‘Under the Super Tuscan Sun’
The interest I got when organising an ‘Italian wines’ masterclass in Palma de Mallorca last month was fantastic. I was so surprised at the healthy response from captains, Interior crew and Stewardesses regarding ‘Super Tuscans’ that the subject of this month’s article was a no-brainer.
In hindsight, I should not have been so surprised, considering that Italian wines and in particular ‘Super Tuscan’ wines, sold like hot-cakes this season, eclipsing wines from all other countries and regions, including Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley. ‘Super Tuscan’ wine was the trend this season!
So, what are ‘Super Tuscan’ wines and are they worth the price tag?
Think Tuscany - We immediately imagine romantic, golden rolling hills, beautifully kept vineyards in the fore, the picture-prefect hilltop villages in the distance, and of course great Tuscan wines. Situated in central Italy and home to the famous Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Tuscany is arguably Italy’s most famous wine producing region. So why would we have a wine named ‘Super Tuscan’ when other such gorgeous Tuscan wines are produced?
To understand the definition of a ‘Super Tuscan’, one needs to go back a few years when Chianti was notorious to making cheap, run-of-the-mill wines in enclosed, albeit cliché, straw baskets. The region of Chianti was under threat and many of the top Chianti producers where suffering the effects. Therefore in 1963, the Italian consortium introduced the Italian wine classification to assure customers of the high quality behind the wines boasting the top tiers of the Classification.
The two top tiers of the classification are a ‘DOC’ and ‘DOCG’ referring to Denominazioni di origine controllata and Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita respectively. Extremely strict rules apply to both classifications. The authenticity and type of grapes used, the blend recipe and the geographic zone are fixed. Further still, the highest status ‘DOCG’ is only given once the wines are tested by a panel for authenticity and is subsequently granted to only a handful of wines. At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest level in the classification is ‘IGT’ referring to ‘Indicazione Geographica Tipica’ (originally the VDT ‘Vino da Tavola’ and more commonly known as Table wine) aloowing much more flexibility to their wine-making.
This lead some producers to feel that the fixed Chianti Classico formula of 70% Sangiovese (blended with Canaiolo and Malvasia) was simply too inflexible. A small bunch of producers found these regulations way too controlling, and felt that their creativity stifled and the quality of the wines they can produce not reaching the full potential.
Way back in 1948, before the strict regulations were enforced, the wine ‘Sassicaia’ was produced by Mario Incisa della Rocchetta unsing international grape varieties. Della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines on his estate in Bolgheri to test how the local, maritime Tuscan terroir would respond to classic Bordeaux varieties and he was delighted with the result. However, could never be recognized as a DOC or DOCG status and was consequently only consumed on the estate. Nonetheless, in 1971 His son Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta and his nephew Piero Antinori, two rebel wine-makers decided to release the 1968 Cabernet-based ‘Sassicaia’ as well as ‘Tignanello’ a Sangiovese-based wine, blended with Bordeaux varietals in to the market in 1971.
Naturally, both wines were not granted a DOC or DOCG due to the variations from the strict ‘Chianti Classico’ rules. They were initially considered VDT wines (Table wine), however the classification eventually changed to an improved IGT (Indicazione Geographica Tipica) status.
After the introduction of these two pioneering blends, more wines including ‘Solaia’ and ‘Ornellaia’ followed suit and their popularity and success especially in foreign markets was astounding. In 1986 another magnificent wine took the world by storm. A 100% Merlot wine, ‘Masseto’ was added to the mix. One could say that if the predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon-based ‘Sassicaia’ and ‘Ornellaia’ were inspired by the Bordeaux superstars Lafite or Latour, Masseto was Tuscany’s (Bolgheri’s) answer to Petrus.
Probably due to the uproar of the classic wine producers who believed these wines did not offer authenticity, the reaction to the wines in their homeland was rather slow, however foreign markets, in particular the United States, quickly took a liking to these wines and the famous wine critic Robert Parker was believed to be the first person to coin these wines ‘Super Tuscan’ . It was at a 1998 ‘Decanter’ tasting that the 1972 ‘Sassicaia’ was awarded first place from a field of 33 wines from 11 counties, that really gave them international fame.
Luckily for us, the wines rise to stardom caused the ripple effect on the quality of classic Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino to standards never dreamt of before. The classic regions have improved in quality to unimaginable levels and are now much competition to these ‘Super Tuscans’. The Chianti laws have been modified to allow the production of these wines. Better still one could say ‘Super Tuscan’ wines were the beginning of the renaissance of Chianti and Tuscany and has been a region at the forefront of fine wine discourse for at least 30 years.
However great the history of the ‘Super Tuscan’ wine is, do not be fooled. The wines are not ‘Super’ simply because they use international variety grapes in their blend. They are not super simply because they were rebels in their time or because they used less or no Sangiovese grapes. They are coined ‘Super Tuscan’ wines because they are produced with great expertise, precision and passion. The producers go to great lengths to produce a wine that they feel gives their terroir justice.
It takes a lot of confidence and skill to produce a wine that is so beautiful in flavour, body and character, it need not fall within country’s classification to be one of the most successful wines on earth.