Tuscany

Florence (Firenze) is the administrative center of Tuscany, whose provinces include Arezzo, Grosseto, Livorno, Lucca, Massa-Carrara, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena. The region ranks 5th in size (22,997 square kilometers) and 9th in population (3,529,000).

Chianti is produced in eight distinct zones and adjacent areas that cover a vast territory of central Tuscany, around the original core of Chianti Classico. In those gorgeously rugged hills variations in soil and climate contribute as much to the individuality of each authentic estate wine as do winemakers’ quests for creative styles. Some Chianti is still fairly fresh, easy and quaffable, though a growing portion is rich and elaborate and capable of becoming aristocratic with age. Those variables can be confusing, but for consumers who persist, Chianti offers some of the best value in wine today.  Much Chianti is identified by its subdistricts, most prominently Classico, whose producers’ consortium is symbolized by a black rooster. Many estates also emphasize the name of a special vineyard as a mark of distinction. What Chianti has in common with all of the traditional red wines of Tuscany is its major grape variety Sangiovese.

In the past varieties were often blended, but today the emphasis is strongly on Sangiovese or Sangioveto, which deserves to be ranked with Italy’s and the world’s noblest vines. From good vintages, pure Sangiovese wines are rich in body and intricate in flavor with deep ruby-garnet colors. Some are smooth and round almost from the start, but others need years to develop the nuances of bouquet and flavor unique to well-aged Tuscan reds.

Tuscany’s appellation of greatest stature is Brunello di Montalcino, a DOCG from a fortress town south of Siena where reds of legendary power and longevity have commanded lofty prices. Conceived by the Biondi Santi family a century ago, Brunello is now issued under more than a hundred labels, representing small farms, established estates and even international corporations. Brunello producers also make the DOCs of Rosso di Montalcino (a younger wine from Sangiovese), the sweet white Moscadello di Montalcino (from Moscato) and a range of wines that carry the appellation Sant’Antimo.

Not far from Montalcino is Montepulciano with its Vino Nobile, made from a type of Sangiovese known as Prugnolo Gentile. The nobile entered the name centuries ago, apparently in homage to its status among the nobility. The poet Francesco Redi described Montepulciano’s red as “king of all wines.” After a lapse of decades, Vino Nobile has made an impressive comeback under DOCG and is once again living up to its name. Producers may also produce the DOC Rosso di Montepulciano as a younger alternative to Vino Nobile.

Carmignano rates special mention as a wine singled out for protection by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1716. Today this rare red from Sangiovese and Cabernet ranks as DOCG, though the red Barco Reale and other wines of Carmignano remain as DOC.

Pomino, which was also cited in the decree of 1716, is a high altitude DOC zone with a red that blends Sangiovese with Cabernet and Merlot and a special white which includes Chardonnay and Pinot. Among numerous other DOC reds, Morellino di Scansano, grown in the coastal hills of the Maremma, is strongly on the rise. The production of upscale alternative, which began as a trend in the 1970s, became an essential factor in the general improvement of Tuscan reds. Cult wines which have become known as “Super Tuscans” continue to prosper. Yet Sassicaia, the pure Cabernet that in the 1970s convinced the world that Italy could make modern reds of international appeal, now has a DOC of its own under the Bolgheri appellation. The Sangiovese-Cabernet blend of Tignanello served as the model for Tuscany’s new style of red wine aged in small oak barrels or barriques instead of ancient casks. Then came Cabernet-Sangiovese blends and, later, reds from Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Nero. The “Super Tuscans” rank among the most esteemed and expensive red wines of Italy. Today those that remain outside of DOC/DOCG are generally entitled to the regionwide Toscana IGT.

Inspired by the success of Cabernet and Merlot in Bolgheri, wines from the coastal sector of Tuscany have risen rapidly in prestige to challenge the central hills for supremacy. In the heart of the Maremma, as the coastal hills of southwestern Tuscany are known, lies the Morellino di Scansano zone, source of a red based on Sangiovese. Other DOC zones of promise include Val di Cornia, Montecucco, Monteregio di Massa Marittima, Montescudaio, Capalbio and Sovana. The pride of many a Tuscan winemaker is the rich Vin Santo, which has become DOC in many zones around the region. Pressed from partly dried grapes and aged in small wooden barrels, Vin Santo can be an exquisite dessert or aperitif wine. Most Vin Santo is made from white varieties, mainly Malvasia and Trebbiano, though the type called Occhio di Pernice comes from red wine grapes.

Until recently, Tuscan whites rarely enjoyed much prestige, probably because most of them consisted of the pedestrian varieties of Trebbiano and Malvasia. Exceptions to the rule stand out from the crowd. Vernaccia di San Gimignano, from the ancient Vernaccia vine, has enjoyed a revival that led to its promotion as the region’s first white DOCG. Vermentino has spread through the coastal hills as a white variety of outstanding promise.

Recently, whites of depth and complexity have been produced in Tuscany, made from such international varieties as Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Bianco and Grigio, all of which are finding comfortable environments in cooler parts of the region’s hills.