Have you ever seen or heard the term “Super Tuscan” while perusing the wine list at an Italian restaurant or while shopping for Italian wines, but never really understood what it meant?
Don’t worry, you are not alone. It’s probably the most common question I get asked from customers shopping in the Italian section or from guests at my Tuscan wine tastings. The answer isn’t clear cut, but a little history of how and why these wines were created will help you understand these great wines and how they not only broke the rules but also changed the course of Italian winemaking.
The History of Super-Tuscan Winemaking
It all started in the 1940’s with a wine called Sassicaia, a Bordeaux-variety wine produced by Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta in the coastal Bolgheri region of Tuscany. Mario Incisa della Rocchetta married a wealthy heiress to a large ranch in Bolgheri where they moved and began entertaining noble friends and relatives.
Mario was a fan of Bordeaux wines and saw similarities with the rocky soils of Bolgheri to those of Graves in Bordeaux France. He decided to experiment with plantings of varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and produce Bordeaux style wines only for his relatives and aristocratic friends to enjoy. He also used small oak barrels for aging his wine in contrast to the large barrels which were commonly used for aging the Sangiovese wines in nearby Chianti.
Each year Mario cellared a few cases of his wines as he recognized these complex wines needed time to mature and develop. In the 1960’s his friends and relatives saw how spectacularly the wines had developed (especially one noble relative name Piero Antinori) and encouraged him to release his wines commercially. He released his first vintage of Sassicaia in 1971 and was an instant hit with wine critics.
Now at about this same time in the 1970’s, Italian wines, and especially the popular Chianti wine, were suffering quality issues with farmers producing mass-market style bulk wines to export to international markets. (Remember the straw covered flasks fiascos of Chianti?)
So Italy decided to create an appellation control system DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata), in the same framework as France’s AOC system, to establish geographical origins and quality production regulations for their historical wines like Chianti Classico, Soave, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano etc. In order for a wine to get the quality DOC status it had to be produced in a certain delineated area and follow historical and quality production rules.
If a wine didn’t meet those standards then it was labeled Vino da Tavola or table wine.
Quality regulations sound like a good idea right? Well, at that time the original Chianti Classico recipe was for a lean, austere wine that limited the amount of Sangiovese and included a large percentage of white grapes and only allowed the addition of the red grape Canaiolo. International varieties like Cabernet and Merlot were forbidden. The Chianti Classico DOC said that the wine had to be made that way or it couldn’t be called Chianti Classico.
Many of the Chianti producers weren’t happy and felt they could make better quality, richer wine outside of those rules. Producers like the noble Marchesi Antinori family, who had also been experimenting by blending international varieties in their Sangiovese wines and aging in the smaller French barrique barrels, felt the rules prevented them from competing on the international markets. Other Chianti producers wanted to produce 100% Sangiovese wines like their neighbors in Montalcino but if they didn’t follow the DOC rules, their wine would be labeled as mere table wine.
Antinori's Tignanello Opens the Floodgates
Antinori, seeing the success of Sassicaia, decided to go ahead and break the DOC rules and in 1974 released his first vintage of Tignanello, a Sangiovese wine produced in Chianti but blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and aged in French barrique. His high quality, high priced wine was labeled as Vino da Tavola but still became a huge hit with international wine critics who loved the bolder full bodied wine.
The success of his wine opened the flood gates for Tuscan producers from all the Tuscan appellations to start producing wines in non-traditional styles they preferred, using international varietiess or mono-varieties and aging in French barrique. By the 1980’s these Vino da Tavola wines had taken international markets by storm and the critics struggled with what to call these high quality, higher priced wines. It is believed that the term “Super Tuscans” was coined by Robert Parker who was one of the first wine critics to recognize these non-traditional Tuscan wines. In 1992 the Italian regulatory system also recognized the success of these wines and finally added the new designation Indicazione Geographica Tipica (IGT) that is a step up from Vino da Tavola and gave producers much broader freedoms as long as the grapes came from the designated region. In this case, Tuscany. The Chianti Classico DOC rules have also since been changed to allow for the addition of international varieties.
What is a Super Tuscan Wine?
Now that brings us back to the question of what is a Super Tuscan wine? The simple answer is that it is a wine that is produced in Tuscany that doesn’t follow the appellation rules it is produced in. Super Tuscans can range from inexpensive everyday wines to some of Italy’s most coveted and recognized wines like Sassicaia and Ornellaia.
At The Wine County we carry a full range of top Super Tuscan wines including the famed superstars of the Bolgheri region.
Here is a broad range of some of the top Super Tuscan wines available from iconic cellar worthy wines to affordable great values:
2012 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia Bolgheri $239.99
2014 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia Bolgheri $199.99
This is the original Super Tuscan and one of the most sought after wines in the world. Acclaimed by wine critics year after year, Sassicaia expresses the rocky, clay terroir of the Bolgheri region and rivals some of the greatest, age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignons of the world. A blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc and aged 24 months in French oak barriques.
“Sassicaia is not only an Italian icon; it is a giant in the world of Fine Wine that rightly deserves its place at the top table of the world’s best wines. Sassicaia stretches the imagination beyond a singular triumphant vintage, award or figurehead. Great wines start with great vineyards that produce outstanding fruit year on year and, with its unique micro-climate, Sassicaia has stood above its peers regardless of the hand dealt from Mother Nature with its proven track record of producing excellent wines in tougher conditions.” - Robert Parker
2012 Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore $189.99
2013 Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore $189.99
Ornellaia was established in 1981 by Lodovico Antinori, perhaps in response to the success of his cousin’s Sassicaia wine, and has also achieved cult status with wine enthusiasts around the world. The Ornellaia vineyards sit adjacent to the Sassicaia vineyards in the famed Bolgheri region and the wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot aged in new and used French oak barriques. “If Italy had a classification system similar to Bordeaux, then Ornellaia would be a first-growth. Year in, year out, Ornellaia is among the best wines of Italy, and they are among the most collectible and sought-after in the world.” – James Suckling
2011 Le Macchiole ‘Messorio’ Bolgheri $199.99
2013 Le Macchiole ‘Messorio’ Bolgheri $179.99
Le Macchiole was started in 1983 by a local couple who purchased a small plot of vineyards in the now famed Bolgheri region and decided to experiment with many different grape varietals to see which performed best in the terroir of the region. In 1994 they decided that Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc expressed the unique qualities of Bolgheri and took the risk to produce mono-varietal wines from those grapes. By 2002 their wines were receiving critical acclaim and were recognized and sought after worldwide. Messorio is their complex and expressive 100% Merlot wine, aged 20 months in new and used French oak barriques that will evolve beautifully over many years. This is a rich, powerful and seductive yet pure expression of Merlot that is uniquely Tuscan at the same time.
2014 Fontodi ‘Flaccianello della Pieve’ $109.99
Fontodi is an historical Chianti Classico estate with vineyards located in the Conca d’Oro, one of the best locations in Tuscany. In 1981 they broke the DOC rules of Chianti Classico and produced one of the first 100% Sangiovese Super Tuscan wines from their best vineyards and called the wine “Flaccianello.” This wine truly shows the beauty, elegance and intensity that Sangiovese can achieve when grown in the best soils in Tuscany. “Very precise and focused with blueberry, blackberry and currant character. Chewy yet tight tannins. Full body and fabulous density and length. A classic. Needs five or six years to open completely but so beautiful in its youth. Real deal. Pure sangiovese.” - James Suckling
2015 Le Macchiole Bolgheri Rosso $29.99
Le Macchiole is a highly respected winemaker in the famed Bolgheri region best known for their acclaimed ‘Messorio’ wine but they also produce this affordable yet beautiful Bordeaux blend from their younger vines. This easy drinking yet complex wine is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Le Macchiole is known for letting the pure fruit and Bolgheri terroir shine in their wines and this blend expresses that perfectly. Delicious dark berry fruit with spice and earthy undertones, this is a satisfying wine and an amazing value.
2010 Casanova di Sesta ‘Gennisse’ Toscana Rosso $34.99
Casanova di Sesta is a small winery located in Tuscany producing two Super Tuscan blends. The winemaker uses a unique aging process for both his wines. The ‘Gennisse’ is a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Teroldego and is aged 7 months in concrete vats, then 16 months in French barrique, then an additional 15 months in the bottle before being released. This extended aging produces a super smooth and seductive dark berry wine with nice earthy Tuscan character and silky tannins. It’s the perfect wine for a nice steak, roasted meats or aged cheeses.
2013 Rocca di Frassinello ‘Le Sughere’ $23.99
Rocca di Frassinello is a joint project of famed Chianti producer Castellare and famed Bordeaux producer Chateau Lafite Rothschild started in 2000 to take their winemaking expertise to the revered coastal Maremma region of Tuscany and produce exquisite “Super Tuscan” blends of Sangiovese and Bordeaux varieties that are highly expressive of the Tuscan terroir. ‘Le Sughere’ is a gorgeous medium bodied blend of 50% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot. The aromatics of violets, herbs and bright cherry fruit jump out of the glass then the silky red cherry and plum fruit dance on your palate with notes of mocha, licorice and spice. True class in a wine.
2014 La Massa Toscana Rosso $19.99
This Sangiovese/Merlot/Cabernet blend from the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany really defines the term Super Tuscan perfectly. This is such a super wine at this price! The dense dark berry fruit really shines but is backed up by notes of spice and wild herbs. This is a fairly muscular wine but well- balanced, elegant and satisfying at the same time.