The region of Tuscany is on the west coast of Central Italy, bordered by Liguria and Emilia Romagna to the North, Umbria to the East and Lazio to the South. It is considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and has 6 World Heritage Sites, the historical centres of Florence (its capital), Siena, Pisa, San Gimignano, as well as Pienza and Val d’Orcia.
Tuscany can claim to have the oldest, truly indigenous heritage among all the Italian regions, originating from the Etruscans who gave this region more than just its name – their legacy continues in many aspects of the Tuscan way of life today.
The Etruscans, who occupied the area for c1000 years before the Romans, were a sophisticated people who saw the importance of establishing a transport network, had their own language, and took pleasure in all aspects of life: food, wine, music, sports and art. A wealth of frescoes depicting their way of life and artefacts in the form of jewels, vessels and sculptures are testimony to their love of the arts and aesthetics. In death, their loved ones were buried in tombs with paintings depicting things they enjoyed in life, as well as food and wine to accompany them on their journey to the afterlife. Music played a big part in their culture and according to the Greek writer, Athanaeus “they kneaded bread, practised and whipped their slaves to the sound of pipes.” Surprisingly for such an early civilisation, women were treated with the same respect as men, enjoying a fair amount of freedom. They took part in mudfights and wrestled against men – a fact that scandalised both the Greeks and the Romans. The Etruscans valued their land greatly, taking advantage of its riches by farming, fishing and hunting; they grew pulses, spelt wheat, grapes; raised sheep, cattle, pigs, ducks and chicken; they hunted wild boar, hare and deer; they fished in the rivers and sea, fresh tuna and turtles eggs were delicacies. They had a civilised habit of eating twice a day, and had memorable banquets where they ate reclining while young, naked men and women played the flute. Probably because of their enjoyment of life and lack of any kind of unified support between the towns, which were all self-governed, they were easily conquered by the Romans, who took some of the customs as their own.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, local people took refuge in the countryside, and the start of the monastic orders played a big part in developing the knowledge of arts and crafts as well as farming, cooking, storing and preserving food, vine growing and wine making. After the first millennium, as the threat of the barbarians waned, people began to return to the cities, some of which self-governed became rich and powerful. Florence slowly became the hegemonic power, and from those wealthy families who governed the city, the Medici emerged as the dominant power, transforming the Republic into a hereditary dukedom. Under their rule, the city prospered and became the focal point of the Italian Renaissance, producing great artists such as Giotto, Leonardo, Botticelli, Donatello and Michelangelo among others, influencing and inspiring the rest of Europe. Poets including Dante Alighieri and Petrarch were published and among its musicians, Puccini is renowned.
During this period, eating habits evolved greatly. At the Medici table, there would be embroidered table cloths, Murano glass, silver settings and grand sugar sculptures with flowers and golden vines for decoration. When Catarina de Medici married Henry II, the future king of France, she took with her the chefs and Florentine sophistication; the book Il Galateo by Giovanni della Casa influenced table manners all over Europe (Louis XIV was still eating with his fingers while Florentines had observed table manners since the 12th century).
Tuscany is famous all over the world for its wines (Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano and Brunello di Montalcino). The Chianti area has been so frequented and inhabited by the British that it is known by the nickname of Chiantishire.
The Food of Tuscany
The Etruscans valued their land greatly, taking advantage of its riches by fishing farming, and hunting. Both rivers and the sea were fertile areas for fishing, and many different fish including fresh tuna were caught. Turtles eggs were delicacies. Their farming consisted of growing all types of pulses, spelt wheat and grapes as well as raising sheep, cattle, pigs, ducks and chicken. They also hunted wild boar, hare and deer. Dining was very civilised with a habit of eating twice a day, and memorable banquets took place, where they ate reclining while young, naked men and women played the flute.
Tuscan food today still carries the Etruscan heritage through the identity of its ingredients, many of which remain unchanged. French influenced dishes such as Sole Florentine are more likely to be seen in an international hotel than in a local trattoria. Local people prefer simply prepared food which carries the taste of their land without elaborate sauces or foreign spices ; wild boar, hare, wild mushroom and truffles abound in their forests; vegetables such as cavolo nero, a primitive cabbage, (used to make the famous Tuscan Ribollita soup), spelt wheat and pulses eg chick peas and black-eyed beans as well as lamb and duck were also eaten by their Etruscan ancestors; A typical dish from Arezzo is Pappardelle all’anatra – wide tagliatelle with duck ragout and prosciutto. With all its cultural wealth, Tuscan cooking has a simple yet sophisticated austerity; dishes are still prepared simply, keeping the food as natural as possible, undisguised by sauces, or intrusive tastes, with the exception of fresh local herbs such as rosemary, sage and thyme, garlic and onions.
However, it is in the origin of its produce and traditional preparation technique where the authenticity lies. For example a simple lard becomes a delicacy when it is made from the black Sienese pig and aged in Colonnata’s marble tubs; peasant food such as dried beans can be real luxury if they are of the Zolfini di Pratomagno variety only found in this region. The huge variety and heritage of local produce is what provides the incredible richness of the Tuscan diet: simple food but deceptively so.
The Wines of Tuscany
Tuscany is the source of some of the finest Italian wines and home to some of the most well known wine districts in the world, with Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino being the oldest. For the last 50 years, Tuscany has been at the forefront of the Italian wine renaissance. Winemakers throughout the region have fought hard to change obsolete regulations in order to improve the quality of its wines.
In the quest for excellence, great investment has gone into experimenting with international grape varieties, and planting in new areas. This resulted in the emergence of wines with no Quality Appellation Status; these were sold as Vino da Tavola (table wines), yet were of superior quality to those wines with Appellation Status. The Vino da Tavola wines began to be known as Supertuscans. The investment and efforts are now paying off; with 41 quality wine districts, Tuscany is at the forefront of fine wine production in Italy.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)
This is the highest quality category for Italian wines. The wines must be produced according to very strict guidelines. Yields per hectare are generally lower and production strictly controlled.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata
Standards for this category can vary in different regions and districts. It guarantees the origin of the wines and stated grape varieties. Yields can be generous, so quality varies considerably between producers.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica
The French equivalent of Vin de Pays, often referring to the wines of a whole region or part of it. Because of its flexibility, many producers release their premium wines under this denomination: eg Tignanello and Solaia (Antinori) and Masseto (Tenuta dell’Ornellaia). Don’t be surprised to find three digit prices on some IGT wines.
Italy has 1,500 different grape varieties, and Tuscany is home to many of them. Here is a list of those that are relevant to winemaking in Tuscany today.
Sangiovese is one of the most planted grape varieties in Italy. There are various theories on the origin of its name, the most popular being sangue di Giove meaning “the blood of Jove”. The first recorded written record comes from a XVI century viticulture essay by Gian Vittorio Soderini. Although of Tuscan origin, surprisingly the grape variety is related to the southern grape varieties of Palummina Mirabella and Calabrese Montenuovo. However, it is in Tuscany that we find its finest expression, in wines such as Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti Classico and the Supertuscans. Being a late-ripening grape, key to its quality are soil, location, clone and of course its producer.
Canaiolo, Malvasia Nera, Pugnitello, Colorino
Rarely found vinified on their own, these varieties are preferred by some winemakers in their blend of Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Morellino di Scansano.
Originating from Spain, it is found in Scansano where up to 15% is blended with Morellino (the local name for Sangiovese)
Aleatico is an aromatic red grape variety similar to Muscat, whose origin is quite obscure. As well as in Tuscany, it is found in many Italian regions such as Apulia, Sicily, Abruzzo, Marche and Lazio. Mostly vinified as dessert wine, it has a distinctive flavour of roses, lychees and crushed berries.
On the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast (where Napoleon was first exiled), it produces Elba Aleatico Passito DOCG, a floral sweet wine of great personality.
There are also some dry red and rose examples worth trying.
Cabernet Sauvignon, together with Cabernet Franc and Merlot, was introduced to Tuscany from France towards the end of the 19th century. Many wine producers started experimenting with them. It was the success of Sassicaia in the late 60’s in Bolgheri that prompted widespread planting of Cabernet Sauvignon throughout Tuscany. Also Antinori had been experimenting with these international grape varieties since 1920; in 1971 a new blend of Sangiovese + 20% Cabernet was created and called Tignanello. Since then, other winemakers have used Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Cabernet Franc and Merlot blended with Sangiovese or as 100% varietal. It is in Bolgheri DOC, home of Sassicaia and Ornellaia that Cabernet Sauvignon has become the most important grape variety.
Cabernet Franc hasn’t had the same success as its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, and is mainly used as a minority blend. Its true potential is now being recognised and a number of wineries are producing 100% Cabernet Franc; the most notable wine being Paleo (Le Macchiole) in Bolgheri.
Merlot has been a popular blending grape, used by some winemakers to soften the harsh tannins of the Sangiovese in producing Chianti; this practise is now diminishing, however a number of winemakers are producing 100% Merlot wines with great results. Some of these have become iconic and collectable wines, such as Masseto (Tenuta dell’Ornellaia), Messorio (Le Macchiole), L’Apparita (Castello di Ama), Redigaffi (Tua Rita) with an increasing number joining this elite.
For many years winemakers have been experimenting with this grape variety from the Northern Rhone. There are two excellent examples from Fontodi in Chianti and Tua Rita in Suvereto near Lucca. Its greatest success has been achieved in Cortona in Val di Chiana. Here in 1988, Massimo d’Alessandro began experimenting with international grape varieties on 5 hectares of vineyards. Syrah emerged as the most suited to the climate and soil, so between 1993 and 2002, 40 hectares of Syrah were planted on the estate. Following d’Alessandro’s achievements, Antinori and Ruffino have both planted Syrah in the area. Its success has been recognised by Cortona Syrah being granted DOC status by the Governing body.
Vermentino is a grape variety also found in Liguria, Sardinia, Tuscany, Piedmont (where it is called Favorita) Corsica and in part of Southern France. It gives its best results near the sea where it acquires savoury saline mineral notes. There are 10 areas that have been granted DOC status, of which Bolgheri is the best known.
Vernaccia is a truly Tuscan grape variety appreciated since antiquity. Dante Alighieri, the 13th century father of the Italian language, places Pope Martin the IV in Purgatory for gluttony “ purge per digiuno l’anguilla di Bolsena e la Vernaccia”; “purge by fasting, the eel from Bolsena and the Vernaccia”. It has found its natural habitat in San Gimignano on the Tufa limestone, producing dry minerally-driven wines with notes of almond and peaches.
Trebbiano Toscano, Malvasia
These two grape varieties were once widely planted and were part of the Chianti blend. The Chianti producers are now using these plantings to make some great Vin Santo. They are also found in a number of little-known white DOC areas.
Many wineries have experimented with this popular grape; two delicious examples are Batar (Querciabella) and Chardonnay (Isole e Olena).
Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Pinot Bianco
Experiments with these grapes are going on, so some examples can be found in wine shops, and are generally good if you really want to drink Tuscan white wine.
A large area of production, the style varies from light-medium bodied to full-bodied, depending on the producer and the district. Made with minimum 70% Sangiovese, the balance being of different grape varieties. The standard of quality is good, often reflected in the price. Don’t expect too much from an inexpensive Chianti DOCG.
Chianti Classico DOCG
The zone extends to 70,000 hectares (172,900 acres) and includes the entire territories of the communes of Castellina in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti, Greve in Chianti and Radda in Chianti as well as parts of territories of Barberino Val d’Elsa, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Poggibonsi, San Casciano Val di Pesa and Tavarnelle Val di Pesa. It has much stricter regulations with lower yields per hectare, most estates producing less than the production allowed.
Chianti Classico has to be made with minimum 80% Sangiovese; the trend is to produce wines with 100% Sangiovese, especially for the riservas. The great leap forward in Tuscany is especially evident in Chianti Classico, where the style of wine is a direct reflection of its terroir. Chianti Classico Riserva is only produced in great vintages, either a selection of their best grapes or from the best vineyard, depending on the producer. These can be truly exceptional wines that need between 6 and 10 years to show their potential. Leading producers are: Querciabella, Fontodi, Isole e Olena, Castello di Ama, Castello di Montegrossi, Felsina di Berardenga, Castello di Fonterutoli among others.
Carmignano is a relatively small DOCG – about 740 acres. It has a parallel appellation for more straightforward wines, Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC, named after the Medici game reserve. It lies in the Chianti district, but due to its microclimate, it produces remarkably superior wines with great aging potential. Cosimo III Dei Medici was the first to recognise this as a superior wine-producing area, by defining its boundaries by decree. Carmignano requires minimum 80% Sangiovese, with the balance Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. This area is one of the most consistent and reliable sources of delicious wine. The wine is medium to full-bodied, with supple tannins, great black cherry fruit, balance and length. Great wines are produced by: Capezzana, Piaggia and Ambra.
Morellino di Scansano DOCG
Located in the southern part of Tuscany, in the Maremma, near Grosseto, Morellino is the local name for Sangiovese, of which there needs to be at least 80%, the balance of Colorino, Pugnitello, Alicante, Canaiolo among other varieties. Here the climate is warmer than in Chianti, producing warm, spicy wines, with softer tannins and more opulent fruit.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG
The area lies in the south-east part of Tuscany, around the town of Montepulciano, east of Montalcino. With nothing whatsoever in common with the Montepulciano grape, it is made with minimum 80% Sangiovese (locally called Prugnolo) with the balance of Canaiolo and other grape varieties. Aged for 24 months (12 of which in barrel), and for the Riserva 36, (18 of which in barrel). Pope Paul III was very fond of the wine and his bottigliere (original name for sommelier), Sante Lancerio rated it in the top category of his wine classification “Fit for Nobles”. The name Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was first used by Adamo Fanetti. Until 1930, the wine was officially called "Vino Rosso scelto di Montepulciano " but Adamo called his wine “nobile” (noble), and in 1925, he produced about 30 tons of Nobile, all bottled and sold in two litre bottles.
Stylistically, it is between a Chianti Classico and a Brunello di Montalcino; bigger and more structured than a Chianti, but not as big as a Brunello di Montalcino. Great examples are: Avignonesi, Dei, Poliziano, Boscarelli and La Villa (Angelini).
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG
Montalcino itself is a small, medieval town, with just over 5,000 inhabitants. Its name derives from Monte Ilcineus, the local oak that populates the forests to this day. Although the area was renowned for the quality of its wines, the history and success of Brunello di Montalcino is a recent one. In mid 19th century, Clemente Biondi-Santi, a local farmer, isolated a clone of Sangiovese, in order to make a wine with considerable ageing potential. It was his grandson, Ferruccio Biondi-Santi who released the first Brunello di Montalcino with the vintage 1888. By the end of World War II, only four vintages had been released: 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945. The wine, aged for 10 years in large casks, acquired a mythical reputation. Brunello di Montalcino has one of the strictest and most vetted wine regulations in the whole of Europe. The wine is released 5 years after the vintage, having spent a minimum of 2 years ageing in oak barrels; the Riserva is released after 6 years. Today there are 200 Brunello di Montalcino producers, and a production of 4,000,000 bottles from 2,100 hectares.
The history of this wine region is very recent and linked to the history of Sassicaia. In 1930, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, a Piedmontese aristocrat, married Clarice della Gherardesca, heiress to the Tuscan Estate of Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri, on the Tyrrenean Coast, where the young couple moved at the end of the Second World War. In 1944, the Marquis planted a vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon for personal consumption. After opening old bottles from the cellar he realised that the wine had great aging potential. 1965, he planted two more vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In 1968, the first vintage of Sassicaia was offered on the open market; it was well received and favourably compared to the Premier Crus from Bordeaux. In 1981, Ludovico Antinori, a cousin to Nicolo, Mario’s son, planted a vineyard in the neighbouring estate (Ornellaia) with the first vintage released in 1985. In 1990, it was followed by Guado al Tasso (Antinori), Piero Antinori’s neighbouring estate, he being Ludovico’s brother). These wines were very successful and although they were expensive, premium wines, they were sold as Vino da Tavola. It was in 1994 that the area was granted DOC status, with Sassicaia having its own Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC. Today, many others have joined the ranks, Le Macchiole, Castello di Bolgheri, Angelo Gaja’s Ca’ Marcanda, among others.
There has never been and will never be an official Supertuscan category. This term was coined by Nicholas Belfrage, wine merchant and wine writer, in the late 80’s to give a name to those premium Tuscan wines that were sold as Vino da Tavola, the first example being Sassicaia and Tignanello. Their success inspired a whole generation of winemakers to produce high quality wines, regardless of the DOC restrictive and obsolete regulations. Today, some of these wines fall under the IGT category, such as Tignanello and Solaia in Chianti as well as the iconic 100% Merlot Masseto (Tenuta dell’Ornellaia), the 100% Cabernet Franc Paleo and the 100% Merlot Messorio (Le Macchiole), 100% Merlot Redigaffi (Tua Rita) and many others. These are wines that sell at £100+ a bottle, created with the purpose of making a great wine, according to the winemaker’s personal ideas of taste, but do not fit with the local wine regulations of DOC or DOCG. (see IGT)
Tuscany has 7 DOCG and 34 DOC areas, many of which are too small to be able to gain a market abroad; however, they are often good value and reliable, sometimes great, definitely worth trying.
Tuscany Recipe - Ribollita Soup
INGREDIENTS - Serves 4-5
300g Cavolo Nero
100g Cannellini beans (soaked)
2 Medium carrots peeled and diced
2 Stem celery diced
1 Medium onion diced
300 g Fresh plum tomato chopped OR 200g tinned tomato
1 Medium Leek diced
1 Bouquet Garni (Rosemary, sage, thyme)
1 tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
1 Clove Garlic chopped
400g Sourdough croutons
1. Cook beans with bouquet garni for 1.5 - 2 hours
2. Discard bouquet garni, puree half with own water
3. Keep other half apart with liquid
4. Sautee celery, carrot, onion, leek and crushed garlic in 2 tbsp olive oil
5. When soft, add tomato and let tomato break up.
6. Add cavolo nero, and a little water and let steam for 10 mins
7. Add cannellini beans with own water and let cook for further 20 mins
8. Add bean puree, season to taste and let cook for further 10 mins
Put croutons in 4 bowls and cover with soup.
Generous drizzle with best extra virgin olive oil
Monday - Thursday, Lunch 12.00 - 14.30, Dinner 18.30 - 22.30
Friday & Saturday, Lunch 12.00 - 14.30, Dinner 18.30 - 23.00