Winemaking in Italy dates back more than 3,000 years, so you can bet that by now this country has mastered the art of creating some of the most delicious and complex wines the world has ever seen. From the cool Alps in the north to the sunny coasts in the south, Italy offers a wide range of diverse wines ranging in style and flavor. But perhaps the most well known wine region of Italy is Tuscany, known not only for its beautiful landscapes and Florentine legacy, but also as home to some of Italy’s greatest vineyards.
Situated in the northern half of central Italy, Tuscany is known for producing hearty red wines such as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. But the tradition of Tuscan winemaking dates back long before the days of the straw-covered bottles. Ancient Etruscan tomb paintings show that wine was being both produced and appreciated as early as the 8th century, thereby marking the beginning of the grand tradition of Tuscan viticulture.
The unique climate of Tuscany makes for both healthy vines and high yields. The Tyrrhenian Sea directly to the west of Tuscany gives the area a fairly mild Mediterranean climate with strong sea breezes and plenty of sunlight. Past the beaches, however, lies a hilly terrain that eventually leads to the Apennine Mountains that run down the center of the country. Although it may sound like a bad thing, these hills actually act as barriers from both the winds and the intense summer heat while also providing the grapes with a more direct source of sunlight. Additionally, high altitudes often help grapes maintain their sugars, tannins, and thick skins (all of which make for a complex, deeply flavored wine).
But since not all wines are created equal, it helps to know how to pick out the best (and recognize the worst). Italian wines generally fall into three categories: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), which refers to wines which are of the highest quality; Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), indicates a medium-quality wine; and Vina da Tavola, which is common table wine. However, another unofficial category of Tuscan wines was born in the early 1970’s, now commonly referred to as the “Super Tuscans.” Since regulations stated that Chianti must contain certain amounts of the grape Sangiovese and local white grapes, some producers felt that they could make better wines if they just ignored the rules and used their own blends to make wines in the Chianti style. With the success of these wines, they sought to make their own name and sever all associations with Chianti, hence the name “Super Tuscans.”
Along with knowing the classification system, it helps to also know the major wine regions within Tuscany. Chianti, probably the most well-known region of Tuscany, is centrally located and known for growing red varietals such as Sangiovese and Canaiolo, and whites such as Trebbiano and Malvasia. Montalcino is located just south of the Chianti region, and tends to have a warmer, drier climate that results in rich and intense wines. In southeast Tuscany, you will find the region called Montepulciano, which most often produces full-bodied blends of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. And lastly, in the southwestern portion of Tuscany we have San Gimignano, best known for producing crisp white and sparkling wines that benefit from the sandstone-based vineyards.