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In this episode, your host Keith Beavers closes out the first season of Wine 101 with a discussion about Tuscany. Beavers explains that winemaking in Tuscany revolves around the Sangiovese grape, but many regions have their own names for the grape, as well as their own styles of wine produced from it. For example, Chianti, which dominates the American market, is made from Sangiovese, but the wines from this region are bright and aromatic and emit notes of cranberries and cherries. Some of these flavors come from the region’s terroir, but, as always, some are simply instilled by the winemaker’s design.
Conversely, another popular Tuscan wine is Brunello di Montalcino. This wine also uses Sangiovese, but the specific variety it calls for is well acclimated to dry, arid regions and produces a very concentrated red wine. It was first created by Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, who wanted to age a wine far past the requirements for Chianti. The result was a big, structured wine that was so popular, a team tried to produce counterfeit versions with Syrah and Merlot, and were eventually jailed.
Beavers traces the histories of these wines and other grapes throughout this episode, but warns listeners to look forward to a deeper dive in Season 2. The next season will more specifically examine winemaking in Chianti, as well as parts of Argentina, Chile, and South Africa. Fans can follow Beavers on Instagram at @VinepairKeith, where he will eventually share the Season 2 release date.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
My name is Keith Beavers, and this is the last episode of the season.
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 32 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. And wow, how are you? This is the last episode of Season 1. Wow. I think it’s important that we all have a nice well-rounded conversation about Tuscany. What goes on in the hills of Tuscany? What is Tuscany all about? Is it just Chianti? No, it’s more than that. Let’s get into it.
I can’t thank you guys enough for the support you’ve given this podcast. Thank you so much. This has been awesome. This being the last episode, I’m just thinking back on all this and how much fun I’ve had. I loved every episode. I love doing this stuff. Thank you for all the engagement on Instagram, all your reviews, your listenership. Thank you for being part of the VinePair family and just reading VinePair and being a part of it, helping you guys learn.
I just don’t ever want to stop doing this, ever. And that’s cool because there’s going to be a Season 2, but we don’t know the date yet, but we’re working on it and man, it’s awesome. We’re gonna build off of what we did in Season 1. We’re going to talk, we’re going to dive deep into “terroir.” I mean, we’re gonna dive deep into the dirt of that. We’re gonna talk about new regions, Chile. We’re gonna do a little more detail on Argentina. We’re gonna talk about South Africa. We’re gonna talk about new grapes, like Moscato, like what’s Moscato? And we’ve had a lot of listeners ask about ports so we’re talking about port. And then I get to talk about this crazy thing called phylloxera that I’ve been hinting at a lot throughout Season 1. It’s a story. Get ready for that one.
OK. I want to get to Tuscany, but I just want to let you guys know: Thank you. You’re the best. Let’s keep this going. Right? Cool. So let’s talk about Tuscany. Now the thing is in the next season, another thing we’re going to do is we’re going to do this really deep dive into Chianti and the grape Sangiovese, so I’m not going to go deep into that.
That story is really fun. It’s going to be awesome, but I’ll give you an overview of Tuscany, because you know, we know Chianti. We probably know that word. We know it’s a wine. You may be familiar with the term “Super Tuscan,” which is a wine that popped up in the ’70s and the ’80s. It became all the rage on the American market.
You may know about Brunello di Montalcino, which is sort of a Johnny-come-lately, noble wine region in Tuscany. But to understand the whole region, just to get a sense of Tuscany is important, because Tuscany, this is where Italian culture and language and art and everything was formed — specifically around the town of Florence. And because of that deep-rooted, embedded history, there’s more documentation about the history of this place, this region, than a lot of other regions in Italy, and the historical activity between the town of Florence and the town of Sienna, south of that is some really fun stuff. And in Season 2, we’re gonna talk a lot about that.
But I want to give you sort of just an overview of Tuscany, because there are tons of Tuscan wines on our market, and it can be a little bit overwhelming because it’s one of those regions that we just have such a connection to. A really cool way to understand Tuscany and wine is that what Tuscany really is, is a celebration of one variety, and that variety’s ability to express itself in different ways within one region.
The Sangiovese grape, which again, we’re going to get a little deeper into next season, is grown mostly throughout the central part of Italy and Tuscany takes up the majority of the central part of Italy. And one thing about Sangiovese — I mean, every grape loves a hill. Am I right? Every grape loves a good hill with drainy soils and good sun exposure, but Sangiovese legit thrives on these hills. I mean, if you were to put Sangiovese in a lower-lying area, it’ll grow, but it will not do what it does on hills. And it just so happens that Tuscany is 68 percent officially hills. 68 percent. One region.
Only 8 percent of the region is flat. And I say that because there’s some Sangiovese there, we’ll talk about that. But what happens with Tuscany is it starts on the coast, in a place that’s called the Maremma, and it works its way inland, and as the hills get higher and higher and more undulating and higher and more undulating, and it gets up to like 18-2,000 feet above sea level as you go inland from the coast. And that’s when things get really interesting. You have all different kinds of elevations, all different opportunities for good sun exposure, and a ton of different kinds of soils. There’s actually famous soils in these lands, but it is a wide variety of soils, and all these conditions are perfect for Sangiovese.
And all of the regions that we know, and some that we don’t know, pretty much all lie within these hills. And it’s so unique because the Sangiovese grape has different names depending on where you are in Tuscany. And those names are based on the clonal selections that they’ve made over the years. But it’s also just because of the expression the varieties give — they’re different expressions. And that’s just a great way to understand Tuscany. When you’re drinking wine from Tuscany, you’re drinking Sangiovese in different expressions.
Now, the thing is, there are places in Tuscany that do that plant and make international varieties. Those are often done in areas where Sangiovese doesn’t really thrive as much, but it can grow, but they’re using other varieties to supplement. They don’t want to get rid of Sangiovese, it’s their grape, but in certain areas, it’s just not as plentiful in the blends. But that’s a fun part about Tuscan wine, especially as a wine lover, is whatever wine you’re drinking from Tuscany, it’s probably going to be an expression of the Sangiovese grape. I mean, sometimes it’s going to be a small amount. It’s not always going to really be in there, but Sangiovese always has a presence in this area. In Chianti, the Sangiovese grape is bright and aromatic, cranberries and cherries, and just has a good amount of acidity because it’s in these hills with these draining soils. And even if it’s a blend with Merlot or something else, it still retains that sort of, rustic elegance. And the thing about it, that’s kind of a general statement, because within Chianti itself, there’s all these different communes that express the grape in different ways within that region and that sub-region itself.
Then if you go south of the Chianti hills, you go into a town called a Montalcino, and this is one of the most arid, dry patches of Tuscany. And in the early to mid-19th century, a man by the name Ferruccio Biondi-Santi isolated a clone of Sangiovese from one of his vineyards. The technical name of the Sangiovese in his vineyard was called “Sangiovese Grosso,” which means it’s a big grape.
But the Sangiovese that Ferruccio isolated was not your typical Sangiovese grape. This is a clone of Sangiovese that was truly acclimated to the dry, arid climate of this area and made more concentrated red wines. His goal was to make a wine that would age longer than the wines of Chianti, let’s say.
Chianti ages about 10, 15 years. He wanted to go longer. So he created this powerful, big-structured wine from a Sangiovese grape that he called Brunello. And that’s where Brunello di Montalcino came from. So where Chianti is kind of almost elegant, rustic, Brunello di Montalcino is big and structured and it needs time. Before it’s even on the market, it has to age for four years, including two of those years in barrel and four months in the bottle before it’s out onto the market.
And five years for the reserva, and you can’t blend anything with this. This has to be 100 percent Brunello. If it’s anything else, it’s a crime. Literally in 2008, there were people that were caught blending Syrah and Merlot into the Brunello di Montalcino and they went to jail. It was a thing. It was called “Brunello Gate.” Seriously.
South of Montalcino is a town called Montepulciano, and in that township there is a very famous wine called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. And originally it was all Sangiovese, but today you can actually put some Cab and Merlot and Syrah into the blend. But it’s kind of going back, now more and more people are just doing Sangiovese and another native grape called Canaiolo.
And the result of that old-school blend of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is this really awesome dance between Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti. It has the bright elegance of a Chianti, but it still has the structure of Brunello di Montalcino. It’s really awesome.
And you bring a little Canaiolo in there, it kind of makes it nice and earthy. There are Vino Nobile di Montelpuciano that have some Cabernet, some Merlot, and some Sangiovese, and it’s more of a modern-style wine, and they’re really delicious, but the old-school stuff is emerging again. And it’s really awesome. And these are just examples of Sangiovese in these hills at different elevations, different soils expressing themselves in different ways. And what’s so cool is all these wines are available on the American market, and there’s a ton of Italian wine on the American market. You can really explore this stuff pretty easily.
And as we start heading west out of the hills towards the flatlands, towards the coast, the hills get a little bit lower, then we get into just flat lands. And as you head west towards the coast, there’s another famous wine region you’re going to recognize on the American market called Morellino di Scansano, and here, they actually call Sangiovese “Morellino di Scansano,” which makes sense right?
And because of the lower-lying hills and because it’s getting closer to the coast, where you get a little more sun, it’s a little bit warmer and the wines are kind of full-bodied. They’re not on the level of Brunello di Montalcino, but they have a nice fullness to them. They only have to be 85 percent Sangiovese and they can put other stuff in there, like Cab or Syrah or Merlot. But they’re really awesome wines, if you get a chance. And they are very affordable, too. You can get a Morellino di Scansano for like 15, 20 bucks.
And just before we hit the coast is a new-ish wine region called Monte Cucco. And we’re seeing some of it on the American market. They’re kind of full-bodied Sangioveses, and it really is so new. It has a lot of potential, but it hasn’t really been defined yet, but we’ll see it being defined over the next 10 or 15 years or so.
And then we get to the coast, and this is what’s really interesting about Tuscany. In these lower-lying areas, Sangiovese grows, it’s fine, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc, all these Bordeaux varieties do better in this area than Sangiovese. And this is the area where, back in the 1960s, and all the way back to 1940s, people were making wine not from Sangiovese but from Cabernet Sauvignon. And this area is called the Maremma, which is a reference to “mare” as in “the sea,” and it, itself, is a wine region, and it’s huge.
But in the Maremma, in a town called Bolgheri in the 1940s, a man with a fairly long name, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, planted Cabernet Sauvignon for literally a house wine in the 1940s on his San Guido estate. And he labeled that wine Sassicaia, and this became one of the first “Super Tuscans” that we’ll talk about in Season 2, but became a really big trend in this area. By the 1970s, there were other winemakers doing the same thing that he was doing, and the “Super Tuscan” thing kind of blew up, because in this area of Tuscany, Sangiovese isn’t as prominent as Bordeaux varieties. And actually Bolgheri was only really known for white wine and rosés because it’s on the coast, but then this thing happens.
You’re also going to see wines from Maremma. It’s there, it’s becoming very popular on the American market. And the Maremma is a very large, loosely drawn appellation that covers almost the entire coastline of Tuscany. It’s a big catch-all wine appellation, and you’re going to see wines from the Maremma on the American market. They’re becoming very prominent.
But you name it. It’s all kinds of blends. It’s all kinds of reds. Merlot is there, Sangiovese is there, Petit Verdot, Carignan, Syrahs, everything. So the red blend phenomenon we have here in the United States, the Maremma kind of feeds into that love for red blends. Big, full-bodied, more modern in style.
And that’s not everything, but that gives you a sense. I hope that it helps you understand Tuscany a little bit more because it really just is different expressions of Sangiovese, and the Sangiovese grape has different names depending on where it’s grown just because of history and because it’s hard to identify it on its own. Tuscan winemakers in these different regions want you to know that this is not just a Sangiovese, this is a Brunello di Montalcino. And even though it is Sangiovese, this is our expression of this grape.
Now the thing about Tuscany is it’s not all red wine. It’s not all Sangiovese all the time. There is white wine in Tuscany, it’s just not as prominent. There’s a grape called Vermentino that has grown throughout Tuscany and it doesn’t really have an appellation. I think Monte Cucco has Vermentino in its appellation, but it’s not a prominent grape in Tuscany. But what is, is a grape called Vernaccia. Now Vernaccia is mostly grown around the town of San Gimignano.
And there is an appellation there called the Vernaccia di San Gimignano. And what’s interesting about that is that white wine region is that the first DOC awarded to Tuscany was a white wine-growing region. I mean, you would think that Chianti would be the first, but no, it was a white, it was Vernaccia. Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a beautiful white wine. And it’s just not as popular, just because of the popularity of Sangiovese. I mean you can’t mess with its prominence in this region.
But that’s kind of a conversation about the overview of the wine of Tuscany, which basically revolves around Sangiovese, and in the second season, we’re going to get into a bunch of other stuff. We’re going to talk about Brunello di Montalcino. We’re gonna talk about Chianti. And in doing that, we’re going to get a better sense of the history of Tuscany, the wine laws, the drama, and all that stuff.
A lot of this stuff you probably wish I was talking about right now is going to happen in the next season with a little more detail. It’s gonna be a little more fun because we’re going to be able to really dive into the subtleties of these awesome Italian wine regions.
And that’s it. That’s Season 1 in the books. Wine 101. Guys, I cannot wait for Season 2. Follow me on Instagram @VinePairKeith in the meantime. I’ll announce the date, but I’ll see you soon.
If you’re digging what I’m doing, picking up what I’m putting down, go ahead and give me a rating on iTunes or tell your friends to subscribe. You can subscribe. If you like to type, go ahead and send a review or something like that, but let’s get this wine podcast out so that everybody can learn about wine.
Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Adam and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo. And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.