The Soul of the Super Tuscan
Ever evolving but always excellent, these famed bottlings have kept Italy on the wine map for decades.
They are among the most enthralling and diversified wines in Italy, yet there is probably no term in Italian wine that is more slippery, vaporous and misunderstood than “super Tuscan.”
“When I first heard ‘super Tuscan,’ I thought we were talking about unleaded fuel, not wine,” says Roberto Guldener, who runs Terrabianca in Radda in Chianti and makes several super Tuscans.
Some people define super Tuscan as a Tuscan blend made with Cabernet Sauvignon or other international varieties. Others define it as a wine that breaks ranks with Italy’s strict Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) quality regime. Others define it as any expensive wine from Tuscany.
The truth is super Tuscan is all those things—and none of those things. A super Tuscan can be a 100% expression of Sangiovese with absolutely no international varieties. It can be a DOC wine, and in fact many are, and it can span any price point from $12 to $275.
And the definition is changing all the time.
To get a better grip on what these wines are, were and will be it’s best to start at the beginning—back in the Italy of the 1970s, when there was an enormous need to augment the rules governing Italian wine in order to achieve better quality and to become more competitive in foreign markets, specifically the United States. Super Tuscans (it’s no coincidence the term is in English) proved to be the instrument with which both goals could be achieved.
Breaking the Rules
Forty years ago, Italy was making the awkward transition from producing low-end quantity (Chianti in hay-wrapped flasks, Valpolicella, Soave and so forth) to producing high-quality wines. But the laws that governed winemaking were not moving at the same pace.
Those laws were written in the 1960s, when the Italian government established the Denominazione di Origine Controllata to define the geographic origin of a wine and set quality standards, including limits on yields, alcohol levels and time allowed for aging in barrel or cask. Unfortunately for Chianti Classico—one of Italy’s most important areas in terms of export volume—DOC regulations served only to immortalize what was, in effect, a mediocre wine.
Chianti’s traditional recipe called for a large proportion (between 10% and 30%) of white grapes to produce a diluted, fruity blend that could be consumed young and had virtually no shelf life. This is what Italy had to offer foreign markets at the same time that the rest of the world was enjoying its love affair with the sophisticated wines of Bordeaux.
Marchese Piero Antinori decided it was time to throw the book at the DOC. He introduced the vineyard-designate Tignanello (the first vintage, 1971, was released in 1974), which contained Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and was aged in French oak barrels. Though it was given a Vino da Tavola (table wine) designation by the DOC, it was not priced accordingly.
What Antinori had accomplished was truly revolutionary. Tignanello opened the floodgates to international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Syrah and others that were not eligible for Tuscany’s various appellations.
Antinori’s uncle, Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta, had already been making a small production of the Bordeaux-inspired Sassicaia since 1968 in Bolgheri, and together these two wines sparked a wine renaissance worthy of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci’s birthplace.
Fast-forward to the 1980s and super Tuscans were flourishing. In those years and the ones to follow, Italian wine was literally redefined by the hard work of producers like Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Argiano, Le Macchiole, Montevertine, Barone Ricasoli, Castello dei Rampolla, Le Pupille, Felsina, Castello di Fonterutoli, Castello di Ama, Frescobaldi and many others.
Italian law finally started to catch up. In 1992, the government introduced the Indicazione Geographica Tipica (IGT). This broad designation offers enormous freedom compared to the DOC and the higher-level Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). Although IGT is considered lower than DOC and DOCG, super Tuscans often appear under the Toscana IGT designation. Soon, the government started awarding DOC appellations to the very people who had broken ranks, like Bolgheri. At the end of the day, the rebels had gone mainstream.
A New Day for Tuscany
As more super Tuscans flood the market, the definition of the category is becoming more diluted, and to an extent, polluted. Producers are now faced with establishing new identities for their wines and their territories that go beyond the catch-all name of super Tuscan.
“Tuscany wouldn’t be what it is today without the super Tuscan,” says Marchese Piero Antinori. However, he adds, “Like all things that start with big enthusiasm and hoopla, there are cycles and then they diminish with time. This is what happened to the super Tuscan.”
Today, Tuscan producers face a more evolved global marketplace and a more sophisticated wine consumer. There is a growing feeling among them that Tuscany has moved beyond the need for a generic “wine 101” vehicle like the super Tuscan, and some actually wince when you use the term to describe their wines.
Increasingly, Tuscan producers are betting that well-traveled Italophile American wine consumers are somewhat familiar with the various subzones of the region. Ask Angelo Gaja of Ca’Marcanda about super Tuscans and he prefers to talk about Bolgheri in coastal Tuscany. Ask Francesco Bolla about Dròmos (a blend that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc), and he prefers to talk about the Maremma in southern Tuscany. Ask Luca Sanjust about Galatrona (Merlot) and he will detail the particularities of the Arezzo area in eastern Tuscany.
“Super Tuscans don’t have paternity,” says Professor Attilio Scienza. “These areas do.”
Scienza, a Professor of Viticulture and Enology at the University of Milan, also runs the Guado al Melo winery in Bolgheri with his son Michele. “As a concept,” he says, “super Tuscans are not as interesting as they once were because they fail to address the typicity of a particular territory. They fail to tell you what the soil, sun and exposure are at a specific site in the same way that Montalcino or Bolgheri gives you that information.”
Cristina Mariani-May of Castello Banfi, an American who travels regularly between Italy and the United States, believes producers need to still take one more step.
“We need to develop individual brands,” she says. “People recognize Sassicaia as Sassicaia, they don’t equate it with Bolgheri.”
Indeed, many of these icon wines have obtained such star power that they’ve effectively gone beyond super Tuscan status. These wines include Solaia, Masseto and Ornellaia, to name a few. Their identities are so strong that where they come from is no longer that important.
Whether Italy has moved beyond super Tuscans, one thing remains clear: Of the many prizes these wines have awarded Tuscany, none is more powerful than the opportunity for a new beginning.
Super Tuscan Wine, Region by Region
At 9,000 square miles, Tuscany, in central Italy, is one of the country’s biggest and most varied regions in terms of climate, topography and natural beauty. The Apennine Mountains run down the length of the region, giving way to the soft rolling hills that have been immortalized in postcards and wall calendars, as well as 150 miles of coastline along the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The majority of wines from this region that are imported into the U.S. are DOC designates, yet are considered super Tuscans, and are from the Bolgheri DOC, which covers the commune of Castagneto Carducci in coastal Tuscany. These wines are made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese, with up to 30% of other varieties. There is also a Bolgheri Superiore that requires extra aging. A smaller DOC, Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC, covers a single vineyard. Sassicaia must be at least 80% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Two other DOCs are emerging. The wines of the Montescudaio DOC, in the province of Pisa, north of Bolgheri, can be made from Cabernet, Merlot or Sangiovese grapes, or a blend. The grapes of the Val di Cornia DOC, which includes the town of Suvereto, are the same, but there are more options in terms of making Superiore or Riserva wine.
The Maremma provinces, in the southernmost part of the rustic region near Lazio, is considered a land of opportunity by winemakers and many are rushing to invest. The area inland from the agricultural town Grosseto is home to the rising Morellino di Scansano DOC (85% Sangiovese) but it is also home to innovative winemakers anxious to make super Tuscans and flex their blending muscles.
This is the breadbasket of Tuscan wine. The biggest and most important DOCG of the area is Chianti Classico. Today, those wines are defined as between 75% and 100% Sangiovese and up to 20% international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
These proportions represent the most recent modification to the Chianti Classico formula, allowing this wine to achieve more appeal abroad.
The irony is that many of this region’s super Tuscans adhere strictly to the Chianti Classico DOCG laws. It is the producers’ choice to market their wines as super Tuscan and not as Chianti Classico. For example, Piero Antinori’s groundbreaking Tignanello is 85% Sangiovese and the remaining proportion is Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It could easily qualify as a Chianti Classico.
Central Tuscany also includes the exciting Sant’Antimo DOC, which covers much of the same territory as the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. In fact, it was specifically designed to allow Brunello producers to make wines outside the strict laws that govern Brunello and dabble in blends with Sangiovese or monovarietal wines like Syrah and Merlot.
This emerging region is struggling to carve itself an identity within greater Tuscany. The area includes the greater province of Arezzo and the Cortona DOC, which allows for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Nero, Sangiovese and Syrah. Syrah seems to have particular affinity for Cortona.
What Makes a Wine a Super Tuscan
Although IGT rules say up to 15% of the grapes used for super Tuscans can be from outside Tuscany, all of the important super Tuscans are made by producers who want to highlight their local vineyards and territory. Toscana IGT wines are made from either a single grape variety or a blend of grapes that usually includes two or more of the following: Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Syrah.
Super Tuscan Stars
Francesco and Filippo Mazzei, Castello di Fonterutoli
Brothers Francesco (pictured) and Filippo Mazzei run Castello di Fonterutoli in Chianti Classico and Belguardo in Maremma. Between these two estates, and with the help of consulting enologist Carlo Ferrini, they make two of Tuscany’s most innovative super Tuscans: the refined Castello di Fonterutoli Siepi (a 50–50 Merlot and Sangiovese blend) and playful Tenuta Belguardo (90–10 Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc).
Luca Sanjust, Petrolo Winery
Luca Sanjust has a secret garden: 10,000 vines of head-pruned Cabernet on a piece of land that has required so many sacrifices, he decided the wine would be for his personal consumption. For the rest of us, his Galatrona (Merlot) is one of the best wines made in Italy, with deep complexity and a feisty edge—an apt reflection of Sanjust himself.
Rita Tua and Virgilio Bisti, Tua Rita
Rita Tua and her husband Virgilio Bisti bought this property in coastal Tuscany’s Val di Cornia in 1984 as a retirement project, and currently have 45 acres of vineyard planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the base of two of Italy’s best limited-production wines: Giusto di Notri (red blend) and Redigaffi (Merlot). Their son-on-law Stefano Frascolla (pictured), carries the tradition on today.
Gian Annibale Rossi di Medelana, Castello del Terriccio
The 4,200-acre expanse of Castello del Terriccio, located in coastal Tuscany in the Montescudaio DOC, is owned by the entrepreneur and horse breeder Gian Annibale Rossi di Medelana. The estate produces several topnotch super Tuscans, including Tassinaia (red blend), Lupicaia (a Cabernet blend that takes on the herbal notes of its surrounding eucalyptus trees) and Castello del Terriccio (red blend).