Tuscany is one of the first places that come to mind when picturing a classic wine region. This iconic area holds the hearts of so many wine-lovers. Who could resist the rolling hills and idyllic landscape? Pair that with notable wine and you have yourself a winecrush.
The Etruscans (ancient settlers of Tuscany, that predate the Romans) cultivated grapes 3000 years ago and used them as an important cash crop. In fact, studies show it was likely the Etruscan Italians who taught early French populations about wine production.
Early examples of regional Tuscan wine was seasoned with herbs, such as basil, thyme and rosemary and crushed on limestone tables. The wine was stored and traded in amphorae, which has come back into style in recent years, and in some areas it’s always remained this way.
Tuscany, called Toscana to locals, is located in Central Italy, with the Tyrrhenian Sea bordering it on the west side. It is surrounded by other well-known wine regions, such as, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, Marche, Umbria and Lazio.
The warm Mediterranean influence from the sea and hilly landscape are crucial factors in the region’s success. The Apennine Mountains near the Emilia-Romagna border mollify the summertime heat. Some of the best vineyards are planted at higher elevations of the hillsides where diurnal swing aids in the harmony of sugars, acidity and concentration of flavors and aromas. One variety that is well suited for this climate is Sangiovese, which some might consider Tuscany’s signature grape, although there are many grapes and styles that the region is known for.
Equally diverse is the soil, spanning from a variety of different types of clay and sand. Marl-like clay can be found in the Apennine foothills, sandy clay is found in Siena, with loam and sand found in Maremma on the coast.
Styles range from dry red and white wines done as single varietals or blends—the most famous being the Super Tuscan and passito dessert wines known as Vin Santo.
A Super Tuscan is a blend of an indigenous grape like Sangiovese and one or more non-indigenous grapes—usually consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. They came to be when frustrated winemakers started blending these grapes to make a better product despite wine laws rules against it. Eventually a new IGT was created which allowed winemakers to continue to create these blends legally. In the 80’s these wines were on fire—the most famous being Tignanello, created by Antinori in 1974.
Important Red Grapes of Tuscany
Believed to have originated in Tuscany, this grape is very important to the region. It is prized for its high acid, strong tannic structure and the ability to make world-class bottlings. Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is 100% Sangiovese and it is used in blends for Chianti, Super Tuscans and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to give structure. Depending on the style desired, these can be oaked or unoaked. More time in oak will coax out more complex flavors and aromas. Some notes you might find are fresh cherry and tomato on a younger Sangiovese that has not seen any, or very little oak. Tea leaves, savory dried herbs and dark chocolate might come through in an older wine. Young or old, oak or stainless, there is usually a rustic undertone to Sangiovese-heavy wines.
Due to the popularity of Super Tuscans, Cabernet Sauvignon has become a mainstay in Tuscany. Adding complexity and fullness to the blend, Cabernet is sometimes called “Sangiovese’s cousin”. It’s signature green-pepper, pyrazine note add intrigue and firm tannins aid in ageability.
Merlot is another grape that found a home in Tuscany during the rise of Super Tuscans. It’s also found in some Chiantis. It buds, flowers and ripens early so it brings concentration of flavors and aromas. Blackfruit, violets, baking spices and dark chocolate are typical of Merlot, and can soften a Super Tuscan.
This grape was once a very important grape to a Chianti blend—sometimes making up half of the blend. Due to Chianti’s reformed DOCG laws, allowing only 10% to be used, Sangiovese has taken its place. It’s a neutral grape that doesn’t offer a lot of complexity. It can offer ripe strawberry and leather notes but has a bitter edge to t as well. It’s still grown in the region but less and less over the years.
Important White Grapes of Tuscany
Called Ugni Blanc in France where it is mainly used for Cognac and Armagnac, this grape is one of the most widely planted varieties in the world. It’s a high yielding grape and generally puts out bland wines. Its naturally high acidity makes it a good candidate for Cognac production and also to add zip to white blends and freshness to red wines. As an example, by law up to 10% is permitted in red Carmignano.
This grape produces beautifully aromatic and round full-textured wines. It is used to produce still white wines, dessert wines and fortified wines. It is also a very important part of Vin Santo wines, where its role is to add plushness and intrigue.
Thought to have arrived to the area by the Greeks, this grape is prized in San Gimignano. Offering a light and crisp, fragrant wine with herbal qualities. It was the first wine to receive DOC status in 1966 and is now the only white wine to be D.O.C.G.
Similar in style to Sauvingon Blanc, Vermentino is a fresh and crisp white wine gaining popularity in the region. Grown on the coast, it’s known for citrus and saline undertones due to its maritime influence. It has high levels of phenols that give it a green almond note that sets it apart from other crisp, citric varietals. The grape can sometimes have an oily, or mouth-coating property which makes it an ideal food wine—standing up to richer dishes.
There are 42 DOC and 11 DOCG areas within the region’s ten provinces. Here are some of the most important sub-regions to know.
- Brunello di Montalcino
- Vernaccia di San Gimignano
- Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Written By Carrie Dykes
Carrie Dykes is wine writer and reviewer living in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Her by-line can be also be found in Hudson Valley Wine Magazine, InCider Japan, The Cork Report and Wine Enthusiast Magazine. She is an international wine judge for the IWSC, where she uses the skills she has learned in her WSET Diploma training.