Next to the Napa Valley in California, Tuscany is the wine region Americans probably know best. Not just for the wine it produces (though I'd nominate Chianti as the most recognized wine name in the world) but also for all the other things that are made there--great art, olive oil and, of course, Merchant Ivory films. But, alas, Tuscany's fame has not always been synonymous with renown, as the region has long been home to more mediocre wines than great ones. In fact, only in the past decade or two have Tuscany's winemakers really been taken seriously by the world at large, and only in the past several years have they, as a group, sought to match the standards of quality set by some of the twentieth century's Tuscan pioneers, such as Piero Antinori. (One could hardly write about Tuscany without paying homage to Antinori, whose holdings there long ago expanded to encompass just about every region in Italy, as well as winemaking partnerships around the world.)
To understand Tuscan wines, one must first understand the prototypical Tuscan wine, Chianti. Produced in the region of the same name, it is made predominantly from the red Sangiovese grape, though other red and white varieties may be included. A certain proportion of Sangiovese is mandated by the government, but a 1996 change in the law gave producers more freedom to choose their grapes, and many opted to exclude white varieties. Previously, wine made from nonsanctioned grapes was officially termed vino da tavola, or "table wine." But because these wines were often better than the regular Chiantis, they came to be known--first informally and then increasingly as a marketing device--as Super-Tuscans. With the loosening of the laws, the government has also granted Super-Tuscans some recognition and their own new designation, IGT Toscana (for Typical Geographic Denomination of Tuscany).
For an insider's view of Tuscany today and a few predictions of what might happen tomorrow, I telephoned Marco Sabellico, senior editor of the Gambero Rosso/Slow Food Italian Wines annual and contributing editor to Gambero Rosso magazine. He spoke to me from Rome.