The Three Tuscan Masters

Recently, I had the pleasure of joining Mary Ewing Mulligan, MW, and Ed McCarthy in presenting three days of seminars and tastings called I Tre Maestri Toscani. I hasten to say that the three of us were not the three Tuscan masters in question. They were the wine of Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino – the three greatest Sangiovese-based wines in this or any nearby galaxy.

Mary, Ed, and I all attended each day, even though each day a different one of us led the presentation. We were able to kibbitz, comment, question, and generally keep the discussion open and inclusive, loose but still focused. It was a treat for the three of us to be able to exchange ideas with each other and with our excellent audience of serious but not solemn wine professionals.

This all took place at Mary’s International Wine Center in New York City, and she – as host and chief organizer of the event – opened the first day’s session with the toughest task facing us. She had first to explain the complex situation of Sangiovese, the grape of a thousand personalities, and then to explain the smallest, least-known, and in many respects most difficult of the appellations, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Mary began by pointing out that Sangiovese doesn’t easily mutate, as do Pinot noir and Nebbiolo, but it is highly adaptive to specific environments, and that as a result of massal selection over the years, certain differentiations become set. The daunting statistics: there are multiple genetically specific strains of Sangiovese (genotypes), and there are even more strains that differ in physical traits (biotypes) – plus strains that have adapted to specific environments (phenotypes). The Tuscan biotypes include 47 strains – 22 in the Chianti Classico zone, 5 in Montepulciano, and 22 more in Montalcino.

Beyond that, individual strains of Sangiovese vary tremendously in characteristics that are crucial to making high-quality wine – berry weight, anthocyanin content, sugar accumulation – and their resulting wines vary even more in sugar content (ergo, alcohol), acidity, anthocyanin content (ergo color), tannin content, and the ability of the tannins to polymerize. The enormous Chianti Classico 2000 project identified and tested 239 clones of Sangiovese, which it eventually winnowed down to 7 recommended for Chianti Classico.

Even then, the situation doesn’t simplify: once planted, any of these clones or phenotypes begins adapting to its environment, a process that over the years may end up with a vine very different from the one that was initially planted. As Mary said, quoting Professor Mario Bertolucciolo of the University of Florence, producing a wine from Sangiovese is an “erratic and uncertain venture.”

She was able to illustrate a lot of that intense variability with Vino Nobile, which, even though it by far the smallest of the three zones under discussion, with the smallest number of producers, nevertheless produces wines of widely varying character and style. This is in part because the Vino Nobile DOCG is very flexible: it allows anywhere from 70 to 100 percent of the blend to come from Prugnolo Gentile (the local name for Sangiovese), and the balance to be either indigenous grapes (for example, Canaiolo or Colorino) or international varieties (chiefly Cabernet or Merlot).

Mary made a telling comparison of Montepulciano with St. Emilion in Bordeaux: The two are alike in being a little rustic, highly varied in output, and perhaps the least attuned to modern tastes. Certainly Vino Nobile, which at its best she described as soft-focused and gentle, always reaching for elegance, seems miles distant from the in-your-face New World wines that dominate so much of the market. Significantly, of all the wines we tasted that day, the panel and the participants preferred the very traditional example (80% Prugnolo, 10% Canaiolo, 10% Colorino) from Contucci, a house with a 500-year-long history in Montepulciano.

Vino Nobile vineyard

Day Two began with Ed McCarthy running through the very checkered history of Chianti Classico. From once being the only Chianti, it endured the appropriation of its name by imitators in nearby zones. In 1924, Chianti Classico producers banded together to form Italy’s first consortium, precisely to protect the uniqueness of its wine and name – only to face, in 1932, governmental wisdom decreeing that there were in fact now seven zones entitled to the name Chianti, of which the oldest, henceforth to be known as Chianti Classico, was merely one. The rest of Chianti Classico’s 20th-century history can be summed up in the struggle to distinguish itself from the other zones and to reclaim its uniqueness, which it now has won back with the granting of its own DOCG.

Ed spoke of the changes in Chianti Classico’s production code over the past 40 years, as producers broke with the old Ricasoli formula and moved toward a more modern, more serious wine. The Ricasoli formula mandated some white grapes in the blend, which were a serious impediment to making a wine suitable for aging. (In fairness, the formula was only ever meant to produce a wine for immediate drinking: Its extension to a general formula for all Chianti was once again courtesy of government regulation.) The now-disappearing SuperTuscans – wines that deliberately broke the formula and hence lost the right to call themselves Chianti Classico – were an important prod in pushing Chianti Classico into the modern era.

The tasting part of Ed’s session showed once again the amazing variety that Sangiovese is capable of. The wines ranged from 100% Sangiovese to 80% Sangiovese (the minimum amount now allowed) plus 10% Merlot, 5% Colorino, and 5% Cabernet and Canaiolo – very different from each other, but all recognizably Chianti Classico in their black cherry fruit and vivid acidity. My own favorite of the day was the small producer (about 18,000 bottles) Castello di Paneretta, a 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo wine that showed lovely fruit, a soft body still marked by lively acidity, and dark cherry and tobacco flavors on the palate and in the finish – to my mind, a classic Chianti.

Next Post (or the one after that): Day Three: Brunello di Montalcino

2 Responses to “The Three Tuscan Masters”

  1. Elaine Says:

    great follow-on to your James Suckling critique

  2. Sean Antoniello Says:

    Excellent seminar! Looking forward to the post on your day, and my favorite wines! Thanks again!

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