Bloody marvellous or bullshit and vinegar? Wine tasting in Tuscany

The set-up

Four keen amateur drinkers went on a wine tour in eastern Tuscany. I was one of them.

The tasters

AFD (the appreciator)

AFD is mostly cheerfully enthusiastic. He doesn’t like everything, but he’s really the ideal juror: every wine is presumed innocent until found guilty. The more he drinks, the more courteous and affable he becomes. Catchphrase: “That may be the best wine I’ve ever had.”

JFD (the sceptic)

Despite living part of the year in Tuscany, JFD detests red wine and despises pasta. Tuscany is one of the great red-wine-producing areas of the world and traditionally white wine has been for washing the dishes. When I asked if we could bring anything over for her, she said she’d like some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. (We brought some from duty free.) After I persuaded her to try one of my favourite red wines, she said “It’s like a tramp with a bleeding prostate drank vinegar and pissed it into a glass.” In a cheerful Irish voice it sounded almost beautiful. Catchphrase: “It tastes like piss.”

ST (the prisoner)

ST likes wine but hates expressing an opinion and can rarely be drawn on whether she’s enjoying something. At a tasting she’ll adopt a remote and incalculable expression, as if under interrogation and trying not to give anything away to the enemy. Very occasionally she’ll forget herself and make some outlandish taste comparison, and as often as not it’ll be weirdly on the mark. She may be some sort of untutored and indifferent genius of the palate. Catchphrase: “Mmm hmm.”

PF (the blowhard)

I was supposed to be the one who knows about wine and felt obliged to slip in some telling observations from time to time. If I did this a little hesitantly, it was partly from manners and partly from fear of being exposed as a charlatan; I talk a good game, but have huge gaps and no technical knowledge. Catchphrase: “Are those Slavonian oak casks?”

The place

Starting ten kilometres south-west of Cortona, Arezzo province, Tuscany, with a short tasting-tour of nearby vineyards in the Cortona and Montepulciano wine regions.

Wine regions in Tuscany. Cortona and Montepulciano are in the east. Credit: Society of Wine Educators.

The context—something about Tuscan wine

Writing about Italian wine thirty years ago, Auberon Waugh said “Until recently, they have been reluctant to take wine seriously at all, regarding it rather as the Irish regard potatoes: an inevitable but not very interesting accompaniment to every meal.” At that time, something akin to the current craft beer revolution was happening in Italian winemaking, so it was a backhanded compliment of sorts: things were changing for the better. (It may have been unfair to the Italians, but it was certainly unfair to the Irish; when in the UK, JFD’s mother carries a pocket knife that she uses to cut into supermarket potatoes to check that they’re not too watery, and I remember her bringing three distinct types of “special” potato across from Ireland one year for Christmas dinner.) Old traditions were being revived and reworked; new techniques and equipment were being introduced; there was much experimentation; there was a lot of enthusiasm and seriousness about. Some of the changes didn’t come off, but overall the mix of art, science and gusto resulted in better, more varied and more interesting wines.

Tuscany in particular benefited from this. Two seemingly contradictory things happened: the native grape, the once all-pervasive Sangiovese (red), underwent a renaissance, with more care taken over which variants were cultivated (there are many different “clones”) and how they were used, while other grape varieties were used more, including a number of “international” ones, such as Merlot, Syrah (a.k.a. Shiraz in Australia) and Cabernet Sauvignon. At the same time, more attention was paid to white wine, even if red still dominates. To draw another analogy, it was as if the fusion and artisan/local cuisine movements were running concurrently, sometimes overlapping, sometimes in conflict, often embraced by the same people—many winemakers produce both kinds of wine.

Today there are many beautifully made neo-traditional (like they used to be, but better) and new-style wines available, with a variety that is fantastically difficult to describe. If you had to identify one principle that dominates much of the best winemaking, it would be terroir. This is the idea that a wine should match, suit, express and accommodate the place it comes from. Some of this is easy enough to understand, even if it’s hard to live up to; certain soils, elevations, (micro-)climates, etc suit certain grapes, styles and techniques. There’s sometimes a slightly more mystical aspect: wines should not just express the local geography, but also the character of the land in a broader, less easily defined sense. Here’s a short clip of one of the best Tuscan winemakers talking about how “the wine is always the result of the place”:

In summary: it’s a good time to be going on a Tuscan wine tour, and look out for the differences between places.

Read about the tour

Paul Fishman (Il Toro, June 2014)

Fishman-bucketPaul is a freelance writer, editor and all-round ink-slinger; he’s also the managing editor of Alderman Lushington.

Website: Twitter: @fishmandeville



Credit: the interview with Paolo de Marchi is available on YouTube here and has nothing to do with this author or Alderman Lushington. The interview was posted on YouTube by the Ask a Winemaker channel. de Marchi runs the Isole e Olena estate, one of the best in Chianti. Their Cepparello wine is absurdly good.