Tuscan Wine – Life Beyond Chianti
Life Beyond Chianti
Looking at emerging Tuscan territories and the new raft of wines from the region
by Paul Howard
Tuscany is, without doubt, one of the world’s greatest wine regions. It is an Italian wine powerhouse, producing some of Italy’s most sought-after wines. It is also the cradle of the Italian quality wine revolution. Mention Tuscan wine and the response from most people will probably be ‘Chianti’. Although wine lovers the world over might also mention its most famous grape, Sangiovese.
But with Tuscany’s sheer size comes huge diversity. It now boasts over fifty designated regions of origin, each with its own story and ambitions. The terroir ranges from flat coastal plains to high mountain eyries. There is an incredible palette of vine varieties to choose from. Yet many of these areas are relatively young and remain obscure. Even in key export markets such as Britain and the USA. The good news is that while these areas were once known only for humble table wines, they are now forging clearer identities based on wine quality. That potential is being realised. Although some have progressed further than others.
Even better news is that because many of these emerging wines and producers are high quality. The white, rosé and red wines come in a wide range of styles. They are snapping at the heels of their better-known peers. Even where Sangiovese remains the dominant grape, its sensitivity to place and vintage can result in distinctive differences in just a kilometre. Add to this mix the raft of imported French varieties such as cabernets sauvignon and franc, merlot and syrah alongside an indigenous vinous heritage (that includes pugnitello, aleatico, canaiolo, ciliegiolo and many more) and the potential, when combined with ambition and investment, starts to become apparent.
“Wildlife in abundance”
Because these areas are still relatively unknown their wines are usually more affordable too. Only a select few have achieved the premium prices that fame and luxury bring. Meanwhile, many producers still prefer to make wine under the looser IGT designation rather than adopt the local DOC. This is not always because of any particularly restrictive rules or an understandable aversion to Italian red tape. The reason is simple. With an IGT you can use the word Toscana on the label. This still has more customer recognition and lustre than the local name of origin.
This article cannot hope to adequately cover such a topic in its entirety. So I have chosen to concentrate on just four of these territories and their Consorzi that are responsible for their commercial and technical development. They occupy Tuscany’s coastal strip. Part of the Costa degli Etruschi, if you will, from Bibbona in the North down to Elba Island in the South.
What lies behind the golden beaches the Florentines love is both remarkable and varies wildly. Yet how many wine lovers are still unfamiliar with Bolgheri? It is easily the most successful of the emergent territories, let alone Val di Cornia and Terratico di Bibbona. In Britain, the large island of Elba remains far more famous for Napoleon’s 300-day exile than for any of its wines.
These are unspoilt areas that are chock-full of scenery, natural forest and drained marshland. There are groves of Pineta offering welcome shade. There are Cypress avenues and wildlife in abundance. Those in love with nature will find it entrancing. And then, of course, there are the vines…
“One of the most sought-after red wines”
Bolgheri is a tiny area with a uniquely benign microclimate. It lies between the arty village of Bolgheri and the town of Castagneto Carducci. There are just 1,220 hectares of vines planted. Yet its meteoric rise was due primarily to one winery, Tenuta San Guido. It now has its own unique DOC for their legendary Sassicaia – the only one that exists in Italy.
Its emergence began in the late sixties with planting and blending Bordeaux grape varieties. That story has become legend. It requires no repetition here, save to say that Sassicaia is now one of the best and most in-demand Italian reds. This achievement drew in an enormous amount of investment into the area. Most were seeking emulation and many new wineries were established. Now there are forty or so producers in the consorzio. This includes other big names such as Ornellaia, Ca’Marcanda and Guado Al Tasso.
Skyrocketing media attention does mean expensive prices for their top wines. However, standards throughout Bolgheri are very high. Because there was very little winemaking tradition here, red grapes from Bordeaux dominate the scene. Sangiovese is hardly planted and generally isn’t suited to this terroir. It is too warm and the soils too rich. White varieties for fresh early drinking play second fiddle. The best are based on Vermentino, which has an uncanny knack of picking up minerality in the soil. Neither the Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay replicate the success of their French red cousins and are best for adding character to some blends. Those who plant Viognier however find it has a great affinity with Vermentino and the best of those blends show great potential.
“Near perfect for growing Merlot”
The vineyards here form a tight patchwork. There are some 2-3 kilometres back from the sea, on flat land and hilly slopes. They are dominated by forest and maritime pines where the soil is poor and stony. This also avoids salinity and over-fertility in the coastal soils and offers natural protection from onshore breezes. Small patches of clay are rare but near perfect for growing Merlot, with Masseto from Ornellaia and Le Macchiole’s Messorio world class expressions as a result.
So with the media attention and in some cases eye-watering prices of some Bolgheri wines, what is Bolgheri doing in an article about emerging territories? Simply this: Bolgheri has a long way still to go. The vines are, for the most part, young. Few wines have yet had a chance to mature over many years. The region has only existed as a DOC for less than twenty years. Only now has it been closed to further new ventures. Before Sassicaia there were only peach orchards and strawberries. Before that, malarial marshland where locals eked out a living. In addition, the golden success of Bolgheri is what other less well known wine areas seek to replicate. But as we will see this will not be achieved by mimicking Bolgheri, the other regions need to find their own path.
“Potential superstars of the future”
For Bolgheri, the agent provocateur, its challenge now is sustaining and refining what it has achieved into the long term. In addition, knock off the media froth and the investment-grade pricing from the top wines and underneath there are plenty of superb yet less well known Bolgheri wines to be discovered at real-world prices. In a number of tastings held with the Consorzio and at a Blind Tasting, the wines from lesser known sources such as Castello di Bolgheri, Patrimonio Tringali-Casanuova and Georgio Meletti-Cavallari really stood out against their famous peers. These are the potential superstars of the future.
Val di Cornia
For me, this is the next territory ‘most likely to’. It captures my imagination like no other. Situated immediately south of Bolgheri, this is a much bigger and hence more diverse region. There are three sub-zones centred around the towns of inland Suvereto, Campiglio Marittima and coastal Piombino. With sea breezes, it is much cooler on the coast than inland, where summer temperatures soar. Early success came from a few wineries seeking to replicate the Bolgheri gold rush with their Bordelais ideas. But in Val di Cornia vines have been raised since Etruscan times and there is much more variety. The recent expansion of vineyards in Val di Cornia has been startling. In just 20 years the number of producers has increased from 14 to 50 and there is now 5,700 under vine, a 65% increase.
“Home of monovarietal wine”
Here you can find traditional Sangiovese planted alongside the Bordeaux newcomers. Cabernet and Merlot have a great affinity with the sandy clay soils of this territory. While Syrah also shows great potential, particularly inland. While Sangiovese brings mixed results in this very warm region, the local ciliegiolo and canaiolo red grapes have strongholds here and can be glorious. I found that the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape also makes an unusual appearance. That was brought here by Abruzzi migrants that came to mine the metal-rich hills known as the Colline Metallifere and work in the industries of Piombino. There is also some fine aleatico made. Particularly for red passito-style dessert wines.
White grapes are also grown more extensively here, especially down on the cooler coast. Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc put in an appearance, again with mixed results. Vermentino does best and is arguably better than in Bolgheri, alongside Malvasia and Ansonica (the local name for Sicily’s Inzolia). Both make characterful white wine. Even the ever-maligned Trebbiano can do well.
As in Bolgheri, a few wineries have established lofty reputations, such as Tua Rita and Guado del Re. They come from the same mould as their Bolgheri cousins. The ambitious Petra is another one keen to join the alumni. Yet the small family owned wineries of the Val di Cornia represent great quality and value. They hold the keys to its future. The DOC is now 30 years old and DOCG status has recently been secured, though no DOCG wines are ready for release – tasting those from barrel indicate that this represents a step-change in the regions development. Most wineries here prefer not to blend. This is the home of monovarietal wine. A key difference to Bolgheri and a good strategy to pursue in creating their own unique identity
“Conditions for slower grape ripening”
In many respects, Val di Cornia has the potential to become one of the most exciting wine tourism regions in Italy. Houses of sun-baked sandstone rise higgeldy-piggeldy from cobbled streets far too hazardous to navigate by car. Local food treats, where the menu is the market, are all around. Coastal beaches, Etruscan archaeology and ancient forest full of wild Boar give some idea of the diversity of this exciting region. This is a land of woodsmoke and birdsong.
Terratico di Bibbona
Travelling back north of Bolgheri on the Via Aurelia and you will find the newly established Terratico di Bibbona DOC, created only in 2006. It has hardly begun to find its feet and there is a sense of polarity between those using traditional local grapes and those adopting French varieties. This means that they are some way off from creating a cohesive identity.
It would really help if some larger wineries backed the consorzio and joined the DOC. Whites made include those from vermentino and trebbiano, while reds are based around sangiovese, syrah or the Bordelais grapes. They may be blends or monovarietal wines. For example, the Rosso DOC is a blend of sangiovese and merlot. While the Bianco DOC must contain at least 50% vermentino. Irrigation is permitted here as water-stress in dry summer is common. While it can be hot, temperatures are ameliorated by onshore winds during the day and corresponding breezes from inland at night. Good conditions for slower grape ripening and the preservation of aromas and fresh acidity.
There is a sense of new investment to exploit the undoubted potential that exists here. Witness the solar-powered Ferrari Iris winery, or the involvement of Antinori at Campo di Biserno near the border with Bolgheri. This is the best known winery internationally and could really give the region a leg-up.
The landscape is flatter and full of Mediterranean scrub land. Olive trees are abundant, as is the presence of many olive oil mills, once a mainstay of the local economy. It is perhaps telling that I particularly enjoy the white and rosé wines from this region. The reds frequently show potential but suffer when compared to those from Val di Cornia, let alone Bolgheri. With investment and oenology this can change and prices are reassuringly low for the most part. Yet I’d back the lighter bianco and rosato styles here for creating an identity and a real sense of terroir. I encounter viognier grown at Fortulla and given the success of that grape in Bolgheri I’d wager that it could be very much at home partnered with vermentino here.
Elba is a large, mountainous and beautiful island reached after some 40 minutes by the ferry from Piombino, across a treacherous sea. The capital, Portoferraio, is dominated by a wonderfully imposing Medici fortress. Its crystalline beaches seem almost to be without number. There are memorable silent vistas where the high cliffs fall to the sea in fingers, all covered in rosemary and broom. The influence of Napoleon’s sovereignty is still evident, from which he escapes to fight one last time at Waterloo.
“Painstaking to make”
Today, Elba’s physical separation from the mainland and its natural charms welcome hordes of summer tourists. In wine terms, this is both a blessing and an Achilles’ heel. On the one hand there is a great deal of demand for the inexpensive island white and rosé wines in numerous bars and restaurants. Trebbiano, vermentino, ansonica, malvasia, procanico and a little moscato are mostly grown for summer refreshment. So much so that the local wineries frequently sell out quickly. Thankfully there are very good mineral-laden examples. Nuggets of high quality lost in a sea of indifference. On the other hand, in the face of tourism there is less incentive for the industry here to drive for wine quality. Or to plant much red besides easy quaffing sangiovese. It is also easier to make good money in tourism than eke out a back-breaking struggle from wine growing.
However, the true glory of Elba wine has always been the delicious sweet red aleatico DOCG dessert wines. These are unfortified, a revelation and an expression of the true identity of this land. But while this style has been made on the island for many centuries and the quality is exceptional, demand for sweet dessert wine is sadly in decline. The wines are also painstaking to make and the island now makes only 25,000 bottles per year. Perhaps if more people realised aleatico’s almost unique affinity with chocolate things could change!
“Demands your attention”
It is contending with such challenges that is the goal of the Elba consorzio. Numbering 17 producers, and formed in 1967, they are a dedicated and enthusiastic bunch. Wineries such as Aquabona, Ripalte and Cecilia are striving to make exceptional wines from aleatico, alicante (grenache) and syrah that deserve a wider audience.
In summary, there is much to discover in these emergent regions of the Colli degli Etruschi. There is so much quality wine and so many different styles on offer. Bolgheri is unparalleled, while Val di Cornia now stands on the brink of realising its potential. Terratico di Bibbona has a long way to go and Elba may never surmount the twin problems of tourism and physical separation. Yet all can offer vinous excitement in their different ways and contribute hugely to the mosaic that is the true Tuscany. For wine lovers, the Tuscan coast simply demands your attention.