A radiant sun with twelve flaming rays

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

This week’s new wine hails from Tuscany, Italy, where the tradition of winemaking dates back to before the Middle Ages. Let’s shed some light on the interesting history that relates to our wine then discover what makes it shine.

Tuscany, the well-known region of Italy, has an abundance of wines and their histories. Viticulture, the actual term for vine growing, dates back to the 8th century BC in Tuscany. Artifacts from the 7th century BC show that Tuscan wine was exported to southern Italy as well as north into Gaul (France). Even after the collapse of the Roman Empire, this particular area still actively made and traded wines through all their monasteries.

And, later, as aristocratic and merchant classes developed, so did a system known as “mezzadria.” This was a “shared” crop situation where the landowner would supply the vineyard land and resources and take half the grapes grown each year in return (“mezza” means “half”). Tuscan landlords made wine from their share of the harvests and sold them to wine merchants in Florence, the capital city of Tuscany and the center of much of its social, cultural and financial life.

The first guild of Florentine wine merchants was formed in 1282. A bit of backtracking here, but this guild regulated how the wine business was conducted. One regulation said that no wine could be sold within 91 meters, or 100 yards, of a church. I don’t recall the exact number, but South Carolina, and other states also, have the same law even hundreds of years later.

By the 14th century, almost 8 million gallons of wine were sold in Florence every year. During the Renaissance, from the 14th to the 17th centuries, Florence held the role of leader. New ideas in politics, art, science, food, and wine, all surfaced.

One prominent Florentine family — besides the most-prominent Medicis — was the Frescabaldis. This was a noble family that was involved in the political, social and economic growth of Tuscany from the Middle Ages on. Coming from the Val de Pesa in Chianti, members of the family held important posts in the 12th century in Florence. Their original economic base was in the cloth business, but they prospered and moved into banking as well.  They found themselves on the wrong side of an attempted power coup, in 1343, and were barred from public service after that. They remained active, though, in Florence, and, through marriage connections among the ruling class, sustained some power and influence. (In fact, their banking businesses let them control some of the accounts of the English kings.)

Never quite on the right side at the right time, though, unpaid debts owed to the Frescabaldis by the English crown ended up bankrupting the family in the 14th century. But, one of the Frescabaldis’ many businesses was wine — they had been producing it in Tuscany since 1308, and also supplied it to Henry VIII. One of their in-laws, Vittorio degli Albizi, was responsible for introducing Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes into Tuscan vineyards in 1855.

In 1955, the Marchesi de’ Frescabaldi formed a partnership with Robert Mondavi from Napa to make a Tuscan wine. (Unfortunately, this partnership ended when Constellation Brands acquired Mondavi’s American wine business, but, in 2005, the Frescabaldis gained control of the Italian wines they had made together.)

Next, I’m thinking we need to review some Italian, Tuscan in particular, wine laws. And, then, our grape varieties. All the better to love our wine.

Like the rest of Europe, Italy developed laws to control how their wines were produced and to help their consumers get what they paid for and what they wanted. These DOC laws were instituted in 1963 and overhauled in 1992.  Prior to this overhaul, Chianti and other Tuscan red wines were made according to old rules and techniques — grape varieties and their percentages, sizes of barrels for aging, lengths of time wines had to be aged, types of wood barrels were made from, and more. In 1971, a non-legal-formula Chianti style wine was released by Antinori — a blend of Sangiovese (totally legal in Chianti) and Cabernet Sauvignon (not legal in Chianti at all, but grown in Tuscany for centuries). In 1978, this wine was named Tignanello and the completely unofficial category of “Super Tuscan” wines was born.  Because they were such extraordinarily good wines, the Super Tuscans were more expensive than other wines from their region. The high retail prices helped encourage their early sales. After all, if they were selling for that much, they must really be good.

Since then, many producers have developed wines, many with their own labels so that their Chiantis are not overshadowed, that are nontraditional and non-legal-DOC blends.

Today, our wine of the week is the former Frescabaldi-Mondavi blend. There were three originally. We are doing the least expensive one: Lucente. It comes to us from the Luce della Vita Estate, owned and operated by the Frescabaldi family. First, though, let’s look at the logo for this wine — a radiant sun with 12 flaming rays coming out of it. This sun, or similar ones, are prevalent throughout central Italy on stone arches and doorways, in iron gates and on ceramic tiles. Such a sun is also on the high altar of Florence’s famous Santo Spirito Church, a church built on property donated by the Frescabaldi family. The sun represents the Divine Light for all men. Its light gives warmth that nourishes all growing things, vines included. “Luce,” meaning “light,” is the mid-priced of the three wines from this estate. “Lucente” is “little light.”

The 2011 vintage of Lucente is made from 75 percent Merlot and 25 percent Sangiovese. The weather during August 2011 in the vineyards was particularly good for these two varieties. The first half of the month had sunny days with temperatures never over 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and very cold nights. The second half of the month, the strength of the sun gave concentration and power to the grapes. The Merlot and Sangiovese grapes that year achieved extraordinary health, concentration, strength, complexities and polyphenols. This wine? Deeply colored, purply red, with intense aromas of cherries, raspberries and currants. Lovely herbal notes of rosemary, eucalyptus, mint and sage linger with these fruits. The wine was fermented in stainless steel, temperature controlled tanks to maintain and enhance all the great fruit flavors. The texture is round and smooth and velvety in your mouth. And hints of almonds (very much a sign of Tuscan Sangiovese) come on the finish. Everything — history, agriculture, art and rays of sunshine — all coming together in one very special glass. (Oops. Let’s say bottle. Who of us can live with just one glass?) Especially with all we know about Lucente now: Let the rays into your life. For just $22.99. Enjoy.