Regions - Italy - Tuscany

Italy - Tuscany

Florence's region has shifted its stance in the last several decades from a complacent supplier of flask Chianti to the nation's most creative producer of premium wines. Tuscany's revolution began in Chianti and the central hills around Siena but quickly spread to take in the coastal zones that were not previously noted for vineyards.

Much of the progress has come with classical reds, as illustrated by the fact that four of Italy's DOCGs are here - Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti and Carmignano. But growing success with other reds (including the stylish table wines sometimes called "Super Tuscans") and a new breed of whites has enhanced the region's reputation.

Chianti, still the dominant force in Tuscan viniculture, has ranked as the most Italian of wines for decades. This is partly because it is the most voluminous and widely sold classified wine and it has a personality that is inexorably pinned to central Tuscany. In these rugged hills, variations in soil and climate contribute as much to the individuality of each authentic estate wine as do producers' quests for a personal style. These variations may be confusing, but Chianti still offers some of the best quality for value in wine today.

Since Chianti was elevated to DOCG in 1984, its production has sharply diminished and its quality has markedly improved. Chianti may be identified by its subdistricts, though only producers of Classico - whose consortium is symbolized by a black rooster - have made much of a geographical point so far. Many estates emphasize the name of a certain vineyard or area as a mark of distinction on the bottle.

What Chianti has in common with all the classified 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. When the habitat is right, its superior clones - Montalcino's Brunello, Chianti's Sangioveto and Montepulciano's Prugnolo Gentile - must be ranked with Italy's, and the worlds, noblest vines.

Tuscany's other wine of stature is Brunello di Montalcino, a DOCG from a fortress town south of Siena. Conceived by the Biondi Santi family a century ago, Brunello is now produced underscores of labels, representing small farms, established estates and even international corporations. Brunello production averages less than 2 milion bottles a year, but producers also make the DOCs of Rosso di Montalcino (a younger wine from Brunello vines) and sweet white Moscadello di Montalcino (from Moscato).

Not far from Montalcino is Montepulciano with its Vino Nobile. 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. Similar to Chianti in composition, Vino Nobile can stand with the finest reserves. The DOC Rosso di Montepulciano is a younger alternative.

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 has qualified as a DOCG, though the town's rose' and Vin Santo remain as DOC. Among numerous other DOC reds, Morellino di Scansano, grown in the coastal hills of the Maremma, seems to have a promising future. In the last five years, more time, energy and money from many of the finest producers have been spent here than in any other area in Italy.

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. When conditions are not right, reds from Sangiovese can be lean, harsh and bitter. That explains why some producers have planted other varieties to complement the natives. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have made progress here.

By no means all the fine wines of Tuscany are classified. The production of up-scale "vini da tavola," which began as a trend in the 1970s, is now an established fact. Sassicaia and Tignanello were the prototypes, but now there are dozens more that rank among the most esteemed and expensive red wines of Italy.

Tuscan whites rarely enjoy 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 rapid revival and was recently awarded DOCG status. The rich Vin Santo, pressed from semidried grapes and aged in small wooden barrels, can be an exquisite - or, sometimes, exotic - dessert or aperitif wine.

The best known white is Galestro, made by a group of producers equipped to process Trebbiano with other varieties in a fresh and fruity table wine that is deliberately light in weight. Recently, whites of more complexity and character have been devised in Tuscany, due to the introduction of such varieties as Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio, all of which are finding comfortable environments in cooler parts of the region's hills.