Lesson 16 – Central Italy

Browse By

***Switched to the blip.tv player until I can resolve the syncing issue with Viddler***

Sommelier School

Lesson 16 – Central Italy

The heart of Italy is where we are going this week. This is the home of Chianti. One of the most well known of Italian wines. Images of straw-encased bottles of wine in Italian restaurants come to mind to many people. And while that stereotype holds a grain of truth, it is not all that comes from this area.

Let us briefly cover the main areas of this week’s discussion. This week we will be talking about Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Emilia-Romagna, Abruzzo, and the Marche. Of all of these areas, Tuscany is the best known to most people. This is the home of Chianti among other wines.

Climate and soil are what we normally talk about next. The middle part of Italy has a much milder climate than the North. With warmer summers and milder winters, ripening of the grapes becomes easier. And obviously the farther south you go, the warmer the climate. There is also less danger of damaging hail.

However, this part of Italy isn’t just flat plains. The Apennines nearly bisect the country.  This provides longer ripening the higher you go with vineyards as high as approximately 2300ft for white grapes and 1800ft for reds. However, the plains in the Emilia-Romagna region are also heavily planted.

As with most of Italy, the soil is a mixture of many types. The western side of the Apennines has soil composed of gravel, limestone, and clay. Tuscany specifically will have a soil known as galestro which is a schist-based soil. Remember that this is soil made of up many minerals such as mica, chlorite, talc, and graphite. The eastern side of the mountains tend to have more alluvial (silt, sand, and clay)containing granite, and limestone.

For the first region, we’ll cover the most famous – Tuscany. Chianti is what most people know. The wine is named after the region, not the varietal in this case. Chianti is based on the Sangiovese varietal. Sometimes you may here it referred to as Sango, or Sanjo. This varietal is also responsible for the majority of red wines made in all of Tuscany. It is either the sole varietal, or combined with others. No matter what, this is the red varietal you need to remember when talking about Tuscany. The other important native red varietal to remember here is Canaiolo as it is often mixed with Sangiovese depending on the DOC.


Description: Map of Tuscany

Source: Own Work

Author: Gigillo83

Chianti is automatically a DOCG no matter what kind. With that said, being a DOCG doesn’t automatically denote great quality. Over the years, the empty straw-encased bottles of Chianti with candles stuck in them have equated this wine with being cheap in quality. And while much of the Chianti DOCG does hold up to that description, there are others that do not. To help with this bad rap, there are two other DOCGs here. They are Chianti Classico and Chianto Classico Riserva. In general, if a Chianti is from either of these two areas, you are very likely going to encounter a wine of quality. Especially if it is a Riserva.

There are also eight sub-zones of Chianti that can apply their names to the label. These are:

  • Chianti Rufina
  • Colli Fiorentini
  • Classico
  • Colli Arentini
  • Colli Senesi
  • Colline Pisane
  • Montespertoli
  • Montalbano

The original blend of Chianti is attributed to Baron Bettino Ricasoli from the middle of the 19th Century, who later became the Prime Minister of Italy. This blend is 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo, and 15% Malvasia Bianca. The first defined area was created in 1716. In 1932, the Chianti region was revised and expanded. In 1996 the blend legally allowed was changed for Chianti. It is now 75-90% Sangiovese, 5- 10% Canaiolo, 5-10% Trebbiano and Malvasia Bianca, and up to 10% other varietals. In 2006 the blend for Chianti Classico was changed to be 80-100% Sangiovese, and up to 20% Canaiolo or Colorino and “international” varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. In 2006 the regulations also banned the use of white varietals in Classico.

Other aspects of Chianti/Chianti Classico DOCG regulations are below:

  • Aging in oak barrels: minimum of 4 months, 7 for Classico
  • Maximum production of 70 hectoliters, 52.5 for Classico
  • Minimum alcohol is 11.5%, 12% for Classico, 12.5% for Riserva

In addition to the above, Chianti Classico DOCG has the following regulations:

  • New vineyards can only begin production four years after planting
  • Production per vine can be no more than 6.6 pounds (3kg)
  • All operations must be done within the Classico zone
  • The wine must undergo chemical testing and a tasting
  • It can only be released after October 1st of the year following the harvest.
  • Riserva has to mature for at least 24 months, including at least 3 in the bottle.
  • Color must be a bright ruby-red to garnet with maturation
  • Bouquet must have a scent of violets
  • Palate needs to be balanced, dry, lightly tannic and sapid (pleasing)
  • No more than 4g/l of sugar
  • Minimum net dry extract of 23 g/l
  • Minimum acidity of 4.5ppt (parts per thousand)

So a lot of extra stuff to know for the Classico. The Net Dry Extract part is a new one to me. What that means is what how much Dry Extract is left over in a centrifuge after all of the liquid is removed. There are also regulations for the other sub-zones, however for our purposes we won’t go into them. Suffice to say they are similar to Classico.

So what about Super-Tuscans? Ok, so there was this wine called Sassicaia produced by this guy named Mario Incisa della Rochetta (he was a Marquis by the way) decided to upset the apple cart in 1948. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines imported from Bordeaux (supposedly from Chåteau Lafite-Rothschild). He used French oak barrels, which was unheard of in this part of Italy. Normally they used Slovenian oak or chestnut casks. Over time, this wine improved (early attempts weren’t the best).

In 1971 a wine called Tignanello was put out by a gentleman named Piero Antinori. It was as blend of Sangiovese with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine sparked what would eventually become known as Super-Tuscans. The problem with this wine is that since it did not follow the approved DOC (back then Chianti was a DOC) formula for Chianti, it couldn’t be called one. So it could only be labeled vini da tavola. In other words, table wine; the lowest level of wine.

However, this wine, and others that followed it were anything but ordinary table wine. These wines were considered better than the DOC wines. Especially since the DOC wines back then were not considered very good to begin with. So with the introduction of Super-Tuscans the wine makers also worked on improving their DOC Chiantis. It wasn’t unusual for a winemaker to have both a Chianti and a Super-Tuscan. Even though Super Tuscans could be a DOCG in today’s Italy, the winemakers are satisfied to use the current IGT classification.

All of this alone might set your head spinning. But there’s more here in Tuscany. Specifically we will cover two more areas. These are Montalcino and Montepulciano. Their DOCGs are Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG. These two areas are neighbors south of the Chianti area. Both use clones of the Sangiovese varietal; Brunello for the first and Prugnolo Gentile for the second. 

For the Montalcino wines, these are considered the Barolos of Tuscany. These are 100% Brunello (aka Sangiovese). Big, bold wines that need lots of aging. The typical method for these wines was to have a long fermentation process. Then they would age for years in Slovenian oak casks. After that, decades in the bottle. These are not wines for the likes of people like us. These are the wines for those that can afford the best. Today, these wines may not be aged as long, but they still must have at least two years of oak aging and 4 additional months in bottle.

In 1984 a second “lower” DOC known as Rosso di Montalcino was created. This DOC allowed the winemakers in the area to create a more approachable wine. It doesn’t go through the same lengthy aging process. It is required to have at least 6 months of aging in oak barrels and a total of 1 year aging before it can be released.  The winemakers can also “declassify” wine that was destined to be Brunello that had been aging for 2-3 years to Rosso if it wasn’t living up to expectations. 

Montepulciano, Montalcino’s neighbor to the east, produces it’s own Sangiovese-based wine. Again, it’s the local variant known as Prugnolo Gentile. A minimum of 70% of this varietal is used. In addition to Sangiovese, you will find 10-20% Canaiolo. Also, small amounts of other local varietals can be used to make up any difference. These are not as big and bold as the wines from their neighbors to the west. They only require a minimum of one year of oak barrel aging. There is also a Rosso di Montepulciano DOC here for wines that are more approachable.

The last part of Tuscany is the Carmignano DOC/DOCG and Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG. Both are small appellations that you may encounter occasionally. Carmignano is another Sangiovese-based wine. However, it also will contain Canaiolo Nero and Blanco, Cabernet Sauvignon, Trebbiano, Malvasia, Mammolo, and Colorino. Many of these are part of the Chianti formula both past and present so it will be similar to a Chianti. Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a dry white wine from the Vernaccia varietal. For some added trivia, it was the first wine in Italy to receive the DOC classification in 1966.

Next on the Agenda are Umbria and Lazio. These two regions are to the south of Tuscany. Umbria’s “claim to fame” is Orvieto. Most likely you will encounter whites from this region. Orvieto is normally a dry white wine. Historically they were known as a sweeter wine. While sweet and semi-sweet wines are still made albeit in small quantities. The two main varietals used are Grechetto and Trebbiano. These two are also blended with Malvasia, Drupeggio, Verdello, and Canaiolo Bianco. Red wines are also made under the Rosso Orvietano DOC.

Description: Map of Umbria

Source: Own Work

Author: Gigillo83

For Lazio, the Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC is pretty much all we need to even remember at this level. These are also dry to semi-sweet white wines. The main varietals are Trebbiano and Malvasia. The story behind the name is that Montefiascone is the location where Bishop Johann Fugger’s majordomo found a wine so good he marked it Est! Est!! Est!!! This was to indicate the best wine the majordomo had found on a reconnaissance trip to Rome. It was shorthand for Vinum est bonum (Wine is good). When the Bishop arrived he agreed and stayed in the area for the rest of his life. I only included this for the story and nothing else.


Description: Map of Lazio

Source: Own Work

Author: Gigillo83

OK, so you ready to tackle the other side? Time to move to the East. We have 3 areas to briefly cover; Emilia-Romagna, Abruzzo, and The Marches. First we will talk about Emilia-Romagna. I only bring up this region as it is where most Lambrusco originates. The Lombaridia region to the north (technically part of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia IGT) also produces some Lambrusco. The Lambrusco varietal has several clones and sub-varietals. Wines from here are typically described as frothy. It is a red wine (though white and rosés can be found) that ranges from barely frizzantino to spummante. Remember that frizzante/frizzantino is a lightly sparkling wine and supmmante is a full-on sparkler. A dry version can be found too. In the U.S. during the 70s and 80s it became the largest selling imported wine.


Description: Map of Emilia-Romagna

Source: Own Work

Author: Gigillo83

On to Abruzzo, aka The Abruzzi. Here the name to remember is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC. Not to be confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to the West. These wines are made from the Montepulciano varietal rather than the Prugnolo Gentile (Sangiovese clone) varietal grown in the town of Montepulciano. Get it? Yeah, I know it’s confusing. Welcome to Italy. In addition to using the Montepulciano varietal, wines can have up to 15% Sangiovese. Yeah, that makes it more confusing, right? You will encounter two styles from here. One will be fuller and softer while the other will be firm and tannic.


Description: Map of Abruzzo

Source: Own Work

Author: Gigillo83

Finally we come to The Marches (aka Marche). Here the name to remember is Verddiccio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC. Made from the Verdicchio varietal that is originally from this area. Wine from this varietal has been made here since the Roman Era. The town of Jesi had several castelli in it, hence the name. The wines are normally a crisp, dry white. However frizzantino – spummante versions are made. These wines can also have up to 15% of Malvasia and Trebbiano.


Description: Map of Marche

Source: Own Work

Author: Gigillo83

OK, so did you get all of that? Again, another lesson full of tons of information. Tuscany and Chianti alone is a lot to absorb. Just remember that Tuscan wines are all about Sangiovese (and its clones) at first. Then get into the details after that.

We will finish Italy in the next lesson. Southern Italy and Sicily will be our topics. After that we will travel to Germany. It’s more than Rieslings there.

As always, a HUGE Thank You to everyone that watches and reads these lessons. I’m always amazed at how many people watch these lessons. Almost as many as watch the reviews and that is very humbling. And while I may go a couple weeks between lessons, the fact that so many do watch is the inspiration to keep this going.

As a side note, I’m also considering talking the CSW test offered by the Society of Wine Educators. It’s a bit cheaper overall than the Sommelier Exam. So I’m planning on both, but the CSW might come first. It’s a matter of timing. Here is the link to their website: Society of Wine Educators. And just incase you haven’t visited the Court of Master Sommeliers, then click here.


Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training


One thought on “Lesson 16 – Central Italy”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: