Last month I wrote about the “Super Marches” wines from Le Marche. I realize that I have yet to discuss the granddaddy of all the “Super” wines; Super Tuscans. Tuscany has a long history of making great indigenous wines. See previous articles on Chianti, Brunello and Vin Santo. It is also home to some of the best internationally styled wines which are known collectively as Super Tuscans. So just what is a Super Tuscan? There really are no hard and fast rules. First and foremost, the term generally refers to red wines from Tuscany that do not conform to any DOC(G) regulations. They are released as IGT wines or even Vino de Tavola (VdT) or table wine. Beyond that, it is a term more of marketing than art or science.
To understand the history of Super Tuscans, it helps to remember what the Tuscan, and Italian, wine scene was like post World War II. Most of the wine produced was for local distribution, and not of the highest quality. Outside of a handful of Brunello producers, the top wines being produced in Tuscany were Chianti’s. The Chianti’s of that day were cheap and easy to drink, somewhat rustic wines. As was discussed in the Chianti article, the DOC laws allowed the use of up to 30% white Malvasia grapes. The net effect was to make Chianti’s easy to drink but hardly a serious wine. Chiantis, often sold in straw covered “fiasco” bottles, were a commercial success but hardly a wine to boast about.
In the 1940’s, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta settled with his wife on a horse ranch in Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast. At the time, this was considered a poor location for growing grapes to make wine. Yet, Rocchetta was not interested in making wines for the market, only for himself (and his wife). He imported Cabernet Sauvignon vines from Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux and planted a vineyard calling his estate Tenuta San Guido. He then aged the wine in French oak barriques (instead of the large Slovenian Casks most Chianti producers of the day were using). The wines at first were rustic but good (or so I am told). Over the years, Rocchetta learned his craft and made better and better wines. They were unlike any other Italian wines. The wines were called Sassicaia, planting the seed of the Super Tuscan movement.
Sassicaia wines garnered a small reputation for their quality. They were, however, quite limited and may have remained a footnote in Italian wine history except for one family connection. Piero Antinori, whose family was and still is, one of the largest winemaking families in Chianti, dating back 600 years, was a relative of Rocchetta. He had tasted the early vintages of Sassicaia and knew of the quality. In 1968 Antinori persuaded Rochetta to let Marchesi Antinori Distributors have 250 cases of the wine to sell. It was an instant hit. In 1978 it won a tasting of the world’s best Cabernets held in London. In fact, Sassicaia now has its own DOC, the only single winery DOC in Italy.
Antinori was not only impressed by Sassicaia, he realized the potential of the terroir of Bolgheri and the usefulness of introducing new varietals. Moreover, he grasped that he could make a better wine than his Chianti and, even labeled as VdT, it could be a commercial success. He began experimenting with ways to achieve great quality in his wines. By eliminating the white Malvasia grapes his Chiantis became more structured and profound. He also tested the addition of Bordeaux varietals to the Sangiovese wines.
The idea of blending Sangiovese grapes with international grapes was not new; records show it being done in the 18th century. Under Italy’s present DOC system, however, such wines must be labeled as VdT, considered the lowest designation of Italy’s wines. This labeling was a source of awkwardness for the producers, who certainly could not charge top dollar for the wines. Antinori, nonetheless, had the clout to create a wine and the marketing skills to be able to successfully charge high prices. In the early 1970’s, Chianti was not permitted to be 100% Sangiovese, yet Antinori was convinced that would make a better wine. In 1971, Antinori released a new wine called Tignanello. It is generally regarded as the first Super Tuscan. The 1971 Tignanello was 100% Sangiovese, aged in smaller French oak barriques (since 1975 this wine has included about 20% Cabernet Sauvignon) and a commercial and artistic success.
Numerous other Tuscan producers saw the results and followed. Some were frustrated by the DOC laws of Chianti, others envious of the high quality and high prices of Tignanello. Many existing wineries and several new ones started to grow grapes on the Bolgheri coast. There was no set formula for these wines. Most contained Cabernet or Merlot, a lot had Sangiovese, and some had Syrah or other varietals. The most consistent thing about them was their high pricing. Many of these wines could now be called Chianti, as the DOC laws have been changed to eliminate the need for white Malvasia grapes and allow for 100% Sangiovese, but the genie is out of the bottle. There is more cache in the Super Tuscan name at this point.
By the 1980’s “Super” wines had proven their worth. Regions throughout Italy started to create these wines almost flouting their lack of DOC status. In 1992, partly in response to this phenomenon, Italy added a new classification to their wines. Indicazione Geografica Tipica or IGT was created to add some level of regulation to non-DOC(G) wines. Most Super Tuscans now carry an IGT Toscana designation.
Today, the Super Tuscan term is accepted as meaning a red wine, often using international varietals and certainly made in a more international style. The last term can be somewhat controversial and it is used here to mean wines made with small French oak barriques, often new wood, with plenty of upfront robust fruit. At the same time, these are wines that are still Italian in their soul. They are better on the dinner table than sipping alone. They are built with a strong back bone of acidity best enjoyed with food.
So what are the best Super Tuscans and how much will they cost? Here is a list of my favorites. As with any wine, the list is subjective and your mileage may vary.
Sassicaia is still being made. It is now blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc. A mere $7600 can still buy you that first 1968 vintage. The most recent vintage (2005) can be found for around $150. A great wine to be sure, but perhaps not worth the tariff compared to other great Cabernets around the world.
Tignanello is a blend of 80% Sangiovese with the rest Cabernet Sauvignon and some Cabernet Franc. It can be found for around $80 and the last few vintages have been very good. In fact, just about every vintage is a consistent and outstanding wine. Antinori also makes a wine called Solaia. Usually the opposite of Tiganello, it is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and a smaller component of Sangiovese. Priced around $160 a bottle, in my estimation it has passed Sassicaia in terms of quality.
Tenuta dell’Ornallaia makes a couple Super Tuscans worth mentioning. Ornellaia is a Bordeaux styled blend that garners wonderful praise, and well deserved too. Recent superior vintages will cost around $150 although some of “lesser” years may be found for less. The mythical 1997, which is a wonderful wine, now sells for closer to $300. The estate also makes a Merlot called Massetto. Unfortunately, I have yet to try this wine and prices are now in the $400 range. Perhaps the best year for Massetto was 2001 with those bottles and their 1997 now selling for over $1,000.
Castello de Terriccio makes a wonderful wine named Lupicaia which is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and other varietals. It is an outstanding wine. At around $150, it is priced higher than I would pay for it. Luckily, in this case, I have an option. They also make a wine called Tassinaia, usually an equal blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet which costs something like $45 a bottle. Not the quality of its big brother perhaps, but an excellent bottle of wine.
At this point, you may be wondering why many Super Tuscans have names ending in “aia”. It has been suggested that if you are in a wine store, you could do worse as a buying strategy than concentrating on Tuscan wines ending with those letters. Some non-aia wines I adore are as follows.
One of my favorite Chianti producers is Felsina. They make a 100% Sangiovese (it could have been a Chianti) called Fontalloro. A fantastic, wine and if you look hard you may find the superb 2004 vintage still on the shelves for $50 or less. Probably my other favorite Chianti producer, Fontodi, also makes a 100% Sangiovese wine called Flaccianello. What a great wine. This wine will now run you around $90, but it is spectacular. Two other 100% Sangiovese Super Tuscans I love are Cepparrello from Isole e Olena available for around $50 a bottle and Le Pergola Torte from Montevertine, which is a beauty running around $100 a bottle.
An interesting wine is Paleo by Le Macchiole. It started out predominantly as Sangiovese. Then more and more Cabernet Sauvignon was added to the mix, eventually replacing the Sangiovese with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. And they were not done. It is now, and has been for the last few vintages, 100% Cabernet Franc. Either way, it has always been delicious. It can usually be found for around $85.
If you like a little Syrah in your Super Tuscan, look for Solengo from Argiano. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, this will set you back around $60 a bottle.
This list is certainly not meant to be complete. There are so many other wines. A trait that these wines have in common is that they are built to age. They can be drunk on release although they do have huge thick tannins. Some time in the decanter may soften the wine up a bit, and there is certainly plenty of up front fruit to satisfy even the “fruit bomb” lovers. Still, to really get the full experience, these wines should be tried with some age on them. A recent retrospective of Super Tuscans from the 1997 vintage that I was privileged to attend showed many of the above named wines doing just fine eleven years after the vintage. The wines are mature and in no danger of falling apart. I particularly enjoyed the Tignanello perhaps due to its higher Sangiovese component.
If you haven’t tried any of these wines, I would urge you to save up your money and splurge for a bottle. These are truly outstanding wines that every wine lover should have the opportunity to get to know. Please let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.