New Releases from the Tuscan Coast

One of Italy’s most exciting wine regions today, the Tuscan coast actually spans both a coastal and an inland portion of southern Tuscany. However, the wines made across this large area bear little if any resemblance to other Tuscan wines such as Chianti or Brunello. This is due to numerous factors, the most important of which is that sangiovese, Tuscany’s premier grape, is not the dominant variety here. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, and lesser-known grapes like alicante bouschet (not to be confused with alicante, or grenache, which is also found) are equally, if not more, important. Another native grape of Tuscany, ciliegiolo, is being rediscovered, as it gives elegant, high-acid wines loaded with red cherry flavor.

The diversity of soils and microclimates of the Tuscan coast and—in some sectors, at least—one of the hottest climates in Italy also help explain differences between these wines and cooler-climate examples such as Chianti. Although weather conditions are better along the coast, and a succession of fine vintages is far from rare, extreme heat can shorten the growing season and result in loss of varietal aromas and an insufficiency of acidity in the wines.

The Tuscan coast is actually a recent moniker created to identify a fairly new high-quality wine-producing region of Italy. It can be roughly divided into two areas: a northern section, known as Costa degli Etruschi, or northern Maremma, extending from Livorno (Leghorn in English) to Suvereto, and a southern section, or Maremma proper, extending from the town of Grosseto down to the border with Lazio, the region immediately south of Tuscany. Historically, the Tuscan coast had never been considered to be a fine wine area; it was far better known for art-laden cities, upscale seaside resorts, and medieval villages dotting its countryside. Agriculturally, the land was dedicated to pasture and the cultivation of cereals and fruits. In fact, the Maremma is where you’ll find Italy’s very own cowboys, called butteri, who, like their American counterparts, ride horses and lasso steer.

Even the creation of Sassicaia, arguably Italy’s most famous wine, and produced in the Bolgheri sub-zone of the Tuscan coast since the 1960s, did not result in the area being held in greater esteem as a possible source of high-quality wine production. For the longest time, Sassicaia was viewed as a fluke, the result of the passion and good fortune of its owners, the enlightened Incisa della Rocchetta family. In fact, the whole area remained fairly dormant through the '60s,'70s and even early '80s, with few new producers and little media interest. It was only with the appearance of a series of excellent wines in the mid- and late '80s, produced by new estates Grattamacco and especially Ornellaia, both also in the Bolgheri area, that it became apparent that Italy could boast a new world-class wine region. The past decade has witnessed the emergence of a bevy of small and large high-quality producers. And the arrival of a number of important Italian wine families, such as Biondi-Santi, Gaja, Cecchi, Mazzei, Moretti and others, all of whom have established estates here, is a testament to the new-found interest in the Tuscan coast.

Although the wines of the Tuscan coast are becoming increasingly well known and sought after, the area is unfortunately the home of multiple and often small appellations (the DOCs of Italy), a state of affairs that makes it difficult for consumers to understand the specific areas and their respective terroirs. Even Italians have difficulty with wines labelled Monteregio di Massa Marittima or Val di Cornia. And while most Italians know where these two areas are located, few are aware of where one ends and the other begins, or of terroir differences between them. Conscious of this difficulty, producers have simplified matters by grouping their estates under the banner of "wines of the Tuscan coast," a much easier but still geographically accurate way to describe their wines. All of today's estates fall into the areas around four well-known Tuscan cities: from north to south, these are Lucca, Pisa, Livorno, and Grosseto. Although single appellations such as Bolgheri and Morellino di Scansano remain important, the producers realize that if people think in terms of the Tuscan coast in general, as opposed to specific sub-zones, this will be beneficial to the region's identity in the long run—much as Bordeaux has benefited from consumers speaking of Bordeaux wines when they discuss bottles actually produced in areas as disparate as Margaux, Pomerol, Graves or the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux.

Clearly, the Tuscan coast encompasses a very large swath of land, with various microclimates and soils specific to each province. Some site characteristics have only recently become apparent to producers, and many increasingly site-specific wines are beginning to emerge. On the other hand, in view of the relative youth of most winemaking operations here, many producers are still learning about their various terroirs, and some wines are disappointing, if not downright faulty. But the potential for fine wine production in this large area is immense. Some estates have placed all their eggs into the basket of the flying winemaker, which is an increasingly serious problem in Italy, where many wines are starting to taste the same. In defense of these wines, they are usually flawlessly made, but the most exciting wines of the area are those in which the owner maintains an active if not dominant role in the winemaking process. Labels like Sassicaia and Masseto are sought by wine lovers everywhere; and Castello del Terriccio’s Lupicaia, Antinori’s Guado al Tasso, cult favorites Redigaffi by Tua Rita and Paleo by Le Macchiole are on the launching pad for similar star appeal. However, keep in mind that the Tuscan coast is not only home to the great and expensive: it also offers the astute consumer many fine, affordable, fruit-crammed wines that are a joy to drink. In fact, this is one of Italy’s best places to find wines to suit just about any budget or taste.