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Tuscany, My Tuscany (April 24, 2008)

Remember when Chianti came in straw-covered, pot-bellied bottles that made great candle holders? That container was called a "fiasco" in Italian, which coincidentally describes the state of Tuscan wines in 1971.

That was the year when Marchese Piero Antinori released a new version of Tignanello, the product that thumbed its nose at Italian appellation laws and would create a whole new category of wine – Super Tuscans. The 1970 vintage of Tignanello, a single-vineyard wine, was the traditional blend of Chianti grapes as set down in the mid-19th century by Baron Ricasoli – Sangiovese, Canaiolo and a small portion of white grapes, Trebbiano and Malvasia. This recipe became enshrined in the DOC regulations, but the presence of white grapes in the blend made for wines that would not age and in the 1960s most Chiantis tasted like red ink. Remember those red-table-cloth restaurants with Chianti bottles thick with candle wax? The bottle made more of a statement than the wine inside it. A revolution was needed if Chianti was to regain respect.

My Five Favourite Affordable Italian Wines

Antinori Peppoli Chianti Classico 2005 ($19.95, Vintages #606541)

Frescobaldi Castiglioni Chianti 2006 ($14.85, LCBO #545319)

Masi Campofiorin 2005 (Veneto, $17.30, LCBO #155051)

Morante Nero D'Avola 2005 (Sicily, $15. 25, Vintages #40816)

Viticoltori Alto Adige Lagrein San Pietro 2005 (Alto Adige, $14.95, Vintages #51714)

By dispensing with white grapes, adding Cabernet Sauvignon to Sangiovese and fermenting the wine in French barriques, Antinori created a great wine. But since it did not respect the DOC appellation it had to be labeled as a humble vino da tavola (table wine), in spite of the fact that it was more expensive than Chianti Classico Riservas. Today, Tignanello is an icon wine along with such other Super Tuscans as Le Pergole Torte, Guado al Tasso, Ornellaia, Sassicaia and Solaia. What the emergence of these wines did was to make Chianti producers look twice at the wine they were making and improve production techniques.

The vino da tavola anomaly was rectified in 1992 by according these wines a new denomination – IGT (Indicazione Geografico Tipica), which added another confusing layer to Italy's already Byzantine wine regulations.

Tignanello and its ilk are international in style and speak more to the varieties from which they are produced than the soil in which they grow. The classic wines from Tuscany are made from the Sangiovese grape, which must be at least 75% of the blend and can be as much as 100%. (My favourite Chianti producers, incidentally, are Isole e Olena, Castello di Volpaia, Fonterutoli, Castello di Ama, Fontodi, Selvapiana and Vicchiomaggio.)

The Sangiovese grape is the pride of three distinct regions of Tuscany – Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese is known here as Brunello) and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (locally called Prugnolo – little prune). The Classico zone for Chianti is located between Florence and Siena, with seven other satellite zones that surround the Classico area, such as Rufina, Colli Fiorentini and Colli Senesi.

Brunello di Montalcino, a hour's drive south of the Classico region, is Tuscany's most expensive and longest-lived red wine. Top producers here are Altesino, Biondi-Santi, Frescobaldi, Il Poggione and Poggio Antico. The less-costly wine of the region that matures earlier is Rosso di Montalcino.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, whose vineyards circle Siena, is perhaps not as noble as its name suggests, but there are some spectacular wines produced here by Avignonesi, Terre di Bindella and Poderi Boscarelli. Like Brunello, this region also makes a less costly wine called Rosso di Montepulciano.

The most famous white wine of Tuscany is Vernaccia de San Gimignano, grown around the walled town of that name that is famous for its slender towers. The wine is minerally and crisply dry with citrus and stone fruit flavours. Try Montenidoli, Teruzzi e Puthod and Il Cipressino.

The other Tuscan delight is Vin Santo, a sweet or semi-sweet white wine made from Trebbiano and Malvasia or Grechetto. The wine is fermented in sealed barrels in warm attics for up to five years and the producer never knows exactly what he's going to get. The best I've tasted come from Avignonesi, Isole e Olena, Badia a Coltibuono, Selvapiana and Frescobaldi.

I must confess to having a special affection for Tuscany. I spent my honeymoon there and have been back several times since. Its hilltop towns, with their sentinel-like cedars and red-tiled roofs, surrounded by vineyards and connected by perilously winding roads, are enchanting. The food is terrific and the people the most hospitable you'll find on the planet. What better place to discover these wonderful wines.




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