The Great Escape to Tuscany

Sometimes I think of my life here and wonder what it’s all really about. I wake up in the morning, in San Francisco, put on my “suit” and walk to work in the Financial District amongst strange varieties of faces and rhythms. Yet we’re all wearing the same suit, walking in the same time, working for the same hours, and then we come home. Tired.

Sometimes I think of the great escape, and for me, it’s Italy. I’m not alone in my daydreams of a villa in Tuscany- books have been written about it, movies made, songs proclaiming its beauty and simplicity of life. It is stunning, with its rolling hills and rows of vines that stretch out over the horizon. The feeling of the warm sun soaking into my skin, reviving my senses, filling me with energy, is enough to make me get up from my chair right now and head for the airport.

Last night I had a little taste of escape. In Tuscany, at one point during the Middle Ages, there were only wine and water to drink. Wine, after bread, was the most in demand with the people. In the 14th century, they drank 419 liters a head, compared to around 60 liters a head per year today. So, needless to say, I would have fit right in during the Middle Ages! But what is impressive, like other parts of Italy during the time wine-making was evolving, was the attention to detail and care in cultivating the “best” wine possible. The Italians are very dedicated to refining the process and getting it “right”.

In Tuscany, particularly, the Italians had a lot of help from the climate. The weather, coupled with the minerals in the soil, are ideal for wine-making. Along the way of discovery, several grape varieties came about: Aleatico, Canaiolo Nero, Ciliegiolo, Colorino, Malvasia Bianca Lunga, Prugnolo Gentile, Vernaccia Di San Gimignano, Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano. All have maturities from late August through the first 3 weeks of October, but most mature at some point in September.

The Aleatico grape variety dates back to 1303, probably coming from Greece originally, but no one knows for sure. It is generally cultivated on the Isle of Elba, and becomes a delightful dessert wine. The Canaiolo Nero also came about in 1303, since it was first mentioned in published writing during that time. In the century between 1870 and 1970, it was the basis for the Chianti Classico blend, along with the Sangiovese. The Canaiolo Nero is not as intense as the Sangiovese, but has much to offer in terms of aroma and fruitiness. The taste is long-lasting and distinguishable on the palate when it is cultivated properly.

The first known documentation of the Ciliegiolo grape variety took place in the early 17th century. It was called “dolce”, which means sweet, and has a very fragrant flavor. Blending well with other grapes, particularly the Sangiovese, it tends to become sizable and warm. Colorino is also mainly used to blend with other varieties, if for no other reason than to add a little color to the wine, as the name would suggest. The berries are actually small to medium sized, with a thick skin that is a deep purple color, almost black.

Malvasia Bianca Lunga goes back several centuries, and is vastly grown on the Chianti hills. Although there is a current restriction on white grapes in the Chianti Classico DOCG, it continues to be an essential for the traditional Vin Santo, a dessert wine also often made with the grape variety Trebbiano Toscano. Prugnolo Gentile (Sangiovese Grosso) dates back prior to the 18th century, and is fundamental to the Montalcino and Montepulciano areas. Its importance is linked to the taste and creation of the famous Brunello wine. In addition, the Vernaccia Di San Gimignano variety, according to written documentation, goes back as far as 1276, although some are certain it arrived before that from either Spain or Greece. It is now exclusively grown in the San Gimignano region.

Personally, I believe that the Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano grape varieties are the most famous. Sangiovese, or Sagiovese Piccolo, has 2 categories. One is a large, sweet grape, also called Brunello di Montalcino. The other type is a smaller, stronger berry, and is mainly used to produce Chianti wines. Together, the Sangiovese is among the oldest grapes in Italy, originating in Tuscany and contributing to some of the best and most well-known wines in Italy. Trebbiano Toscano is of Etruscan origin. The Etruscans were the people who first settled in the region, introducing the art of wine-making. The Trebbiano Toscano was formerly used in the making of Chianti Classico, but now mostly goes into simpler Chiantis, as well as light white wines. It is still a fundamental variety in the traditional Tuscan Vin Santo. Either way, with a lighter version or Chianti Classico, over the years it becomes more and more apparent that Chianti is the signature wine of Tuscany.
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For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.