We’ve discussed the North; now let’s settle in to Italy’s often-misunderstood central regions and uncover the most essential vino from this cuisine-centric portion of Europe.
Sangiovese Takes Center Stage In Tuscany.
While a host of red and white grape varieties flourish in Tuscany, Sangiovese dominates. From north of Firenze to south of Rome, Sangiovese has many faces, most notably as the main ingredient in Italy’s most famous wine… Chianti. Like with France, Italy’s wines are named after places, and Chianti is no exception (this includes the sub-zones Chianti Classico, Chianti Colli Senesi, and several others). But by no means are these wines the only noble examples of Tuscan Sangiovese. For great values, enjoy the wines designated Morellino di Scansano, Montecucco, Rosso di Montepulciano, Maremma Toscana, and the more general Sangiovese Toscana. While Chianti tends to be a muscular but lean food-wine, Sangiovese shows a richer side of itself in the area of Montalcino, where the clone Brunello is planted. Seek out Rosso di Montalcino for realistically-priced juice from this wealthy neighborhood.
Donna Laura Sangiovese di Toscana Ali, ‘07 ($9)
Dei Rosso di Montepulciano, '07 ($15)
Montepulciano Doesn’t Grow Montepulciano.
An important distinction needs to be made regarding the word Montepulciano. In this instance, the Italians are even more devilish than the French! As stated above, the Tuscan region of Montepulciano grows Sangiovese (locally named Prugnolo Gentile, and nobly bottled as Vino Nobile). By contrast, many sub-zones of Marche, Umbria, and Abruzzi are planted to the grape named Montepulciano. Wines made of Montepulciano often include Sangiovese in the blend, as in the fine Marche reds Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno. But in the case of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, the single variety offers more leathery, earthy, spicy nuances when compared to Sangiovese. All of these areas offer great bang for your buck, and the wines are exceptional food pairings.
Villa Malacari Rosso Conero, '07 ($14)
Nicodemi Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, '08 ($12)
Three famous white wines stand out in the land of red. For starters, Tuscany’s Vernaccia di San Gimignano, ensconced within Chianti’s Colli Senesi district, enjoys its governmentally-granted D.O.C.G. quality status. This traditional white has a distinct richness and a unique minerality seldom duplicated outside of this denomination. In comparison, the Marche-native Verdicchio variety yields crisp, nutty whites with the help of a little Malvasia or Trebbiano. D.O.C. bottlings of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica will ensure top quality. Finally, Orvieto, named for an Umbrian locale, can be a blend of Trebbiano, Verdello, Grechetto, and Malvasia, and is stylistically more delicate, light, and mellow. Unlike with Chianti, whether the label reads Orvieto, Orvieto Classico, or Orvieto Superiore, know you’re getting the best and most traditional juice.
Machetti Verdicchio di Castelli dei Jesi, '09 ($12)
Fontaleoni Vernaccia di San Gimignano, '09 ($12)
There, of course, is more to central Italy than these values. You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted Umbria’s decadent-yet-rustic, age-worthy red Sagrantino di Montalfalco. For a special occasion, experience the ultimate in a category known in the trade as “Super Tuscans” by tearing into a Cabernet/Merlot blend from costal Tuscany’s Bolgheri district; And for the end-all of dessert wines, Tuscany’s sticky (but not super-sweet) Vin Santo is a sturdy, after-dinner white that will bring a cheese course alive like nobody’s business. Superior Italian restaurants will offer examples of each by the glass, keeping your experience within budget. Salud!