BeanScene Magazine

Wines: Discovering Cortona

From the March 2016 issue.
Wines: Discovering Cortona

Often overshadowed by the more famous wine growing areas of Tuscany – such as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino – the Cortona DOC produces some exceptional wines of its own.

By Avery Affholter, Enoteca Sileno Wine Educator

The Tuscany of our collective imagination begins on a winding road, drifting between one idyllic hilltop town after another, a cluster of blush-coloured rooftops nestled among the sweeping green landscapes. Unsurprisingly, the romantic version we construct in our minds isn’t far from the real life version when it pertains to Italy.

In Cortona, from the vantage point within city walls that date back to the Etruscans, you can enjoy the panorama of the valley floor (Valdichiana) below, and in the middle distance, Lago Trasimeno. This quintessential Tuscan outpost is an ideal home base for a traveller, with easy access to Florence, Arezzo, Siena, and the Umbrian towns of Perugia and Orvieto. It encompasses all the aesthetic charm you would come to expect from a village in the heart of Tuscany; even scoring a starring role as the setting for the book-turned-film Under the Tuscan Sun.

This famously verdant region boasts a list of well-known gastronomic treasures. Besides the typical food products from Tuscany – Chianina beef (for bistecca alla fiorentina), extra virgin olive oil, panforte and other sweets – what immediately comes to mind is wine. Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vin Santo are well recognised, highly valued, and familiar even to the non-wine initiated person. Sangiovese is the primary grape variety for many wines produced in Tuscany, but in Cortona, a few other well-known grapes have a long and successful history.

During the time of Napoleonic conquest, so-called international varieties made their way to Italy from France and vineyards of Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted alongside the autochthonous grapes. In Cortona, Syrah shines as the bright star among these varieties, flourishing in the climate and soils of the area. Situated on a gently rolling slope to a valley floor, and with cooling breezes from Lake Trasimeno to the south, Cortona provides ideal growing conditions for Syrah that some compare to Côtes du Rhône.

The vignaioli acknowledge the viticultural heritage of Syrah in Cortona, but emphasise that it is far from being simply an import – their Syrah is authentically local. The climate of Cortona might be similar to Northern Rhône, but the wines are unmistakably Italian, and the appellation was awarded DOC status in 1999. Critics agree that the Syrah from Cortona displays characteristics found in red wines throughout Tuscany; a combination of freshness and richness attributed to the diurnal temperature variation in the region. Very hot temperatures in the daytime coupled with cool nights, maintain fresh acidity in the grapes and keep the sugar levels in check – essential conditions for elegant, balanced wines.

Of the 20 or so wine growers in Cortona DOC, the majority focus on Syrah, but also produce wines of Merlot, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon; in addition to white wines of Grechetto, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and Trebbiano and Malvasia for Vin Santo. Overshadowed but not outshone by its Chianti and Montalcino neighbours, Cortona Syrah offers something that Sangiovese can’t deliver. There’s a playfulness that emerges from this style of Syrah; it demands attention because it lets you know it’s alive.

Hallmarks of a Cortona Syrah that you want to drink include plenty of plush red fruit like raspberry, plum, cherry and forest berries; layers of violets and dried meadow flowers; hints of leather, tobacco and dark chocolate; and the occasional whisper of liquorice, spice and mint. Defer to the tried-and-true wine pairing method of the Italians which is, “what grows together, goes together,” and enjoy a glass or two (or three) of Cortona Syrah with a lovely bistecca alla fiorentina or pici al ragù di Chianina.

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