I get asked this question a lot when the subject of Italian wines comes up. Someone always comes up to me and asks, “So, what’s the deal with Super-Tuscans?”. It’s not as easy to answer this question as you may think. First let’s look at how wines are categorized in Italy and then we’ll see where Super-Tuscans fit in.
Italy adopted the appellation system for wines from France in the 1960’s, about 30 years after France initiated theirs and which all other appellation systems are based on. In France it is called the Appellation d’Origine Controlee or AOC. It is used not only for wines but for cheese, butter and other agricultural products all based on the idea of terroir or place. The origins of the modern French AOC system date back to the early 1400’s when Roquefort cheese was regulated by parliament to protect the name. In essence an AOC is a controlled place-name. In Italy the equivalent is called Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).
In order for wines to qualify for the DOC(G) designation the producer must grow, or source, the grapes from the designated geographic region, make the wines in the region and follow strict rules regarding grape variety or varieties, yields, production methods, aging requirements which may include the size and type of vessel, and other things. In addition the wines must pass a blind tasting and chemical analysis before being awarded a seal of approval for the neck of the bottle. Some of these DOC(G)’s are very rigorous and demanding for the producer. This is all done to protect the name and reputation of the DOC(G) and give a wine that shows typicity of the place where it is produced (terroir).
An example wine would be Chianti and Chianti Classico, both DOCG’s. For the wine to be called Chianti it must come from the geographic area designated as Chianti, in the heart of Tuscany. This area has been expanded over the years to accommodate increased production and is now very large. Chianti Classico on the other hand is a smaller, better DOCG which is in the historic heart of the Chianti region. It lies in the hills between Florence and Siena. Both wines must contain Sangiovese. Chianti must contain a minimum of 70% Sangiovese and the balance can be made up of traditional and international red grapes and a 10% maximum of white grapes. The wine can be 100% Sangiovese. Chianti Classico must be made from a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The producer can then round out the wine with traditional and international red grapes. White grapes are no longer allowed in Chianti Classico and the wine can be 100% Sangiovese. Producers must then follow all the other rules pertaining to yields, alcohol levels, aging, etc. These are just 2 of the over 300 DOC(G) wines in Italy today.
So, what if you are a producer in Tuscany who doesn’t want to follow all the rules and regulations of the DOC(G)? Maybe you are a producer in the Chianti zone but want to make a wine using only international grapes like Cabernet and Merlot. That’s perfectly legal but you cannot call your wine Chianti. It does not adhere to the rules of the DOCG. Or, maybe back in the 1960’s and 70’s, you are on the coast of Tuscany, in no-man’s land, and want to produce a Bordeaux blend. That was, and still is, legal but what did you call your wine? There were no DOC or DOCG wines that these would fall under so your wine was just a table wine or Vino da Tavola. This is where the Super-Tuscan’s come in.
Super-Tuscans came about in the 1960’s and 70’s. They were high-priced, high-quality red wines that did not fit into any of the new official categories or DOC(G)’s. The wines were something not seen before in Italy. They were made with international grapes or non-traditional blends and aged in small, new French oak barrels. The bottles had fancy labels with fantasy or proprietary names. Since these wines did not fit into the DOC(G) system they had to be labeled as lowly table wines or Vino da Tavola. This was considered scandalous due to the high prices these wines were fetching. How could a lowly table wine cost more than a classic DOC(G) wine?! The first of the Super-Tuscans was Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia produced in the town of Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast. Tenuta San Guido was established by marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta. The wine was first produced in 1948 from Cabernet Sauvignon and intended for the family’s consumption only. In 1968 the machese’s son Nicolò and nephew Piero Antinori convinced him to release it commercially. The first vintage was in 1971. Demand soon skyrocketed and the marchese hired the famous consulting enologist Giacomo Tachis to further refine the wine while production increased. Today the wine is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc. It is extremely expensive and in very high demand.
The idea behind Sassicaia was to produce a wine that would rival that of Bordeaux from an area that was relatively unknown but had great potential with Bordeaux grapes. Others followed. Since this was a part of Tuscany not covered by any of the newly formed appellations or DOC(G)’s, the wines were labeled as simple Vino da Tavola. But Sassicaia and the other coastal wines were just the beginning. In the early 1970’s a revolution was about to begin in the Chianti Classico region that would turn the appellation on its’ head and change it forever.
At this point in time Chianti was synonymous with mass-produced, watered down versions of the original. Many producers were dissatisfied with the tired, old rules and regulations of the appellation. Back then white grapes were mandatory not only in Chianti but Chianti Classico. The inclusion of international grapes was forbidden as was making a wine solely from Sangiovese. Some producers took matters into their own hands and started to make the wines they wanted to make. Antinori introduced Tignanello and Solaia and others were not far behind. These were all wines based on Bordeaux varieties with or without the addition of Sangiovese. But it wasn’t all about Bordeaux varieties.
In 1981 Sergio Manetti of the Montevertine estate, in the middle of the Chianti Classico region, was fed up. He felt that not only the mandatory addition of white grapes (white grapes are no longer allowed in Chianti Classico) but the addition of international grapes to make a more broadly appealing wine was doing a disservice to the noble Sangiovese. He was to become the champion of Sangiovese. So much so that in 1981 he produced his last vintage of Chianti Classico vowing to never again include any other grapes with his beloved Sangiovese. He produced the first 100% Sangiovese Super-Tuscan under the name Le Pergole Torte from the Montevertine estate 6 miles south of Radda in Chianti. This wine, like the other Super-Tuscans of the day fell out of the DOCG regulations and was labeled a Vino da Tavola. But Sergio didn’t care. Even after Chianti Classico changed the rules to allow a 100% Sangiovese based wine he refused to join the appellation.
The success of the original Super-Tuscans eventually led to major changes in the Chianti and Chianti Classico DOCG’s. No longer were white grapes permitted in Chianti Classico, international grapes were now allowed in limited quantities and a 100% Sangiovese wine was now permitted. It also led to a new category of wine being approved in 1992, Indicazione Geographica Tipica or IGT. This is a category that is less strict than DOC(G). It is the equivalent of France’s Vin de Pays. It provides the winemaker more choice in terms of grapes and production methods. Sassicaia would eventually be awarded its’ own DOC (Sasscicaia Bolgheri) in 1994 and other DOC’s for Super-Tuscans would follow.
Today the term Super-Tuscan is a bit overused and misunderstood. To some, a Super-Tuscan is any wine produced in Tuscany that is not DOC(G). But, as we have seen, some Super-Tuscans are now DOC wines! Super-Tuscans also used to be very expensive but today not all are. There are some that are quite reasonable.
I think what those original Super-Tuscans did was to shake up the establishment and force the governing bodies and producers to take a hard look at the what was going on at the time. Quality was suffering and experimentation was stifled by outdated rules and regulations. Not all these new wines were good and many were criticized for not being typical of Italy. Some producers even abandoned using international grapes and winemaking and returned to more traditional practices. But these ground-breaking wines were instrumental in moving Italian wine from quantity to quality based and today Italy is making better wines than ever.