Italy's vino reinvention: How wine has changed in the old country

Castello d'Albola vineyards

Sangiovese vines at Castello d'Albola

The Italians love their traditions. Multi-course, carb-laden lunches scattered with wine bottles give way to the traditional mid-afternoon nap. It’s an enviable way to live and they’ve done so for millennia. But things are changing. Some executives work through lunch (gasp!), cheese and wine shops remain open all day, and their winemaking has taken a sharp turn towards modernity. The old world has gone new.

On a recent trip to the rolling hills of Tuscany, I realized the implications of this shift on the American wine drinking masses. Mostly gone are the musty, rustic, low-fruit vinos of yesteryear, replaced by drinkable, luscious, balanced juice that we crave. Every winery I visited touted the shift to the high-tech solutions of other wine regions, rejecting the outdated, often unsanitary, methods of the past thousand years. The bacteria party is over. Nowhere is this love of newness more evident than at Rocca di Montemassi, located in the recently-popularized district of Maremma. Plopped at the foot of the mineral-rich hills south of Siena, this nascent winery epitomizes the new Italian wine persona. Maremma was formerly the Tuscan wild frontier, with minimal wine production and largely, it was ignored. Before the 1990s, the poverty-stricken population writhed in the extreme heat and made mediocre juice that never reached our shelves. But when vineyard land in Chianti became more expensive than Gucci leather, forward-thinking modernists unearthed Maremma’s soil and climate. They improved on existing techniques for growing “the soul of Chianti”, sangiovese, and the refreshing white vermentino, as well as hot-seller, non-indigenous varietals like cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot. Italian wine giant Zonin purchased over 1,000 acres of land in the late 1990s and founded Rocca di Montemassi, releasing their first wine in 2003. The pristine winery sparkles with gorgeous oak aging casks, stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, and even a museum of winemaking artifacts.

Montemassi Barrel Room

Barrel room at Rocca di Montemassi

The majority of Montemassi’s wines bear the Toscana IGT labeling, indicating the Italian government believes the blended wines, vineyards or varietals they release don’t reach the more prestigious DOC or DOCG status. They bottle vermentino (under the name “Calasole”), viognier (“Astraio”), a 100 percent sangiovese (“Le Focaie”), and a DOC-designated sangiovese blend called Sassabruno. Virtually all their wines are under $20 on our shelves.

Two hours north in the heart of Chianti Classico’s hairpin curves and steep slopes, Castello d’Albola plays a more historical game. The high-end wine region of Chianti Classico lies almost 2,000 feet above sea level, affording a cooler, more temperate lifestyle for the grapes. The resulting wines taste more acidic, elegant and food-friendly since the grapes aren’t ripened as deeply as those in Maremma. The building housing Castello d’Albola dates back to the 12th century, its large grey stone walls whisper secrets of wine production past. But these guys have transitioned to modern ways. French oak and shiny stainless steel adorn the crusty underground cellars of the sprawling estate. But, in a definite nod to the past, a room full of chestnut-encased, well-loved, Vin Santo keeps one foot in the traditional winemaking vat. This sweet, dessert wine harks back to the days when drying grapes on mats helped preserve the fruit before being pressed and fermented. Very rare in the States, a short glass of this rich, unctuous liquid formed one of the highlights of my trip.

What all this investment and upgrading does for the average consumer is twofold. Italian wine, formerly associated with simply pinot grigio and Chianti, is expanding its reach and attitude. Many wineries now leapfrog outdated government rules in favor of creativity, quality and, frankly, necessity. Tuscan producers no longer want to be known for only sangiovese, and find themselves having fun crafting blends of cabernet, merlot and syrah that are more affordable than the famous wines. And the expansion allows us to see what applying new techniques to an old mindset can produce. It can only get better from here.

Montemassi calasoleRecommended Wines
Rocca di Montemassi 2008 Le Focaie IGT Toscana Gorgeous, with bright red cherry, balanced acidity, a touch of vanilla and smokiness. Has a forest floor taste to it, which is classic Italian, but it’s subtle and incorporated enough that it doesn’t overwhelm. Drink it with pasta with meat sauce and it shines. 100 percent sangiovese. Sw=1. $16. 4.5 stars.

Rocca di Montemassi 2008 Calasole Vermentino Crisp and light-bodied, with lime rind, minerals and citrus predominant. Fresh and simple, yet so full of flavor. Drink with simple sauteed shrimp with lemon or a salad. Might be hard to find but worth the effort. Sw=1. $13. 4.5 stars.

Other great wines from Tuscany:

Casali di Bibbiano Wines

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