Journey To The Source: Tuscan Wine

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Little has changed since Mr Beebe, Miss Bartlett, Miss Honeychurch et al ventured out of Florence for a ramble on a violet-strewn hill in Tuscany. Like generations of British tourists after them, EM Forster's characters in A Room With A View were enchanted by "a hollow like a great amphitheatre, full of terraced steps and misty olives", next to which they sat down on their "mackintosh squares" to keep out the damp.

Little has changed since Mr Beebe, Miss Bartlett, Miss Honeychurch et al ventured out of Florence for a ramble on a violet-strewn hill in Tuscany. Like generations of British tourists after them, EM Forster's characters in A Room With A View were enchanted by "a hollow like a great amphitheatre, full of terraced steps and misty olives", next to which they sat down on their "mackintosh squares" to keep out the damp.

They stopped near Fiesole, the hill town that dangles prettily and precipitously north-east of Florence. Those of us who prefer our Tuscan views with a glass of Tuscan wine should head instead south-west of Florence into Chianti - the swathe of countryside stretching down to Siena that has produced wine since Etruscan times. Chianti has become the most renowned wine region in Italy thanks to a highly drinkable sangiovese-based tipple, popular with connoisseurs and quaffers alike.

Last month, I visited a wine fair near the town of San Casciano Val di Pesa in northern Chianti, at the Le Corti estate of Principe Duccio Corsini, whose family has produced olive oil and wine since 1427. The violets were in bloom everywhere and the olive groves and vineyards stretched for miles, but the main attraction was in a marquee where the leading Tuscan wine producers had gathered to offer tastings and, of course, flog wine by the caseload.

Wine fairs are an excellent introduction to the region. The largest is held in the central town of Greve in early September, at the beginning of the grape harvest. Others occur throughout autumn in Castellina. Armed with a notebook and a glass (hired for a refundable €5/£3.50), I strolled in to drink and learn.

The way to distinguish a traditionally produced Chianti Classico from a basic Chianti table wine is by the gallo nero (black cockerel) label on the neck - the mark of a producer from central Chianti who adheres to traditional methods, blending sangiovese with canaiolo, colorino, cabernet sauvignon or merlot grapes and small amounts of two white varieties, trebbiano or malvasia.

Other marks to look out for are the DOC ( Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG ( Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) labels, which ensure that wines are produced within specific regions using legally defined methods. DOCG denotes a subterritory of a DOC region, often with more stringent standards. Significant Tuscan DOCGs outside Chianti include two towns south of Siena: Montalcino (which produces a Brunello) and Montepulciano (home of Vino Nobile).

The gallo nero and DOCG labels set the standard, but they're not the only means of pinning down a great Tuscan wine. In true baroque fashion, Tuscany's oenologists have refused to be hemmed in by the parameters of tradition and law. Their so-called Super Tuscans often beat the classic reds in both price and prestige. The critically acclaimed Tenuta di Trinoro 2001, for example, was retailing at an eye-watering €260 (£185) a bottle, without a whiff of sangiovese or a DOC classification. Its eccentric producer, Andrea Franchetti - a tall, dapper man with a mop of red hair and thick-rimmed glasses - prefers the cabernet franc vine to sangiovese. He grows it on a limestone mountain beyond the traditional wine area, near Sarteano, on the Tuscany-Lazio border.

Unlike other producers, who took me through table wines and Chianti DOCs to their prized Chianti Classico DOCG Riservas, Franchetti offered just the one bottle, comprising 55 per cent cabernet franc, 35 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 10 per cent petit verdot. A real gem, almost unclassifiable in Tuscan terms, falling into the recently invented Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) category (the equivalent of the French "vin de pays" label), but sadly way out of my budget.

Instead, I plumped for the home side - an excellent €10 (£7) bottle of Duccio Corsini's 2002 Le Corti Chianti Classico.

Once you've been to a fair, tasted the wine and purchased your favourite, it's time to imbibe. Sit out on the terrace of your agriturismo - one of the many villas and farmhouses (often with swimming pools) available for holiday rentals - with a plate of bruschetta pomodoro, gaze over the vines that disappear in parallels into the valleys, and glug away to your heart's content. If instead you want to find a remote hilltop to sit on, don't forget your mackintosh square.

Alla Corte del Vino in San Casciano is held every May (entry: €15; www.principecorsini.com); the Greve Chianti Classico wine festival is held 10-12 September ( www.greve-in-chianti.com). Car hire is available from Pisa airport, which is well served with flights from all the main UK airports

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