Super Tuscans arrived decades ago. It was a category born of frustration with Italy’s traditional wine production rules. Ambitious producers sought to make modern styles and experiment outside the restrictions of the Italian appellation system, known as Denominazione d’Origine Controllata (DOC).
“Super Tuscan became synonymous with wines of high quality from the [broader] IGT [Indicazione Geografica Tipica] appellation,” says winemaker Bibi Graetz, who makes wine under his namesake brand outside Florence.
Rebelliousness helped market the super Tuscan story, while quality and singularity helped sell their wines. Brands like Sassicaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia became darlings of wine critics. Wine lovers during the 1980s pushed prices into the realm of collectors. But a half-century later, how has the definition of a super Tuscan evolved, and is the category still relevant to contemporary consumers?
The history of super Tuscans
Italians introduced the DOC wine appellation system, modeled after the French AOC, during the 1960s. Each region forged rules for viticulture and production. Chianti’s DOC/DOCG rules were often criticized as restrictive, like a ban on 100% Sangiovese bottlings. Others were considered misguided, like a requirement that inferior local white grapes comprise a portion of red blends.
By the end of the ’60s, a handful of renegades balked at the regulations. They created new brands to blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Sangiovese, or make 100% Merlot. They also played with aging periods and vessels like cement and small oak barrique. Yet, such diversions weren’t tolerated under the DOC or DOCG label designations.
Innovation came with consequences. Producers like Marchesi Antinori had to bottle their Bordeaux-style red blends and varietal wines under the generic category of Vino da Tavola, Italy’s lowest-quality tier. But as the wines grew in prominence, authorities acknowledged the labeling system’s inadequacies.
In 1992, the Italian government introduced a new wine classification: Toscana IGT. Toscana IGT, however, held little romance for critics or consumers, so the term super Tuscan took hold.
The super Tuscans pioneers
The pioneers of the super Tuscan movement remain pivotal brands in the market. “Their weight in the category is still bigger than the rest of the producers,” says Graetz. Three key names to know: Sassicaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia.
Sassicaia, made at Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri, translates from Italian to “stony place.” It’s a reference to the area’s gravelly soils that are considered evocative of Graves and Haut-Médoc in Bordeaux. The French wine-loving Incisa della Rocchetta family wanted to plant Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc instead of Sangiovese. The family released the first vintage of Sassicaia in 1968.
In 1978, Decanter magazine organized a blind tasting, and it slipped Sassicaia in among top Bordeaux. The obscure wine beat out much of the competition, only to be revealed as Italian. Bolgheri Sassicaia earned an independent DOC in 2013.
Where The Producers Are
Bolgheri/Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC: Masseto, Le Macchiole, Ornellaia, Tenuta San Guido
Chianti Classico DOCG: Castello dei Rampolla, Castello di Ama, Fontodi, Isola e Olena, Marchesi Antinori, San Felice
Maremma Toscana DOC: Gaja
Also fed up with DOC restrictions, Marchese Piero Antinori founded Tignanello within the boundaries for Chianti Classico. He launched the vineyard-designate wine in 1974, based on the 1971 vintage. The blend was comprised of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, aged in French oak barrels.
Ornellaia, located near Sassicaia, was planted by Lodovico Antinori in 1981. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, the first vintage was bottled in 1985. The current estate also produces Le Serre Nuove and Le Volte along with other red blends.
A few years later, a plot of clay-based soil was discovered within what was the Tenuta dell’Ornellaia estate. This led to the planting of Merlot in the image of Pomerol, and the creation of single-varietal brand Masseto.
These brands, now both under Frescobaldi Group but produced in different wineries, achieved enduring success thanks in part to their broad, brawny profiles. They were a revelation upon their debut, as Chianti at the time was often deemed thin, sour and insipid. But many producers have come along since, seeking to emulate the style.
How super Tuscans have evolved
Without strict regulations, Tuscan winemakers have had the ability to alter these wines as they see fit.
“Winemaking has changed, with less muscle, more elegance, less concentration and more smoothness,” he says. Graetz only works with 100% Tuscan grapes. His Testamatta is 100% Sangiovese, and his Coloré is a blend of Sangiovese Canaiolo and Colorino.
“My two wines were considered to fall within the super Tuscan framework, yet they break the first rule of super Tuscans,” he says. “They were, and are, 100% Tuscan grapes.”
Consumers that hunt for authenticity might consider the growing cadre of labels and broader range of prices found in the appellation-based wines of Bolgheri DOC, established in 1983. Before the 1970s, Bolgheri, nestled in the western region of Maremma, was a swampy blip far from the radar of fine wine. Sassicaia changed all that.
Bolgheri’s wines are based on the Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot in any proportion, with a maximum of 50% Sangiovese or Syrah allowed. But the results vary greatly.
“I think producers are trying to find their own styles, rather than be categorized under an umbrella term like ‘super Tuscan,’ ” says Carrie Lyn Strong, wine director at Casa Lever in New York City. “And we don’t use this title on our menu,” she says. “Guests know the wine names more so than the term ‘super Tuscan.’ They ask directly for Tignanello or Sassicaia.”
But Tuscany’s newer appellations haven’t caught on with all consumers.
“In the case of Tuscany, the ability to put Toscana on the label means something to consumers,” says Amy Ezrin, consultant for the Italian Trade Agency New York Office as the manager of the Wine Desk. “Bolgheri DOC, on the other hand, I think makes an impression to buyers who are familiar with it and consumers that really know their Italian wines.
“For those who are aware, the region is undoubtedly associated with international varieties and big, collectible reds,” she says. “That said, if you say Bolgheri to many wine drinkers, you might as well say Bulgaria.” Ezrin thinks the popularity of red blends may serve as a new home for the ever-growing output of super Tuscans, as every producer in Tuscany makes one.
“That’s exactly what these wines are, and they are often made with the same varietals commonly expected in domestic versions,” she says. “I think it would be a great experiment to put super Tuscans in a red-blend section along with other wines of the world and see how sales are.”
Not immune to the cycle of trends, awareness of and appreciation for super Tuscans appears mixed. The category’s early adopters may continue to identify it with fantasy names, high prices and ageworthiness, or they may simply know brand names. Recognition for newer appellations is increasing, but has large leaps still to make.