Super Tuscans are the stuff of legend. Rogue winemaker bucks tradition, breaks rules, creates something new and wonderful and vaults his wine region back onto the world wine stage – it's a fantastic tale. And that's pretty much how things happened.
Except, of course, that there's a backstory or two to this winemaking adventure, as there so often is in Italy. In this case, the first backstory revolves around a wine called Sassicaia, once an obscure wine made in small quantities by an Italian nobleman, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta. Today Sassicaia is one of the best-known Super Tuscans, but in the 1960s it was virtually unknown. Incisa dello Rochetta, who had long dreamed of creating a Bordeaux-style red, planted cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc vines on his family's vineyards in Tuscany's Bolgheri region and used them to make a wine that, in the land of Chianti, was nothing like a Chianti and was, instead, a great deal like a Bordeaux. Incisa della Rochetta also introduced the idea of aging Tuscan wines in French barriques, another revolutionary concept. After many years of experimenting, he brought the first Sassicaia to market in 1968, and the response convinced him to continue working with his Sassicaia concept.
During this same period, Agricola San Felice began to develop its Vigorello wine, produced from red wine grapes only. Since the DOC law in force at the time required all Chianti producers to include white wine grapes in their blends, Vigorello also flew in the face of tradition and regulation. Vigorello is certainly one of the forebears of today's Super Tuscans.
To further complicate the history of Super Tuscans, it was at about this same time that Piero Antinori, scion of a Tuscan family with a centuries-old tradition of winemaking, began to tinker with the traditional Chianti formula – sangiovese blended with canaiolo and one or more types of white wine grapes – and found himself abandoning it altogether in 1971 with the release of his Tignanello wine. Because Tignanello contained no white wine grapes and thus did not follow the DOC regulations for production of Chianti, it could only be labeled as a vino da tavola, or table wine.
Of course, Tignanello was anything but ordinary table wine; it was, in fact, the first of the modern-day Super Tuscans, based on the innovative trend begun by Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta and Agricola San Felice. Other creative winemakers in Tuscany followed Antinori's lead, and the wine world cheered them on. Wine critics coined the moniker "Super Tuscans" for these rule-breaking, intense non-Chiantis, seeing in them the embodiment of the idea that rules could be broken in order to make and market exceptional Tuscan wine.
Let's take a look at some of the top Super Tuscans.
Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia, the wine that started it all, remains one of the most desirable Super Tuscans. While you can find a bottle of a recent vintage for under $150, prices for the most sought-after vintages, such as the 1985 Sassicaia, can soar as high as $3,900 per bottle. Not surprisingly, the Bolgheri Sassicaia is now its own DOC, separate from the Bolgheri DOC.
Tignanello, Marchesi Antinori's first Super Tuscan, is named for the vineyard in which the sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes that make up this wine are grown. You'll pay several hundred dollars for a bottle of the 1970 or 1971 Tignanello, and up to $250 for a bottle of Tignanello 1985.
Marchesi Antinori's Solaia began as a cabernet sauvignon/cabernet franc blend. Today, Antinori's incredibly popular Super Tuscan also includes sangiovese in the blend. All the grapes for Solaia are grown in a single vineyard. Prices for 2002 Solaia range from $120 to $280, but you'll pay $340 to $650 for a bottle of the 1978 Solaia.
Tenuta dell'Ornellaia's eponymous wine is made from a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Since the 2006 release, Tenuta dell'Ornellaia has partnered with artists to design a special wine label based on a work of art commissioned by the winery. Even without the special labels, Ornellaia commands top prices; you'll pay $125 and up for the 2007 Ornellaia Bolgheri, and up to $450 for a bottle of the 1990 release.
Tenuta dell'Ornellaia's Masseto is made from merlot grapes grown in a single vineyard. Its limited production and high quality mean that you'll pay top dollar for the best vintages. The 2001 Masseto will set you back $850 or more, while you'll pay $350 to $450 for a bottle of 2005 Masseto.
Le Macchiole, another Bolgheri winery, also produces a 100% merlot wine, Messorio. Expect to pay $85 to $700 for a bottle of Messorio, depending on the vintage. Earlier years, with the exception of 2002, tend to command higher prices.
Azienda Agricola Tua Rita's Redigaffi , another 100% merlot wine, achieved lasting fame when Robert Parkger gave the 2000 vintage a score of 100 points. Redigaffi was the first Italian wine to receive 100 points from Mr. Parker. You'll pay $650 to $725 for a bottle of the 2000 Tua Rita Redigaffi Rosso Toscana, and $130 to $265 for the 2007 vintage.
Like Sassicaia and Tignanello, Agricola San Felice's Vigorello holds a special place in the history of the Super Tuscans. The first release of Vigorello (1968), was made from sangiovese grapes, but the wine has evolved over time. More recent vintages blend sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon. Expect to pay $100 and up for the earliest releases.
Johnson, Hugh and Robinson, Jancis. The World Atlas of Wine. Octopus Books USA: New York, 2008. Print.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company: New York, 2001. Print.