Our Majestic Ayr Manager, Jonathan Wilson, recently returned from his honeymoon in Tuscany and reports here on his experiences of Tuscan wine.
We like to talk about having a passion for wine at Majestic, so when the time came to plan my honeymoon, I couldn’t resist incorporating some of my favourite wines into our romantic getaway. My new wife (Nicole) and I planned a tour of Italy, with a few days sightseeing in Venice and Rome bookending a week in Tuscany. We hoped this would give us some time to relax and immerse ourselves in the local lifestyle.
Wine is just one part of Tuscan culture. Alongside my beloved Brunello, Tuscany has a host of other gastronomic treats. Our home for the week embodied this: a former monastery in the rolling hills east of Florence. Alongside wine and olive oil from the estate, they operate a Tuscan cooking school and restaurant using the finest local ingredients. We were so isolated the only local civilisation was a hike to the next village. The owner of the deli overcame our language barrier by giving samples of everything until we found bread, cheese, meat and olives that we liked. After a few days relaxing, it was time to hire a car and get exploring. So, armed with a map and my one line of Italian: ‘Mi no piace il vino enconomico’ (I don’t like the cheap wine!), off we went.
Like much of the old world, Italian wine can be daunting, confusing and complicated. Luckily for you, Majestic staff can help you understand it, all you have to do is ask! They don’t put grape varieties on their labels, just like the French and Spanish. Tuscan reds share a common varietal, Sangiovese. This grape descended from ancient Neapolitan parents, evolved under the Tuscan sun and the locals know it inside out. Depending on how it’s grown and treated in the winery, styles vary from refreshing, fruity wines to heavy beasts with concentration and long ageing potential. It has high acidity and tannin giving structure, but ripens late and in cool years, can lack colour and flavour. The Argentinians, Californians and Australians are experimenting with it, but can’t compete with the Tuscans yet.
We followed the Chiantigiana (wine trail) visiting a succession of picturesque villages starting at Greve in Chianti, working our way south through Radda to Castellina. The landscape flashing past the window was an incredible blend of vines, olive groves, terracotta roofs and cypress trees. Nicole certainly wasn’t bored in such a romantic, picturesque setting. Because of the difficulties in ripening Sangiovese, only about 10% of land in Chianti is suitable for viticulture, on south facing slopes. Here they blend it with different grape varieties due to varied ripening each year, but it always makes up the bulk.
Chianti has really improved from the straw covered flasks filled people remember. It’s divided into several areas, with wine labelled simply Chianti blended from the whole region. A great example is ‘Loggia del Conti’, soft with the trademark ripe cherry fruit and a crisp streak of acidity. Light body means it and can be drunk with food as delicate as a peppery salad. Chianti Classico is the traditional heartland, protected by law and including the best vineyards. The ‘San Leonino’ displays the extra complexity that comes from these select sites that are able to ripen the grapes a little more. If you see Riserva on the label, the wine is from the producer’s best grapes. These wines were perfect with the simple duck and truffle linguine from our hotel.
We stayed in Chianti Rufina, a sub zone in the north famous for creating aromatic wines. Frescobaldi ‘Montesodi’ is from the top vineyards there. It’s one of Nicole and my favourite wines, for more than just nostalgic reasons. With fine balance, it gives Brunello a run for its money in terms of concentration and a complex mix of deep mulberry and blackcurrant fruit alongside the trademark herbal, violets and deep mint chocolate notes. The low altitude and nearby rivers create a really elegant and refined wine. It’s fantastic.
South of Sienna, we discovered there was much more to Tuscany than Chianti. The edge of Montepulciano was quite industrial, and after getting lost, we didn’t have time to venture up the hill into the historic town centre. Despite this, it’s impossible to go into the area without trying some Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Like Chianti, this can be blended, but they use as much Sangiovese as possible. The style is a compromise between Chianti and Brunello, with some extra body compared to the former. It lacks some of Brunello’s deep richness, but still has more freshness at a fraction of the price.
Further west, the hilltop town of Montalcino is still surrounded by medieval walls that witnessed battles between the Medici and the Sienese and hasn’t changed much since. This is the home of Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello (the local name for Sangiovese) reliably ripens here so that’s all they use, but they do experiment for wines under other labels. We had an incredible lunch on the balcony of a trattoria. Nicole enjoyed rich rabbit stew and I had boar marinated in Brunello with perfect local gnocchi, accompanied by wines that had evolved alongside the cuisine. Thirsty for more, we headed to Castello di Poggio alle Mura, home of the Banfi winery.
Banfi have grown to produce 10.5m bottles annually, including the wonderfully rich and fruity Pinot Grigio which we stock. However, in exceptional years they also make a Brunello named after the fairytale castello, which kick started my passion for the region. We tasted of it alongside their regular Brunello (slightly softer and less intense) and their supertuscan, ‘Summus’ (a blend of Sangiovese, Cab Sauvignon and Syrah). As a traditionalist in my wine tastes, Nicole did me proud by picking out the Poggio over the Summus. The Poggio alle Mura is a classic Brunello with blackened, burnt fruit and potent heady liquorice aromas. With plenty of swirling in the glass, herbal savoury notes emerge matching the local cuisine especially the rich stews and grilled pork.
Supertuscans are blends of Sangiovese with international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah which used to be illegal in Italy. They were sold as table wines, but at premium prices until the law was changed. All the producers we visited made at least one, with their more approachable, fruity style easier for newcomers to appreciate. They range from the blockbusters such as Sassicia and Ornellia to affordable styles such as our Dogajolo Carpineto which is great for a night in with a rich pasta dish.
While Banfi have a state of the art winery to craft their Brunello, smaller producers make do with little more than a farmhouse. Everywhere we went there were fattorias producing wine alongside honey, pork, olive oil and vegetables. We wandered cellars surrounded by casks of all sizes, where Brunello must spend 48 months prior to release. The small oak barriques from Bordeaux impart lots of flavour and can dominate the wine, so Tuscans use them alongside vessels up to 5-6 hectolitre botti. It’s testament to the wine that after all those years in barrel and dusty bottle, Brunello can still take a further 20 years to fully mature (start drinking after about 5). If you’re less patient, Rosso di Montalcino is released after a year, and it’s great with cheese and dried meats from the deli. Sadly I can’t afford to drink Brunello every night, but Rosso is lighter, not as dark and brooding as its bigger brother.
Tuscany was a wonderfully romantic setting for our honeymoon, we had the relaxation we wanted and learnt lots about its rich history and culture. I was also able to share the variety of Tuscan reds with Nicole, from big expensive monsters that need hours of contemplation to cheaper, easily appreciated wines that are more versatile with food. These are great for a night in, but if you have the money, patience and willingness to try the Brunello and the top Chianti Riservas, you won’t be disappointed.