Tuscany Part 2: The Tuscan Coast, More Supertuscans et al

The Tuscan Coast is by now well established as one of Italy's prime wine production zones.  Its top red wines are among the greatest and most famous of Italy, but the area also produces some very good white wines and excellent sweet wines as well.  The Tuscan Coast is west of Florence and covers the long swath of land hugging the Tyrrhenian seashore extending from Livorno (Leghorn) above Florence in the north down to Grosseto in the south; it also includes the more inland wine production areas of the provinces of Lucca and Pisa.
In general, the Tuscan coast is a much warmer and less humid part of the region, and its climate has very little in common with that of Chianti, Montalcino and the rest of central Tuscany.  Water stress can be a major problem, especially in the southern section near Grosseto, that beautiful sunbather paradise known as the Maremma.  Therefore, what holds true for the vintages of Chianti, for example, might not necessarily apply--and in fact generally does not--to the Tuscan Coast.  Furthermore, there are huge differences in climate within the Tuscan Coast itself:  for example, there can be as much as a five degrees Celsius difference in daytime temperatures between the northern Tuscan coast (where Bolgheri is located) and the southern part of the Tuscan coast or Maremma.

What this means for wine lovers is that on the Tuscan Coast sangiovese is not the premier red grape, even if much of it is planted.  Some very good sangiovese is produced, and the best known wine sporting a good dollop of it is Morellino di Scansano, made in the Maremma.  Morellino di Scansano is a fun, fruity wine that offers a richer, sweeter, softer version of sangiovese (though the wine is a blend and almost always contains at least 15% of merlot, syrah and/or alicante bouschet). It is an amazingly successful wine in Italy where seaside vacationers like to drink it slightly chilled.  Insiders regard the best Morellinos as great value for money, and perfect barbecue, pizza and pasta wines.  Yet the Morellino riservas can be very serious wines, although due to the heat and the very fertile soils sangiovese-based wines from this part of Tuscany rarely if ever exude the magical perfume of the best Chiantis or Brunellos.  Rather, they offer a very creamy mouthfeel.

For the most part, the Tuscan Coast is the home of Italy's best wines made from international grape varieties.  Forget Sicily or any other Italian wine region; this is where truly good Italian cabernet sauvignon can be found.  Despite what you may have read elsewhere, very rarely has this variety yielded truly world-class wines in Italy (just Sassicaia and few others), and almost never outside of Tuscany.  Syrah, a much more recent arrival to the Tuscan Coast and to Tuscany in general, is also still relatively disappointing, with very few examples from the Tuscan Coast showing outstanding potential.  For the most part it is still a work in progress, but the climate is such that the variety seems at least suited to this part of Italy.  

Merlot, however, is a completely different story:  I believe that some of the best merlots in the world outside of Pomerol are made in Tuscany. Unfortunately, global warming may soon hamper the quality of some Tuscan Coast merlots.  Instead, the mindblowing quality of cabernet franc from the northern Tuscan Coast (mainly around Bolgheri) suggests that this will be Italy's next great wine.

Do not forget about the white and sweet wines of the Tuscan Coast.  The white wines are mainly the product of vermentino or ansonica, and though never particularly complex or ageworthy they are among the most refreshing and characterful Italian white wines, sold at inviting prices compared to whites from other regions of Italy.  A well-made vermentino (the rolle of southern France and Corsica) is immensely enjoyable on a hot summer day:  fresh and saline, with sauvignon-like aromas and flavors (and some do have sauvignon blanc blended in, which is allowed).  Ansonica is a rare tannic white variety that offers more body than vermentino and generally richer flavors.  It also grows in Sicily, where it is called inzolia, but Sicilian versions are usually lighter, simpler and fresher.  Another white variety that has found a home in the Tuscan Coast area is viognier (a rare variety anywhere else in Italy outside of Tuscany's Cortona area and Sicily), and while these wines have been improving steadily, there is still much work to be done before this finicky grape will be mastered by local producers.

Last but not least, the Tuscan Coast is home to one of Italy's most amazing sweet wines, Aleatico.  This is the name of both the grape and the wine, and although the wines made on the Tuscan Coast mainland are perfectly acceptable, it is the aleatico of the islands of Elba and Capraia that are absolutely world-class sweet wines.  Some wines are the result of extended air-drying of the grapes and are therefore as thick as motor oil, while others are much lighter and not even that sweet.  The latter make wonderful aperitifs, much as Maury does in France.  Some producers have also turned to using aleatico to make rosato (rosé) wines, and the first examples I have tried are very impressive.

Besides the wines of the Tuscan Coast, I have also included in this article wines from Central Tuscany estates that I was not able to taste in time for my first installment on Tuscany in Issue 163. So, in part two of our Tuscany coverage, you will also find tasting notes on some outstanding wines from the likes of Chianti, Montepulciano, Cortona and San Gimignano.

Recent vintages of the Tuscan Coast.  The 2011 vintage was an easy one, with all of the physiological phases of the growth cycle roughly two weeks ahead of schedule, something true in many other viticultural areas of Italy (I remember that during Vinitaly in April I was walking around in a tee-shirt.)  Stefano Frascolla of Tua Rita feels that 2011 is a wonderful year, and so does star winemaker Luca d'Attoma.  The only caveat is that strong late-season heat caused many grapes that had not been harvested to cook on the vines, so some wines will prove to be over the top in 2011.  In inland Montecucco, situated roughly halfway between Grosseto and Montalcino, a bout of early-season hail greatly reduced crop levels, but what was left yielded high-quality results.

Generally, white wines fared well in 2011, provided they were harvested earlier than usual, in mid-August.  This is very different from central Tuscany, where the white grape harvest occurred a good two to three weeks later than on the Tuscan Coast.

Luca d'Attoma believes that 2010 will be viewed as a solid year for white wines and an outstanding one for red wines on the Tuscan Coast.  The white grapes were harvested within the normal time frame, roughly between August 23 and the first week of September.  The wines are perfumed and structured, and possess decent acidity.  According to Lamberto Frescobaldi, the 2010 vintage will yield solidly structured red wines with exemplary balance and vibrant acidity.  The spring of 2010 was marked by frequent rainstorms, which subjected the grapes to disease pressure, but the rains also had the benefit of building up groundwater reserves.  In the summer months, rainy and sunny days alternated, and September brought ideal conditions, with cool nights and warm, sunny days right through to the end of the harvest.  These ideal conditions in September ensured that the region's white grape varieties were able to achieve full ripeness.

The growing season of 2009, in contrast, was a very hot one for the Tuscan Coast, and most experts believe 2010 will be superior.  Two thousand nine was also very precocious in places, as it was in 2001 and 1999, but not like in 2003, in which heat and drought were unrelenting, starting in May and never letting up.  In 2009 it was very hot only between July 20 and August 20, but the rest of the growing season was less extreme so most of the better wines have turned out to be ripe, sweet and ready to drink.  The September nights were cool enough to allow for the development of intense aromatics.  Although most wines from this vintage show at least a hint of a syrupy quality, only the poorly made wines are marred by outright cooked or overripe aromas and flavors.

This vintage perfectly illustrates weather differences between the Tuscan Coast and Chianti, as 2009 is a marvelous year for Chianti Classico, but less so generally for the Tuscan Coast, where it was too hot.  But Carlo Paoli, general director at Tenuta San Guido, where world-famous Sassicaia is made, is actually very happy with his 2009 wines, as the cooler microclimate at Sassicaia ensured better conditions for the vines. Sassicaia's best vineyards, which are much older on average than vines planted at surrounding estates, are also located at higher-than-average altitude, and are surrounded by forests that exert a cooling effect.  As usual, I walked the vineyards of the area in the summer of 2009 and can vouch for the fact that the leaves on the vines at Sassicaia were generally much greener and healthier looking than those of other estates in the immediate area.  

Luca Marrone, the winemaker at Grattamacco (and at Castello Colle Massari, located in Montecucco, as well as at Poggio di Sotto in Montalcino, under the same ownership), another Tuscan Coast estate that performed extremely well in 2009, told me:  "I know everyone says that 2009 was a miserable, way-too-hot year on the Coast, but I didn't see that at all at Grattamacco.  It's probably because of this estate's very old vines and unique cooler microclimate, just like they have at Sassicaia."  In addition, Grattamacco's vine density is far less than that of vineyards planted in more recent years.  The older vines at Grattamacco (roughly 25 years old) are planted at less than 5,000 vines per hectare, while at Le Macchiole, for example, the density is over 8,000 per hectare, making the effects of water stress that much more apparent in the latter's vineyards and wines.  Still, Le Macchiole performed better in 2009 than most of its neighbors did.

There is no doubt in my mind that more than in any other recent Tuscan Coast vintage, 2009 separates the true grand crus from the premier and lesser crus of the area.