Wine making has long been an important part of Tuscan agriculture, largely due to the idyllic climate and unique subsoil composition. The most renowned wine making regions are: Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino. The wines produced in these regions are given the DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) – the highest level of quality classification given to Italian wines. In essence this means the wine is high quality and produced in a certain way in the region it claims to be. For example in the case of Chianti Classico, the all important Sangiovese grapes must be grown and harvested in the Chianti Classico region, and make up at least 80% of the wine.
Chianti isn’t always seen as a stylish wine to drink, however long gone are the days of poor quality and mass produced wines served in straw baskets (fiascos). A movement led by influential winemakers in Tuscany has enforced the philosophy of ‘quality over quantity’ at the heart of Tuscan winemaking, which in conjunction with stringent regulation & classification has led to the production of some of the finest red wines in the world. During our stay we were fortunate enough to visit the Poggio Casciano Ruffino wine estate, just 6 miles south of Florence. Ruffino was founded in 1877 and is now one of the largest Tuscan wineries with several vineyards & estates, however is committed to producing only wines of excellent quality. Any poor vintages are declassified if the wine would tarnish the brands reputation, as was the case with the rainy year of 2014. Ruffino were also the first ever winery to produce a Chianti of DOCG status.
The Poggio Casciano estate is located high up in the Tuscan hills and is connected to a stunning renaissance villa which overlooks the vineyards. We were shown around the estate and the wine cellar by Silvia, who was extremely knowledgable of the brand’s history and the winemaking process. In essence we learnt that you need great grapes to make great wine, but there’s no point having great grapes without a great wine maker.
We tried 3 fantastic red wines from the Ruffino collection – all very unique but equally delicious.
The first wine we tasted was the Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale Oro Gran Selezione DOCG – produced only from outstanding vintages, composed of 80% Sangiovese grapes and 20% Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon and aged for 3 years in oak. The long maturation process imparts a light smokiness and the blend of grapes makes it an easy drinking wine. As with all good Chianti, the Sangiovese gives the characteristic ruby red colour.
The second wine we tasted was the Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale DOCG – aged for 24 months in oak barrels and 3 months in the bottle. This wine is an excellent example of a traditional Chianti Classico – 80% Sangiovese, bright ruby red, fairly acidic and rich in tannins. This wine is medium bodied and works brilliantly with fatty red meats, such as the Bistecca alla fiorentina.
The third Ruffino wine we tasted falls under the broad category of ‘Super Tuscans’. Supertuscan wines are a modern invention, brought about by forward thinking Tuscan vineyards who wanted to express their expertise in the craft of winemaking, without the strict regulations attached to the DOCG wines. For this reason they are thought of as ‘free style wines’, and are perhaps the best reflection of a winemaker’s individuality. The Sangiovese grapes grown in the estate we visited were used to make this kind of wine. The Super Tuscan wine we tasted was called ‘Modus’ – a blend of 50% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, aged separately in small oak barrels for 12 months before blending then for several years together in the bottle (2013 vintage). The wine had a beautiful deep red colour with hints of purple and fruity flavours of blackberries & cherries. Still a little too heavy on the tannins, this wine will be outstanding after a few more years in the cellar, as is reflected in the price of older Modus vintages.
The wine tour was incredible and it was interesting to see the modern and high-tech fermentation tanks in comparison to the historic cellars and oak maturation process.
We were given a huge amount of info from two expert sommeliers on how to taste, store, choose and most importantly enjoy great wines – the key points of which are given below:
- When you taste a wine, the first thing you do is observe the colour, then smell the aromas, then drink it.
- The colour of a wine can be a good indication of quality and flavour before you even taste it. It’s best to tilt the glass and test the very top level of wine against a plain white background. Red wine broadly ranges in colour from purple-ruby red-garnet-orange/brown, depending on how well aged the wine is. If your wine is orange it’s not going to be good so don’t drink it. If it’s purple it’s a fairly young wine, so you can expect a fruity/floral wine, but heavy with tannins.
- Red wines have 3 levels of aromas: primary relating to fruits and flowers (deriving from the grapes themselves), secondary aromas which develop through fermentation and tertiary aromas which arise through ageing in barrels and bottles. Tertiary aromas are often non-food smells such as tobacco & leather, which seems odd at first but improves the overall flavour of some wines. To properly release all the aromas, it’s best to cover the glass with your palm and swirl in a circular motion before you smell it.
- After swirling the wine, if the residual wine runs down the glass slowly in ‘tears’ or droplets, this indicates a stronger wine. The faster the wine runs down the glass, the weaker it is in terms of alcohol content.
- When you finally you taste the wine it’s important to swirl it around your mouth to cover your palette, it’s amazing how the flavour changes, especially if you incorporate a little air – this is the weird sound you hear sometimes when people taste wine.
- The flavour of the wine will continue to change as it breathes after being opened. If the wine has been stuck in a bottle for any long period of time, it’s best to let the wine relax and breathe. It may taste horrible at first, but delicious a couple of hours later.
- Sedimentation in aged wines is perfectly normal, however something to look out for in young wines.
- Red wines are generally designed to be paired with food, so are not always easy drinking. Particularly 100% Sangiovese wines are fairly acidic but work beautifully with meat and fatty foods. Similarly easy drinking wines are washed out by strong foods and don’t cleanse the palette as well.
- Some wine producers will not declassify wines produced from poorer vintages due to profit losses, in which case it’s best to check which years were poor for the region. For example, in most parts of Tuscany, 2014 was an awful year due to heavy rainfall and the resulting mould growth.
- If you’re drinking an everyday cheaper red, it will often taste better if chilled very slightly. The warmer it is, the more astringent and harsh it will taste.
- Remember ‘vintage’ in the context of red and white wine simple means the year that the grapes were harvested, and is not an indication of quality, unlike with champagne and port.
- Always taste a wine even if you hate the smell, as we discovered with Italian dessert wine which smelt strongly of whisky and alcohol, But bizarrely tasted of apricot and honey.
- It’s best to store wines horizontally and in a cool dry place with a constant temperature, and not in direct sunlight.
- To see how long a wine has been in the bottle, look at the black number printed on the back of the label which indicates the year and the number of days into that year.
- Don’t expect Chianti to come in a basket anymore, these were mainly used in the past to protect poor quality glass during transportation.
Hope these help next time you’re trying a red! Details of the amazing Tuscan food we’ve tasted to come in the next blog 🍴