Just as with Italian food, central Italy's Tuscany is the heart of Italian wine. This is where you will find locally produced reds such as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. The former has been a favorite the world over for ages, while Brunello has only more recently become a premier offering.
The region of Umbria is also in central Italy, and is best known for the white wine called Orvieto. It has the same name as the place where it has been produced since the Middle Ages.
Chianti is perhaps the best known of all of Italy's wines. It is mass produced, can be highly affordable, and is served in Italian restaurants globally. Even still, the “table” version of Chianti that you know from home is likely far less complex than the more sophisticated offerings you can find in Italy. In fact, if you look closely at labels, you will see that some wines sold as Chianti in the United States aren't from the region at all.
Why do some Chiantis come in odd-shaped bottles? Traditionally, Chianti was bottled in a fiasco, the Italian word for a bottle with a long, thin neck and a wide, round bottom. The bottom was covered in a straw basket. Today, many producers favor Bordeaux-style bottles, making Chianti look, at least on store shelves, a lot like every other kind of red wine.
Since the mid-1990s, Italian law has stated that true Chianti must be made with at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes, which are believed to have originated in Tuscany. However, these grapes also grow in the United States, Australia, Central America, and South America, which is why the word Chianti is sometimes used in a generic sense, referring to the grape instead of to the Chianti geographical region. The taste of Chianti in Italy may be far different from what you have experienced at home.
Brunello di Montalcino
Brunello di Montalcino, like Chianti, is made from Sangiovese grapes — but more specifically, from a clone of those grapes known as Brunello. Hence the name Brunello di Montalcino, meaning grapes from the area of Montalcino, which is about seventy miles southwest of Florence. This type of wine was considered rare as recently as World War II, but today there are more than 200 producers in the area. Collectors' demand for this much-sought-after red remain high, putting Brunello di Montalcino in the same price category as Barolo.
In 2008, Italy endured Brunellopoli — a scandal in which several Brunello producers were accused of using unauthorized grapes to make their wines more popular on the international market. Laboratory tests revealed most of the charges to be false, but the widespread reaction to possible fraud shows just how seriously connoisseurs take the Brunello name.
What makes Brunello grapes different from Sangiovese grapes is their adaptation to growing in the Montalcino region's terroir — its earth. The grapes ripen with a more fleshy texture, which gives Brunello di Montalcino wine its distinctive taste. It's especially popular with Americans; about one in three bottles of Brunello di Montalcino are exported for sale in the United States. Sometimes, you will see these wines listed on American menus at more than $600 per bottle.
Umbria and Lazio are the regions in central Italy where Orvieto is produced, within the DOCs Orvieto and Orvieto Classico. The wine comes from a blend of grapes, primarily grechetto and trebbiano. Grechetto is believed to be of Greek origin and is often used in dessert wines, while trebbiano dates back to the Roman Empire and is key to the production of Cognac in France.
This primary combination of grapes makes Orvieto dry, but semi-sweet when compared with other white wines. It is often served with appetizers and cheeses, but also pairs nicely with some main courses of fish. As with Chianti, Orvieto is widely available at all price points, so when you are in Italy, look for unusual producers that you can't taste at home.