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Decanter travel guide: Etruscan Riviera, Italy

Luciana Lynch explores a stretch of the Maremma coast where Super Tuscans rub shoulders with Etruscan remains. Dodge the steelworks and catch the sunset...

Etruscan Riviera fact file:

Planted area: Bolgheri: 1,200ha, Suvereto: 400ha, Val di Cornia: 300ha
Common red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sangiovese, Syrah, Aleatico, Petit Verdot
Common white grapes: Vermentino, Trebbiano, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc

Quick links:

Six of the best wineries to visit
Where to stay, shop, eat and relax

Fufluns, Etruscan Deity of wine, would be pleased to see how viticulture has evolved in the stretch of coastal Tuscany called ‘Riva degli Etruschi’: the Etruscan Riviera. He’d surely approve of the quality, modern wines made there now which, in a few decades, have taken the world by storm.

This maritime zone is part of upper Maremma, the former marshy land reclaimed in the 19th century. An hour’s drive south of Pisa, some 210 kilometres north of Rome and less than 160km from Florence, it feels and looks very different from the gently sculpted Tuscan heartland. Its location makes it ideal for day trips to Siena, San Gimignano and Montalcino, or to catch a ferry to Elba. And yet there’s much on offer within its boundaries.

Here the Etruscan coast stretches 48km north to south on either side of the SS1 Aurelia, the Roman highway linking Rome to France. It takes in Bolgheri to the north, down to Follonica in the south. On one side of the Aurelia rise woods and scrub-covered hills dotted with castles and stone-built villages such as Castagneto, Suvereto, Bolgheri, Campiglia, Sassetta. On the other side is the coast: many kilometres of sandy, pine-backed beaches, some stretches still wild and undeveloped, others with popular resorts at Donoratico, Follonica and San Vincenzo, offering accomodation from excellent campsites to six-star luxury resorts. The whole area has a network of wine roads.

Castles, beaches… and Leonardo

A hidden gem, too, for inquisitive travellers, is Piombino, best known as the gateway to Elba and for its steelworks (iron has been extracted and smelted round here since Etruscan times); but venture into this medieval harbour town, set below a scrubcovered promontory dotted with coves, and you will discover walls and ramparts designed by Leonardo da Vinci, a castle, ancient churches, pretty marinas, and a long promenade with views of Corsica, Montecristo, Giglio and the whole archipelago. Don’t miss Piazza Bovio, a large terrace built above a huge rocky outcrop overlooking Elba, which gives the impression of being on a vast, open ship. And keep that camera handy: the sunsets are awesome.

The SS1 traverses the fertile, hot Maremma, with its cornucopia of produce. Olive groves link valley to slopes, where vines dominate, giving way to woods of chestnut and cork-oak, populated by wild boar and scented by myrtle, bay and strawberry bush, with wild mushrooms in the undergrowth. The Gulf of Baratti, between Piombino and San Vincenzo, offers a long, crescent-shaped golden sandy beach; within a short stroll lies a major Etruscan necropolis in the village of Populonia, with its castle, paved streets and superb sea views.

The climate, among the best in the Med, makes this is a virtually year-round destination. Long hot summers are mitigated by sea breezes: the Mistral, blowing fast and furious down the Rhône valley, reaches these shores as a refreshing, cooling wind. The luminosity and the absence of fog and mist are the envy of growers from inner areas, with grapes normally ripening two weeks ahead of the interior, and little risk of disease – indeed, the soil’s high mineral content, the perfect climate and the proximity to the sea help to explain why several of Italy’s top wine producers were attracted to this small area. They have invested heavily, establishing vineyards and gleaming new wineries, and have added to and stimulated the local talent.

Exploring the wine regions

There are three official wine areas: Bolgheri DOC, Suvereto and Val di Cornia, the last two elevated recently to DOCG. Bolgheri, in the north and extending south to Castagneto, is the most prestigious, and is home to Sassicaia, the very first SuperTuscan. Suvereto, in the south, has shown its potential since the early 1990s – some of the world’s best Merlots are made here. Val di Cornia, which encompasses steep vineyards on the Piombino promontory and surrounding communes, is more fragmented geographically and less homogeneous in quality.

You would expect Sangiovese to feature prominently here as elsewhere in Tuscany and, to some extent, it does. But since change began here in the 1980s, Sangiovese has not been the main protagonist, except in Val di Cornia; it was joined, and arguably sidelined, by Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc (starting with Bolgheri), then Merlot both in Bolgheri and Suvereto; Syrah and others now also feature. The native red Aleatico makes a dense, luscious, alcoholic sweet red, when the grapes can be saved from the voracious wild boars which have acquired a taste for them.

Long-established Vermentino is the most notable white grape, giving fresh, textured dry wines perfect for seafood and summer drinking; there’s no shortage of Trebbiano (aka Ansonica), and Sauvignon Blanc and recently Viognier are gaining attention.

Food lovers who appreciate high-quality ingredients and relatively simple cuisine will be happy here, and almost everything will call for a generous dash of local olive oil. Cacciucco, a hearty fish stew, and black squid-ink risotto, feature on most menus. Or you might be tempted by a rare delicacy: sea urchin roes as a pasta topping. Wild boar appears as pasta sauces, cured ham and in savoury, wine-drenched stews. Porcini mushrooms abound in the chestnut woods, and chestnut flour is used for castagnaccio, a dense cake enriched with pine nuts, sultanas and rosemary, baked in olive oil. Fofluns doesn’t go hungry, either.

How to get there:

By plane: to Pisa, then an hour’s drive to the Etruscan Riviera
By car: from Pisa Airport to Grosseto or Livorno

Written by Luciana Lynch

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