New Wines from the Tuscan Coast

by Edward Beltrami

It is clear that the success of Sassicaia in the 1970s stimulated a number of other wine initiatives along the Tuscan coast. Although the "discovery" of the coast began tentatively, new investments began in earnest by the early '90s, and more recently growth has been rampant. An apt analogy is Napa Valley in the early '70s. Although it may be premature to claim that the center of gravity for Tuscan winemaking has shifted westward to the coast away from the interior lands of the Chianti, there is no denying that numerous new investors are scrambling to position themselves in what some see as the most sought-after winegrowing region in Italy today.

Tuscany's coastal wine lands extend some 75 miles southward along route SS1, the old Aurelian way, stretching from just below Livorno to the region south of Grosetto that abuts the nature preserves of the Maremma. The Maremma is
Italy's cowboy country and to say that the new wine estates are taming the wild west is not entirely farfetched. The terrain in this coastal strip is craggy, covered with scrub, low pine and wild herbs typical of the Mediterranean garrigue (known in Italian as the macchia Mediterranea), and the soil composition is heterogeneous, formed by sea-bed sediments and volcanic deposits. There are swaths of deep clay; well-drained tracts of stone, sand, and gravel; and rich veins of minerals and limestone.

This coastal strip of land encompasses several distinct winemaking enclaves surrounding Bolgheri, Castagneto Carducci, Suvereto, and Scansano, to mention the best-known townships; I have also included in my coverage of the region a few wines produced just north of Livorno, also along the coast, in the province of Pisa. Although this area is not currently favored by American tourists, its potential as a wine and food mecca is enormous.

The climate varies from warm in the northern reaches to quite hot in the southern zones around Scansano. It is understandable, therefore, that there are year-to-year differences in wine quality at various estates due to the changes in microclimates as one moves from north to south. However, the most significant influence on wine quality and styles produced along the coast is proximity to the sea. Though the growing season at the coast is longer than it is in the interior wine regions of Tuscany and quite warm in the summer, the sea has a moderating effect on temperature, and cool evening breezes help ensure a gradual maturation of the grapes and a preservation of acidity. Moreover, the increase in sugars after veraison tends not to outpace phenolic development. The result is wines that are generally blessed by aromatic complexity, freshness of fruit and suave tannins.

The initial plantings in the northern areas of Bolgheri and Castagneto Carducci emphasized cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot. But sangiovese, the staple of Tuscan winemaking, also thrives along the coast, especially around Suvereto and farther south, where this late-ripening variety benefits from a longer growing season and from the cleansing ventilation provided by proximity to the sea.

Although Sassicaia has aimed, since the beginning, at producing a Bordeaux-styled wine, its local role as a pace-setter has been tempered in recent years by the influence of California. Many of today's wines from Tuscany's coast are fruit-laden, with soft tannins, and tend to be more flattering to drink in their youth than many wines from the Tuscan interior, which can seem austere by comparison. If a single phrase can capture the essence of these wines, it would be the words of Leonardo Raspini, general manager at Ornellaia: They combine the finesse of Bordeaux with the structure of Napa."

The wines reviewed in this article are from vintages 1999, 2000 and 2001, with a handful from 2002. A number of these wines were tasted in February at the estates in Tuscany and the rest in New York in late winter and early spring. A few of the 2001 wines that I tasted were barrel samples and in these cases my comments are mainly generic and no scores are given. Each of these three vintages has been variously proclaimed as being very good to excellent by everyone I spoke with, with levels of enthusiasm varying according to the producer and the location of the vineyards. Tasting through the wines it is difficult to disagree. The following overview of these recent vintages comes from my conversations with several insiders.

The 1999 harvest took place between the middle and end of September at most properties, after a warmer than average summer that was moderated by rains early on. August was hot. To control excessive yields, vigorous crop thinning was the norm throughout the area. The wines are well-structured, with intense fruit flavors, though a few show signs of overripeness. Vintage 2000 started with spring rains and a cool summer but gradually warmed up, with little or no rainfall. By late August it was very hot. Green harvesting was essential, and, especially for those who reduced their crops, most grapes matured sooner than usual, a pattern that particularly benefitted sangiovese. The 2000 vintage is similar to 1999 but is characterized by a greater sense of balance, at least in the more southern portions of the region. The subsequent vintage, 2001, began with a frost at Easter, which reduced ultimate yields. A hot summer was followed by a much cooler September, which slowed the growth cycle and led to a later harvest than in the two preceding years. The wines are generally more elegant in the northern portions of the coast, and early indications are that this may be the best of the three vintages for cabernet- and merlot-based wines.

In the reviews that follow all wines designated as Morellino di Scansano will be understood, without further mention, to satisfy the DOC regulations requiring a minimum of 85% sangiovese, known locally as morellino, with an addition of other approved grapes that may include alicante, the regional name for grenache, and the indigenously Tuscan ciliegiolo. The grapes are grown in a specific coastal sub-region near the town of Scansano in the vicinity of the Maremma.