Taste What Terroir Means

Tuscany has some glorious terrains, with the potential to make wines on par with great Burgundies. We’re also blessed with an indigenous varietal—Sangiovese—that can make wines that are headily aromatic, lusciously tangy and ethereally delicate. All of that starts in the vineyard—actually under it, with a deep understanding of the nature of the land. 

Yet Tuscan wines historically were not and for the most part still aren’t being made with the terrain foremost in mind, the way those in Burgundy are. To begin with, estate owners don’t necessarily know their land well, because they don’t farm it directly: centuries of sharecropping kept estates large and their owners far from the soil. No wonder that today there is little consensus as to which soils produce the best grapes and even less awareness of just how rare those soils are. 

A few years ago, I inherited a cellar of wine from Burgundy, mostly Côte de Nuits, mostly Premier Crus with some Grands Crus and Villages thrown in. The bottles came from a group of two-dozen or so domains, wineries such as Mugneret-Gibourg, de Vogüe, Pousse d’Or, Raphet, Arlaud, Magnien, Dureuil-Janthial, from the 1990s and early 2000s. These bottles became my education in wine: they calibrated my palate to delicacy, subtlety and nuance. As anyone knows who has been lucky enough to spend a few years drinking exclusively Burgundy, almost anything else starts to taste clunky and dumbed-down by comparison. All too soon, I had finished most of the Burgundies–and could certainly not afford to replace them! I wanted to go on drinking wines like those—I was spoiled. I couldn’t imagine NOT having a glass or two of these beauties in the evening–so I took the rather radical step of deciding to try and make wines like them.

I had tasted Italian wines which I classed with top Burgundies: aged Sangioveses from Castell’in Villa, from Sugarille (Gaja’s estate in Montalcino) or from Soldera,  that had that mouthwatering tanginess, delicacy and persistence which I loved. I had also experienced these sensations tasting some just-fermented Sangiovese in 2009 at a winery in Chianti Classico that sits on an outcropping of pure limestone. I knew the potential was there in the local varietal and in the soil. Thus, the concept of Fanciulle (fan-choo’-lay)Vini was born. 

Make no mistake: the geology of Tuscany is known. Based on a geological map of Tuscany made in the 1960s, I was able to identify half a dozen different sub-soils that seemed promising in terms of their potential to grow grapes with complexity and a distinctive taste. I researched and, over the next several months, contacted wineries that had vineyards planted on these soils. I negotiated to buy grapes from them, which I fermented in small tanks, side-by-side, in my own cellar, so that I could be sure the wines were kept pure. Two years later, I can now taste the wines that emerged from these different soils—some of them 60 million years old, some of them only 2 million; some limestone, some sandstone, some mixed—and perceive immediately the impact the terrain had on the taste of the wine. And you can too: there is no mistaking our leaner, more austere Vigneto Primo–made from grapes grown higher up, on rockier soils–for our Villaggio–a plusher, fruitier wine made from grapes grown lower on the hillside, in clay-rich soils. When the 2020 wines are released in March of next year, you will be able to taste wines made from grapes grown on three additional terrains, all with extraordinary potential, yet none exactly like the other.

Traditionally, Tuscan wine has been made in an entirely different spirit, one that  focuses on recipe, for example, on which kinds of grapes are allowed, on which containers (steel or wood or cement, or the current trend, terracotta “amphorae”) can be used for fermentation or cellar aging and on how long after the vintage the wines may be bottled and sold. These “recipes”—the rules that govern winemaking in various Tuscan and Italian appellations—were established to preserve a recognisable style that sold well, but today, the result is lots of safe, pretty good wines that taste alike. Of course, appellation rules exist in Burgundy, too. And yet, when I ask a Côtes de Nuits vintner a question about her wine, she responds not by telling me about her cellar equipment but by talking about her soil, her terrain. The best winemakers live and breathe their land: they—and not just their employees—are in their vineyards daily, year round. They speak of their soil and its variations with a reverence I have not encountered elsewhere.

Tuscan soils merit similar treatment: winemaking centered on them–born of them, literally and figuratively–will yield wondrous wines, exciting in their individuality and faithful to their origins . 

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Jem Macy

I am a winemaker and writer.

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