When I was studying for my WSET Level 3 exam, I put together a great general guide to Central Italy. I still find it very useful in that it helps me compartmentalize where the most important regions are on the Italian map and where the most prominent DOCs are within those regions. And that’s great. But as those of you studying for your Diploma-level exam know, that information just scratches the surface of what’s expected of us now.

Italy’s big. It can be intimidating if we look at it like one big chunk. For me, it’s Central Italy that really causes the most confusion. So I want to take some time to look at Central Italy in little pieces and call out a few specifics included in our Diploma level studies that weren’t mentioned in Level 3 that, to my eyes, seem like good nuggets of information to keep in the front of the brain come exam time.

Andiamo, amici…


Tuscany Wine Region Map; cellartours.com
Tuscany Wine Region Map; cellartours.com

If your brain goes straight to Sangiovese, then you’re off to a great start. Not only is this the most planted grape in the Tuscan region, it’s the most planted grape in all of Italy. So, let’s talk about its importance in regards to the DOC/DOCGs of Tuscany, including (as always) wine style, quality, and price.

Overall, Tuscany has a warm, Mediterranean climate, but there are fluctuations based on specific vineyard site—inland locations, though further away from the influence of the ocean, benefit from the cooling influences of altitude. It is inland where we find the classic Sangiovese DOCGs of Chianti and Chianti Classico—in each, vines are planted at altitude at south/southeast facing aspects, thus benefiting from moderating temperatures from that altitude, but full exposure to the sun for optimal light interception, thus contributing to berry development, skin ripeness, and full concentrated fruit while maintaining a good level of acidity.

Remember: Sangiovese is an early-budding (frost risk!), late ripening (autumn rain risk!) variety that requires a long growing season to develop full phenolic ripeness and tannins.

Interesting anecdote: Because of climate change, some growers are now looking to plant at altitudes with less sun-exposure to help balance heat and light exposure.

Chianti Classico DOCG (minimum 80% Sangiovese) that has the higher altitude with the larger diurnal range, thus contributing to a longer overall growing season and benefitting the early-budding, late ripening Sangiovese variety. The Classico region is also known for its varying soil types: galestro (schistous, crumbly rock with marl), said to produce more aromatic wines with the potential to age; the alberese (calcareous and clay), said to produce more structured wines, due to higher clay content. With vineyards planted on steep slopes, manual labor is compulsory, adding to production cost.

Chianti DOCG subzones; vinepair.com
Chianti DOCG subzones; vinepair.com

Furthermore, Chianti DOCG (minimum 70% Sangiovese) has prestigious subzones. The two to know:

  1. Chianti Rufina DOCG—small subzone, coolest subzone due to altitude and, with its northwest location, it experiences the cooling winds coming down from the Apennines. Wines retain high acidity but have more restrained fruits when young, developing more complexity with age.
  2. Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG—(minimum 75% Sangiovese) largest of the subzones, and consists of non-contiguous planted areas; further south, the DOCG is warmer than all others, producing fuller bodied and richer wines

Take a look at those two varying descriptions—they’re pretty much polar opposites. Hopefully that helps with the memory.

Both Chianti and Chianti Classico have an option for Riserva and in the Classico you can also make a Gran Selezione, in which there are minimum aging requirements, including minimum time spent in wood vessels prior to bottling—all of which will add to production and final bottle cost. These wines will typically undergo more complex winemaking—cold soaking prior to fermentation; fermentation at warmer temperatures (controlled) in order to get more extraction; extended (20+ days) post-ferment maceration; and of course a longer time aging in barrel (per the label requirements), with some percentage of new oak included. The resulting wines are typically deeper in color with plummier/riper fruit expressions and of course spice and vanilla notes from aging in barrel. Chianti DOCG allows for higher yields and is more classically created in an early-drinking style (mid-range fermentation temperatures, less time macerating, shorter time aging typically in larger format neutral barrels), commanding mid-price price-ranges. These less complex wines have less body, and will have those ‘sour cherry’ or wild strawberry red-fruited notes take front and center.

Brunello di Monalcino DOCG is a DOCG for 100% Sangiovese. It’s located further south and is warmer and drier than Chianti, producing full-bodied, ripe wines with high alcohol. However, it also has higher elevations, and thereby can maintain high levels of acidity as well. It, too, has the galestro-based soils, thus wines are aromatic. It’s noted that there is a southern portion of the DOCG where elevations are a bit lower, soils are a bit more fertile, thus wines fuller bodied. Many growers blend from parcels, combining northern and southern sites, to create balanced wines. There are strict aging requirements for Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, including minimum time spent in oak prior to release, even higher demands for Riserva wines.

For producers utilizing younger vines or vines from less prestigious sites, they have the option to declassify their wines to simply Rosso di Montalcino DOC, which can be released earlier. The wines will command lower prices, but producers will get a quicker ROI.

Vino Nobile de Montepulciano DOCG allows for as little as 70% Sangiovese in wines, but highest quality is made from 100%. The historically prestigious location benefits from both altitude (providing cooling influence) and east/southeast aspects (optimal light interception). There are a range of styles produced, but again the DOCG requires a minimum aging including minimum time spent in oak before release, adding both complexity to the wine, production costs, as well as price of final wine. Like in Brunello, winemakers have the option of declassifying to simply Rosso di Montepulciano DOC.


Before reading the below notes, test yourself—how do you think the various Tuscan regions producing Sangiovese-based wines will differ in tasting? Use what you know about the region’s environmental factors, grape growing techniques and winemaking processes to write a few dry tasting notes. I’ve also linked to the tech sheets for each wine so you can compare your notes with the actual production process.

Wine: Cetamura Chianti DOCG 2019

Appearance: pale ruby

Aroma: medium (-) intensity—red sour cherry, just ripe red strawberry and raspberry, under-ripe red plum a hint of salinity, just a hint of wood (pine wood), simple

Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, medium (course) tannins, medium body, medium alcohol, medium (-) flavor intensity (just as above), medium (-) finish

Conclusion: This wine is of acceptable quality. The medium (+) acidity does well to keep what little fruit flavors there are alive on the palate, though overall those primary fruits do lack any real intensity and fade quite quickly, leading to the medium (-) finish. While I do get some notes of wood, there’s nothing about those notes that uplift either the flavor or the texture in anyway. (In fact, the ‘pine scent’ smells artificial in nature.) The medium tannins are coarse on the tongue and because of the lack of intensity of the fruit flavors, they seem to stick out without serving any kind of purpose—neither lending to a pleasant mouthfeel nor to a lift in body. This is clearly a simple wine made for immediate consumption and, in that respect, it does fulfill that purpose. The wine is not faulty in anyway, and thus it is not poor, but I cannot rate the wine any higher than acceptable in quality.

Suitability for Aging: Due to the lack of concentration and intensity of this wine, I do not think it’s suitable for bottle aging as it will only further decrease in intensity and become completely unbalanced.

Wine: RS Chianti Classico DOCG

Appearance: pale ruby (note: a shade darker than the Chianti DOCG)

Aroma: medium intensity—ripe red cherry, ripe red strawberry, pomegranate, cranberry, vanilla, hint chocolate, hint mineral

Palate: medium (+) acid, medium alcohol, medium (ripe/mature/soft tannins), medium body, medium flavor intensity (as above, adding a bit more secondary notes of smoke, charred wood), finish is medium

Conclusion: This wine is of good quality. It is well balanced with a high enough acidity to carry forward the primary fruits, which are fresh, ripe in nature, predominantly in the red-fruit category. There are hints of complexity as noted by the smoke/charred wood flavors and the hints of vanilla and chocolate in the aromatics. However, the intensity of both aroma and flavors is somewhat lacking, falling at a medium level and that lack of intensity carries through to the medium finish. Because the wine is well-balanced and it is obvious care has been taken to integrate flavors and textures (as noted by the soft, well-integrated tannins that here provide a plush mouthfeel and adds to the overall medium body) and thus speaks to complexity in winemaking, this wine is superior than acceptable. But because of lack of intensity and length, I cannot rate the wine any higher than of good quality.

Suitability for Aging: Due to the lack of concentration and intensity of this wine, I do not think it’s suitable for bottle aging as it will only further decrease in intensity and become completely unbalanced.

Wine: Carpineto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG Riserva 2018

Appearance: medium ruby (note: one could possibly call this purple)

Aroma: medium (+) intensity—blackberry, boysenberry, marionberry, red and black plum, vanilla, clove, nutmeg

Palate: medium (+) acid, medium alcohol, medium (+) chalky tannins, medium (+) body

Medium (+) flavor intensity (adding anise spice and chocolate here)

Finish is medium (+)

Conclusion: I think this wine is of very good quality. The intensity of the fully ripe fruits on the nose follows through with that same level of intensity on the palate. The medium (+) acid does well to keep those primary fruits fresh and forward throughout the tasting. The tannins, though chalky, do well to add texture and body to the wine. I do think that, at this time, they stick out and are not fully integrated yet with the wine, but believe they will soften with time and complement the fruits as they further develop into their cooked, jammy, and dried forms with age. The primary fruits are well balanced with a delicate use of oak that simply adds delicate baking spice aromas and flavors without overwhelming the fruit and also speaks to the complexity in the winemaking process. The finish does fall short of long at a medium (+) and, for this reason, I cannot call the wine outstanding, but it is certainly very good quality.

Suitability for Aging: I do think that this wine has the potential to develop further in bottle over time. As stated above, the tannins will soften with time, become better incorporated into the wine as a whole while simultaneously complementing the more developed fruit aromas and flavors. Further, the wine has the structural components lending to age-ability: namely, the acid, tannin, alcohol, and intensity of fruit flavors/aromas.

I guess if we’re thinking about the Tuscan region, we can break it up into two groups. Above, are the regions focused on Sangiovese. Below, it’s everything decidedly not Sangiovese.

Bolgheri DOCBordeaux varieties/blends, including red, white, and rosé as well as some single-varietal expressions; BDX grapes account for 80% of total planting. The small DOC is located basically on the beach. The climate is warm with cool nights due to cold winds from the ocean that help reduce fungal pressure; soils are varied, rain sufficient, but irrigation is allowed. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates blends, but the DOC allows up to 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot; up to 50% Syrah and Sangiovese; up to 30% of others.

Bolgheri Rosso Superiore—Pro Tip: if you’re talking Superiore, you are pretty much always talking less yields. Bolgheri Rosso Superiore has the same options for varieties as Bolgheri DOC, but more restricted yields and specific aging requirements. The Superiore wines are aged in French oak with significant use of NFO.

Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC—Let’s take a moment and pause here. I don’t know why, but I’ve been seeing Sassicaia come up in wine news, ratings, and articles a lot recently. And even after reading through the Diploma text, I still didn’t understand what it was. Until just now.

First thing to know: this is a separate DOC for the single estate Tenuta San Guido.

Best thing to do now: go to the dude’s website:

Tenuto San Guido; tenutasanguido.com
Tenuto San Guido; tenutasanguido.com

In the 1920s the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta dreamt of creating a ‘thoroughbred’ wine and for him, as for all the aristocracy of the time, the ideal was Bordeaux. This is how he described it in a letter to the esteemed wine critic, Luigi Veronelli dated 11 June 1974:

“…the origins of my experiment date back to the years between 1921 and 1925 when, as a student in Pisa and often a guest of the Salviati Dukes in Migliarino, I drank a wine produced from one of their vineyards…which had the same unmistakable “bouquet” as an aged Bordeaux….”

In the 1940s, having settled with his wife Clarice on the Tenuta San Guido on the Tyrrhenian coast, he experimented with several French grape varieties (whose cuttings he had recovered from the estate of the Dukes Salviati in Migliarino) and concluded that the Cabernet had “the bouquet I was looking for.”

A wine made mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon was a fundamental change to the Tuscan and Piedmont tradition of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, respectively. The innovative decision to plant this variety at Tenuta San Guido was partly due to the similarity Mario Incisa had noted between Tuscan terrain and that of Graves in Bordeaux.

‘Graves’, or ‘gravel’ in French refers to the rocky terrain which distinguishes the Bordeaux area; similarly, the gravely vineyard sites in Tuscany impart the same characteristics on Sassicaia, “stony ground”, as its cherished French brother. READ MORE…

Even just that above quote completely cleared this up for me. Hope it helped you.

Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC requires minimum 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, two years of total aging, 18 months of which must be in 225L oak. Wines produced are considered world class examples of BDX style wines.

Maremma Toscana DOC—based on former IGT of same name, thus covers an extensive area. DOC allows a wide range of varieties both local and international; dominant grapes are Sangiovese, Cabernet and Vermentino.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT: WHITE WINE—yes, do not forget that Tuscany does produce white wines as well…

Vernaccia di San Gimignano—historic white wine region; region has dry summers and is windy, thus reducing fungal pressure. Vines planted on hillsides at altitude, thus good sunlight interception and drainage. Wines are made from Vernaccia, a mid- to late-ripening grape that produces high yields. The region’s sandstone-based soils are said to help ripen the late-ripener (probably from absorbing the heat o’ the sun.)

NOTE: Red wine from Sangiovese and international varieties are also made and are bottled under separate denomination San Gimignano DOC.

Let’s take a second and chat about Vin Santo because it’s not something that was covered extensively in our Level 3 studies.

Vin Santoamber-colored, sweet wine made from the appassimento method, most often from a blend of Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia. It is a wine style, permitted in many Tuscan denominations.

The wines are made from grapes that have dried off the vine (traditionally in drying lofts above the wineries). After press, the concentrated juices are fermented and then aged in small barrels that are sealed and stored unopened for 5 to 10 years. Through the extensive aging process in which the wine experiences rising and falling temperatures, slow oxidation, and no topping, therefore resulting wines are amber color with a palate of dried fruit, nuts, and volatile acid. Wines are sweet, but balanced with the naturally high acid from the Toscano and Malvasia grapes.

The last stop I want to take on this tour is to Lazio. Also on the west side of Central Italy, but much further south. It’s the region that includes Rome. I want to touch on Lazio because I saw a practice question that basically read: Frascati—discuss. My eyes crossed, my brows furrowed, and then my mind went completely blank. So, let’s nip that in the bud straight-away.

Frascati Castelli Romani-Wine Map; winefolly.com

Frascati—This DOC, which also has provisions for a Superiore, is located in the Lazio region of Central Italy where the climate is warm, Mediterranean, moderated by the inland altitudes on rolling hills. The DOC is for white wines produced using Malvasia (either Candia or del Lazio, the latter of which is said to have more flavor, but the former to be more disease-resistant, higher yielding and easier to cultivate). Final wines may also include Trebbiano di Toscano—these wines are easier/cheaper/faster to produce (it is vigorous and high yielding grape), but less complex in style.

The Frascati DOC are less complex wines, made in a protective wine style, which is also dictated by the Malvasia grape, which is prone to oxidation. Wines will undergo cool fermentation in stainless, aged for a short time in the same vessel, and intended for drinking within the first few years of release. The DOCG Superiore requires minimum aging time prior to release and some ‘ambitious’ winemakers are experimenting with oak usage. (Ambitious because, remember, the primary grape, Malvasia, is prone to oxidation—so barrel usage is risky behavior, indeed.)

Frascati is actually a small DOC that’s inside a larger one—Castelli Romani DOC which covers a broad area south of the city of Rome and has many other DOCs within it. More white wine produced than red; whites must be made from Malvasia del Lazio, Malvasia Bianca di Candia or Trebbiano Toscano. Yields allowed are quite high, thus resulting wines are not that concentrated.

Red wines produced within Castelli Romani DOCs are predominantly from Cesane (late-ripening, semi-aromatic red wine grape) and most allow high yields so, again, light flavor intensity wines. Red wines are typically aged in stainless or large format oak so as not to mask aromas.

If you made it to the end of this post, congratulations. We’ve only just covered the west side of Central Italy. Stay tuned—next up we hit the east side where we discover Marche and Abruzzo.

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