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White Wines of Tuscany

Tuscany is best known for its red wines — think Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile and the great estates of Bolgheri. However, on a recent visit to Lucca, my favorite town in Italy, for a wine fair, I was much more struck by the white wines. The fair covered the coastal region of Tuscany — la Costa Toscana — and with some 70 winegrowers showing their new releases and current vintages, it was a great opportunity to see what is going on in the region.

It is an area with a number of eclectic DOCs, which stands for Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata, the Italian equivalent to the French AOC. Some are well known, such as Bolgheri with prestigious estates like Sassicaia and Ornellaia; others have a much lower profile, such as Montescudaio or Chianti Colline Pisane. In fact, producers often prefer to use an IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) name rather than a DOC, because they can then use the identifying word “Toscana” on the label. The unifying factor is their proximity to the sea, which gives the wines a character and identity that is completely different from central Tuscany, which is dominated by Sangiovese. On the Tuscan coast you will find some of the best examples of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. Happily, officials have recognized the need to give these areas a clearer identity, so that from the 2011 vintage forward, the producers will officially be able to use the new IGT of Costa Toscana. A clear image of the Tuscan coast, with an indication of origin should unite a potentially disparate group of winegrowers.

Vermentino grape shines in Tuscan coast

The reds I sampled had some finely crafted flavors, but there were also a multitude of young barrel-aged wines crying out for bottle age. I was really excited by some of the white wines. Vermentino is the main grape variety here — you find it all along the Tuscan coast, as well as in the South of France (where it’s known as “rolle”), and in Liguria and on the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. It is also grown on the island of Elba. Piermario Cavallari, who was one of the pioneers of Bolgheri, now has a vineyard on Elba, where he has planted vermentino and a few vines of Petit Manseng. This is innovative, as the principal white variety of Elba is still the ubiquitous trebbiano of Tuscany. Vermentino, however, responds well to the maritime influence, and Petit Manseng gives some lovely refreshing acidity and adds an original hint of honey. It makes for an intriguing and satisfying drink.

Other vermentino I enjoyed came from Poggio Argentiera, with fresh pithy fruit. Vermentino should have an appealing sapidità, a difficult word to translate into English — “sapidity” doesn’t sound quite right. Essentially it should leave you wanting another taste, or indeed another glass. Giampaolo Paglia also produces a satisfying vermentino and ansonica blend, with some delicate oak aging. Ansonica is another indigenous grape variety of the Tuscan coast, and even better is his Ansonica della Maremma Toscana, which was fermented on skins for a week, then 18 months more on the lees. It was intriguingly mouth-filling, with herbal hints reminiscent of fennel and liquorice, and that satisfying sapidità on the finish. Terenzuola in the Colli di Luni, a DOC that crosses the regional boundary, between Tuscany and Liguria, consistently produces one my favorite vermentino, but to my disappointment, Ivan Giuliani brought only his red wines, which included an intriguing vermentino nero, blended with another local variety, pollera, as well as some canaiolo. It had some refreshing cherry fruit.

The DOC of Montecarlo, with vineyards around the little hilltop town of the same name, produces more exciting whites than reds. This is unusual for Tuscany, where the best DOC(G)s are dominated by red wines. In addition to the usual trebbiano, Montecarlo Bianco wines can include pinot bianco, sauvignon blanc, roussanne and semillon, which makes for some original blends, as in the wine of Fattoria del Buonamico, which contains some elegant understated fruit. And vermentino will be allowed in the DOC as a varietal wine from the 2011 vintage. Again there was lovely sappy fruit in the wine from Buonamico.

Giovan Pio Moretti at Terre del Sillabo in the Colline Lucchesi has made something of a speciality of white wines. You can have pure sauvignon blanc in the DOC of the Colline Lucchesi, and his is ripe and rounded, with good varietal character. More intriguing is his Gana, a sauvignon selected for concentrated fruit and length. Spante is his chardonnay cru, fermented and aged in oak for 12 months, with quite solid, rounded, oaky fruit. And most original of all was Mati, a trebbiano fermented on its skins in an open vat, and then aged for six months in a closed vat before aging. It is quite oxidative in character with nutty notes and dried honey. It grew on me, when I drank it for dinner later that evening. Valgiano, Colleverde and I Giusti e Zanzi are other names to look out for.

However, a final note of originality comes from winegrower Piermario Cavallari. He is passionate about Aleatico dell’Elba, the classic dessert wine of the island, made from aleatico grapes that are laid out to dry on straw mats in the sunshine, so that they shrivel and raisin. They are fermented very slowly and then kept in a stainless steel vat and the result is delicious, a wine redolent of spicy red cherry fruit, which goes so well with the traditional fruitcake of Elba.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.

Photo: Aleatico grapes drying in the sun. Courtesy of Piermario Cavallari.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.