A Tale of Two Tuscanies

Jun 26, 2009

“To consider the history of wine in Italy is to consider the history of wine itself.”

- Daniel Thomases – American wine writer based in Florence

I have often joked that when men have a mid-life crisis, they go out and buy a motorcycle while women, just as restless in their forties, plan a trip to Tuscany.

Tuscany, or Toscana to the natives, is the great, beating heart of Italy and Italian culture. When we imagine Italy, chances are we don’t always think of the rugged Alps in the north or the rugged, volcanic landscapes of the south. We might think of Venice, its moody canals and dove-lined squares but most of us have a picture of rolling hills, sun-dappled with vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees. We see distant medieval villas and dusty, graveled walks. It is a timeless world and we long to wrap ourselves up in the storied dreams of past centuries, a place that has witnessed the rise and fall of Rome, the passing of the Renaissance and the roaring tide of the Risorgimento.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the renowned Florentine poet who wrote his famed work, The Divine Comedy in the Tuscan vernacular in the early 1300s. Before that time writing Latin was the norm for most scholars and poets. Dante broke new literary ground influencing the Father of Humanism, Franceco Petrarcha (born in nearby Arezzo in 1304, dying near Padua in 1374) and the great storyteller and author of The Decameron, Giovanni Bocaccio (1313-1375). The work of these authors eventually laid the ground for the modern Italian language with Pietro Biempo (1470-1547) creating the first model based on the Tuscan dialect.

So when you are learning Italian for the first time, you are learning the language of poets. And oftentimes, when you take your first sip of Italian wine, you are most likely drinking a wine from Toscana.

Chianti is the name of a specific geographical area between Florence (modern day Firenze) and Siena in Tuscany. Today, one is welcomed by the beauty of endless vineyards but centuries ago these hills were once the scene of gruesome battles between the Florentines and Sienese.

There is a curious legend that in the 13th century, these two rival cities decided to define their area of influence and put an end to the bloodshed. When the cock crowed in both Florence and Siena, horsemen rode out of their cities to meet each other. The devious Florentines, however, starved their cock so it crowed earlier in the morning. “The Florentine riders left the city well before dawn and met their Sienese rivals at Fonterutoli, only 15 kilometers from the walls of Siena” (The New Italy).

The Florentines’ ‘strategy’ paid off as the majority of Chianti fell into their hands. The land is rich with vineyards and olive groves, the climate ideally balanced between the humid winds of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the cooler breezes sweeping down from the north.

Chianti is made up of seven sub-zones that take up half the land of Tuscany. The Classico area is the ‘heartland’ of the Chianti zone and like the other sub-zones, the red wines are based mainly on the Sangiovese grape. It is believed the grape was first cultivated by the Etruscans, the name meaning ‘blood of jove’ (sangue di Giove).

The formula for modern Chianti was born in the wake of the Risorgimento or Resurgence. Its father was the Baron Bettino Ricasoli (1809-80), nicknamed the 'Iron Baron' and the second Prime Minister of the newly unified country.

Italy in the 1860s stood on its own for the first time. The Italian people had long been ruled and bullied in turn by the French, the Austrians and Spaniards. In the nineteenth century, after the fall of Napoleon, a movement evolved to bring the peoples of Italy under one flag. Garibaldi and his Red Shirts were the last great wave. Backed by the Prime Minster of Piedmont-Sardinia, who later became the first leader of Italy, Garibaldi’s army began their expedition in Sicily, moving from south to north fueling solidarity with their patriotic fervor.

Ricasoli, a religious man dedicated to politics and a serious student of agriculture, took up his prime-ministerial position in 1861 after the death of Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour. It was short-lived. He fought incessantly with the king, Victor Emmanuel II who, as Luigi Bazini writes in The Italians was “as aristocratically stubborn as he was.” He shortly resigned, then married soonafter.

Now the Baron was not a handsome man. He was tall and lean, carrying himself with a military bearing. He was also cross-eyed.

One evening he took his young wife, Anna Bonaccusi to a ball in Florence. Recently married and half the Baron’s age, Anna exuded an aura of innocence and desire. She caught the attention of an equally attractive young courtier. The two youths found themselves in each other’s arms for several dances.

The Baron, who had kept his ‘eyes’ on his wife, suspected the worst, approached and tightly grabbed her by arm before the next dance and whispered ominously in her ear “We must leave, my dear.” Anna and the courtier exchanged embarrassed glances.

Outside, Ricasoli called for his carriage. He waited until his wife had gotten inside before telling the coachman to take them to Brolio.

Brolio Castle
Ricasoli needed to assure himself that his wife wouldn’t make a cuckold of him. For the remainder of his life, the pair lived in this lonely, desolate castle in Brolio, a family seat resembling our notion of a Gothic castle. No more balls and blushing cheeks for Anna, unfortunately. Bettino, content to keep his wife and thus his honor, occupied himself by repairing the manor and experimenting in the vineyard.

Through trial and error, he discovered that the Sangiovese grape when paired with the white grape, Canaiolo, created wines destined to be aged while blends based on Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia could be drunk relatively young. Before the ‘Ricasoli formula’, Canaiolo had been slowly emerging as the dominant grape blended with the two reds.

The formula became extremely popular and imitated throughout the region. For most of the late nineteenth and three quarters of the twentieth century Chianti Classico was made up of a maximum of 70% Sangiovese grape, and a minimum 10% from the Canaiolo grape, the rest made up of Malvasia and other varieties.

But that formula has changed and the laws state that up to 15 per cent from international grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah can also be used if the winemaker so desires.

How and when did this happen?

Shortly after the Risorgimento, Phylloxera, the root-eating aphid, began to wreak havoc in Italy. The problem was easily solved as the French already hit upon a solution: grafting rootstocks from American grape vine onto European vines.

The real issue was the extreme poverty of the newly-unified country. Exhausted by wars and fed up with politics, many impoverished Italian immigrants left the country for the United States, Canada, Argentina and Australia.

When the region of Chianti recovered from Phyxlloxera, the remaining growers continued on with Sangiovese but started planting Trebbiano instead of the superior Canaiolo. Trebbiano was easier to grow and produced more grapes. The quality of the wine fell and for decades, Chianti became associated with its straw-covered bottle, the fiasco.

After World War II and with the rise of Communist parties throughout Europe, many peasants who worked the land fled to the cities for better opportunities. These peasants had long been part of a system called the mezzadria in which they worked an estate’s land and gave half their profit to the owners. “Each peasant’s small plot was a hopeless mélange of vines, olive tree, and other crops designed for short term gain” (Decantations). The quality of grapes produced were anything but mediocre.

The abandoned plots were soon consolidated and Sangiovese grew deliberately over vast tracts of vine land. Viewing the landscape of vineyards, the Marchese Piero Antinori felt he and his countryman knew very little about which grapes should grow where. It was a time of change.

The Antinoris, like the Frescobaldis and Ricasolis, belonged to the great upper echelons of Florentine families, their ancestors crossing paths with the likes of Dante and the Medicis. It was Giovanni di Pietro Antinori who first enrolled in the Vintners Guild of Florence in 1385. His family had first established their name in the banking world and moved on to wine (it is also interesting to note that we get our word ‘bank’ from the Italian word for banco - benches/desk – the places where bankers sat to do business in Renaissance times). The Antinori family used their capital to purchase land in order to grow grapes.

Piero’s grandfather, Piero and his brother, Lodovico, founded the modern Antinori firm in 1895. Niccolo, the elder Piero’s son, bought land in Orvieto to extend the house’s commercial network.

But it was Piero Antinori in 1966 that took Italian wine into the twentieth century.

It was obvious that tradition wasn’t working for the Italians. Piero Antinori was convinced that the country needed to free itself from the lower sector of the wine market and step up the quality of wine. They stood behind the French in terms of exports and ashamedly so. Little of the country’s best wines were rarely available outside of Italy, a kind of paradox considering the breadth of the cultivated vine in the peninsula (Italy practically grows grapes everywhere from the slopes of the Alps to Salento in the south).

Good fortune arrived from the north with the appearance of a young Piemontese winemaker. Giacomo Tachis began carrying out experiments in San Casciano and on a smaller property on the Tuscan coast. Piero Antinori met the innovative winemaker and an innovative modern relationship was formed.

To compete with the French, they borrowed a page from them (actually, several pages), using the teachings and techniques of a famous Professor at Bordeaux, Emile Peynaud (1912-2004). Peyaud advised wine makers to pick grapes when fully ripened, to crush the grapes gently and to invest in oak for barrel aging.

Tachis had mastered these and many other of Peynaud’s methods while working with the Cabernet Sauvignon grown on an estate owned by Antinori’s cousin, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta at Bolgheri. But they needed to start with what they knew.

Taking the Chianti formula, Tachis and Antinori simply abandoned Trebbiano and upped the percentage of Sangiovese. It was their first attempt at imitating the great rich, long-lived wines of Bordeaux. It wasn’t just Chianti anymore but an Italian wine with a French twist – they aged the blend in small French oak barrels, imparting an intense complexity to the wine. The resulting wine that appeared in 1971: Tignanello. The wine was the first breakthrough as French barrels had been unheard of Italy. In the vintage that followed in 1975, the make-up of wine was comprised of 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 80% Sangiovese.

Piero Antinori with a glass of Tignanello
An immediate uproar followed the release of this wine. Because Antinori and Tachis ignored the wine laws of the 1960s which specified the Chianti Recipe of Ricasoli and the region, they had to forgo the DOC status (Denominazione di Originie Controllata, an appellation system based on the French wherein the law stipulates the type, percentage and amount of grapes allowed in the region’s wine) and their wines were called vini da tavola or Table Wine. This law had stifled development and creativity for far too long. Instead of drinking a thin, lightly-coloured, oxidized wine, consumers in Italy and the world were treated to an a-typical but glorious offering of strong oak character and rich, charismatic spicy dark fruit.

The Sassicaia (dialect for ‘place of stones’) vineyard of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta on the Bolgheri coast went on to produce a trail-blazing Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wine. One might have called it the first true Italian ‘Bordeaux’. Next door Piero Antinori’s brother, Lodovico, independently created Ornellaia (dialect for ‘place of the ash trees’), also based on Cabernet with a dab of Merlot blended in.

Eventually other winemakers and estates followed suit, forgoing the wine laws for quality. The authorities began to see their dilemma. Wines approved by the DOC designation were selling cheaper than these magnificent, bold and beautiful Super-Tuscan wines which were now fetching handsome prices.

The laws changed in 1992. The Italian ‘wine police’ caved in to create a new category for these wines so, as a result, the IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica status evolved, which provided a designation between DOC and Table Wine. It was also in 1992 that Sassicaia was given its own DOC status, the first of its kind awarded to a single estate (and given grudgingly by the authorities). Since then the laws have been more open to allowing international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah to be part of the Chianti Classico blend. The Ricasoli family (who also make Super Tuscan-style wines) are still at work as are the Antinoris with Pietro’s three daughters taking interest in the business.

Time will tell if Albiera, Allegra and Alessia will forge the same iconoclastic path as their father.

Barzini, Luigi, The Italians. Antheneum, New York, 1996
Cernilli, Daniele & Marco Sabellico, The New Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2008.
Crow, John Armstrong, Italy: A Journey Through Time, Harper & Row, New York, 1965.
D'Epiro, Peter, Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World, Anchor Books, New York, 2001.
Johnston, Hugh, The Story of Wine. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2004.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001.
Prial, Frank J., Decantations. St. Martins’s Press, New York, 2001.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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