Italy, the size of Texas, has only been a unified country since the middle of the 19th Century. Until then, it was made up of about 20 separate regions, some with a more cohesive identity than others, and within the regions powerful dynastic families. In Tuscany, the Antinori and Mazzei clans have been leaders in wine for over 20 generations, and it's this longevity that drives their leadership in the world of wine, a world of wine based on a sense of place.
Why does place matter, especially if the winemakers themselves sometimes can't distinguish whether what's in their tasting glasses comes from their own village or their neighbor's village? Villages, by the way, that remain breathtakingly beautiful.
In America, without the distractions of spellbinding scenery, we're very consumer-centric; we think that knowing the ingredients in our food comes right after "freedom of speech" in the Constitution.
After all, if there was a farm that raised three kinds of fowl--duck, chicken and goose--and then said farm went to market with a meat product called "Judy Farms Yummy Feathered Food" people would want to know what kind of "feathers" they're eating. But Judy would say "all the birds ate from the same terroir so it doesn't matter" and most people would say back "it matters to me! I like chicken but not duck!"
Well, to continue that example -- there's nothing to prevent Judy Farms from selling both "Duck" and "Chicken" if they want to. Wine, on the other hand, isn't "feathered food." It's "grape food," which, unlike poultry, can be blended from different varieties. And poultry doesn't depend on soil, climate and yeast to taste like poultry. (It just tastes like chicken.)
A delegation of American bloggers (Cornichon included) just spent five days in the zone of Tuscany that produces Chianti Classico wines from sangiovese grapes. If you add more than 10 percent of anything else, you can no longer call the wine Chianti Classico. If you grow the same grapes outside the zone, you can't call it Chianti Classico, either. The whole point of an appellation is to wear it like a permanent name tag: "Hi, I'm Ronald from Seattle." The guy over there kind of looks like me, and he's from Seattle, too, but that doesn't make him Ronald. That other Ronald, over there, he's from Bellevue. Close to Seattle, but not the same thing.
We think we want to know. We think that wine education will set us free. But it's not always true. Sometimes all we want to do is love the wine we're with.
Cornichon's trip to Tuscany was sponsored by the association of Chianti Classico producers, to whom we extend our thanks.
Below, two panoramic views of Tuscany: from the terrace of the new Antinori winery in Chianti Classico outside Florence, and overlooking Fonterutoli, home of the Mazzei family outside Castellina-in-Chianti.