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December 03, 2013

Italy and its Super Tuscan Wines

Tuscany

Italy is in the middle of a fine wine renaissance which began in Tuscany, the birthplace of the great Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and of the thrilling and ambiguous Super Tuscans. The name Super Tuscans could as easily be referring to the aforementioned great painters as it could be referring to wine, however Sassicaia, Masseto, Solaia and Ornellaia are being spoken of in the same breath as Lafite Rothschild and Petrus, having cemented themselves into Parthenon of great wines. But what exactly are they?

A straightforward definition is not easy; Super Tuscans can be viewed as wines that do not adhere to the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC’s), or wines from Tuscany that use international grape varieties. Some simply just view them as expensive wines from Tuscany. In reality the term is too equivocal to define as today many Super Tuscans are classified DOC wines, prices range from £15 to £1,000 per bottle and some are 100% Sangiovese: a bit of history is required.

Italy fell into the doldrums by the late 19th to mid-20th Century and for me this conjures images of Ernest Hemmingway drinking Chianti in the Tuscan sun, out of a hay-wrapped bottle over breakfast! Chianti’s traditional assemblage called for up to 30% white grapes, producing a fruity brew, with little concentration and certainly without ageing potential. This made the wine difficult to sell to the more discerning foreign markets, which at this time was infatuated with the cultured and refined wines from Bordeaux.

Marchesi Piero Antinori had other ideas and decided to produce his wine Tignanello within the Chianti boundaries. Tignanello contained Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc aged in new French barrels and was released for the first time in 1971. Antinori’s uncle, Marchesi Incisa Della Roccheta upset the apple cart further by making his Bordeaux imitating Sassicaia outside Chianti in Bolgheri. Bolgheri is located close to the coast and thereby benefits from cool breezes and a more marginal climate, closely reflecting the environment of Bordeaux. In 1978 Sassicaia won the elite wine tasting ‘Great Clarets’ which consisted of 33 wines, including Bordeaux First Growths; in 1985 it received 100 points from Robert Parker.

Tignanello and Sassicaia soon inspired a group of misbehaving Tuscans, who began to break with convention by using international grape varieties, recreating the style of Grand Cru Bordeaux by mimicking techniques such as ageing in new French 225 litre Barrels for 18-20 months, as well as using predominately Cabernet Sauvignon dominant Bordeaux blends. Sassicaia even took vine cuttings from Lafite Rothschild in the 50’s. Other blends are of course possible, the great Masseto, Redigaffi and Messorio strictly use 100% Merlot and some now even experiment with Syrah.

While the genesis of the Super Tuscans was underway, the Italian government decided to rectify the glut of low quality wine coming out of its country. In 1963 the first official Italian wine classification was introduced called the DOCs, based on the French system – Appellation Origine Controlee (AOC). This system is aimed at controlling a wine’s designated origin, thereby regulating the type of grapes that can be used, winemaking techniques, cultivation and thereon the quality and style of wine from one region to the next. Overall, this classification helped reignite Italian winemaking in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but resultantly Super Tuscans could only be classified as Vino de Tavola. To distinguish themselves from this inexpensive low quality table wine they coined the English term Super Tuscans, thereby shrewdly competing in the global marketplace for fine wine.

In 1992 the authorities created the classification Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), a notch above Vino de Tavola and thereby giving Super Tuscan producers legitimised flexibility. In 1994 the authorities also created the DOC Bolgheri; although this was lip service at best, the greatest Super Tuscans were already established as global brands and demanding much higher price points.

Today the leading Super Tuscans are now considered as investment grade wines, making them even more collectible and sought after. Over the last five years Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia and Masseto have seen an average 90% increase in value. Tignanello remains the cheapest on release at around £500 for a case of 12, while Solaia, Sassicaia and Ornellaia, who are seen as the First Growths of Tuscany, generally release around £1,000 per case, making them 300% cheaper than their Bordeaux counterparts.

Although never short of controversy it is an exciting time for the Italian wine industry and few would argue that the DOC and DOCG’s appellations have not raised quality and helped the consumer through homogenisation. However, sometimes to be great is to be different and Italy offers this too, Angelo Gaja declassified his DOCG Barbersco and Barolo so he could add Barbera to his blends just like the early Super Tuscans.

The original Super Tuscans have inspired emulation and today there are hundreds of so called Super Tuscans and declassified wines breaking the rules. This is both exciting but can be confusing unless you know the producer or have a good wine merchant, as one can end up delighted or disappointed. Perhaps it is time for some regulation even within the renegades, an internal Super Tuscan classification, or would that miss the point entirely?

Article by Paul Hammond, Director, IG Wines

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