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Tuscany Wines

If you had to nominate Italy's most important region for wine production out of the 20 regions that make up this country, you would be torn between Piedmont and Tuscany. In terms of wine quality, history, international reputation or simply the wines that sell for the highest prices, many people would place Piedmont just ahead of Tuscany but whichever of the two you choose it's clear that these are the twin giants of the Italian wine industry with Veneto a close third, if only in terms of volume of wine sold.

bottles of Tuscan red wines

For many people who came of age in the 1970s their earliest memory of Italian wine was Chianti, which 45 years ago meant a fiasco, that familiar straw-covered bottle containing acceptable, if not particularly memorable, red wine that once drunk was then employed as a candle holder dripping wax onto every table in cheap Italian restaurants. You can still find those straw covered bottles in the supermarkets here but everything else about Chianti and the Tuscan wine scene is unrecognizable from that time.

Tuscany today is much bigger than just Chianti and in the last 20 years has gone from strength to strength with significant new investment (much of it foreign), some sensible changes in DOC regulations and dramatic and ongoing improvements in both viticulture and vinification practices, some of which have also been with foreign involvement.

Tuscany’s major wines will always be red and the main grape will always be Sangiovese (of which there are up to 100 registered clonal varieties) but the expanding and still quite new wine areas of the Maremma (below photo looking west from Scarlino) have shown how well French red grape varieties can thrive in parts of Tuscany.

View from Scarlino looking west

What is most fascinating about a wine region like Tuscany, with its centuries of wine production history, is that along the wide coastal strip of the Maremma there are still virgin areas with no tradition of wine making that now hold great promise and we're not talking here solely about the northern part around Bolgheri, where that promise has largely been fulfilled.

Discovering new wine growing areas is unusual in a European country and much more typical of the way that New World wine industries develop over time. With regard to Tuscany it is due to the fact that throughout history a large area of the Maremma around Grosseto was a malarial swamp that people avoided and in fact malaria here wasn't completely eradicated until the 1950s, which then helped to make more accessible the rolling hills of inland Maremma, (below looking south-east from Vetulonia across the alluvial plains towards Grosseto and Scansano beyond).

view towards Grosseto from Vetulonia

When you see how beautiful the Maremma is today it’s hard to believe that the word Maremma followed by one other word forms a very old Tuscan expletive which is quite vulgar but still heard occasionally today. A reminder of how despised and shunned the Maremma was in centuries past.

As for the white wine of Tuscany, only Vermentino along the Tuscan coast (in the north and now also in the Maremma), and Vernaccia di San Gimignano are sufficiently good for us to devote limited time and resources to seeking them out. But other than some isolated examples, there are no other Tuscan white wines that can compare to the many excellent white wines from other regions in Italy.

This excludes of course the sweet Vin Santo wine for which Tuscany is also famous and which at their best can rival the best sweet desert wines from anywhere in the world. The air drying of the grapes and the extended fermentation process (sometimes taking several years to complete) is still an old fashioned process that is impossible to totally control or predict and doesn't seem to have changed much for years, but it produces wonderful wines.

Tuscany has 41 separate DOC denominated wine zones and 11 DOCG zones so there is clearly a considerable amount of very good wine produced here, but there are 19 other Italian regions that have a claim on our time and our thirst that also produce good wine to a greater or lesser extent.

Therefore the following summary is our very subjective view of the most important Tuscan wine areas with commentary as to what is of most interest to us. Our interest is determined by what we like personally and where we think we can add value to readers looking to find Italian wines that represent excellent value when compared to similar wines from other countries, ie. where the best intersection of price and quality is to be found.

1. Chianti Classico: this is the core of the Chianti zone that stretches from the outer suburbs of Florence at San Casciano and Impruneta, south almost to Siena and then east to Castelnuovo Berardenga. An area of about 40 miles long by 20 miles wide.

Within the Chianti Classico DOCG are various sub-zones with significant differences in terroir, vineyard aspect and altitude but while the market place recognizes this when pricing wines from Radda, Greve, Panzano, Gaiole, San Casciano etc, the authorities have yet to formalize these communes in any legal or labelling way. I expect that it will happen soon because it's very normal practice elsewhere (in Bordeaux for example or the 16 American Viticulture Areas of Napa Valley) and in fact very recently in the Veneto 33 newly designated sub zones or 'cru' of the Soave white wine were approved for use beginning with the 2019 vintage. As a consumer I find these geographic delineations much more useful than the DOC or DOCG denominations and the more of them the better.

Chianti Classico is required to be made from at least 80% Sangiovese and as a general rule needs at least 4 years of aging to be at its best. The traditional blending grapes in a Chianti Classico used to be Colorino and Canaiolo Nero but after the success of the 'Super Tuscans' (starting with Tignanello decades ago) that often blend Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Merlot, the rules were changed to allow up to 20% of these grapes while still retaining the Chianti Classico designation.

I understand the reason why some winemakers in Chianti like the Merlot grape, because it plays the same role as Canaiolo Nero in softening the strong natural tannins and acidity of Sangiovese, but Cabernet Sauvignon is also a very tannic grape and exacerbates these characteristics rather than alleviating them. I'm yet to be convinced that any blend of just Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon by themselves is in fact the best combination for a Tuscan wine.

castellare chianti classico

There are some world class wines produced in this area and we’ve been to various tastings over the years where we’ve had a chance to sample wines like Le Pergole Torte, Flaccianello delle Pieve and Cepparello (all 100% Sangiovese) so we can attest to the fabulous quality of the very best Chianti, but we’re not planning to review these high end wines, nor probably cover very many of the Riserva or Gran Selezione bottlings.

Instead we think that the best value is to be found in the many excellent examples of the regular Chianti Classico designation wines available at quite reasonable prices and among our favorites that we will review from time to time are the following names: Volpaia, Castello dei Rampolla, Monte Bernardi (photo below), Fèlsina, Fontodi, Castellare, Selvapiana, le Miccine and perhaps a few others. Almost all of these estates made very good Chianti Classico in 2016, 2017 and 2018, though each of these years has its own particular characteristics.

2. Other Chianti: Surrounding the Chianti Classico zone are eight other Chianti areas with names like Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Montespertoli, Chianti Rufina etc and there are many wines in these areas which are good quality and sometimes sell for very reasonable prices because they come from outside the coveted Chianti Classico DOCG denomination. These areas are very much on our radar screen.

3. Brunello di Montalcino: About 25 miles south of Siena and west of Montepulciano this DOCG zone is considerably smaller than Chianti Classico in terms of land under vine and aside from the small town of Montalcino it is quite a remote area with very few other towns. Brunello is almost as famous as Chianti these days and while still not expensive when compared to Bordeaux or Burgundy it has started to become more expensive than a lot of similar quality Chianti.

This area of southern Tuscany is much warmer than Chianti and these can be very long lasting wines with more body and density than can be achieved further north. Brunello is required to be made from 100% Sangiovese and will need a good ten years from harvest to show well but can improve for a further 5-10 years quite easily. There are no cheap Brunello wines any more and it is increasingly difficult to stumble across a bargain like Tiezzi as we did six years ago. Much as we love Brunello our attention has already shifted to other more intriguing areas of Tuscany. We have recently reviewed ten of the 2010 Brunello wines in this section.

brunello vineyards

4. Rosso di Montalcino: This is produced in the same geographic area as Brunello, an approximate square of about 15 miles by 15 miles. Like Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino is 100% Sangiovese but requires only a year of aging instead of just over four for Brunello so it’s an important product for providing cash flow for producers who have a lot of capital tied up during the Brunello aging period. Rosso can either reflect a genuine wine product in its own right from non-Brunello vineyards or can sometimes simply be declassified Brunello that perhaps is not good enough to age into something more worthwhile.

There is a very large range in pricing for Rosso, perhaps more so than the range in quality merits and the price at the higher end has now crossed over the lower end of Brunello pricing which we struggle to understand except for the fact that a famous name Brunello producer can get away with it. If so then good luck to him but Rosso is a very different wine to Brunello and there’s a limit to what we’re prepared to pay for it. Hopefully there will continue to be some good value Rosso di Montalcino wines available but prices have definitely edged up in recent years along with the price of vineyard acreage around Montalcino.

large wooden botte in montepulciano cellar, tuscany

5. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: Both the Vino Nobile and the Rosso di Montepulciano are a bit of an enigma to us. Again, these are mostly Sangiovese wines (70%) known locally as Prugnolo Gentile, and though we’ve had bottles from several different producers and have been to the beautiful town of Montepulciano to drink them, we remain somewhat unenthusiastic about these wines.

Perhaps because it’s so close to Montalcino that it’s overshadowed by Brunello but we never see articles about this wine written with any real passion, or see it much on restaurant menus or indeed hear any Italian sommeliers even mention it during conversations about developments in the Italian wine world.

It seems to us that the wine area of Montepulciano is just treading water, moving neither forward or backwards and content to service its two biggest markets of Germany and Switzerland. With so many exciting wine areas and winemakers in Italy, we are not planning to devote any time to these wines, which is a shame because it’s a lovely town to visit.

The highest profile producer in Montepulciano, Avignonesi (now Belgian owned), is however renowned throughout Tuscany for its peerless Vin Santo.

la Delfina restaurant in Artimino, Tuscany

6. Carmignano: This is a very small DOCG zone about 10 miles west of Florence airport. It’s a very attractive hilly area and Carmignano is a nice town to visit, also the nearby hamlet of Artimino which has one of our favorite restaurants, La Delfina (above photo), with panoramic views over the Tuscan countryside and the nearby Medici Villa. The Carmignano red wine has been a blend of Sangiovese (50% minimum) and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc for over 200 years so just like some Lucca blends it could make a case for being the first Super Tuscan centuries before that term was coined. One wine in particular that we like from this area is the Piaggia Carmignano ‘Il Sasso’.

7. Vernaccia di San Gimignano: As our tasting article was already written and published before we got around to writing this overview of the Tuscany wine region, there is no need to add anything else here. Instead here is a link to that article.

Vines near Lucca

8. Lucca and Montecarlo: Elisa Bonaparte introduced French grape varieties here over 200 years ago and they have thrived ever since but without attaining anything like the quality to be found in Bolgheri. As a general rule we prefer the Colline Lucchesi DOC (above) over the Montecarlo DOC and we prefer the red wines over the white wines because most of the white wines use large amounts of Trebbiano Toscano, not a favorite of ours.

In fact this grape is known as Ugni Blanc in France and the wine made from it is used exclusively for distilling into cognac rather than consuming as wine, which tells you all you need to know about the quality of the grape. Trebbiano Toscano is also used extensively for Vin Santo in Tuscany and that is a much better role for it than as a regular table wine.

In addition to La Badiola there are other producers we like around Lucca including Fubbiano, Tenuta di Valgiano and La Fabbrica di San Martino.

9. Colli di Luni: This DOC area is in the extreme north west of Tuscany in the mountainous province of Massa & Carrara and crosses the border into Liguria.

It’s mainly devoted to the white grape Vermentino with very small amounts of Vermentino Nero. It deservedly has a very good reputation for clean, refreshing, fruity wines that are more savory than the richer flavored Vermentino wines from Sardinia. We like the small winery of Ottaviano Lambruschi in this area.

Bolgheri castle from Castegneto Carducci

10. Bolgheri: About 45 miles south of Pisa you come across the small hamlet of Bolgheri with its castle. Many people expect more of a place that has given its name to some of Italy’s best wines, especially given the very impressive long straight avenue of cypresses that leads you into town, but it really is very small and won't take up much of your time.

Bolgheri vineyard

The pleasant drive from here south to the bigger and more interesting town of Castagneto Carducci along the strada provinciale bolgherese will take you past the famous vineyards of Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Le Macchiole and others, (the grapes in the photo are at Ornellaia's vineyard and like Sassicaia are under constant cctv surveillance).

Finding good wines in Bolgheri is easy but finding good value wines is a much harder proposition. There is one producer that we like a lot whose wines are reasonably priced, or at least were when we last visited. Micheletti is the name of the family operation and they have a range of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot wines from various different vineyards scattered around this area. We will be publishing a review of these in a few months.

Suvereto, Tuscany

11. Suvereto: Continuing south a few miles from Castagneto Carducci brings you to one of our favorite Maremma towns, Suvereto, which since 2011 has had its own DOCG designation due in large part to the quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot based wines that are being produced here.

There are now some internationally well known Suvereto wineries like Tua Rita and the somewhat ostentatious new winery, Petra, that looks a little out of place in this rustic area and would be more at home in Napa Valley.

But these are a sure sign of Bolgheri’s success now spreading further south. However there are other producers more suited to us in this area and we don’t need much of an excuse to make the short drive here from Lucca given how lovely this part of the Maremma is, including its coastline.

12. Val di Cornia: The Suvereto DOCG emerged from the larger area of the Val di Cornia DOC which surrounds Suvereto and it will be interesting to see if other parts of the Val di Cornia can demonstrate sufficient quality to follow suit. This whole area continues to attract outside investment as it gains experience with different grapes and clonal varieties.

southern Maremma countryside, Tuscany

13. Monteregio di Massa Marittima DOC, Montecucco DOCG, Elba DOC, Capalbio DOC, Pitigliano DOC etc:

If you pull up a map of Tuscany, from Suvereto south to the Lazio border, east to the 5,700 ft Monte Amiata (above photo) and west to the island of Elba there are various interesting and under explored Tuscan wine areas including the DOCs mentioned above. The northern and eastern sides of Monte Amiata bring you back to Montalcino and Montepulciano and south of Monte Amiata you quickly reach Lazio which bulges north from Lago di Bolsena.

The whole interior Maremma and border area of Tuscany are very remote and sparsely populated. The picturesque town of Pitigliano is situated here and has its own DOC based on its white wines which are typically simple, cheap but very pleasant wines made from a blend of as many as 5 or 6 different white grape varieties.

Elba vineyard

On the island of Elba tourism is now far more important than wine production and acreage under vine has reduced over the years as a result but there is one famous Elba wine called Aleatico which has its own DOCG denomination. The Aleatico grapes are sun dried and the resulting wine is ruby red and quite sweet which makes for an excellent desert wine, especially when aged for a few years.

Scansano, Tuscany

14. Morellino di Scansano DOCG: Based around the small medieval town of Scansano in the hills south-east of the provincial capital, Grosseto, this zone is also a little remote but it's the most well-known wine area in the whole of the southern Maremma.

Morellino is a Sangiovese based wine (85%) but has generally less tannin and is lighter than the interior Tuscan Sangiovese wines, making it more approachable young. This is not one of the new, experimental wine areas but is very well-established, producing good, reliable if sometimes unexciting red wines across a range of prices.

Conclusion: In this brief summary we have only made specific reference to just over half of the 52 DOCG/DOC Tuscany wine zones. We think we've covered the most important ones but it still leaves many more (listed on the map above) DOC zones making decent wines that we come across from time to time in our travels or see on restaurant wine lists, which we pay close attention to because in less well-known areas they often contain the names of all the good local wines, many of which will be unfamiliar to us.


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