Getting Acquainted with Tuscan Wines – A Guide for Beginners!
Wine and Tuscany have a close bond since, well, forever. The beautiful Italian region seems blessed with excellent weather conditions and verdant lands that provide the best means for the production of the finest wines in the world. This fundamental element in every Tuscany table is paired any time of the day (besides, of course, breakfast!) with delicious side dishes, appetizers, and regional flavours. Before you dive into the fascinating world of Tuscany wines, though, we have created this guide to gradually introduce you to some basics so you know how to pair local wines, how to read labels, and what details you can get about the specialities of the Tuscany province from the colour and aroma of its superb wines.
How to read a wine’s label
The label on the bottleneck or on its back usually indicates several things, such as the:
- Country & region – You will find details about the grapes’ country of origin. Some producers, though, choose to display the region of the wine instead. As a rule of thumb, the more specific the location label, the better the wine (hence, the more expensive) it will be (at least, most of the time). This can help you distinguish the wine quality.
- Name of the wine – This is usually mentioned on the front of most wine bottles and might even bear some unique characteristics brought by the producer. Remember that wines made on a larger scale tend to be of a lesser quality than estate bottles (those made by the individual that grows the grapes) which typically get better care – attention that reflects on quality.
- Grape variety – The information of the grape variety used on production, which also pinpoints details about the depth and the tasting notes of the wine, is on the label (or should be). If you see no such indication, this might mean that the producer uses multiple varieties of grape. To get an idea of which grapes are used, check the appellation notes. Note, though, that a bottle of wine may contain up to 15% of a different grape variety even if it’s varietally labelled.
- The year of production – This will show you whether it is a vintage (it mentions the year of grape harvest) or non-vintage wine (it does not mention the harvest year). Since some years are better than others due to weather conditions and other factors, a vintage wine will tell you if it was made from grapes from a great or a not so great year. The vintage date also enables you to find out how old that wine is (its ageing). Non-vintage wines are generally not likely to improve over time and are usually ready for consumption upon release.
- Level of alcohol – The Alcohol by Volume (ABV) level could be indicated at the back label or the label at the bottom of the front. The ABV of red wines is around the neighbourhood of 13%, while whites tend to be a bit lower. What a higher ABV tells you is that you are probably dealing with a flabbier, jammier wine. Now, depending on the region, producers may be forced to retain certain balance and acidity, which means that there is a maximum ABV limit they can’t cross over. Other areas have a minimum ABV limit (usually the cooler regions that produce white wines) as a means to avoid acidity and have a wine that is neither too acidic (or cold) nor too jammy (or hot).
- Sulfites – Producers are obliged to mention any sulfites they have used in the wine production if these were above 10 mg/litre. If you have a sulfite allergy, this is critical information you need to know.
- Sweetness – In most cases, the sugar in the juice of the grape is turned into alcohol almost in its entirety, which means these wines are dry. Some of them, though, are sweeter or off-dry as the producers leave a tad more residual sugar, so their wines are sweeter and with a fruity flavour.
Note: You will NOT find information about things like the use of dairy products for wine fining or the selected farming methods on the label. Also, details that have to do with other ingredients in the wine (i.e., some producers use low-cost oak chips or purple dye) and the yeast used in the fermentation will not be mentioned on the label. However, do ensure the wine you choose has a DOCG certificate that shows where the grapes to make this wine came from.
The colour of Tuscany wines – How to tell the good wine from the bad
The colour of the wine tells us a whole lot about the wine and depends on the grape variety used and the production method. For example, you can get white wines whose colour varies from paper white to golden and pale straw-yellow through more amber hues. Wines made from the Vermentino or Vernaccia di San Gimignano, for instance, have a neutral and delicate colour. Trebbiano and Malvasia are more golden wines. An almost orange grape of the coast called Ansonica makes golden whites.
As for the production method used, wood results in darker wines, while those left to macerate in terracotta jars are more amber-orange. All that aside, the colour of the wine is also an indicator of quality. A young wine, for example, is not supposed to be amber unless the producer has used a specific production technique. White wines, in general, tend to go through the range of colours mentioned above as they mature/age.
The same applies to red wines, whose colour also depends on the production area and grape. Sangiovese, for instance, can be crystalline, clear, and white in some Chianti regions and darker in others (i.e., Maremma). The side of the hill even influences Montalcino reds, giving them ruby shades of varying intensities.
Finally, on the coast, the colours of Merlot and Cabernet are usually darker (i.e., aubergine, purple, and deep ruby red).
Last but not least, ageing plays a role in the wine’s colour. For example, young wine is expected to be a sparky ruby red with bluish hints. As it ages, it can get shades of garnet before it ends with amber hues. However, if it gets to amber, it may have aged too much to be enjoyable.
The aromas of Tuscan wines – Young vs. Old Tuscan wines
Young, crisp wines of the coast (i.e., Vermentino) deliver citrus and floral notes, as well as herbal aromas from the herbs of the coast (i.e., thyme, sage, etc.). Inland wines, such as San Gimignano, give hints of minerals, chalk, white peach, apricot, and even saffron (for more mature wines). Crisp, young reds, on the other hand, including Montalcino, give a more fruity aroma of, say, black cherry and perhaps floral notes of lavender, iris, or violet.
Things change the older a wine gets, though, as it improves with age and becomes sweeter while feeding on the winery’s resources. Some of the most famous aged Tuscan wines are Bolgheri (based on Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (a favourite local wine since the medieval times), and Brunello di Montalcino created to give Sangiovese a longer-lasting lifespan.
Other types of Tuscany wines & food pairings
You have the so-called dessert wines, which are sweet and aged in barrels, such as Vin Santo that originates from the uplands of Tuscany, Aleatico from the Elba Isle, and Moscadello di Montalcino.
Now, when it comes to pairing your Tuscany wine, experts advise matching similar intensities (neither the food nor the wine should overpower each other). Heavy meats, for instance, need the richness of a deeper and more complex wine with strong juices and flavours, while lighter dishes are amplified with more delicate wines.
Some mouth-watering pairings are:
- Fish with fruity Litorale Vermentino (coastal wine made with Vermentino grapes cultivated in Maremma).
- Lentils and cotechino (mix of different meats and spices) with slightly spicy Bonizio (red wine with 20% Sangiovese grapes from Chianti Classico hills and 80% Merlot grapes from Maremma.
- Ribollita (hearty potage with leftover bread, veggies, and cannellini beans) with Cecchi Chianti.
- Red meat with Riserva di Famiglia (90% Sangiovese grapes with a hint of tobacco, spices, and flowers).
- Agnello (lamb dish) with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (it ages in oaks barrels and is ready to drink two years later)
These are just illustrative dishes you can pair with Tuscany wines. Feel free to expand your culinary adventures while in Tuscany and play with the flavours and aromas of other local wines to see what will come up!
The truth is that Tuscany is a paradisal Italian region for wine lovers. From the Etruscan coast and the Val di Merse to Mugello to Lunigiana, Maremma, and Chianti, Tuscany’s lush land feels like an Aladdin’s lamp filled with goodness – goodness that you can enjoy from the privacy of your elegant Tuscan farmhouse or villa while watching the sun sliding behind the horizon, or as part of a Tuscany wine tasting tour!