions, and not the least – a recognizable tourist attraction.

The entrance gate to the region of Chianti is the town of Greve In Chianti. Despite its modest scale and the relatively few sights of the kind “must see” Greve is a beautiful place with a tranquil atmosphere, sincere hospitality and clear distinction as a true wine center. ”

All around the place we meet the amiable black rooster (Il Gallo Nero) – the symbol of Chianti and a trade mark of the regional union of producers of the wine Chianti Classico. The black rooster is a legacy of the famous Chianti League established in the 14th century as a military formation in order to protect the citizens of the towns of Greve, Castellina, Rada, and Gaiole. Now the local consortium eagerly guards the origin and qualities of the wines under the brand Chianti Classico. Only its member producers are eligible to put the black rooster insignia on their labels.

The next mandatory stop along the beautiful Via Chiantigiana is the town of Panzano. The historical center with the early Medieval castle and the fascinating church of Santa Maria Assunta (Assumption of the Holy Marry) are just some of the sights to see around. Each third weekend of September, at the central square of Panzano a special festival of the wine Chianti – Vino al Vino –takes place. No self-respecting lover of the culinary delights should avoid meeting the affable Stefano Salvadori in his attractive shop called (for a reason) Academia del Buon Gusto (academy of the good taste).

Castellina In Chianti is another charming place along the way where the spirit of the Renaissance and the magic of the wine will sweep you off your feet. One of the great sites to visit here is the 100-year old wine shop Enoteca Antiquaria which is a kind of a historical archive of the Italian wine and has played significant part in preserving the original characteristics of Chianti Classico.

When it comes to the Renaissance and the cultural heritage of Tuscany by no means we should omit the unique historical center of the “Town of the fine towers” – San Gimignano. Slightly aside from the road to Siena the town saw its apogee in 12-13th century. Due to the trading in agricultural products the local people got wealthier. The rivalry among the different families gave birth to a remarkable architecture phenomenon – each of the families built its new house in the shape of a tower, and strived to have the tallest of all towers in the town. Thus, in the Middle Ages the number of towers in San Gimignano reached as many as 72, some of which were as high as 70 m. Nowadays however there are only 14 towers left, the tallest of which is 54 m and was built in the 14th century. The neighborhood of San Gimignano is also very well known for its aromatic white wine of the local variety Vernaccia.

Southern of the Chianti region after the breathtakingly beautiful Siena the realm of the other of the famous Tuscanian wines – Brunello di Montalcino – begins. As the name tells it the wine is a local pride of the territory around the town of Montalcino, also known as the “Hilltop town”.

Founded back in the times of the Etruscans, Montalcino extended its borders in the 10th century and preserved its independence until the 13th century when it has been subdued by Siena. Later on, after the fall of Siena under the sway of Florence, Montalcino was annexed to the territory of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The name of the town goes after the typical for the region variety of an oak tree which once covered almost all of the area.

 

Now, on the hilly terrain the local people grow thoroughly vineyards and olive trees, and the agriculture contributes the lion’s share of the domestic economy.

It is out of any question that today’s fame of Montalcino – not only around Italy, but also far beyond its borders – is owed to the fine red wine Brunello that is being produced here. The history of this wineis not as old as Chianti’s but is also that impressive.

 

The first time a wine with the name Brunello di Montalcino was put on the market in the middle of the 19th century made by the family winery of Clemente Santi. The wine was made from selected grapes only of Sangiovese Grosso (the large-berried form of Sangiovese which grows around). At that time the local people believed that Brunello is an individual wine grape variety but soon the ampelographic committee of Siena declared after a detailed analysis that Brunello and Sangiovese are actually one and the same variety.

 

The Santi family remained the only producer of Brunello di Montalcino until the years after the World War II. In the early 60s the number of producers increased to a dozen and after the Italian authorities in 1966 granted Brunello di Montalcino the status of “controlled designation of origin” (denominazione di origine controllata /DOC/) a local consortium of the Brunello wine producers was established (Consorzio del vino Brunello di Montalcino). Currently, the consortium consolidates practically all of the 220 and more winegrowers as well as 150 and more wineries of the region, and plays an important part in the development and promotion of Brunello as unique brand in Italy and all over the world.

Similarly to the Chianti wine everyone who wants to produce and sell under the brand of Brunello must comply with strict regulations along the whole way from the vineyard to the bottle. Thus, besides the requirement that wine shall be made with 100% of Sangiovese grapes with restricted harvest from each hectare planted, the rules command for an extended maceration (the contact of the grape must with the grape skins for extraction of more color and fragrance) as well as for a compulsory periods of ageing of the wine in large oak barrels and bottles before its launch on the market. The “normal” Brunello has to stay in oak barrels at least for 2 years and after that in bottles for 4 months. The “riserva”-type of Brunello must age in barrels at least for 3 years and after that no less than 4 months in bottles before it is released for market sale.

 

In Tuscany the wine is a style of life. It is on each and every street corner in the densely built towns, every hilltop stone villa’s cellar, every table in the alluring “enoteca”-s, “osteria”-s, “trattoria”-s, and “ristorante”-s.

 

But being in Tuscany without visiting a real Tuscanian winery would be quite the same as if you were in Rome but didn’t go to Vatican (seeing the Pope would have been a too ambitious goal).

 

We did it right in Montalcino where we visited one of the notable local wineries - Cantina di Montalcino.

Cantina di Montalcino is the only co-operative winery in the region which is currently owned by a total of 90 individuals who have joined the wine co-operative Cantine Leonardo. The winery was built in 1975 at the foot of the hill where the town of Montalcino is settled. At that time the winery was a sole property of one winemaker but the co-operative took it over in 1990. The winery was fully renovated and enlarged in space and capacity in 2011. Its current modernistic outlook makes it clearly distinctive among all of the other buildings in the neighborhood but is in a natural harmony with the characteristic curves of the surrounding landscape. The co-operative possesses a total of 160 hectares of vineyards located in all four differentiated viticultural zones around Montalcino. These zones differ in terms of soil content, orientation, and microclimate. Definitely, the option to select fruit from all over the area helps the enologists of Cantina di Montalcino make wonderful wines in the tradition of this region. The grapes used for making the Brunello wines come from specially designated 60 hectares in the vineyards of the co-operative.

The philosophy of winemaking here is deeply rooted in the search of harmony with the nature. This philosophy is incarnated in every element of the process – from the vineyards where only wooden posts and organic fertilizers are used to the very environment for winemaking. More than half of the winery premises are underground which allows for a better control of the temperature and energy saving, while most of the electricity consumed is self-generated through own photovoltaic system.

 

Cantina di Montalcino makes about 250,000 bottles of Brunello from each vintage as well as about 120,000 bottles of the second of importance regional wine Rosso di Montalcino. The winery makes also a white wine from the original Italian variety Vermentino. The latest grand international prizes for Cantina di Montalcino have just been awarded in May 2013: a gold medal from the prestigious British specialized magazine Decanter for Brunello di Montalcino riserva 2006 as well as a regional trophy from the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in the category Brunello di Montalcino for Da Vinci Brunello di Montalcino 2007.

Concluding our story we need to make the important note that the wine map of Tuscany does not comprise only Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. A couple of other fine wines with global recognition complement the rich set of flavors and tastes of this lovely part of Italy. We could tell about them some other time and only after we have felt and experienced them personally :-)

 

And finally a sincere advice to those who would soon take the romantic Tuscanian road Via Chiantigiana: Leave yourself enough of time for the starting point – the majestic Florence …

… as well as for the end point – the graceful Siena...

The Tuscanians say that whoever eats his food without drinking wine builds a wall in dry. Getting familiar with their motherland we can do nothing but confess that they are once again perfectly right.

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