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Florence’s region continues to advance its position as the nation’s most dynamic producer of premium wines, following decades of turning out popular Chianti in straw-covered flasks. Tuscany’s modern renaissance in wine began in Chianti, in the central hills around Siena and Florence, but it rapidly spread to take in the strip along the Mediterranean coast that was not previously noted for vineyards.
Much of the progress has come with classical reds based on the native Sangiovese vine, Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Carmignano, all DOCG. But growing success with other reds (especially the stylish non-DOC wines known as “Super Tuscans”) has been augmented by new styles of whites to enhance the region’s reputation.
Chianti, still the dominant force in Tuscan viniculture, has long rated as the most Italian of wines. This is partly because it is the most voluminous and widely sold classified wine, but also because it has a personality that cannot be pinned down. Its multifarious nature is quintessentially Italian.
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 full-bodied 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 of Chianti is identified by its subzones, 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.
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 some 200 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. In the 17th century, 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. That rare red from Sangiovese and Cabernet ranks as DOCG, while Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC applies to red, rosé and Vin Santo. 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 that includes Chardonnay and Pinot.
The production of upscale alternative wines, which began as a trend in the 1970s, became an essential factor in the general improvement of Tuscan reds. Cult wines that 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. Though not classified as DOC/DOCG, most are 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 that is strongly on the rise. Other DOC zones of promise include Val di Cornia, Montecucco, Monteregio di Massa Marittima, Montescudaio, Caparbio, Sovana and Terratico di Bibbona.
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 real 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.
The Toscana wines match very well the Toscana cuisine, with its local recipes.