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28 Nov 2017 | Kevin Lepisto

Super-Tuscans: Breaking All the Rules!

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.

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