As we returned home, I swore that I would be happy in life if we started skipping dinner and just making a meal of meats, cheeses, and some fine Italian wine. Of course, it is hard to get the same delicious, freshness that you can find in the Tuscan countryside, but we can try.
We are starting with shipping home two cases of the best Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino that we tasted when we were in Italy. Next is finding the right accompaniments.
Choosing Tuscan Wines
First, let’s talk about how to choose the wine. Tuscany is Italy’s 6th largest wine producer and red wine accounts for 85% of the region’s production. The wines of Tuscany are primarily made from the Sangiovese grape, the dominant varietal of the region and one that is extremely versatile when pairing with food due to substantial, but not overwhelming, tannins (as compared to Cabernet Sauvignon), vibrant acidity and notes of cherry and herbs. There has been a lot of talk recently about “Super Tuscans,” which are made from a blend of grapes that may include Sangiovese but are often pumped with more tannin-forward grapes such as Cabernet and Syrah, or Merlot.
But the classical reds that are the true stars of Tuscany are Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (not to be confused with the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which is from the South of Italy and made from the Montepulciano grape, not Sangiovese.) These are all DOCG wines, which stands for denominazione di origine controllata garantita. This means they are wines from specific appellations that adhere to the rules of that governing body.
We took a Tuscany wine tour in the town of Montepulciano, where we had vertical tastings of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and visited wine cellars set deep in the walls of the city. The Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is made from the Sangiovese clone known as Prugnolo Gentile and is the top-tier of wine from this region. Of course, you have the different vintages and the Riserva, which can take the flavor and complexity to new heights. The younger wines of the same grapes are the Rosso di Montepulciano. While the Rossos can be great table wine, if you are looking at doing a wine and cheese pairing where the flavor of the wine really stands out, I would recommend staying with the Vino Nobile.
On our trip, we stayed in Montalcino, a relatively small tract of land, yet home to over 200 wineries. We did a number of wine tastings in Montalcino of Rosato, Rosso di Montalcino, Super Tuscans, and, of course, the exquisite Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello di Montalcino is made from a specific clone of Sangiovese grape known as Sangiovese Grosso. According to law, the wine can only be sold after five years of ageing, partially in wood barrels. Just like the Vino Nobile, the Brunello is the cream of the crop if you really want to focus on the wine.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit Chianti on this trip. We could spend a week just exploring the small towns of Chianti and spend a few days in Florence, but that will have to wait until next time. However, with all the Chianti options to choose from, go with the Chianti Classico, or splurge on a Chianti Classico Riserva, which offer some amazing values.
For those looking for something sweet, Vin Santo is a perfect dessert or aperitif wine, made from partly-dried grapes and aged in small wooden barrels. I will never forget the first time I tried Vin Santo. We had stopped into a small ristorante in Florence at the encouraging of other patrons. This was about 17 years ago, before Italy moved over to the Euro. The owner spoke very little English and we only knew a little Italian. He kept bringing us course after course and at the end of the meal, he was so proud to present us with a glass of Vin Santo. The whole time we were enjoying the food we were nervous about what it was going to cost. In the end, it only ended up being around $30-40 for the meal. Those were the days! Today, I would try a Vin Santo del Chianti Classico to represent that region in Tuscany in my samplings.
While Tuscany isn’t really known for its whites, if you want to please the white wine lovers in the crowd, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the stand out from this region and is the area’s first white DOCG wine. Tuscany is also well known for great Vermentino from its coastal regions.
Tuscan Wine and Cheese Pairings
To put together a Tuscan wine and cheese pairing at home, I would recommend starting with the best wines and then finding the cheese and accompaniments that complement the natural notes in the wine. Some recommendations are below.
White Wine: Vernaccia di San Gimignano
I would start with a white wine and choose the Vernaccia di San Gimignano. This wine varies in intensity and its golden highlights become more evident with aging. It is rich on the nose, with notes of wild apple, white flowers, almond, grapefruit and pineapple. Over time, it can evolve into mineral notes. It is dry and pleasantly acidic on the palate, with a finish that offers hints of almond.
I would suggest pairing this with some young Pecorino cheese, and I don’t mean the salty Pecorino Romano that you can find in most grocery stores. Look for Pecorino from the town of Pienza. It is a far less salty, well-rounded sheep’s milk cheese. The aged Pienza-based Pecorinos have more saltiness to them similar to a Manchego, but still well shy of the salt level of the Pecorino-Romano. You can always buy Pecorino Toscano online and ship it home!
Red Wine: Brunello di Montalcino
The ruby-red Brunello di Montalcino has intensity and appreciable depth. On the nose you will pick up fragrances of red fruit and perhaps spices and brushwood. The Brunello features lively tannins, with a fruitiness and acidity that offers robust sensations on the palate.
A Brunello di Montalcino pairs nicely with ripe or medium-aged cheeses such as Grana Padano, Parmigiano Reggiano, and aged Pecorino (either Toscano or Sardo). Whichever you choose, pick something with strong, mature flavors. This might be a good time to also sample a truffle cheese, such as a Pecorino with Truffles.
If you’re hungrier than just cheese, the Brunello also has the depth and tannins to work with steak or local pasta dishes featuring wild boar (like pappardelle al ragu di cinghiale, sometimes made with pici, a thicker, longer spaghetti dating back to Etruscan times.)
Red Wine: Vino Nobile Montepulciano
The Vino Nobile di Montepulciano tends towards garnet and offers fragrances of dried flowers, raspberry, oriental spices and vanilla. The Vino Nobile is warm and smooth on the palate, with woody hints and significant tannins.
A Vino Nobile pairs with aged, hard cheeses such as the Pecorino Toscano, but you could also try a strong-flavored softer cheese such as a Taleggio or Fontina. Pate would also be a good accompaniment for the Vino Nobile.
Sweet Wine: Vin Santo del Chianti Classico
Vin Santo del Chianti Classico is golden or amber in color, although the Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice is more of soft to intense pink. You will pick up aromas of raisin, dried fig, and apricot. The flavor is full-bodied, sweet and smooth with a finish reminiscent of fig, honey, apricot, and almond and is velvety on the palate.
Vin Santo pairs well with a sharp, very ripe, or peppery cheese including Pecorino Romano. Since Vin Santo shares some characteristics with sherry or port, you can also try it with a semi-soft, ripe cheese with lots of flavor like a Gorgonzola or Taleggio. Of course, it is also delicious with pate, chocolate, and biscotti.
I always recommend finding a great local wine purveyor that really knows Italian wine to make recommendations. And then the fun is in the experimenting! You can also get online to learn more about wines of Italy.
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