Thursday, June 13, 2013

Wine Production in Tuscany

Wine Production in Tuscany

There are findings which prove that wine has been made in Tuscany since the time of the Etruscans. Obviously techniques have changed, but essentially wine production in Tuscany still follows the ancient guidelines to produce some of the best wines in the world: Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Nobile di Montepulciano, Sassicaia and many others.

In Italy, as in many other countries, the government has created rules that must be respected by the wine producers with the aim of preserving traditional wine production techniques. Additionally, these rules have the aim to ensure the production of wine of the best quality, one of the country’s main export products.

The three categories of rules controlled by Italian government and official wine associations are called: D.O.C.G. (Guaranteed and Controlled Origin Denomination); D.O.C. (Controlled Origin Denomination) and I.G.T. (Typical Geographical Indication). All wines that don’t belong to one of these categories are considered “table wines”.

The basic steps of wine production don’t vary much. Basically, the harvest in Tuscany starts at the end of August, and beginning of September (except for Vin Santo). The grapes are all picked by hand and gradually transported to cellars with small trucks. They cannot be stocked because otherwise they will start to ferment, and this could damage the quality of the wine.

After they’re harvested, the grapes are transported to an area where the stems are removed – this can be done by hand or with the use of modern stainless steel machines that work very smoothly to avoid damaging the grapes.

Once upon a time, fermentation happened in wooden vats, and people used to step on the grapes to crush them. But nowadays, modern machines made of stainless steel are used, and fermentation is chemically controlled by the wine maker. There are pistons inside the stainless steel vats that come down and up very slowly, mixing the must in order to oxygenate it, and pull down the skins inside the liquid to guarantee its natural colouration.

This step takes 3 to 4 weeks, and each grape variety is fermented separately. The whole quantity of sugar that is naturally in the grape (it is forbidden to add sugar or colorants) will have been transformed into alcohol by the action of natural yeasts contained in the grape skins or added cultivated yeasts (they are allowed, because they are natural and help to have a more constant fermentation).

The next, and longest, step is the aging in oak barrels. The typical Tuscan barrels are very large and tall, with capacity of thousands of litres. They are called “botti” and have different sizes, depending on the wine. These kind of barrels will give tannins and taste to the wine very slowly and softly, which means the wine will not taste of wood, but be preserved with the fruit taste. To become more full-bodied and tanned like Brunello di Montalcino, for example, at least 5 years aging is needed inside the “botti”.

These kind of barrels have a peculiarity. Since they are so large, and the surface of contact of the wood with the wine is smaller, the wine can’t “breath”. It keeps fermenting inside the barrel and even inside the bottle. So the gas must leave through something. That is why the inventors of this barrel created an escape valve which is a kind of glass bottle on the top of the barrel, called the “colmatore”.

The “colmatore” is divided into two pieces, the lower part is a bottle full of water with a hole in the middle through which the gas can escape. The top part is like a cover that is contact with the water, and by pressure stops air entering the barrel (too much oxygen in contact with the wine could cause a disaster, the alcohol could start to be transformed into vinegar).

About 20 years ago, wineries also started to import French “barriques” (smaller French oak barrels) and started to create new wines, with new tastes according to the demand for more full-bodied and tanned wines, the I.G.T.s – which now are known as “Supertuscans”. The barriques are able to give much more tannin and taste to the wine very quickly, from six months to a year. The barriques don’t need the “colmatore” because the wine can “breath” through the porosity of the wood, since there is a greater quantity of wine in contact with the wood (each barrique only holds a little more than 300 litres).

Each grape variety is aged separately and the blend is created at the end. After the ideal time of aging for each wine and correct blend, it is ready to be filtered and bottled. To receive the rose label D.O.C.G. or D.O.C., the wine must be totally produced in the specific area where the label belongs, from the cultivation of the grapes to the bottling, respecting the rules about the quantities of each grape variety allowed, time of aging, and other specific issues.

I.G.T.s do not receive the rose label, “Indicazione Geografica Tipica” is written on the winery label. The words and rules are less restrictive as it aims to recognize a specific production area, more than the traditional process to make that specific wine.

Vin Santo is a special Tuscan wine made using a traditional and peculiar method. Vin Santo is a dessert wine made from grapes which picked in late October, so they are very sweet, and allowed to dry. The technique used so that the grapes dry naturally without going bad, is to fix them on chains that hang from the roof and keep all windows opened as there is a large air flow, which avoids the formation of mould.

The grapes are hung up for two or three months till they have lost their water and have a high concentration of sugar. After that they will not pass through the stainless steel tanks but will be crushed with their stems, and put directly into small barrels – called “caratelli”. The “caratelli” are barrels of not more than 200 litres, made of hazel or some other kind of local wood. The fermentation happens inside the “caratello” which is  plugged up, and only opened after at least five years. The result is expected to be a very good quality Vin Santo that will be filtered and bottled.

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