Tuscany Wine Region Guides

From Ancient Roots to Global Acclaim: Discover Tuscany's Wine Evolution


Last updated: December 21, 2023


Wine has been a part of daily life in Tuscany for over 3,000 years. From the time of the ancient Etruscans to the rapidly evolving modern period, viticulture and oenology have been the lifeblood of this captivating region, encompassing every province in rural Tuscany. Yet, until the 20th century, the region’s wines (with notable exceptions) seldom left Italy’s borders. As incredible as it seems today, this rich treasure trove of indigenous grapes and authentic flavors were consumed quietly and domestically (by locals and tourists) until the mid 1900s. This reflected the reality of a peninsula that only became unified in the 19th century – Italy existed for centuries as a myriad of small, independent states and authorities with strong regional loyalties and an intense fear of outsiders.

But, as Italian parochialism started to dissolve in the latter half of the 20th century, Tuscany began to conquer the world. Today, it is one of Europe’s major wine exporters, a powerhouse of weekend drinking and the fine and rare. Its signature red grape, Sangiovese, runs the whole gamut from anemic dross to the most voluptuous and concentrated wines imaginable, most brilliantly realized in the hills of Montalcino. Meanwhile, the Cabernet Sauvignon blends of Sassicaia and Ornellaia can rival the First Growths of the Medoc with their thrilling structure and cassis-infused complexity. White wines are also becoming more popular and established, particularly the majestic and Burgundian Chardonnays (yes, honestly!) of central Tuscany; for the world’s consumers, there has never been the choice that is now available. After a few false starts, Tuscany is open for business.

Winemaking and regional classifications

Chianti Classico

Although terroir is considered of paramount importance in this grand sweep of vineyards, changes in winemaking were the catalyst for the region’s revival in the 20th century. Indeed, some may consider the revolution in methods and approaches in the cellar to be even more significant than Tuscany’s natural resources, as they represented a vital change in attitude – and philosophy – which forever altered the face of Italian wine.

In the mid-1900s, however, it all looked so different. Two principal obstacles to quality were outmoded regulations that favored bulk growers and antiquated methods and equipment. Chianti is a prime example of this malaise – the DOC regulations encouraged the inclusion of high-yield white varieties, benefiting farming communities to the detriment of wine quality. Meanwhile, over-cropped Sangiovese, rank with malic acid, was subject to a long warm fermentation in botti (old oak casks) and then macerated for up to a month, extracting a huge amount of raw tannin; this would smother the fruit and render most reds untouchable for at least 5-7 years, despite spending over 36 months in Slavonian oak. In their maturity, the best wines had a certain oxidative charm. However, there was nothing to highlight the most desirable characteristics of grape or terroir. Varietal white wines were similarly uninspiring: oxidized and stale with a distinct lack of aroma or flavor. Something had to be done.

And it was. Inspired by the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta and Piero Antinori, winemakers shortened the fermentation time and macerated the wine for shorter periods afterward. They also introduced more significant quantities of (high-quality) grapes calculated to have a softening effect: Canaiolo, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. For both white and red styles, vinification in stainless steel delivered more fruit and less rusticity; inbuilt temperature control ensured that Vermentino and Chardonnay made in Tuscany could rival the best whites of France and, indeed, Friuli-Venezia. However, not everyone welcomed the introduction of new oak in the form of Bordeaux-style barriques.

Nevertheless, many wineries became committed to a shorter maturation period in 100% new wood, introducing hitherto unseen flavors to the wines of Tuscany. In recent times, the pendulum has swung back in favor of fruit over oak: aging in amphorae and traditional botti have become more fashionable. Yet the rusticity of the past has been banished forever.

Wine Map of Tuscany

Tuscany Wine Regions Map
Download Wine Map of Tuscany

Geography and terroir

The vineyards of Maremma
The vineyards of Maremma

The landscape of central Italy, and above all Tuscany, is ancient and profound. The fifth largest region in Italy covers all the bases: meticulously preserved Etruscan ruins, bucolic idylls replete with vines and olive groves, Chianti Classico’s Instagram paradise (we’ve all dreamed of these rolling hills), and the art-filled cities of Florence and Siena. Tuscany shares a border with Emilia-Romagna, Marche, and Umbria to the east/northeast and Lazio to the south.

It is also extremely varied topographically, with the Apennine mountains running through central Italy and two seas – the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian – on Tuscany’s west coast. It covers an area of more than 22,997 km², and much of rural Tuscany is very undulating – elevation, terrain, and soils all vary enormously here. Without a hint of hyperbole, this could reasonably be described as the ideal place to make wine. Most regions enjoy a textbook Mediterranean climate, with warm (occasionally too warm!) summers and wet winters. The result is an expanding collection of ripe, expressive, and terroir-driven wines that merge tradition and innovation to spectacular effect. Both red and white wines are made in Tuscany, in addition to a small amount of dessert wine and even traditional-method sparkling.

Of course, every region has a signature grape variety, and Tuscany is no exception. Although the Maremma (Tuscan coast) is heavily planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Sangiovese remains Tuscany’s most important grape. Yet, despite significant improvements in viticulture and winemaking, there is a great deal of variance in the quality of Sangiovese reds. They range from “astringent mouthwash” to the most seductive expressions of variety and terroir made in Italy; poor-quality clones and high yields in the 1970s did untold damage to the area’s reputation.

Thankfully, replacing them with better clones in the 1990s has revolutionized our expectations of Tuscan wine. Contemporary Sangiovese, grown in several major appellations, may or may not contain other varieties. However, it will likely have good color and flavor, with a structural zest that makes the grape incredibly food-friendly. It thrives on the galestro (crumbly clay-limestone) and the heavier alberese marls of central Italy, while Cabernet Sauvignon prefers the stonier soils of Bolgheri. Chianti Classico and Montepulciano are known for their medium-bodied, nervy expressions of the grape; Montalcino delivers the most voluptuous and concentrated reds of all in Tuscany, in addition to a smattering of Super Tuscan Bordeaux blends and varietals.

Meanwhile, white wines are getting better with every vintage. Tuscany was not historically celebrated for the quality of its whites, not least because its signature grape, Trebbiano, is prone to high yields and a distinct lack of taste. However, a rash of experimentation – most successfully with Chardonnay and Vermentino – has yielded wines of increasing character and verve, particularly the gracefully elegant Chardonnays of central Tuscany and the Maremma.

“When I decided to plant my first new vineyard, the system of quotas was already in place, so I decided to pull out part of the Trebbiano and Malvasia vineyards to be able to replant the same surface area with Chardonnay,” said Paolo de Marchi, founder of Isole e Olena in Chianti Classico. “The key has been the site selection, and I planted most of our Chardonnay on the northeastern side of our estate, which means early sunshine in the morning with clear light and cool air and shade in the afternoon with the heat of a long summer day.

Luckily, the high Chianti Classico hills are an area where grapes retain a lively pH, which still allows us to harvest at ripeness instead of rushing to protect the acidity.” Even Trebbiano Toscano, the workhorse grape grown in Sangiovese country for more than a century, is being revived by pioneers like Francesco Ricasoli.

The lowdown

Brunello di Montalcino

In 2023, Tuscany is poised to take stock of a revolution in its wines that began in Bolgheri. This has changed the face of one of Europe’s oldest viticultural traditions. As in all Mediterranean countries, wine had always been part of daily life, an indispensable part of a diet based on wheat, the vine, and the olive. Thus, until the mid-20th century, there were relatively few changes in Tuscan winegrowing – traditions governing the use of grape varieties remained unaltered for hundreds of years. In contrast, Bordeaux experienced several significant upheavals and evolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many found this inertia (downright recalcitrance is more accurate) charming: Tuscany was wary about change for change’s sake. This lent the region a timeless and very alluring air.

Yet Tuscany teetered close to oblivion in the 1950s. A refusal to modernize, combined with high-volume production, almost destroyed the reputation of Chianti Classico and its peers. This spurned men like Mario Incisa della Rochetta into action, who, in 1948, started Tuscany’s revolution by planting Cabernet Sauvignon on the Tuscan coast. He called his wine Sassicaia, which from the start bore no comparison with any other in Italy. His nephew, Piero Antinori, recognized that Sassicaia would be the first of many Super Tuscans and took it onto the global stage. His own creation, Tignanello, was soon followed by a tidal wave of copycat imitations: some were entirely based on French grapes, while others blended Sangiovese and Merlot (aged in new barrique) in gross violation of the Consorzio rules. They were varietal Cabernets, 100% Sangiovese reds, and superlative Bordeaux blends – what united this diverse firmament is that they all failed to conform in one way or another with established practices. Which, of course, was the entire point!

However, this radical transformation of Tuscany’s winemaking culture was not without its critics. In trying to catch up with France – and the New World – a forced internationalization risked the dilution of Italy’s soul. Retail shelves were groaning under the weight of cookie-cutter Merlots and Cabernets produced in all corners of central Italy; the appearance of French grapes in the vineyards, gleaming steel tanks, and small oak barrels engendered fears of rapid homogenization. When all is said and done, was Tuscany different from Napa Valley or Australia’s Coonawarra? And does the world need any more oaky Merlot?

In retrospect, it is evident that Tuscany would eventually find the balance between tradition and modernity. This can be seen most clearly in Chianti Classico, where 100% Sangiovese wines, sensitively aged in used barrels (the new oak fetish has been toned down recently), display all the virtues of terroir character and subtlety. Meanwhile, the best Super Tuscans remain as beguiling as ever, but they have been joined by aromatic Vermentino and even the occasional premium example of Trebbiano Toscano. The techniques of the 21st century are now being put to use to give a new expressiveness – and finesse – to grapes and zones that were famous in the time of the Etruscans. Bettino Ricasoli would be proud. His vision, at long last, has been realized.

Tuscany gastronomy

Ribollita, Tuscan Bread Soup
Ribollita, Tuscan Bread Soup

No region plays the gourmet quite like central Italy: dining out covers the whole gamut, from fresh gelato to farm-to-table produce served in a rural bolthole. There are endless restaurants and trattorias in Tuscany, ranging from Michelin-starred extravaganzas to wonderfully chaotic family-run affairs. Spicy green olives, cinghiale (wild boar), smoky porcini mushrooms, truffles, bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-bone steak), and legumes are all culinary staples in both urban and rural Tuscany. Gastronomes find it almost impossible to leave.

A Guide to the Gastronomy and Cuisine of Tuscany: Read more


tuscany - tuscany-cypress-and-vineyards
Beautiful Tuscan landscape

Like the ancient Greeks, the vine and the olive tree were fundamental to the Etruscan diet, a civilization that made Tuscany their home in the 9th century BC. In this timeless scene, a promiscuous tangle of crops deemed essential to Tuscan peasant life became an export sensation; historians have uncovered evidence (ancient amphorae) that suggests that Tuscan wines were sent to neighboring Gaul (France) and southern Italy in the pre-Roman period. In the 3rd century BC, Greek poets and writers extolled the virtues of the sweetened concoctions that would have been made in this era. The Romans carried on this fine tradition, although Tuscia remained an independent province even during the height of Rome’s power. The Etruscans had no intention of becoming subservient to the Roman overlords.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, Tuscany was invaded by the Lombards, Ostrogoths, and the Byzantines. However, the Lombards would emerge triumphant, conquering large swathes of the Italian Peninsula in the 6th century. Yet they were run out of town by the armies of Charlemagne, a Frankish King and first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. As the Catholic Church grew in power and influence, viticulture was controlled by the monasteries in many European wine regions, including Tuscany. However, when the Medici dynasty rose to prominence in the 1400s, a new middle class began to emerge; Florence became a symbol for all that was refined in Western Europe; its cosmopolitan atmosphere and wealthy patrons, such as Lorenzo the Magnificent, provided the impetus for a period of unparalleled artistic growth.

Meanwhile, winegrowing became a lucrative business controlled by the aristocracy and merchants of Florence. Using a system known as mezzadria, a grower was permitted to farm land owned by the bourgeoisie in return for half of the yearly grape harvest. This would be turned into wine in the cellars of Florence and sold for a significant profit. In these dank, musty basement rooms, wine was made with rustic equipment that would horrify today’s trend-setting winemakers!

Nevertheless, over 7.9 million gallons of wine a year was made in Tuscany’s capital during the late Middle Ages and sold to domestic and international clients. Indeed, famous names like Vino Nobile di Montepulciano have had a following and have been well-known outside of Italy since the 16th century. William III and Jonathan Swift both had a penchant for their Vino Nobile, and Chianti was well-known in the English court from the 17th century onward.

However, in the late 18th century, Tuscany became a battleground between Napoleon Bonaparte, the Austrian Habsburgs, and their Russian allies. In the aftermath, Napoleon established himself as king of Italy, supported by Italian soldiers disaffected by Habsburg rule. However, he lost Tuscany to Grand Duke Ferdinando III in 1814, and the province returned to Habsburg rule. In the second half of the 19th century, Bettino Ricasoli inherited an estate in the middle of Chianti Classico. Nevertheless, Ricasoli was most unsatisfied with the quality of wines being made in central Italy at the time, and so he sought the expertise of German and French winemakers. He returned home brimming with knowledge and enthusiasm, subsequently laying down the ‘recipe’ for making Chianti Classico: Sangiovese blended with smaller amounts of additional varieties like Canaiolo and Malvasia – white grapes have since been outlawed by the appellation rules. After the Second World War ended, a rash of investments upgraded equipment and improved viticulture in the region, although key stakeholders like Piero Antinori remained concerned. They saw the reputation of Chianti Classico plummet as cash-strapped growers harvested inflated yields to produce astringent dross marketed in eye-catching fiaschi (straw baskets). Their solution was to introduce a new category of red: Super Tuscans that were supercharged with French grapes and new barrique. Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Ornellaia are among the most famous labels, but there are many more.



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James lawrence

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