Tuscany is a region with incredible gourmet delights to enjoy, far more than can ever be sampled during a gourmet tour of the Chianti Region. But with little knowledge and guidance, it is easy to identify the authentic quality Italian products. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Italy hard, I was invited to sample Tuscany’s most famous delights by creators of an informational campaign “EAT – The European Art of Taste”. The campaign is aimed at educating consumers from all over Europe and the United Kingdom about Chianti Classico olive oil, Chianti Classico wines, cured meats and cheeses from Tuscany.
Chianti and Chianti Classico – Two very different wines
Tuscan cuisine is undoubtedly associated with the famous Chianti wine but for an average person the difference between Chianti and Chinanti Classico is often unclear. The word “Classico” is often omitted when describing Chianti Classico wine in tastings during gourmet tours.
But in fact, there are many differences between Chianti and Chianti Classico. The first is geographical: Chianti spreads from Arezzo to Pisa, while Chianti Classico is limited to an area between the provinces of Florence and Siena. Chianti Classico’s area was defined 300 years ago by Cosimo III Medici. Moreover, the maximum production allowed for Chianti Classico is 7 tons per hectare, much lower than that allowed for Chianti.
The main grape used to make both wines is Sangiovese. Chianti must be made from at least 70% Sangiovese, whereas Chianti Classico sets the bar at 80%. The remaining amount in both wines can be made up of other authorized grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah, or native Italian varieties like Canaiolo or Colorino. Chianti Classico does not permit any white grape varieties while Chianti can contain up to 10% of white grapes. Either wine can be made with 100% Sangiovese.
Chianti Classico must age longer before being released on the market: the latest vintage must be released on October 1 of the year after its harvest. To be labeled “Riserva” Chianti Classico must mature for 24 months, at least three of which in the bottle. Chianti Classico Gran Selezione variety must mature for 30 months, of which six are in the bottle. Chianti, on the other hand, is released on March 1 of the year after its harvest and Chianti Riserva after 24 months.
Chianti Classico – Look for a Black Rooster
The easiest way to recognize a Chianti Classico wine is to look for a black rooster (Gallo Nero in Italian) label on your wine bottle. The Black Rooster was a historic symbol of the old Military League of Chianti since 1384. Many years later the Consortium Chianti Classico, founded in 1924 to protect and promote the wine and its producers, adopted the black rooster symbol as signature label defining its wines.
The old legend of the black rooster states that in the Middle Ages the provinces of Sienna and Florence constantly fought over the strategic area of Chianti. The dispute was to be settled in a simple way – a knight from each province would begin to ride a horse at the dawn and his signal to start the journey would be a rooster’s crow. The land was to be divided at the point where the two knights meet. The selection of a rooster was of a great importance, so the Sienese chose a white rooster and fed him well on the day before, so that he would awaken bright and early the next morning. The Florentines chose a black rooster that they starved and, upset and hungry, it began cawing much earlier than sunrise, thus, giving their knight an unfair advantage. The two knights met in today’s Castellina in Chianti, just 12 km from Siena. As a result, almost the entire Chianti region was annexed to the Republic of Florence.
The Chianti Classico wines are labeled as DOCG (Denominazione d’Origine Controlatta e Garantita) meaning “Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin”, the highest recognition for premium Italian wines. The wine must be exclusively processed and produced within a determined geographical area following a strict set of rules and its quality is guaranteed by the Consortium Chianti Classico.
Tuscany Gourmet Tour of Chianti Classico Region
The best type of gourmet tour of Tuscany and Chianti Classico region might be a road trip! The famous Strada Regionale 222 (SR 222), popularly called the “Chiantigiana,” winds through 70 km of the countryside, from Florence to the gates of Siena, passing through the most famous towns of Chianti territory. As you drive along the SR 222, allow yourself to be enchanted by the Tuscan panorama while stopping at numerous villages along the way. The towns of Greve in Chianti, Panzano, Stada in Chianti, and Castellina in Chianti are worth a visit. The best way to enjoy them is just to lose yourself in the streets of the historical city centers, full of shops, stores, and restaurants.
Principe Corsini and Villa Le Corti as a Starting Point for Chianti Classico Tasting Tours
Although located not directly on SR 222, the Corsini family’s magnificent Villa Le Corti estate in the Tuscan countryside and one of the oldest wineries in Tuscany is definitely worth a detour. The town of San Casciano Val di Pesa is the northernmost village of the Chianti Classico area is an ideal starting point to explore the wine county. A guided visits of this 16th-century beautiful villa and the ancient wine cellar, the olive mill, and the ancient olive oil storage are easy to arrange on the phone or online. Principe Corsini exceptional quality wines include several varieties of Chianti Classico DOCG: Annata, Reserva and Gran Selezione as well as Rose and Rose Spumante made from Sangiovese grapes. And if you are lucky, estate’s owner Duccio Corsini himself might join you for a tasting or greet you during lunch or dinner at the winery’s own Restaurant Osteria Le Corti.
The modern-day count, Duccio Corsini, and his family still live at the Villa le Corti estate which extends across 250 hectares of land—50 of which are vineyards planted with Sangiovese to produce the region’s world-famous Chianti Classico. An additional 73 hectares of olive trees produce Chianti Classico DOP extra virgin olive oil. In the past, the Corsini family left their mark in artistic heritage, including commissioning the Capitolini Museums and the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Corsini’s ancestors include cardinals, bishops, dukes, deputies, princes, patrons of the arts, a pope (Clemente XII, 1730-1740), and a saint (Andrea Corsini, bishop of Fiesole, 1301-1374).
Today, they protect the environmental well-being of their land and follow organic agricultural methods to produce the finest of wines and extra virgin olive oil. As confirmation to that philosophy, Duccio Corsini proudly proclaims during our tasting visit: “I’ve always firmly believed in a principle: give more to the land than you take from it. That’s the only way to truly respect the environment and to leave something you’re proud of to future generations”. Since 2015 Principe Corsini wine and olive oil are certified as “organic” and “vegan”, guaranteeing no animal ingredients or by-products in wine or packaging. Moreover to avoid waste, at Villa Le Corti the olive pits, which are extracted from the pomace, are used for heating the winery, offices and their historical estate.
In the estate’s kitchens, originally constructed in the early 17th century, guests can also take cooking courses. Gourmet dishes are cooked following the original local recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation and the ingredients are picked from the villa’s garden. And, for a privileged few, they’ll play host to picture-perfect fairytale wedding naturally accompanied with house wines from the Principe Corsini’s three levels underground wine cellar. It is also possible to stay directly at the property in picturesque country cottages.
Through Hills of Tuscany from Ancient Villa to a Castle…
Castello di Verrazzano Gourmet Tour and Chianti Classico Tasting
If you had to sum up Chianti’s landscape with three images it would definitely be: vineyards, olive groves and… castles! Many of todays most renowned wineries were once fortified palaces. Back on SR 222, just after the Passo dei Pecorai (Pass of the Shepherds), you reach Castello di Verrazzano winery. Does Verrazano’s name sound familiar to you? Giovanni da Verrazzano, the explorer who discovered the bay of New York, was born here in 1485. The famous New York Verrazzano Bridge was named after him in 1964! For that reason the winery is also a favorite place to visit by the Americans.
Along with Chianti Classico, other wines are produced at Castello di Verrazzano, including white and rosè, and a delicious Vin Santo dessert wine. Vin Santo is a wine made with white grapes like Malvasia and Trebbiano, which are carefully dried in the historical Vinsantaia of the estate. This beautiful castle is definitely worth a visit! But after a very personal, small-group tour and a relaxed tasting at Principe Corsini, a visit to Castello di Verrazzano might feel structured and rushed… But an excellent wine tasting should dissipate any uneasy feeling you might have.
Tuscany Gourmet Tour: Chianti Classico is not Just the Wine
During your gourmet tour of Tuscany you will see that nearly all the Chianti Classico vineyards cultivate olives in addition to grapes and many produce and sell the olive oil under their own labels with the highest quality oil labeled Chianti Classico DOP (stands for Denominazione d’Origine Protetta or protected designation of origin). Chianti Classico DOP Extra Virgin Olive Oil features fine fruity taste with hints of raw artichoke and fresh grass, clean and nicely spicy on the palate. The production area of the oil coincides with the Chianti Classico wine zone. The maximum permitted acidity of this DOP olive oil is 0.5%, as expressed in oleic acid, the fruit must be pressed within 24 hours of the harvest, and the temperature of the olive paste during extraction must not exceed 28° C. The Chianti Classico PDO Olive Oil Consortium (Il Consorzio Olio DOP Chianti Classico) makes sure all the production and quality criteria were met before labeling the olive oil Chianti Classico DOP.
Gourmet Tour of Tuscany and Chianti Region: Must-Taste Authetic Tuscan Products
Cured Ham: Proscuitto Toscano DOP
Prosciutto Toscano is a perfect match with a typical Tuscan bread which has no salt. Earthy and intense, Tuscan prosciutto is traditionally cured with salt and local spices, including juniper, rosemary, garlic and black pepper. It is recognizable by its typical arch shape, deep-red meat with white streaks, and, of course, its own consortium brand, guaranteeing its quality. Prosciutto Toscano DOP is rich in protein, minerals such as iron and magnesium, vitamin B and has a high component of unsaturated fatty acids–the kind that are good for you!
To be considered Prosciutto Toscano DOP, every step in the production is regulated. From humanely raising the Tuscan-bred pigs to cutting and seasoning the legs by hand to curing in special rooms with controlled temperature and humidity for at least 12 months, the process is deeply rooted in traditions that can be traced back to the House of Medici. The current production level of Prosciutto Toscano DOP stands at 418,000 legs a year and ranks third in Italy in terms of quantity.
Cheese: Pecorino Toscano DOP
Until recently the name Pecorino Toscano was given to any cheese made in Tuscany from sheep’s milk (pecorino means sheep in Italian), although sometimes it was mixed with cow’s or goat’s milk. The name is now reserved for pure sheep’s milk cheeses made between September and June. It can be made in Tuscany and the neighboring communities of Umbria and Latium.
Pecorino Toscano is considerably milder than a more well-known Pecorino Romano and may be sold soft and fresh (with a yellow rind) or firm and ripened for a few months (with brown-red rind). Each cheese wheel clearly displays the stamp of the Consortium Pecorino Toscano, confirming its quality and the Designation of Protected Origin (DOP). Pecorino Toscano was granted its DOP protection in 1996 and each wheel must completely meet the Production Code monitored and safeguarded by the Consortium.
Pecorino Toscano PDO is a versatile product which can be enjoyed as a table cheese, fresh or aged, and it can also be used grated or to enrich many dishes and recipes.
Where to Stay during your Gourmet Tour of Tuscany
Agriturismo La Volpaia dates back to the 16th century and is located in the heart of Tuscany, near Barberino Val dʻElsa, the village from which the Barberini noble family came from. La Volpaia is run by Adriano und Irina Rossetti, who have managed hotels and restaurants in Milan for more than 20 years. Guest can sample Adriano’s cuisine and Tuscan wines, while relaxing in the peaceful tranquility of the countryside.
La Volpaia offers stylish furniture and works of art that the previous owner, the renowned architect and artist Andrea Talíaco, left for the guests to study and enjoy. The 250 ancient olive trees surround the property to ensure the classic Tuscan scenery.
Want more? Read about my gourmet and hiking tour of Italy’s Lago Maggiore.