Demystifying Tuscan Reds

Banfi vineyards, photo by Kelly Magyarics

Banfi vineyards, photo by Kelly Magyarics

They’re all made in the same region with primarily the same grape. Just what makes them different and what’s trending in the region?

Chianti, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, Rosso de Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino. All are made with the sangiovese grape in Tuscany. But styles and flavors can still vary greatly. How so?

“Sangiovese takes on flavor and character from the soil, so they are all different due to terroir,” explains Cristina Mariani May, CEO and President of Banfi Vintners, which operates Castello Banfi in Montalcino. She goes on to add that the temperature grows warmer the further south you travel in Tuscany, leading grapes to ripen faster and build up more sugar that can be converted to alcohol during fermentation—both of which translate to fuller-bodied wines. “Montalcino is the furthest south and therefore the warmest, so wines tend to be riper, richer and darker in color, with grippier tannins that require more aging time.” On the flip side, Chianti is the furthest north, which accounts for its high acidity, freshness and overall finesse. Roughly in the middle in both location and style is Montepulciano. Of course, Mariani May admits these are broad generalizations that don’t account for microclimates, soils and winemaking techniques.

Also a factor are permitted varietals, she notes. While Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino must be made from 100% sangiovese, Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano can blend in others (up to 10% of canaiolo and up to 25% of cabernet sauvignon, merlot or syrah for the former for example, and 10%-20% of canaiolo and small amounts of local varieties like mammolo for the latter). Wines with only sangiovese usually have lower tannins and higher acidity than those blended with other grapes.

Villa S. Anna, photo by Kelly Magyarics

Villa S. Anna, photo by Kelly Magyarics

What can also be confusing for consumers, according to Simona Fabroni, is the fact that Vino Nobile di Montepulciano shares part of its name with a grape variety from the Abruzzo region of east-central Italy called Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Fabroni, who owns Villa S. Anna Winery in Montepulciano and runs it with her daughters Anna and Margherita, produces a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, but it doesn’t make its way to the U.S. Her Rosso di Montalcino does, however. She refers to it as a “daily wine” pair-able with pasta, roasted meat and smoked salmon; ditto for her “complex and full-bodied” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is perfect with cheese, game and meat. Fabroni’s Chianti Colli Senesi hails from one of Chianti’s eight sub-zones (and considered by many to be the most important after the Classico region because of its high quality soil.) “Our Chianti Classico Senesi is an easy and fresh wine, it is perfect chilled as an aperitif,” Fabroni touts.

Villa S. Anna lies outside the production area for Brunello di Montalcino; but Ruffino produces one at its Greppone Mazzi estate. The style, chief winemaker Gabriele Tacconi describes, “often has intense aromas of red fruit perfectly amalgamated with velvety tannins and wonderful balsamic, chocolate and tobacco notes.” And Banfi Vintners is actually credited with introducing Americans to Brunello di Montalcino in the 1970s after John Mariani imported bottles from Biondi-Santi wines from their most lauded estate Il Greppo. Eventually, Banfi funded and built an estate, Castello Banfi and began making its own Brunello.

Winemaking has changed in the region since that time, Mariani May notes. “Tuscan winemakers are embracing technology, something we didn’t see when we came into Montalcino in 1978,” she says. Castello Banfi was among the first to apply modern techniques and scientific research in the vineyards; they shared their findings and practices with their neighbors and today many have become the norm.

Montepulciano, photo by Kelly Magyarics

Montepulciano, photo by Kelly Magyarics

Still, Tuscan wine labeling continues to vex some wine drinkers. Take the oft-used term “Super Tuscan”, for example, which is employed as a catchall for any wine that isn’t DOC or DOCG and is generally used on labels to describe sangiovese wines blended with grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. It can be difficult for some to understand why they should pay upwards of $100 for one Super Tuscan versus $12 for another. She likens it to the ubiquitous use of “old vines” in California. “Without a clear definition, it makes wine more confusing for the consumer.”

And another challenge Tacconi says is fighting the misconception that Tuscan reds are overly acidic. While those vinified with 100% sangiovese do tend to have a decent line of acidity, it can be what adds to a fresh mouthfeel, food friendliness and age-ability. If it’s too much for your palate, he recommends seeking out Tuscan reds blended with cab or merlot which tend to soften their edges.“It’s like the difference between a Ferrari (sangiovese) and a Rolls Royce (Super Tuscan sangiovese blends); any car you’ll want to drive you’ll find it in Tuscany!”

Wines to try:

Banfi cellar, photo by Kelly Magyarics

Banfi cellar, photo by Kelly Magyarics

Ruffino Greppone Mazzi Brunello di Montalcino ($80), a wine with intense aromas of ripe plums, cassis, cherry, cocoa and black pepper and a full-bodied palate with persistent tannins and red fruit, chocolate and sweet tobacco on the long finish.

Ruffino Modus Toscana IGT ($24.99), a Super Tuscan blend of sangiovese, merlot and cabernet sauvignon with aromas of red and black cherries and plums and blackberries along with spices and a touch of balsamic. This wine shows a full-bodied palate with silky tannins and a hint of cocoa.

Villa S. Anna Chianti Colli Senesi ($15), a fresh and lively wine made with 90% sangiovese, 5% merlot and a small percentage of canaiolo, mammolo and colorino. It can even be served slightly chilled as an aperitif.

Villa S. Anna Rosso di Montalcino ($18), a versatile bottle made with 80% sangiovese and the remainder cabernet sauvignon, merlot, canaiolo, mammolo and colorino that would be the perfect house red wine. Serve it with first and second courses of traditional Italian cuisine or with seasoned cheeses.

Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino ($34.99), an offering with intense ruby red in the glass with expressive aromas and a full, soft, velvety palate with licorice and spices and a long aging potential. Try it with red meat, game and aged cheeses. 

Castello Banfi Cum Laude ($37.99), the producer’s newest Super Tuscan—made with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sangiovese and syrah from Montalcino—has aromas of blackberries, plum jam, cherries and licorice with hints of black olive and tobacco. A powerful body and wide, soft tannins shows its elegance.

Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico Riserva 2015 ($29.99), a relative bargain for this prestigious region, this wine, named for a medieval castle, is from a producer that has been making wine in the region for centuries. This versatile, medium-bodied, beauty with warm, dark cherry, espresso and slight wintergreen notes is as ideal for a fancy, home-cooked steak dinner as it is for a casual pizza takeout.

Renzo Masi ll Bastardo Sangiovese di Toscana ($9), a 100% sangiovese wine with grapes grown primarily in the Rufina district that does not fall into any of the top regional categories can still offer terrific bang for the buck. Here’s a juicy, lighter style with enough tannic grip to give it some intrigue and even a bit of cellar-worthyness. The label features young Rubio, a character who enjoys a steady diet of pizza, pasta and burgers, and that’s just what you’ll crave when you sip this party-friendly red.