(Under the) Tuscan Syrah

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Tuscany is truly the land of Sangiovese; most of its famous wines—all variations of Chianti, beloved Brunello, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to name but a few—are based around Sangiovese in all its glory. However, in the Cortona DOC—tucked into one tiny southeastern corner of the province—Syrah rules the roost.

The cultivation of Syrah has a long history in Cortona. Fanciful legends abound about its introduction to the area from the post-Crusades Middle East; others tell of its introduction along with the political upheaval following the fall of House of the Medici (1737).

Recorded history is not quite so colorful but (according to the website of the Consorzio of the Cortona DOC) can trace Tuscan Syrah back to the early twentieth century, when the Count of Montecarlo di Lucca brought some vines back to his property in Arezzo following a trip to France. A few generations later—by the 1960s—several estates in the area discovered Syrah vines tucked in and around their established vineyards and encouraged and expanded its use.

In the 1970s, science—by way of Professor Attilio Scienza at the University of Milan—began to study the efficacy of several different cultivars in and around Cortona and discovered that Syrah performed exceptionally well.

The study also revealed significant similarities between the terroir of Cortona—an area tucked into the foothills of the Apennines and blessed with an abundance of sun-drenched, south-facing hill sides—and the Syrah-dominant Northern Rhône Valley of France. These days, Syrah—accounting for as much as 80% of the area’s vines—is well established in and around Cortona.

Photo via: fabriziodionisio.it

By the late 1990s, the Cortona DOC had been established, requiring Cortona Rosso DOC to contain a minimum of 50% Syrah.

As far as I can tell, Cortona Rosso is the one of only two DOC/DOCG wines of Italy (aside from varietally-labeled wines) that require the use of Syrah. (The other is the Lazio’s Atina DOC that requires the use of a minimum 10% Syrah in addition to at least 50% Cabernet Sauvignon.)

  • The details of Cortona Rosso DOC include:
    • Grape varieties: 50% to 60% Syrah, 10% to 20% Merlot, maximum 30% other red grapes allowed for use in Tuscany
    • May not be released for sale before March 31 of the year following the harvest
    • Riserva versions must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year and may not be released for sale before November 1 of the second year following the harvest

In addition to its Syrah-focused red blends (rosso), the Cortona DOC allows for the production of several other styles of wine. Many of these are varietal—including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Grechetto, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese as well as Syrah. By EU standards, the varietal wines must be produced using a minimum of 85% of the named grape variety. The Cortona DOC also allows for the production of Vin Santo (based on red and/or white grapes).

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Many Americans became familiar with Cortona via the best-selling book Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. The book—and later, the movie—made the town look idyllic, and it also happens to be true. Cortona is a dream-come-true for travelers who prefer to venture off-the-beaten-track. You will find plenty of delicious opportunities to wine and dine in Cortona, and the community is rightfully proud of the local wine. Main sights to see include the main town squares (Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo and the Palazzo Comunale), the ancient walls of the city, an impressive museum of Etruscan antiquities (Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della città di Cortona), the Basilica di Santa Margherita, and (of course) Bramasole.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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