Tuscany, like a fine wine, has been some time in the making...



From the Etruscans to the Romans to the Renaissance, Tuscany is possibly the greatest repository of art in the world, from extraordinary paintings and sculpture to frescoes and architectural masterpieces.

Visitors to Tuscany come for many reasons. Many come in search of fine art, others to explore the extraordinary countryside. Gourmets and wine buffs descend on Tuscany to enjoy the simple yet wonderful cuisine and wine. Walkers enjoy the mountain paths, cyclists the rolling hills, summer vacationers the sea coast and islands. Students come to learn the beautiful Italian language and culture.

There is a lot to see and do in Tuscany, the difficulty is really where to start. Certainly most should start with Florence, then continue on to Siena and Pisa. The roll call of cittÓ di arte, cities of art, is daunting: Arezzo, Cortona, San Gimignano and Lucca are all striking. The more you come to know the region, the more extraordinary Tuscany appears. Enjoy your visit!

 

 

Tuscany's History and Culture

Tuscany is one of twenty regions in Italy. The region is located in the central, western part of the country, north of Rome and south of Genoa. It is bounded by the Apennine Mountains to the North and East, the Apuan Alps on the northwest and by the Tyrrhenian Sea on the West. Its land area is about 9,000 square miles (23.300 square kilometers). Its major cities are Florence, Pisa, Siena and Arezzo Its major river, the Arno, begins in the Apennines and heads toward the coast - both Florence and Pisa sit astride the Arno river.

This section offers pieces of Tuscany's history and culture that should prove to be interesting to anyone wishing to learn more about what lies behind the Tuscan - and for that matter Florentine, Sienese and Pisan - personality and character. The identity of any Tuscan today is deeply tied to the territory's past and, as we glimpse and discover various aspects of that identity, we hope to be able to share it with you.

 

 

Great Tuscans

Tuscany is famous all around the world for its colors, tastes and smells. It offers many things to see, to do and to taste. But overall it offers the masterpieces of many illustrious figures that made Tuscany what it is today. Explorers, writers, all kind of artists famous worldwide: Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Simone Martini just to name a few. But also Galileo Galilei, Antonio Meucci, Giacomo Puccini, Giovanni da Verrazzano. A long list of great Tuscans to be discovered.

 

 

Moving Around Tuscany

Tuscany is a medium-sized region which can be crossed in a few hours. Generally the hardest part in getting from one place to the next depends on where you are headed: smaller villages are often only reachable by car or bus whose schedules might not be the most convenient. Aside from a few major roads and roadways that cross Tuscany (such as the A1, A11 and A12), most of the roads are state or provincial with a single lane in each direction. Also, as many parts of Tuscany have hills, many roads wind up, down and around these hills: if you're driving, prepare to take your time and drive carefully.

Having said this, if you are planning on visiting only the main towns in Tuscany, the most convenient way to move around is with the train: the main station in each town is generally in the center so there is no need to worry about parking before finding the major sights. Train travel is also pretty affordable, in comparison to the costs of rental cars and gasoline these days.

If you already know you won't be driving but would like to visit the smaller villages not reachable by train, make sure to check out bus schedules ahead of time. For example, San Gimignano is a medieval village which we highly recommend visiting, but be aware that if you're not driving, you can get there only by taking the train from Massa Carrara Station to Poggibonsi and then a bus the rest of the way (about 13 km, or 20 minutes, away).

Lucca and Pisa are just 30 minutes by train far from Massa Carrara train station. Florence 1 hour by train. Siena and Volterra 1 hour and half!

 

But it is not all because in 30 minutes by train from Massa Carrara you can reach the famous

CINQUE TERRE (Five Lands) under tha Patronage of Unesco represent one of the most beautiful place in the world!

Read our articles below on the various ways to get around the region, as they provide more details and links to useful resources.

 

 

Florence

Cradle of the Renaissance

 

Florence is an open-air museum and attracts millions of visitors from all over the world every year. Renown as the cradle of the Renaissance for its palaces, churches and museums, Florence is certainly unique. Florence's museums, palaces, and churches house some of the greatest artistic treasures in the world. 

The most popular and important sites in Florence include the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Uffizi, the Bargello, and the Accademia. The churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce are veritable art galleries, and the library of San Lorenzo is a magnificent exhibition of Michelangelo's architectural genius. Wander some of the oldest streets in the city until you reach the Arno River, cross the Ponte Vecchio, and experience the "newest" area of Florence, the Oltrarno

Be sure to set aside time to see the vast and varied art collection housed in the Pitti Palace. When you grow weary of museums and monuments, head outdoors. Spend a day at the Boboli Gardens or climb the hill to the church of San Miniato al Monte to experience an enchanting view of Florence.

Florence and its magnificent treasures await your visit!

 

Siena


Siena is probably Italy's loveliest medieval city, and a trip worth making even if you are in Florence and Tuscany for just a few days. Siena's heart is its central piazza known as Il Campo and world-reknown for its famous Palio, a festival and horse race that takes place on the piazza itself two times each summer (Movie audiences worldwide can see Siena and the Palio in the last James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.)

Siena is said to have been founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the two legendary founders of Rome thus Siena's emblem is the she-wolf who suckled Remus and Romulus - you'll find many statues throughout the city. The city sits over three hills with its heart the huge piazza known as Il Campo, where the Roman forum used to be. Rebuilt during the rule of the Council of Nine, a quasi-democratic group from 1287 to 1355, the nine sections of the fan-like brick pavement represent the council and symbolizes the Madonna's cloak which sheltered Siena.

 The Campo is dominated by the red Palazzo Pubblico and its tower, Torre del Mangia. Along with the Duomo of Siena, the Palazzo Pubblico was also built during the same period of rule by the Council of Nine. The civic palace, built between 1297 and 1310, still houses the city's municipal offices much like Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Its internal courtyard has entrances to the Torre del Mangia and to the Civic Museum. If you feel energetic, a climb up the over 500 steps will reward you with a wonderful view of Siena and its surroundings. The Museum, on the other hand, offers some of the greatest of Sienese paintings. The Sala del Concistoro houses one of Domenico Beccafumi's best works, ceiling frescoes of allegories on the virtues of Siena's medieval government. But it is the Sala del Mappamondo and the Sale della Pace that hold the palaces's highlights: Simone Martini's huge MaestÓ and Equestrian Portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano and Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegories of Good and Bad Government, once considered the most important cycle of secular paintings of the Middle Ages.

 

Pisa


Pisa is most famous for its Leaning Tower. Many visitors arrive into this university town and visit the Piazza dei Miracoli, or Square of Miracles, where the tower, the cathedral and baptistery form the city's main attraction.

Around the square's perimeter you'll also find the Camposanto, Opera del Duomo museum and Museum of the Sinopie which we also highly recommend visiting. A few blocks away, the Piazza dei Cavalieri once was the heart of power in the city and later the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen. Today, it is a center of culture and learning as the famous Scuola Normale di Pisa has its base in the Palazzo della Carovana that faces onto the piazza.

 

 

The Charming Town of Lucca


Lucca is one of those Tuscan towns you should visit on your vacation in Italy. You might choose to stay there or nearby to use it as a base for exploring the region but, even if you don't, you can still visit it on a day trip. Lucca is famous for its Renaissance-era city walls that have remained intact while so many other Tuscan towns saw theirs destroyed in past centuries. 

Lucca is located on a plain at the foot of the Apuan Alps and is less than half an hour from the Tuscan coast. Since it isn't a hilltop village, it is ideal for anyone with mobility issues as well as for anyone wishing to take a break from climbing.

 

San Gimignano


San Gimignano, a small walled village about halfway between Florence and Siena, is famous for its medieval architecture and towers that rise above of all the surrounding buildings offering an impressive view of the city from the surrounding valley.

At the height of its glory, San Gimignano's patrician families had built around 72 tower-houses as symbols of their wealth and power. Although only 14 have survived, San Gimignano still retains its feudal atmosphere and appearance.

Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, San Gimignano offers visitors the chance to step back in time while enjoying its local products including saffron and its white wine, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

 
 

Volterra

The working of alabaster is an ancient tradition in Volterra. The Etruscans used alabaster to make urns, then used it as well for creating capitals, tabernacles, vases and other works of art.

Volterra is the city of alabaster par excellence. The large natural deposits of alabaster in its surroundings are considered one of the most precious around the world given its particular compactness, transparency, veins and hardness.

The Museum of Alabaster in Volterra displays over 300 alabaster art works made between the 18th and 19th centuries. The private collection has been assembled over the course of 30 years by the Bruchi family.

The museum is housed in a former Augustinian convent from the 17th century and is a proper art museum collection with paintings, antiques and ceramics to complete the museum itinerary.


National Park of the Cinque Terre
RIOMAGGIORE - MANAROLA - CORNIGLIA - VERNAZZA -MONTEROSSO

Natural Protected Marine Area of the Cinque Terre

A territory in which sea and land are founded forming a unique and evocative area. 18 kilometres of rocky coastline abounding with abundant bays, beaches and deep sea, surrounded by mountains running parrellel to the coast. Terracings cultivated with vineyards and olives, kept under control by old dry stone walls. A naturalistic heritage of great variety. Paths and mule tracks look onto breathtaking views.  
Five villages, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso face onto the sea. An environment in which centuries old work of generations has transformed an inaccessable territory into a landscape of extraordinary beauty. A PproprietÓrotected Marine Area and a National Park which protect the absolute uniqueness. In synthesy the “Cinque Terre” has been declared a World Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 1997.



Montepulciano


Standing high atop a hill in southern Tuscany not too far from Siena, Montepulciano is a medieval town of rare beauty highly recommended visiting in Tuscany. The city, full of elegant Renaissance palaces, ancient churches, charming squares and hidden corners, boasts vast panoramas all over the wonderful Val d'Orcia and Val di Chiana valleys that surround it.

Montepulciano's strategic position makes it a perfect base from which to explore this beautiful corner of Tuscany; from here, you can reach the charming Pienza, the thermal village of Bagno Vignoni, the famous Montalcino and a lot of other enchanting villages in a very short time.

Just be prepared to share the town: Montepulciano has received great attention following the filming of the vampire saga Twilight sequel New Moon here and has seen a notable increase in visitors.

Piazza Grande is the heart of Montepulciano and the setting for its main events, including the barrel-racing Bravio delle Botti contest held in August every year and much more. A walk through Montepulciano is the best way to view the town and its beautiful landmarks as well as enjoy stunning views of the surrounding countryside covered by vineyards producing the famous Nobile!

  

Chianti

Wine Region near Florence & Siena

The Chianti area in Tuscany is one of the most beautiful in the whole region, as well as the most well-known and appreciated by visitors from across the world.

The borders of the Chianti region are not clearly defined but in general it extends over the provinces of Florence and Siena, covering all of the area between the two cities and extending to the east toward the Valdarno and to the west to the Val d'Elsa. The Chianti wine area extends further beyond the two cities, all around Florence and even toward Arezzo, Pistoia and Montepulciano.

You'll often find references to the "Florentine Chianti" and the "Sienese Chianti" to define the areas closest to one or the other city, but these often refer to a wine's origin within the Chianti region.

Chianti offers a unique landscape, with green, gentle hills covered with wide fields of vineyards and olive groves, small stone villages, characteristic parishes and countryside homes in stone.

The Chianti landscapes are so beautiful and particular that they inspire many photographs which then become postcards and calendars distributed across the globe.

 

Typical Products in Tuscany

An essential part to traveling abroad is shopping for local products.

Locally produced items and gifts we buy on our travels abroad help extend the experience of visiting Tuscany just a little bit longer once we are back home.

Tuscany has a long tradition of skilled craftsmen in many areas that create items now considered "typical products" of Tuscany. These include the fine craftsmanship required to make exquisite gold jewelry found on Ponte Vecchio in Florence as well as the red terracotta clay tiles from Impruneta we find across the region on roofs as well as inside in the floors. Fine blacksmiths continue to create iron creations such as the wrought-iron beds and tables we find inside our hotel rooms, rental apartments or gardens.

Carpenters continue today to hand-carve the rustic wood tables and other furniture found inside farmhouses across the region. Then there is the fine Italian leather jackets and leather bags found across the center of Florence and around the Arno valley. Admire the translucent creations carved out of alabaster stone in Volterra or the colorful painted ceramic plates from Montelupo. The craftsmen from Scarperia in the Mugello valley are well-known for their skill in crafting knives and other cutting tools.

Then let's not forget the gastronomic delights that make Tuscany famous across the world. Its red wines such as Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are as appreciated as its tasty, peppery extra-virgin olive oil. Then there are the numerous pecorino cheeses as well as cured meats such as the Cinta Senese, salame toscano or those made from local cinghiale (wild boar) that make Tuscan cuisine simple yet tasty.

On your next trip to Tuscany don't forget to take a little part of the region back with you in the shape of special gift or wine or olive oil bottle!

 

 

 

Food & Drink

The genius of Tuscan cooking is in its simplicity. Fancy sauces aren't needed to hide the food because Tuscans use pure, strong flavors and the freshest of ingredients. The great dishes are in fact very basic: homemade ribbons of egg pasta in hare sauce, game or free-range domestic animal meats grilled over wood coals, and beans simmered in earthenware pots.

Tuscans and Umbrians alike make only a sparing use of seasonings: salt, pepper, and their library of herbs (basil, rosemary, tarragon, sage, oregano, and the like). The most prominent cooking additives are wine and olive oil. Tuscan oil is some of the finest in the world, especially oil produced around Lucca, and comes in several gradients depending on the level of acidity. The more the olives are bruised before being pressed, the higher the acidity will be, which is why most olive picking is still done by delicate hands and not brutish machines. I don't know why they bother classifying some oils as vergine, fino vergine, or soprafino vergine, because no self-respecting Italian would use anything but extra vergine (extra virgin), some of which is rated DOC and DOCG, just like wine. Olives are harvested and pressed in October, and the oil is best fresh.

Another popular, and expensive, Tuscan garnish is the tartufo, or truffle. It's a fungal tuber (read: mushroom) that grows inexplicably around the roots of certain trees in certain soils under certain conditions that have for centuries baffled the food industry desperate to farm these lucrative little buggers.

Natural truffles come in both black (rare) and white (exceedingly rare) varieties, and they turn up in only very few areas of the world. Tuscany and Umbria are blessed to have both kinds growing underfoot, the black in many areas, especially Spoleto, and the white around San Miniato in Tuscany and Gubbio in Umbria. Fall is truffle season.

Some of the ingredients in Tuscan cooking may seem suspiciously trendy, but Tuscans have been eating caprino goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, and focaccia sandwiches for generations. And Tuscans have a Goldilocks complex whereby they undercook their meat, overcook their vegetables, but make their pasta just right -- by which I mean al dente ("to the teeth"), softened enough for eating but with a stiff bite to the very core and never, ever soggy.

 

Antipasto -- The classic Tuscan appetizer is an antipasto misto, which simply means "mixed." It usually entails affettati misti and crostini misti, both of which can be ordered alone as well. The former is a plate of sliced cured meats and salami, like prosciutto (salt-cured ham), capocollo (meaty pork salami), finocchiata (capocollo with fennel seeds), and sopressata (gelatinous headcheese -- better than it sounds). Crostini are little rounds of toast spread with various pÔtÚs, the most popular being di fegatini (chicken liver flavored with anchovy paste and capers) and di milza (spleen), though you'll also often get mushrooms, tomatoes, a cheesy sauce, or (especially in Umbria) a truffle paste.

Another popular appetizer is simple bruschetta (in Tuscany often called fettunta), a slab of peasant bread toasted on the grill, rubbed with a garlic clove, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkled with coarse salt -- order it al pomodoro for a pile of cubed tomatoes and torn basil leaves added on top. In summer, you'll also be offered panzanella, a kind of cold salad made of stale bread soaked in cold water and vinegar mixed with diced tomatoes, onions, and basil, all sprinkled with olive oil. A pinzimonio is a selection of raw vegetables (celery, fennel, peppers, and the like) with olive oil in which to dip them.

Primi -- Tuscan first courses come in three types. Of the zuppa or minestra (soup), the top dog is ribollita, literally "reboiled," because it's made the day before and reboiled before serving. It's a chunky soup closer to stew than anything else. The prime ingredients are black cabbage, bean purÚe, and whatever vegetables Mamma taught you to add in poured over stale peasant bread. Zuppa di fagioli (bean soup) can mean either this or a soupier breadless alternative.

Pasta is the most famous Italian primo, and in Tuscany the king is pappardelle alla lepre (very wide egg noodles in a strong-flavored sauce of wild hare). From somewhere around Siena and south, every town has its own name for the simple homemade pasta that's basically durum wheat mixed with water and rolled between the hands into chewy fat spaghetti. In Siena province, it's called pici or pinci; around Orvieto, order umbrichelli; and in Assisi or Spoleto, call it stringozzi (or some variant there of). It's usually served in a basic tomato sauce or alla carrettiera (a tomato sauce spiked with peperoncini hot peppers).

Other typical pasta dishes are penne strascicate (a tomato-and-cream rag¨) and strozzapreti, "priest stranglers," because clerics would supposedly choke on these rich ricotta-and-spinach dumplings (sometimes called gnudi -- nude since they're basically ravioli filling without the clothing of a pasta pocket).

Risotto is a thick, sticky rice dish made with boiled-down soup stock, popular in the north of Italy. Tuscans and Umbrians often serve up a few versions, usually ai funghi (with mushrooms) or ai asparagi (with wild asparagus).

Secondi -- Tuscans are unabashed carnivores, and the main course is almost always meat, usually grilled. Italians like their grilled meat as close to raw as rare can get, so if you prefer it a bit more brown, order your bistecca ben cotta (well done, which just might get you something close to medium).

The king is the mighty bistecca alla fiorentina, traditionally made from thick T-bone steak cut from the sirloin and enveloping the tenderloin of the snow-white muscular cattle raised in the Chiana valley, although lately the meat is just as often imported. This is grilled over glowing wood coals, then brushed with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with cracked black pepper. So simple, so good. The steaks average 1 to 2 inches thick and weigh about 3 to 4 pounds. Order a powerhouse red wine (this is the time for Brunello) and a plate of fagioli (white beans) on the side, and then cancel all meal plans for the next few days.

More everyday secondi are grigliata mista (mixed grill that may include lamb, sausage, chicken, or steak), arista (they usually leave off the di maiale because this dish invariably consists of slices of roast pork loin), fritto misto (mix of chicken, lamb, sweetbreads, artichokes, and zucchini dipped in bready egg batter and deep-fried in olive oil), and any wild game, especially cinghiale (wild boar), which is often cooked in umido (stewed with tomatoes), as well as domesticated gamelike coniglio (rabbit) and anatra (duck). They cook pollo (chicken) arrosto (roasted), alla diavola (with hot spices), or al mattone (cooked under the weight of a hot brick), but usually tend to dry it out in doing so. A lombatina di vitello is a simple veal chop, prepared in myriad ways.

Tuscans and Umbrians are very fond of the spiedino (shish-kebob grill) and seem to like spitting small fowl, such as the tiny tordo (thrush) and hapless piccione (pigeon), along with the same mix of meats in a grigliata mista with maybe an onion added in. One Tuscan specialty to which Florentines are particularly beholden is trippa (tripe, the stomach lining of a cow), most popularly served as trippa alla fiorentina, tripe strips or cubes casseroled with vegetables and topped with tomato sauce and parmigiano.CibrŔo is another local Florentine dish against which you might want to be vigilant -- it's a mix of cockscombs and chicken livers mixed with beans and egg yolks and served on toast.

Aside from fresh fish, both Tuscans and Umbrians make widespread use of baccalÓ, salt-cured cod they soften in water before cooking and often serve alla livornese (cooked with tomatoes and other veggies in white wine and olive oil, occasionally with some tripe thrown in for good measure).

Contorni -- Tuscans are called the mangiafagioli (bean-eaters) by other Italians. And fagioli here, the Italian word for beans in general, almost invariably means white cannellini beans (sometimes red kidney beans or green broad beans will show up, increasingly as you get into Umbria). However, a simple plate filled with nothing but fagioli or fagioli in fiasco, cooked al dente with a liberal supply of olive oil poured on and ground black pepper for taste, is somehow divine within Tuscany's borders. For something zestier, order fagioli all'uccelletto, in which the beans are stewed with tomatoes and sage.

In Umbria, you can get a plate of lenticchie di Castell˙ccio, some of the world's best midget lentil beans. It's a good thing Tuscans and Umbrians cook their beans right, because they tend to boil their other favorite veggie, spinaci (spinach) until it's dead, and you end up with a pile of green on your plate with very little molecular cohesion left.

Any other vegetable -- melanzane (eggplant), pomodoro (tomato), or peperone (bell pepper) -- is usually sliced thin, grilled, and served swimming in olive oil. About the only other side dish central Italians turn to is patate (potatoes), either arrosto (roasted and covered with olive oil and rosemary) or fritte (the increasingly popular french fries).

Dolci -- Tuscany's best sweet is the dreamy gelato, a dense Italian version of ice cream, which you should ideally get at a proper gelateria and not in a restaurant. The main dish to have after dinner, however, is cantucci con vin santo. Cantucci, or biscotti di Prato in that town most famed for them, are the Tuscan variant on the twice-baked hard almond crescent cookies called biscotti, usually eaten by dunking them in a small glass of the sweet dessert wine vin santo.

Panforte is a very dense fruitcake. (One of Siena's specialties, pan pepato, is its medieval predecessor, with more exotic spices added into the sweetness.) A castagnaccio is a dense cake made of chestnut flour and topped with pine nuts; necci are chestnut-flour crepes; and a zuccotto is a concentration of calories in the form of sponge cake filled with semifreddo moussed chocolate, cream, candied fruit, and nuts. Other cookies are ricciarelli of honeyed marzipan (a sugar/honey almond paste), brutti ma buoni (ugly but good chewy almond-sugar cookies), and ossi dei morti (bones of the dead -- light, crumble-in-your-mouth matrices of sugar).

 

Tuscany has been wine country for thousands of years, ever since the Etruscans shipped their popular brews south to thirsty Romans and up to the Gauls of France. Since the days they were praised by Pliny the Elder, Tuscan wines have been keenly sought after, and the region is by far the most famous wine zone in Italy, which as a country is the largest producer of wine in the world.

To Italians, wine is the obvious only choice of beverage with dinner, so in most restaurants your only decision will be rosso o bianco (red or white). Unless you want to celebrate some special occasion or are in the mood to expand your connoisseurship, the vino della casa (house wine) will almost invariably do wonderfully. Sparkling wine, which you'll usually find imported from other Italian zones (the most famous of which is Asti), is called spumante. (Those refraining from alcohol for personal or health reasons needn't worry -- you won't be met with scowls or discouragement if all you order is a bottle of mineral water; wine consumption is expected at meals but certainly not required.)

To test out a few glasses without the full meal, drop by an enoteca, a wine shop or wine bar, where you can often sample before you buy (any regular bar will also pour you a glass of house wine for 2€ to 3€). When tooling around the wine-heavy countryside of Tuscany or Umbria, any sign that touts vendita diretta means the owner of those vines will sell to you direct.

Classifications -- In 1963, Italy's wine fell into two classifications, table wine and DOC. DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines are merely those that a government board guarantees have come from an official wine-producing area and that meet the standard for carrying a certain name on the label. A vino di tavola (table wine) classification merely means a bottle doesn't fit the pre-established standards and is no reflection of the wine's quality .

In 1980, a new category was added. DOCG (the G stands for Garantita) is granted to wines with a certain subjective high quality. Traditionally, DOCG labels were merely the highest-profile wines that lobbied for the status (getting DOC or DOCG vastly improves reputations and therefore sales, though the costs of putting up the wine annually for testing are high). In 1992, the laws were rewritten and Italy's original list of six DOCG wines (three of which were Tuscan) jumped to 15. Six of these are Tuscans (Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano, Chianti, Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Vernaccia di San Gimignano) and two are Umbrian (Sagrantino di Montefalco and Torgiano Rosso Riserva).

Though vino di tavola usually connotes a quaffable house wine from some indeterminate local producer, in recent years this classification of table wine was the only outlet for estates that wanted to experiment with nontraditional mixtures. Many respectable producers started mixing varietals with French grapes, such as cabernet and chardonnay, to produce wines that, though complex and of high quality, don't fall into the conservative DOC system. Such a wine could, by law, only be called a lowly vino di tavola. These highbred wines became known as Supertuscans or super vini di tavola. There's no guaranteeing the quality of these experimental wines, yet most self-respecting producers won't put on the market a failure or something undrinkable. If you come across a 23€ bottle with a fanciful name marked "table wine," it's probably a Supertuscan.

Even the venerable chianti-based wine empire of the Antinori came up with a sangiovese-cabernet mix they call Tignanello; they also put out a recommendable full-fledged cabernet sauvignon under the name Solaia. Perhaps the highest-profile Supertuscan is Sassicaia di Bolgheri, a huge and complex cabernet blend that lives for decades and is priced accordingly. It's produced by a single estate near the coast south of Livorno and, despite the popular status of more well-known wines such as Brunello, is perhaps Italy's finest red wine. The cabernet grapevines used here were transplanted from the ChÔteau Lafite in the 1940s.

Wine classification in Italy is changing slowly, as 1992 laws, which also created the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), are being applied gradually to regional wine styles.

The practical upshot of all this is that DOC and DOCG wines represent the best of traditional wine formulas. IGT wines are for unique wines from even smaller specific areas or single vintners, and this is one of the fastest growing categories among the better wines. Vino da tavola, while still sometimes slapped on $100 bottles of vineyard one-offs, is increasingly just used for what it was originally intended to mean: simple, hearty, tasty table wines that go well with any meal but probably won't send wine snobs into ecstasies of flowery poetic description.

Tuscan Wines -- Undoubtedly, Italy's most famous wine is the easygoing and versatile chianti, traditionally produced all around central Tuscany. The Chianti Classico zone of the tall hills between Florence and Siena produces the oldest, most balanced blends; it was the world's first officially established wine area in 1716. In the 19th century, a more exacting formula for chianti was worked out in the hills between Siena and Florence by Baron Ricasoli, with 75% to 90% sangiovese with other local grapes thrown in to mellow it out and make it more drinkable. Only recently were the DOCG laws controlling chianti relaxed to allow fully sangioveto chiantis to be produced, and today, a Chianti Classico can have anywhere from 70% to 100% sangiovese, often rounded out with an imported cru such as cabernet, merlot, or pinot nero. This has led to a surge in the quality and full-bodiedness of chianti, moving most of it from being a knockabout good table wine to a complex, structured, heavyweight contender in annual wine fairs. Though quality still varies, it's usually thoroughly reliable and is one of the best everyday wines produced anywhere.

Other chianti zones are Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Florence's table wine; Chianti Colli Senesi, the largest zone, filling in gaps around Siena where yield regulations keep them from growing Brunello, Vino Nobile, or Vernaccia (the chianti can be very good but is unreliable); Chianti Colli Aretine, a mellow edition; Chianti Colli Pisane, the featherweight contender; Chianti Montalbano, the juicy-fruits of the gang; and Chianti R˙fina -- not to be confused with Ruffino, one of the biggest Chianti Classico houses -- which flexes its muscle east of Florence to make chiantis of some complexity and style.

Tuscany's powerhouse red wine -- and, depending on whom you ask, the number-one or number-two wine in all of Italy -- is Brunello di Montalcino. It was developed in the 18th century when the Biondi-Santi vineyards were hit with a fungus that left only the dusty slate-blue sangiovese grosso grapes alive. It was the first wine to be granted DOCG status. Brunello is 100% sangiovese grosso, aged for 4 years (5 for the riserva labels), most of it in oak barrels. It's a deep-ruby elixir of remarkable complexity, a full mouth feel, long flavors, and usually a good deal of tannins. It needs steak or game dishes to let it shine; for a lighter-weight adventure try the Rosso di Montalcino, a younger, fruitier version.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is Tuscany's other long-respected red, a deep-garnet liquid that rolls around the tongue with a lasting flavor of fruits, violets, and damp soil. It's good paired with meats but also with fruit, bread, and cheese on a picnic. Significantly cheaper than Brunello, it's a less complex but more versatile wine.

Two of the oldest wine zones, also founded in 1716, border Florence, and both have made use of French grapes since the 18th century. The tiny DOC Pomino zone to the east of Florence (abutting Chianti R˙fina territory) mixes cabernet, merlot, and sometimes pinot noir into its sangiovese for a pleasant red. DOCG Carmignano, near Prato between Florence and Lucca, tosses cabernet into the chianti-like brew to make some of Tuscany's freshest, yet still refined and interesting, wines. Although they age well and keep forever, these wines can also be drunk practically straight out of the barrel.

More recent phenomena, pioneered by the Antinori family in the 1970s, are the so-called Supertuscans, made predominantly of cabernet and merlot along with just a smattering of the local Sangiovese grapes. The two most famous of these are Sassicaia and Ornellaia, produced near the town of Bolgheri in southwest Tuscany. Ornellaia produces wines in the Bolgheri DOC zone, while Sassicaia has its own DOC status -- it's a sort of subdivision of Bolgheri and the only Italian estate occupying its own, exclusive denomination. Consequently, Sassicaia is one of Italy's most prestigious and expensive labels.

Tuscany produces many other fine DOC reds in zones throughout the region, such as the smooth Rosso delle Colline Lucchesi around Lucca. One of the best is a Maremma wine, rather trendy in Italy, called Morellino di Scansano. Like chianti -- to which it's similar but silkier -- it's about 80% sangiovese, with some other Tuscan grapes thrown in the mix along with Alicante (a Spanish grape known among the French as grenache).

Tuscany's only white wine of note is Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a dry wine of variable quality, but it enjoys the status of being one of Italy's few DOCG whites. Few other whites stand out in Tuscany, though the area around Pitigliano and the Valdichiana both produce drinkable vino bianco, and the Chianti zone is making some headway with its lightweight Galestro. Perhaps the finest little-known white is the dry Montecarlo, from the hills east of Lucca.