Friday, April 17, 2009

Lessons about Tuscan wines

Sangiovese grapes used to make Chianti and other Tuscan wines

My most recent wine class at Vienna Vintner was the first class in a three part series about Italian wines and dedicated solely to Tuscan creations.
Having lived in Italy for a year back in the mid-90s and having visiting several times since, I was keen to know more about what I had been drinking.

We sampled several Chiantis but also other wines from the region. All were delicious...similar but also slightly different depending on the grapes involved and where they were grown. Among the things I learned in class was that most Chiantis are made with the sangiovese grape (literally "the blood of Jove") but they can also feature canaiolo and malvasia bianca. However, in order for a wine to be labeled a Chianti it must have at least 80% sangiovese grapes; it is also perfectly acceptable for a Chianti to be made from 100% sangiovese grapes. Brunello (meaning "nice dark one") is the unofficial name for sangiovese grapes (specifically the clone sangiovese grosso) grown in the Montalcino region of Italy. We tasted a Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (see below) and it was brilliant. As I came to learn, this particular wine was the first to receive the DOCG designation in Italy.

A word on designations: the best way to think about Italian wines is to visualize a pyramid. At the base are your run-of-the-mill (but often very good ) table wines, the middle layer is for the DOC labeled wines, and the peak is reserved for the DOCG labeled wines. A wine with a DOC (Demonizione di Origine Controllata) label indicates that it reached Italian assurance standards for quality. More specifically, it determines the area within which certain grapes may be may be produced, the soil and the arrangements of the vineyards; the grapes and blend of grapes; the method of cultivation; yield of the vineyard and method of vinification; and certain details like the length of maturation and whether wines of different vintages can be blended. Bottles and labels similarly come under control, as well as the names of both wines and firms.

The DOCG designation (Demonizione di Origine Controllata Garantita) simply means that it has gone above and beyond the DOC label and that its contents have been "guaranteed". So, when you see this label on an Italian wine you can rest assured that it has been subject to incredibly stringent practices and has been analyzed and tasted by government-licensed personnel.

Also worth noting about Italian wines, many are organic and biodynamic. Best of all, due to the fact that so many vineyards have been passed down through generations, most Italian wine is not terribly expensive. One of the reasons wine can be expensive today is because of the overhang costs that torment some winemakers -- owing on the land, equipment, etc... Most Italian winemakers have owned the land for generations, helping the consumer along in the process.

1. Vernaccia, San Gimignano, DOCG. This delicious wine received 6 months fermentation in stainless steel, never touching oak once.

2. Gavi di Gavi, La Soraia, DOGC, 2007. This wine was made with 100% cortese grapes. This wine had a crisp taste and was full of minerals and would go wonderfully with pasta alfredo or seared scallops.

3. Chianti, Colli Fiorentini, DOCG, 2007. This wine really cut the palette, cleansing it nicely for the next bite of food. Its bouquet is full of damp earth and has a lighter color -- almost like blood mixed with water.

4. Chianti Classico Riserva, 2004. This wine was full of dark berry fruit, dark cranberry, damp earth and subtle notes of sweet vanilla. Chianti must have at least 85% sangiovese grapes in order to be characterized as being a Chianti.

5. Brunello Rosso di Montalcino, Canetta, DOCG, 2004. A Brunello can only be 100% sangiovese grapes and this particular one was aged for 24 months in the barrel. It was incredibly smooth and delicious.

6. Pico della Marronaia, 2004. This wine's bouquet was full of damp earth and had qualities which seemed to me like chalk. It left my mouth feeling almost dry, as in it had somehow sucked all the flavor out of my mouth, leaving me with a perfectly cleansed palette. A Pico is usually a blend of three separate grapes -- sangiovese, merlot and syrah. This wine would be perfect with grilled meat and really flavorful cheeses. Last, it was aged first in French/American oak and then aged in a bottle.

7. Brunello di Montalcino, Canneta, DOCG, 2003. 100% sangiovese grapes but not as severe as other Tuscan wines.

Other good tidbits of knowledge and quotes from my teacher:

Italy has 20 regions and traditionally each region has matched its wine to the food found locally. So, wines coming from near the ocean would be well suited to seafood and wines from landlocked areas would be nicely paired with local game and meat.

"Life is hard. Life is short. Wine is good."

"Wine is a prisoner of war. She wants to run around the block and then wear you like a sweater. She's pissed off -- let her party."

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