Wine Regions of Italy – Tuscany
The map of Tuscany might seem a little daunting at first, but it becomes simpler if you consider than the vast majority of the colored spaces on the map grow some form of Sangiovese. The big three Sangiovese wines are Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. We view Tuscany as a romantic land of rolling hills dotted with picturesque villages, and it is just that. It is also a commercially important wine region, producing an array of fine wines, up to and including the so-called “Super Tuscans” (with which Cabernet Sauvignon is making major inroads). Tuscany is certainly not all Sangiovese and Cabernet—a number of white wines express themselves here, including Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
Tuscany has a range of climates. By the Tyrrhenian Sea the climate is Mediterranean and temperate, but inland, among the rolling hills, summer days are harsher and evenings cooler, a lovely environment in which to promulgate fine wine grapes.
The Sangiovese grape derives its name from the Latin sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jove”. In its epicenter of Tuscany, it tends to show sour red cherries, earthy aromas, and tea leaf notes, with medium-plus tannins, and high acidity. Sangiovese wine has two basic styles. One style is fruit forward, with red fruit like cherries and strawberries, a hint of tomato, spices like cinnamon and clove, bright acidity, medium to low tannins Another style is more rustic, showing dark chocolate and smoke with herbal notes like oregano and thyme, dried flowers, tomato, gripping tannins, highly acidic. Sangiovese has multiple clones (sub-varieties) and goes by a number of different Italian names.
We start with Chianti, the most widely produced wine in Italy (Valpolicella from the Veneto is number two). The center of all the fuss on the map, in terra cotta, is the Chianti Classico zone, a DOCG. This is the quality area originally delineated by Cosimo Medici III in the early 18th Century, which was in turn developed into a world-class wine by Barone Ricasoli in the late 19th century. Chianti quality fell in the late twentieth century, however, causing lowered standards and especially a drastic expansion of the Chianti regions. The stereotypical straw-covered flask of Chianti, called a fiasco in Italian, made a colorful candle holder, but the wine was not always that good. Chianti has dramatically improved and become more consistent in recent decades, rejecting the fiasco in favor of tall Bordeaux style bottles with high shoulders.
Note that Chianti Classico DOCG, although surrounded by Chianti DOCG, is a separate region and not a sub-zone of Chianti DOCG. That means that if a wine does not meet the standards of Chianti Classico DOCG it will not have the option of a demotion to Chianti DOCG, but must be labeled as IGP Toscana, the regional wine. The Chianti Classico people are dead serious about upholding their standards.
On the map, the numbered sections in yellow with black rims are the seven Chianti sub zones. Zone number 5, Chianti Rufina, is the most highly regarded but least represented on international wine store shelves because of its small production. Wines from the zones may label themselves as Chianti (zone) or just Chianti DOCG. The names of the zones are geographical descriptors. “Chianti Colli Fiorentini” as one example, simply means “Chianti from the Florentine Hills,” Chianti Colli Senesi (from Siena), Chianti Colline Pisane (from near Pisa), etc. The maroon areas in the east of Tuscany denote plain old Chianti DOCG, regions of one time over-expansion. Note that Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (in green) is sandwiched in between two clumps of maroon, indicating that the denomination is also within the Chianti DOCG. In the same way, that other Sangiovese wine, the incomparable Brunello di Montalcino, is also part of the Chianti Colli Senesi sub-zone.
Riserva on a Chianti means that the wine spends a minimum of two years in oak and three months aging in the bottle, and has at least 12.5% alcohol.
Chianti does not have to be 100% Sangiovese (although it may be). The rule is 80% with up to 10% red Canaiolo and up to 20% of approved red grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. White grapes were once allowed, even mandated, in the Chianti blend, but they are no longer permitted.
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is one of the most prestigious wines in all Italy, produced around the village of Montalcino near Siena in southern Tuscany. The wine is elegant, meant to age, garnet in color, with notes of berries, sweet vanilla and baking spices. “Brunello” means little dark one, and refers to the dark, big-berried clone of Sangiovese grown here, the Prugnolo Gentile. Sangiovese from this clone must account for 100% of the wine. The denomination rules are quite strict, not only for the type of grape but also regarding hillside vineyard placement, and other grape growing and winemaking procedures. Brunello must be aged four years, with at least two years in oak. The rules make for an exceptional wine, and an expensive one. Rosso di Montalcino is a less strictly produced (and less expensive) red wine requiring a shorter aging period.
In 2008, a scandal broke when prominent wine writers claimed that some Brunello producers were blending in other wines to make Brunello drinkable without the long wait (or to save money). An investigation followed. Although there was no health risk (as in the Barbera methanol scandal of 1985), Brunello took a reputational hit. Much Brunello had to be de-classified as table wine or IGT, commanding barely a fraction of its usual price. No one seems to have done any hard time because of this fraud…so far. The Italians called this episode “Brunellopoli” a reference to Tangentopoli, or “Bribesville”, an Italian political scandal of the 1990s. American writers, of course, call it “Brunellogate.”
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG is named after the village of Montepulciano and should not be confused with the grape called Montepulciano, to which this Sangiovese-based wine has no relation. (We will discuss the Montepulciano grape when we cover the region of Abruzzo.) The denomination is in southeast Tuscany, within the Chianti zone. Wine here has been produced since the age of the ancient Etruscans, before Rome, leading to a heyday of reputation during the late Middle Ages and early modern era. After a period of reputational suspended animation in the 19th and early 20th century, the DOC system brought this noble wine back into the limelight.
The same Prugnolo Gentile clone of Sangiovese used in Brunello must be used for Vino Nobile, but the wine need only be 70% Sangiovese, with allowed blending in of up to 20% Canaiolo and other local varieties. The wine must be aged at least 24 months, with at least a year in large oak casks rather than smaller barrels, to prevent too much oak influence. The medium-bodied wine is reddish brown, turning to brick over time, with plenty of red fruit—cherry, strawberry, plum—and a pleasant tannic tea-leaf finish.
Rosso di Montepulciano is a usually less expensive Sangiovese-based wine made under more relaxed rules.
The area also produces Vin Santo di Montepulciano, a sweet wine, in a white version from Malvasia Bianca, Trebbiano Toscano and Pulcinculo, and in a rosé from at least 50% Prugnolo Gentile (the same clone that produces the red wine).
Morellino di Scansano DOCG is a Sangiovese wine of Tuscany that is fighting for attention in the face of all the big players. The relatively large denomination sits in southern Tuscany, in the rolling hills overlooking the coast. Scansano is the village, and Morellino means “little dark one” referring to the Sangiovese grape. (Right—from another root word, “Brunello” has the same meaning). Viticulture here dates back to Etruscan times. The Sangiovese here is riper than the Chianti grapes further north, creating a crisp, fresh red wine with plum, cherry, pomegranate, leather, cedar and spice. The blend must contain 85% Sangiovese.
Carmignano DOCG sits north of the Chianti region, next to the Montalbano Chianti sub-zone on the eastern slopes of Monte Albano. This was one of the first regulated names in Italy, way before the DOC system came into being. Despite this, Carmignano spent decades as a Chianti Montalbano variant before winning its own non-Chianti denomination in 1975, becoming a full-fledged DOCG in 1990. Sangiovese must constitute at least 50% of the Carmignano blend, with up the 20% Canaiolo Nero and up to 20% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Uncharacteristically, the use of at least some of the Cabernet (either Sauvignon or Franc) is mandated—this is Cabernet that has thrived in the region for two hundred years.
Pomino DOC is a speck of a denomination in northwestern Tuscany nestled next to the Rufina Chianti sub-zone. Red Pomino accesses Canaiolo, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and must be aged for a year (two years for the Riserva). Pomino Bianco uses Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay and Trebbiano, bringing aromas of acacia, green apples and peaches.
Valdinievole DOC in the north produces a Rosso (red) from a minimum of 35% Sangiovese and Canaiolo Nero, and a white (Bianco) from a minimum of Trebbiano Toscano, as well as a sweet Vin Santo from a blend of Malvasia and Trebbiano.
The Colline Lucchesi DOC, takes its name from the hills to the north and east of the town of Lucca, in northwestern Tuscany. Its basic red blend is comprised of 45-70% Sangiovese with up to 30% Canaiolo and/or Ciliegiolo and up to 15% Merlot. It also produces varietal reds from Sangiovese or Merlot. The Bianco blend avails itself of Trebbiano Toscano, Greco Bianco, Vermentino and Malvasia Bianca, and white varietal wines depend on Vermentino or Sauvignon Blanc. The denomination also produces a sweet Vin Santo from dried grapes.
The Candia dei Colli Apuani DOC lies in northern Tuscany in the foothills of the Alpi Apuane. Vines here grow on the wind-sheltered lower slopes of the Apuani hills. Wine is produced in the towns of Massa, Carrara and Montignoso. The Ligurian grape Vermentino, said to originate in Spain, is grown here in both white and (rare) black forms. The black Vermentino is used for varietal red and rosé wines while the white Vermentino, at 70%, supports a blend with other Tuscan whites. Red and rosé blends are also produced from Sangiovese and Merlot. The Colli di Luni DOC to the immediate north of the Candia dei Colli Apuani is discussed in our section on Liguria, which shares the DOC with Tuscany.
Both Montecarlo DOC and the famous Monte Carlo in Monaco have the same meaning: the hill of Charles, but the Italian hill of Charles is named after 14th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, while Monte Carlo refers to the 19th century Charles III of Monaco. The Italian hill makes wine. No surprises as to the grapes vinified here: the red blend must be 60% Sangiovese, to which may be added local grapes Ciliegiolo and Colorino, as well as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. White blends are 60% Trebbiano Toscano with additions of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Vermentino, or Roussanne. A Vin Santo is also produced from grapes allowed to dry on the vine.
Bianco dell’Empolese DOC (on our map, just to the left of the Montalbano Chianti subzone) is known for dry and Vin Santo white wines from the region’s ever-popular Trebbiano Toscano. The dry whites are lightly aromatic, with notes of peach, apricot and white flowers. The tradition here is to drink the sweet golden Vin Santo with biscotti.
The squiggly San Torpe DOC near Pisa is relatively new to Tuscany. San Torpe makes rosé wines based on Sangiovese, and also white varietal wines from Trebbiano Toscano, Vermentino, and the French Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The Vin Santo is produced from Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia Bianca Lunga.
North of Siena, the San Gimignano DOC, which produces the usual Sangiovese red blends, can also boast of Tuscany’s only DOCG for white wine, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG. Vines here are planted on chalky sandstone soils at a minimum of 1700 feet above sea level. The delicious result is a dry, full-bodied, deeply-golden wine with seductive floral aromas, persistent acidity and a characteristic bitter finish. The local Vernaccia grape rules here. The Riserva version must be cellar aged (in oak or stainless steel) for at least one year. San Gimignano makes a white Vin Santo dessert wine from a blend of Vernaccia and Trebbiano Toscano, and a rosato (rosé) from Sangiovese.
Moving a shade to the south, the Montescudaio DOC produces varietal Sangiovese and Sangiovese-led blends, as well as varietal Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Vermentino wines. These varietals are a relatively new concept here. Trebbiano Toscano-based Vin Santo is also on the wine list here.
We move further south to the great disruptor of Tuscan vino-tranquility, the Super Tuscans, associated closely with the coastal Bolgheri DOC, and the enclave within it, the single vineyard Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC. The coast here is known as the Maremma. In the late 1960s the Super Tuscan came into being, especially the red wine called Sassicaia, “the place of many stones,” referring to the region’s gravel soil. These winemakers ignored local DOC regulations and began to make wines out of French grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Initially this prevented from their using prestigious DOC labeling on the wines, but the wines were of such quality that they commanded exceptional prices nonetheless. Knowing a good thing when it looked it in the face, the authorities created the two DOCs specifically allowing this wine style in 1994. The standout reds are deeply colored, age-worthy, concentrated with ripe fruit, elegant, with velvety tannins, lasting acidity, and memorable finishes. They are their own being, but one could rightly call them Bordeaux heritage with a Mediterranean soul. They do not in any way “taste French.”
The Bolgheri DOC rules are broad. Bolgheri Rosso and Bolgheri Rosé may be made from 10 to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, up to 80% Merlot, Sangiovese up to 70%, and other reds up to 30%. The Rosso must be aged two years.
For the Bolgheri Bianco blend, Trebbiano Toscano, Vermentino, and Sauvignon Blanc may comprise between 10 and70%, other local white grapes up to 30%. Sauvignon Blanc and Vermentino may also be released as single varietals following an 85% rule. The pink Vin Santo is made from Sangiovese, the white Malvasia, and other local red grapes, aged for 36 months.
The Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC rules are stricter: up to 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and a minimum of 15% Cabernet Franc, aged for 26 months.
Val di Cornia DOC has sections both south and east of Bolgheri. Val di Cornia Rosso qualifies for DOCG status. The wines have the fairly standard Tuscany configuration. Sangiovese must make up at least 40% of the Rosso and rosato wines, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a number of other red grapes. Val de Cornia Bianco wines must be made up of least 50% Vermentino with Ansonica, Viognier, Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia. The DOC allows varietal wines for its main red and white grape varieties. Suvereto DOCG was split off from Val di Cornia in 2011. Suvereto makes dry reds from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese. Both these denominations show the influence of nearby Bolgheri.
The coastal Monteregio di Massa Marittima DOC benefits from clay soils and sea breezes to produce a number of wine styles. Vermentino supports a single varietal and leads the Bianco blend with Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia Bianca. These whites in turn are used for the white Vin Santo. The rosé Vin Santo is made from Sangiovese. Sangiovese accounts for a minimum of 80% of the rosato (rosé) and the Rosso (red) wines, with the usual addition of Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Elba DOC has been producing wine on the island of Elba since Roman times. It was the site of Napoleon’s first brief exile, and his liked the wine. The top wine is a varietal white from the Ansonica grape, which also makes a sweet Passito version. The Elba Aleatico Passito red version merits its own DOCG, rare or sweet wines. The Rosso and Bianco blends are led by the usual Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano respectively. In addition, Elba makes a white varietal Muscat and a red varietal from Aleatico.
Montecucco DOC gives us rich wines with a ripe southern Tuscan flair from both Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano.
Capalbio DOC in the far south of Tuscany has many styles, including Spumante and Vin Santo as well as Rosso, Bianco and rosato, based on Sangiovese, Trebbiano and Vermentino. Capalbio overlaps most of the Ansonica Costa dell’Argentario DOC, which makes varietal wines from the white Ansonica grape.
Bianco di Pitigliano DOC also benefits from its southern location, growing grapes on extremely hilly land on porous volcanic soils. This Bianco starts with the unsurprising Trebbiano Toscano, with the local varieties Greco Bianco and Malvasia Bianca, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier. Sparkling Spumante and sweet Vin Santo is also produced.
Moving up the eastern side of Tuscany, we find Cortona DOC, whose most prominent grape is—no, not Sangiovese, but the international variety Syrah. Most wines are varietals, either Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Merlot, Pinot Nero, and, of course, Sangiovese for the reds, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling Italico (Welschriesling) and the natives Grechetto and Pinot Bianco for the whites..
Adjacent to Cortona is the Valdichiana DOC. Valdichiana Bianco must be at least 20% Trebbiano Toscano, with Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Grechetto. Its Valdichiana Rosso must be at least 50% Sangiovese, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, same for the rosato (rosé). Sparkling Valdichiana Spumante is made from the same grapes as the Bianco. The sweet Vin Santo is a joint effort of Trebbiano and Malvasia Bianca, a common combination in Tuscany.