7 TOP TIPS ON HOW TO TASTE TUSCAN WINE - RIGHT AT THE WINERY

From time to time I'm asked by people who have very limited time in Italy, which one winery is an absolute must see in Tuscany. My answer is simple: none. 

You've got no more than an hour in Siena? Spend it with an aperitif on Piazza del Campo. Your husband can't handle more than one museum in Florence? It will have to be the Uffizi then. But asking a similar question in regard to Tuscan wine just doesn't work. Luckily, I'd say. 

Looking for the one and only may have made sense when travelling Tuscany in the 60s or 70s, at a time when a handful of vineyards towered above all the others. However, in the last 50 years the region has undergone massive transformation in regard to wine making. Thousands of new wineries have opened up and the production philosophy of most of the old ones has moved from quantity to quality. 


Monteccuo DOCG vineyard in Southern Tuscany
Montecucco DOCG vineyard
 Maremma alta in Southern Tuscany


Check any Italian wine guide and you'll read that Tuscany continues to be rated second right after Piedmont in regard to top wines produced. These two Italian regions have a quality-winery per square meter ratio that is mind-blowing. At the moment (November 2012) Tuscany sports 11 DOCG and around 35 DOC areas and the numbers keep raising from year to year. DOCG, short for denominazione d'origine controllata e garantita, is the highest and most restrictive appellation in Italy right now. DOC, denominazione d'origine controllata comes second on the ladder. A wine area has to be in the DOC appellation system for at least five years before getting the right to apply for the DOCG appellation (which it will only get if the majority of wines produced in the area are of high quality). 

Considering that I already have a hard time counting out all the DOC and DOCG areas in Tuscany, how are we supposed to single out one or maybe two vineyards? A while ago I've written my personal top 10 list of Brunello di Montalcino wineries. It took me forever. Not just because of all the drinking involved. The thing is, the more time you spend among Tuscan wines, the harder it gets to choose any favorite one. 


Vines and olive trees in Southern Tuscany
Olive trees and vines. The main ingredients of Tuscany's countryside

Nevertheless, even if it's impossible to select a primus inter pares Tuscan vineyard, you have to start somewhere. My tips below should help you narrowing down the choice for a good winery visit. It's a bit like with beautiful villas in Tuscany. Or with great olive oil. Or stunning churches. Or wonderful beaches. Tuscany is chockablock with all of them. Which must be the reason, why people keep coming back. 


7 TOP TIPS FOR CHOOSING A WINERY VISIT IN TUSCANY


1 - SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
Choosing a small winery for your visit is some of the best advice I have. No false romanticism here. Big wineries can be organic, and small wineries use tractors too. Both of them can produce high or poor quality wine. However, there are three things I especially like about visits at smaller wineries. 

  • There is no marketing department specializing in PR and winery visits. The person who takes you around, is often the owner or somebody who is closely involved in most processes taking place in the winery (harvest, vinification, cork selection, PR, sales, and so on). Personally, I always enjoy talking to the people who get their hands dirty. 
  • Visits are tailor made. You're likely to be on your own during the tasting. In any case no big tour groups will be part of the visit. 
  • The big Tuscan producers (Banfi, Frescobaldi or Antinori to name but a few) can be found in every corner of the world. So let's taste them once back home and save the time in Tuscany to get to know wines that can't be found that easily where you live. Unless you have plenty of time in Tuscany. At that point visit one too will be interesting to compare the different realities. 

2 - STAY CLOSE, TASTE LOCAL
Chances are that your Tuscan villa is sitting right in a DOC or DOCG area. In any case it can't but be close to one. So don't travel from one corner of Tuscany to the other (something that can take up to three hours). Ask your host for the name of DOC and DOCG areas close by and study their rules (most of them have a website of the local vintner's consortium or at least a wiki site) and explore the vineyards in front of your doorstep before venturing further afield. This will also make things easier after the tasting. Remember, unless you travel with a teetotaler, somebody will have to stir you safely back through the undulating Tuscan hills.

And think before coming out. No point in renting a Tuscan villa near Pisa if you're mad for Brunello di Montalcino or Chianti Classico wines. If you're already in love with one particular wine area, make sure you're holidaying in the midst of it.

3 - GRAPE VARIETY
You're infatuated with claret? Fair enough. French grape varieties have been an important ingredient in the more recent raise to fame of Tuscan wine. The Super Tuscan movement started out with wines - often designated not DOC or DOCG but IGT - mainly made up by Cabernet, Merlot or other French grape varieties (a good example of this is famous Sassicaia). However you don't know about Tuscan wine, unless you have met the real hero of Tuscany's indigenous grape varieties: Sangiovese is king, so you better pay him some attention! 

4 - THINK QUALITY BUT ALSO QUANTITY
Gambero Rosso Italian Wines guidebook In case you'll plan to ship a few bottles home, take into account the immense price difference between some of Tuscany's wines. Buying a case o Tignanello, Biondi Santi or Ornellaia might quickly burst the limits of your holiday budget. Ask villa owner or hotel staff for advice about wineries, which don't cater to millionaires only. And consult one or the other wine guide. Gambero Rosso has an English version of its very extensive Italian wines guide (see link to the right), but Veronelli and Espresso's Vini d'Italia or the new Slow Wine guide (also available as an iphone app) are also worth checking out if you can get by with a little Italian. 



5 - WINERY VS. WINE SHOP 
Nothing nicer than uncorking a bottle of Tuscan red back home whilst telling your friends about the divine tasting you had at - yes, exactly the estate that bottle came from.
Every winery has a different feel to it. Vines and wines are the main ingredient, but people, location and architecture (old or new) are right next. Your tasting adventure starts once you're driving along that cypress lined alley leading to a medieval castle - or along that potholed dirt track taking you to a small winery with the most amazing view.

However, if your aim is to taste plenty of Tuscan wines in as little time as possible - go for a wine shop (called enoteca in Italian). Any medium sized Tuscan city will have a good selection of them. If you're holidaying near Siena go for the Enoteca Italiana. Its location in Siena's Medici fortress is worth a visit on its own, but it also offers a great overall selection of Italian wines if you plan to taste beyond Tuscany's borders.  

6 - COMBINE YOUR LIKES
Do you have a soft spot for contemporary architecture? You'd probably enjoy a visit at one of Tuscany's wine cathedralsOr is your Tuscan villa just far too nice to ever be left alone? Do the tasting poolside. A selection of wine professionals (in Italy normally called Sommeliers) will bring along the wines for you to taste. And as you're at it, what is wine without food? Go the whole nine yards and book a cooking lesson too (Jul's Kitchen is my favorite one if you're based between Florence and Siena). You don't care about cooking but always enjoy some smart talk? Spend an afternoon tasting and learning about wines at a Tuscan wine tasting school.

7 - TRUST YOURSELF
With all the wine rating going on nowadays, it's easy to forget that each of us is his or her own master of wine. Your favorite Tuscan wine didn't get 95 out of 100 by Suckling, Parker or any of the other wine gurus? Dare to stand up for your taste buds. Drink what you want, stay curious and open-minded and enjoy every sip of it. 




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