Central Italy comprised the provinces of Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise, but for the sake of wine the star of the show in Central Italy is Tuscany with Abruzzo and Umbria singing backup. Tuscany has been synonymous with Italian wine exports since American Italian restaurants first stuck a candle in a Chianti bottle.
While Chianti has changed significantly in both composition and reputation since those days, it is still the first Italian wine that comes to mind for most. The vinoscape of Tuscany, while famed for Chianti, is also home to Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano as well as numerous other DOC regions that are not extensively exported. It is also home to the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) wines known as ‘Super Tuscans,’ but more on that later.
Chianti laws have changed significantly in the last few decades, resulting in much higher quality wines. The primary grape (75-100%) of Chianti is Sangiovese with the remainder of the blend comprised of several red grapes that few outside of Italy are familiar with and possibly up to 10% white grapes (Trebbiano and Malvasia), although this tradition has fallen out of favor in recent years.Within the region of Chianti, lies the subregion of Chianti Classico, which is considered the historical heartland of the Chianti region. The blends of Chianti Classico will be basically the same, but Chianti Classico requires a minimum of 80% Sangiovese, rather than the 75% required in Chianti.
The town of Montalcino, in Tuscany, is known for its pricey Brunello di Montalcino and slightly more affordable Rosso di Montalcino. Brunello is a clone of the Sangiovese grape, whose name translates to ‘little dark one.’ The wines are big, deep, intense reds with long-term aging potential, and some of the most expensive wines coming out of Italy. Rosso di Montalcino wines are essentially the same as Brunello di Montalcino, only not aged as long prior to release, only six months for a Rosso as opposed to the four years required for a Brunello. The result is the Rosso di Montalcinos are fresh, fruity and far simpler than their big brothers Brunello.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (remember here that Montepulciano is the place name, not the grape name) is made from yet another clone of the Sangiovese grape referred to by its local name of Vino Nobile. The wines comparable to Brunello di Montalcino, but aged only two years, as opposed to the four required by the Brunello DOCG. So, basically what all of the hubbub in Montalcino and Montepulciano boils down to is this
Rosso di Montalcino – fresh, fruity Sangiovese clone. Aged only six months. Rather simple. Rather cheap
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – more full-bodied and structured Sangiovese clone. Aged minimum two years. More complex. Still fairly affordable.
Brunello di Montalcino – most full-bodied and intense Sangiovese clone. Aged minimum four year. Very complex, long-term aging potential. Amongst Italy’s most expensive wines.
Outside of Tuscany, the wine production of Central Italy can be attributed mainly to Abruzzo and Umbria. Abruzzo is known for Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and the confusingly named Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (confusing because here Montepulciano is a grape, not a place as in Tuscany). Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is a fresh, simple white wine best served as an aperitif, or apertivo if you want to be Italian about it, or with simple fish dishes. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is an affordable, widely available Italian red, that is still (thankfully) underrated. Look for the wines of Arboreto or Casal Thaulero.
Though there is red wine produced there, Umbria is best known for its white wine Orvieto. I always think of Orvieto as a white for a red wine drinker as it has a mouthfeel more akin to a red wine than a white, but it has all of the fresh flavors of a white wine. It’s an outstanding accompaniment to all seafood, but I do love it with calamari.