With vineyards originally planted by the Etruscans almost 3000 years ago and with a number of producers having already celebrated a 500th anniversary, Tuscany can rightly claim to be the birthplace of European viticulture.
The gently rolling hills, dotted with vineyards and olive groves are a kind of earthly paradise, an immense garden in which time appears to have paused to stop and wonder. It is home to a host of Italy's most celebrated wines: Chianti, Brunello, Vernaccia and Morellino, and is the birthplace of 'Sassicaia', a wine whose first appearance in 1968 marked the beginning of Italy's winemaking renaissance. Tuscany's strongest suit is Sangiovese, a potentially tannic and acidic grape that, through low yields and a modicum of site selection, can be coaxed into producing reds whose concentration and longevity rival the best of the Rhone and Piemonte. Examples of this calibre may still be the exception to the rather charmless rule still flowing by the hectolitre from enormous concerns, but the rise and rise of a new Tuscan winemaking elite demands to be taken seriously.
Tuscan viticulture does not divide into the neat corridors of the Veneto or Piemonte. On the contrary, and despite the natural barrier created by Apennines, vineyards blanket the region from the Tyrrehenian coast across to the Umbrian border. The coastal region is known as the Maremma and is home to a number of DOCs including Bolgheri, Suvereto, Parrina and Morellino di Scansano. The Maremma's reputation stems from the clutch of super-Tuscans, including Sassicaia and Ornellaia, that hail from the gently rolling hills of both Bolgheri and Suvereto. In these coastal vineyards the moderating effect of the sea hastens maturation and Cabernet and Merlot ripen to perfection.
Such illustrious Bordeaux look-a-likes have necessarily relegated Sangiovese, despite the wonderfully ripe examples found in Morellino di Scansano. Overlooked for decades and chronically undervalued, Morellino di Scansano and the neighbouring DOC of Parrina are paradise for the bargain hunter. Sicily's white Inzolia, known here as Ansonica, offers a fresh and elegant mouthful of citrus fruit that reflects the cool summer breezes rolling in from the Mediterranean.
To the east the gentle hills of the Maremma give way to the more serious slopes of the Apennines. Despite some thrilling examples of Cabernet and Merlot, nothing mounts a serious challenge to Sangiovese's supremacy on these steep, clay and limestone slopes. The leviathan DOCG of Chianti produces more wine than any other DOC or DOCG region in Italy, although Chianti Classico DOCG, in the heart of the zone, produces considerably less than its satellites. Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG, Chianti Colli Pisani DOCG, Chianti Colli Aretini DOCG, Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG, and Chianti Rufina DOCG are perhaps more a source of confusion than they are of fine wine.
At its best, Chianti combines Sangiovese's formidable tannins and acidity with concentrated red berry fruit; it is one of Italy's most elegant and age-worthy reds and the perfect foil for beef and lamb.
Sadly, the reputation of the region has been sullied by overproduction and variable standards. A firm grasp of producers is still necessary despite the advantages conferred by modern technology. South of Siena in the shadow of Monte Amiata lies the small DOCG of Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy's most expensive and celebrated reds. Higher than Chianti and therefore cooler, the vineyards of Montalcino nevertheless attain an additional degree of ripeness due to the Orcia Valley that funnels warm, maritime air far inland. Like Chianti, Brunello offers a rare combination of power and elegance, but both structure and fruit are miraculously intensified in this extraordinary terroir.
The town of Montepulciano (not to be confused with the Abruzzese grape of the same name) dwells in the literal and figurative shadow of Montalcino despite a growing number of sound wines made under the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG from Sangiovese. Finally, there is a separate DOCG for the white wines from San Gimignano, a walled, Mediaeval town that remains a popular tourist stopover. Insatiable local demand for Vernaccia di San Gimignano ensure that prices remain high despite the variable quality.