Tuscany represents the consummate image of all Italian wine regions, thanks to its endless rolling hills, cypress-lined country roads and picturesque hilltop towns. The exceptional quality of its wines is the foundation of its global reputation built on such iconic wines as Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Located in west-central Italy, Tuscany is bordered by Liguria and Emilia-Romagna to the north, Umbria and Marche to the east and Lazio to the south. Its western boundary is formed by the Tyrrhenian Sea. Tuscany has a long wine history that can be traced back nearly 2,500 years.Tuscany is one of the most prolific wine regions in Europe with its vineyards producing an array of internationally recognized wines. These go far beyond the well-known reds, and include dry whites such as Vernaccia di San Gimignano and sweet wines both white (Vin Santo) and red (Elba Aleatico Passito). The region’s top wines are officially recognized and protected by a plethora of DOC and DOCG titles.
The region’s success is due in part to the climate. Warm, temperate coastal areas are contrasted by inland areas (particularly those in the rolling hills for which the region is so famous), where increased daily temperature variations help to maintain the grapes’ balance of sugars, acidity and aromatics. Sangiovese, debatably the most important Italian wine grape, grows on these hillsides. It is the anchor of almost all of Tuscany’s top reds. Due to its long history and broad regional distribution, it has acquired various names. In Montalcino it goes by the name Brunello. In Montepulciano, it is known as Prugnolo Gentile. Under the name Morellino it is the grape used to make Morellino di Scansano. Sangiovese is also featured in Chianti, where it is blended with small amounts of Canaiolo and Colorino, as well as increasing quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The Super Tuscan Bordeaux blends, the most famous of which come from Bolgheri, include the Cabernet Sauvignon grape which has become a much more prominent variety in Tuscany. But despite the relatively recent appearance of French varieties in Tuscan wines, native varieties still reign supreme.
Brunello di Montalcino
Brunello di Montalcino is one Italy’s most distinguished wines. It shares this honor with the highly prized Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and the ever-present Chianti. All Brunello di Montalcino wine is made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes grown on the slopes around Montalcino – a classic Tuscan hilltop village 20 miles (30km) south of Siena.
Montalcino, the hilltop home of Brunello
While the first red wines from Montalcino date back to the early 14th century, the 100% all-Sangiovese Brunello di Montalcino style we know currently was not produced until the 1870s. Its development is due to the efforts of Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, whose name lives on in one of Montalcino’s finest Brunello-producing estates. Biondi-Santi came home from the Garibaldi campaigns to manage the Fattoria del Greppo estate belonging to his grandfather Clemente Santi. His unusual winemaking techniques revolutionized wine styles in Montalcino as well as throughout Tuscany.
It was common practice to co-ferment all the grapes together – clones and varieties, red and white grapes. But, Biondi-Santi’s approach to vinifiy his Sangiovese grapes separately created a pure, high-quality Sangiovese that was livelier and fruitier than most other wines. He achieved this by forgoing the second fermentation (as distinct from the secondary fermentation used in méthode traditionelle wines) that was the standard procedure. Finally, he aged the wines in wooden barrels, sometimes for over 10 years. The distinction between Brunello and other Tuscan Sangiovese wines was reinforced by the local names given to Sangiovese. In Montalcino, the grapes grow unusually large and were called Sangiovese Grosso (‘fat Sangiovese’), and eventually Brunello (the name of the modern-day wine).
By the end of WWII, Biondi-Santi was the only commercial producer of Brunello and had declared four vintages by that time: 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945. As the wine gained the reputation as one of Italy’s finest, other producers began making this new Brunello di Montalcino. and by the 1960s; there were at least 11 Brunello producers. As Brunello became more popular, more winemakes began producing it. It was officially designated as Italy’s first DOCG in July 1980, alongside Piedmont’s Barolo. Currently, there are close to 200 winemakers producing it, most being small farmers and family estates.
Traditional methods include aging the wine in oak vats for a long time resulting in complex wines. In the 1980s, some began creating a fruiter style because they felt the traditional style was too tannic. They did this by using smaller barrels and reducing the maturation time.
The regulations of Brunello’s DOCG classification state the vineyards must be planted on hills with good exposures at altitudes of 1968ft (600m) above sea level or lower in order to ensure the grapes reach optimal ripeness and flavor before being harvested. At higher elevations, the mesoclimate becomes cooler to the point of unreliability. Achieving ripeness is rarely a problem for Brunello producers as the Montalcino climate is one of the warmest and driest in Tuscany.
In good years, the Sangiovese Grosso grapes ripen up to a week earlier than those in nearby Chianti and Montepulciano.
Microclimates vary between the different areas of Tuscany resulting in different rates of ripening and creating different styles of wine. Northern slope grapes ripen slowly and create a racier style of wine while southern and eastern slope grapes are exposed to more intense sun and ocean breezes creating a more complex wine. The top producers usually own vineyards on all the finest terroirs. Allowing them to create base wines of both styles in order to blend to create their desired style.
According to Brunello di Montalcino wine production laws, Brunello must be made from 100% Sangiovese and aged for at least four years (five for riserva wines). At least 2 years must be spent in oak and it must be bottled at least four months before to commercial release. These elegant, age-worthy wines resulting from the strict laws are known for their brilliant garnet hue and bouquets of berries with underlying vanilla and spice. A hint of earthiness brings balance to the finest examples.
Chianti is home and namesake of the best-known and most iconic of all Italian wines. Cosimo Medici III set the boundries of the official Chianti wine zone in the early 18th Century. The wine’s unique characteristics were developed under the craftsmanship of Barone Ricasoli in the late 19th century. At the time, it was made using a wide range of local varieties, including white-wine grapes. The Chianti DOC title was created in 1967, and promoted to DOCG in 1984.
Hillside vineyards in Chianti
The success declined in the 1970s, as many producers opposed the mass production and began creating wines outside this classification’s broad rules; wines were produced under the looser conditions of the Vino da Tavola classification enabling them to either use 100% Sangiovese or blend in a little Cabernet Sauvignon. A new designation was introduced under the guise of IGT, for this new ‘trend’ that allowed the different blends or varietals not within the rules of the DOC. Even the DOC regulations were eventually adapted, and Chianti was promoted to the higher classification of in 1984.
Local laws require wines to have a minimum of 70% Sangiovese (and 80% for the more prestigious Chianti Classico DOCG). The native varieties Canaiolo and Colorino are also permitted, as are the classics Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to a limited degree. Finally, in 2006, the use of white grapes Trebbiano and Malvasia was prohibited.
Chianti’s winemaking zone covers the provinces of Prato, Florence, Arezzo, Pistoia, Pisa and Siena. Yielding more than any other Italian DOC, equal to more than 26 million gallons (750,000hL) a year. The wines from the Chianti Classico zone are the area’s most respected and were awarded a separate DOCG status in 1996. The other Chianti sub-zones (Chianti Rugina, Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Colline Pisane, Chianti Montalbano and Chianti Montespertoli come under the Chianti DOCG, and any wine made in these zones is permitted to use either the name of the sub-zone or simply Chianti.
The Montecucco DOC sits in the southern part of Tuscany between Montalcino, and Scansano. Although it has a history of winemaking dating back to the 8th century, it was only awarded its DOC classification in 1998.
According to regulations, vineyards are limited to a small part of the province of Siena and the rest sit in the Upper Maremma. Located on the southwest slopes of the Amiata Mountain and opposite the Brunello slopes, they enjoy the same microclimate.
Today this DOC is known for Montecucco Rosso, made up of 60% Sangiovese. The wine has fine tannins, sweet fruit aromas and cherry-rich flavors. A Sangiovese varietal and its riserva (aged for a minimum of 24 months) are also part of the DOC, as is a Vermentino varietal; all require 85% of the stated variety.
The DOC was upgraded to DOCG for the Sangiovese Rosso in 2011. Production rules were revised to include minimum alcohol content of 13% for Rosso and 13.5% for Riserva, aging parameters were changed to minimum 17 months (12 in barrel and 4 in bottle for Rosso and minimum 34 months (24 in barrel and 6 in bottle). Also, the percentage of Sangiovese minimum was upgraded to 90% and the production area is limited to 238 ha/588 acres. Seven communes and 18 frazioni are allowed to put their name on the label.
Bolgheri is one of Italy’s finest and most prestigious vineyard areas. On the coast, south of Livorno, the winemaking zone is made up of sloping coastal vineyards at the foot of the hills between the town of Bolgheri and the southern part of Castagneto close to the Tyrrhenian Sea.
To revive the region in the 60s, the wine producers started a new trend of non-DOC wines, eventually called the Super Tuscan. The most important wine was Sassicaia – a Bordeaux-style red created from vines originating in Bordeaux. Sassicaia returned Bolgheri and Tuscany into the limelight. Sassicaia was also the first and only Italian wine to be honored with its own single-estate classification: thus in 1994, Bolgheri and Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC were born.
A vineyard in Bolgheri, Tuscany
The importance of terroir is the primary concern of the Bolgheri DOC. Because of this, the Bolgheri Rosso and Bolgheri Superiore wines are labeled without the mention of three main grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot). It may also include up to 50% of Syrah or Sangiovese or up to 30% of Petit Verdot. The plain rosso must be aged for at least ten months, while the superiore must mature for 24 months before release.
These wines are complex and rich in color. They offer aroma’s of well ripened berries and aromatic herbs. On the palate, glossy tannins and refreshing acidity combine for an enduring finish.
Along with these well-known reds, the Bolgheri DOC title also includes whites and rosés. Bolgheri Bianco uses Vermentino, sometimes with an addition of Sauvignon Blanc and Voigner. Rosato di Bolgheri is made from a combination of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other Tuscan grapes – producing fresh, fruity and savory rose wines.