What are Super Tuscans?

Super Tuscans are, by their very nature, a conglomerative group. Defining a wine as Super Tuscan is a tricky task as it is impossible to define by grape variety alone as most Super Tuscans are comprised of several key varieties and blends vary. Grapes commonly used in Super Tuscan wines are the classic Italian variety Sangiovese alongside more international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc.

The bold use of international varieties is perhaps what defines the Super Tuscan the most, unlike Chianti which is strictly defined by Sangiovese, Super Tuscans use both international grapes as well as indigenous in their blends. These breakout blends first achieved notoriety in the 1970's and 1980's when winemakers, frustrated with the restrictive Italian wine laws, took matters into their own hands and began experimenting with blending wines in spite of the outdated legislature. Finally, in 1992, the laws were changed to allow winemakers more flexibility and options when it came to making wine.

History

Sangiovese Grapes
Sangiovese Grapes

The rise of Super Tuscans is complex and takes some understanding as they are, in essence, a story of rebellion that began in Chianti. The wines of Chianti were historically a blend of Sangiovese and other indigenous grapes like Canaiolo, now they are 100 percent Sangiovese, and typically have flavors of bright red fruit and wild herbs. Super Tuscans, with their more structured, serious nature, are, arguably, the antithesis of Chianti's light, bright, breezy reds.

Wines from this region have been lauded since the 15th Century but it was in the 1960's when Italy started to look over to France. In 1935, France had established the Appellation d'Origine Contr?lée (AOC) system and the fact that it is still adhered to today is testament to its success. The control over quality and what can be made where appealed and soon Italy had their own system, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC. By 1967, Chianti had secured its place as a DOC. During those early days, the most commonly used blend in Chianti was the Barone Ricasoli blend.

The blend, invented by Barone Ricasoli himself in the 1890s, comprised of 70 percent Sangiovese, 15 percent Canaiolo – a red variety native to Tuscany – 15 percent Trebbiano and sometimes a touch of Colorino, another red variety native to Tuscany. The decline in popularity of both Canaiolo and Colorno is partly due to the phylloxera outbreak in the 19th Century which decimated vineyards across the globe and Canaiolo didn't take very well to being grafted to American rootstocks and partly down to the improvement of making Sangiovese, an arguably superior grape. Another key factor to the fall of the Barone Ricasoli blend is the use of Trebbiano, an Italian white grape variety, since the 1996 classification only red grapes are permitted in the Chianti blend.

Trebbiano (Ugni Blanc) Grapes on the wine
Trebbiano (Ugni Blanc) Grapes on the wine

The use of Trebbiano and other white grapes came into play as they had, since Chianti's gaining of DOC status, been used to pad out wines to increase volume but this led to an overall decrease in quality. So, despite the increased popularity caused by the establishment of the DOC, Chianti's reputation was beginning to suffer so much so that by the 1970s winemakers were starting to rebel.

By stepping outside of the DOC regulations, winemakers began experimenting with different grapes and blends in a bid to bring back quality, this, of course, meant their wines could no longer qualify for DOC status and instead had to be labelled Vino Da Tavola.

Fortunately, for these rogue winemakers, the Americans came to adore these new Tuscan expressions which tended to be more intense and full-bodied than Chianti DOC. French oak was also being used more to age wines over the traditional Slovenian oak. The strong presence of Cabernet Sauvignon was also noted in some of the wines leading to favourable comparisons with Bordeaux.

American critics unwilling to besmirch these great new wines with the Vino Da Tavola label began to refer to them as "Super Tuscans" and the name stuck. The American enthusiasm for Super Tuscans continued well into the 1980s and overshadowed Chianti to the extent that the Chianti DOC amended its regulations in 1984, removing white wine from its makeup and revamping to DOCG which includes Garantita at the end – a mark of higher quality.

In 1992, Italy bought in a new stamp of quality, the Indicazione Geografica Tipica or IGT which mimics the Vin de Pays of France. The IGT band allows for experimentation as long as the grapes come from the stipulated region. So, although there is a general understanding regarding what is meant when using the term Super Tuscan, there is no official designation as they lie outside of the DOCG specifications, the only sure way to pick out a Super Tuscan is to find a wine made in Tuscany that bears the IGT mark of quality.

Tasting notes

Rich and Intense red wines
Rich and Intense red wines

As blends can vary wildly depending on the producer, wine and area of Tuscany, it would be hard to come up with an absolute definitive tasting note. Generally Super Tuscans refer to red wines and incorporate varying blends or single varietal wines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Sangiovese. Different producers use different varietals in different styles so flavors naturally differ depending on the grapes and the percentages used.

In general, notes of both red and black fruit with classic Bordeaux flavors of red cherry, plum, cassis and oaked notes of cedar, vanilla and tobacco can be found in most Super Tuscans.

The juxtaposition of red and black fruit is a strong indicator of a Super Tuscan as Sangiovese will only ever have red fruit notes so the presence of black fruit strongly signals that an international varietal like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah is in the blend.

Typically, Cabernet Sauvignon is used to enhance the structure of the wine with Merlot providing more of the dark fruit and Sangiovese imparting its signature note of sour cherry. Other varieties like Cabernet Franc can be used to give the wine elegance and a deep spiciness.

Food pairings for Super Tuscans

A Super Tuscans are generally well-structured powerful reds, food with a strong meaty flavour profile is an ideal match. Roasted, smoked and spiced meats like salami serve as a natural accompaniment. Vegetarian dishes that have body like portobello mushrooms stuffed with cheese also provide a worthy match.

  • Tuscan-style tripe
  • Boerewors (South African beef and pork sausage)
  • Chili- and rosemary-spiced kangaroo fillets

Significant Super Tuscan Brands

Key brands and producers define Super Tuscans rather than grape or vineyard plot. Perhaps more than any other style of wine, specific producers and wines have been essential to the evolution of Super Tuscans. As the blends can vary wine to wine, it is at the producer's or even consumer's discretion to declare a wine a Super Tuscan, a member of this shifting but powerful club.

Tignanello by Marchesi Antinori

Tignanello by Marchesi Antinori

The first Super Tuscan was a wine called Tignanello by Marchesi Antinori, a producer in the Chianti Classico region. The estate of Marchesi Antinori dates back to the 14th Century although it was in 1900 when Antinori bought the Tignanello vineyard. Now, Marchese Antinori is one of Italy's largest wine companies with around 20 million bottles produced across 150 different labels.

In the mid-to-late 20th Century, Niccolò Antinori and his son Piero begun their various wine-making experiments and 1971 saw the very first vintage of Tignanello released. Since then, it has remained the most seminal of the Antinori wines and has built a loyal following.

The Tignanello vineyard is comprised of 57 hectares of a southwest-facing slope on limestone soils. The wine, itself, was the first to blend Sangiovese, the traditional component of Chianti, with popular non-traditional varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Not only was the blend groundbreaking, it was also the first Sangiovese to be aged in barriques and one of the first Tuscan wines to not use white grapes in the blend.

Sassicaia by Tenuta San Guido

Sassicaia by Tenuta San Guido

Sassicaia by Tenuta San Guido is another ground-breaking Super Tuscan. The estate is in Maremma, a region in Tuscany, and is the only Italian appellation to consist of a single estate.

Sassicaia means "stony field" and was the result of an experiment in the 1940s by a cousin of the Antinoris, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta who tasked himself to make wine comparable to Bordeaux which only naturally meant using French grape varieties, and due to the similarity of Sassicaia's soils with those of Graves, Cabernet Sauvignon became the obvious grape to focus on. These auspicious beginnings set the trend for blending international grape varieties with indigenous.

From 1948 to 1967, the first Sassicaia wines were never released commercially, instead they were drunk privately, predominantly on the estate. All changed in 1968 when the wines were released for the first time to the public. Initial qualms predicted the Cabernet Sauvignon might be too heavy, especially in comparison with the other regional wines on the market, but the 1968 release was received very well and production cranked up.

The first release of Sassicaia was labelled a Vino da Tavola but, as a result of its success, Italy decided to bring in the Indicazione Geografica Tipica legislature to promote the wine as the label of Vino da Tavola or table wine was seen as too lowly for what was now Italy's most famous wine. By 1994, the estate's appellation was established alongside the larger Bolgheri appellation. Over the years, Tenuta San Guido's wine-making facilities have modernized to include temperature control, steel vats and French barriques for ageing.

Sassicaia is a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant Bordeaux blend with a dash of Cabernet Franc. The grapes are picked just before they reach full phenolic ripeness which helps create the elegance and perfume the wine is renowned for as well as moderate the alcohol levels. The wine then spends two weeks fermenting in stainless steel tanks, and is then aged for 24 months in French oak giving the wine its polish.

Ornellaia by Ludovico Antinori

Ornellaia by Ludovico Antinori

Another key Super Tuscan is Ornellaia which neighbors Sassicaia in Bolgheri. Founded in 1981 by Ludovico Antinori, the Marchese's cousin, the estate is well known for producing some of Italy's top wines with the first vintage released in 1985.

The vineyard is composed of alluvial, volcanic and marine soils, ideal for Bordeaux varieties, and enjoys cool maritime breezes from the Tuscan coast which help alleviate the summer heat.

The wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot with Sangiovese entirely absent. All grapes are hand-picked and each distinct parcel of vines is fermented separately in stainless steel tanks. The wines then spend around 18 months in oak of which 70 percent is new.

Other Super Tuscan names include Siepi by Castello di Fonterutoli, the Piazza del Castello Rosso Toscana and the Cum Laude by Castello Banfi among many others.

Regions

The only regional stipulation in place to qualify as a Super Tuscan is that all wines must come from an Indicazione Geografica Tipica within Tuscany. Any wine made of a single or blend of grape varieties that doesn't fit the requirements for Chianti but are still made from a Tuscan IGT could be classed a Super Tuscan. IGTs can include, among others, Maremma, Bolgheri and Toscana.

Stats

There are 6 IGTs in Tuscany which Super Tuscans can be made from. DOCs, of which there are 41, and DOCGs, of which there are 11, are higher stamps of quality but are generally reserved for Italy's traditional wine styles. Over half of Tuscany is planted to Sangiovese which is used both in Super Tuscans and traditional wines like Chianti.

Regarding the international varieties used in Super Tuscans, according to 2014 statistics, 7.7 percent is planted to Merlot, 6.3 to Cabernet Sauvignon, 2 to Syrah and 1.3 to Cabernet Franc.

Future

Super Tuscans still continue to command high prices with wines like Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia Bolgheri remaining highly sought after with an average price of (USD) $314 and some like Masseto Toscana IGT top the charts at an average of (USD) $910. As a group of wines, they have remained relatively stable in both availability and price with only slight shifts detectable.

Increasingly, there has been a focus on more sustainable, organic and biodynamic practices with various producers introducing more of these methods. Climate change may affect which grapes are used and where they are grown but only time will tell.

Drinking Window

Most Super Tuscans will age similarly to a Bordeaux, with some being able to cellar several decades or more.

Ideal Serving Temperature

Most Super Tuscans can be happily served at 15.5-17.5 degrees Celsius but some of the heavier ones may need a degree higher at 16-18 degrees Celsius in order to release their full potential.




Frequently Asked Questions

A Super Tuscan is generally a red wine from Tuscany that does not restrain itself to indigenous Italian varieties but embraces international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to create complex premium single-varietal or blended wines.

Originally these were wines that were not defined by DOC or other regulations and, before the advent of IGT, were often labelled as more modest Vino da Tavola or table wine. The moniker “Super Tuscan” came about as a means to distinguish these high-priced, premium wines from other humbler wines that also fell under the Vino da Tavola label.

There are many recognized IGTs (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) throughout Italy, IGTs are typically designations that follow looser rules than those of DOC or DOCG, and the majority of IGT wines are varietal entry-level wines. Although it was the advent of the Super Tuscans that led to the creation of the Toscana IGT any wine made in any of Tuscany’s ten provinces can be eligible for the Toscana IGT label, it is not restricted to just the Super Tuscans.

Although the Toscana IGT is just one of the many IGTs found around Italy, it is the one particular to Tuscany and the category which most Super Tuscans fall under. Wines made in other IGTS outside Tuscany are not considered Super Tuscans, however, some Super Tuscans, like Sassicaia, do fall under the Bolgheri DOC label – a sub-appellation of the broader Toscana IGT – which also permits international grape varieties.

As rules have relaxed, some Super Tuscans now qualify for the Chianti Classico DOCG label, but most have chosen to remain under the Toscana IGT banner.

Excellent Super Tuscan wines were made in 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

Prices can range dramatically depending on the producer, the wine and the year. However, in general, the better the vintage, the higher price. Top vintages where wines are likely to be sold at high price points include 2016, 2015 and 2010.

Some of the most expensive Super Tuscans include wines by Marchesi de' Frescobaldi, Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera, Marchesi Antinori and Tenuta San Guido.

Yes. The differences between Chianti and Super Tuscans mostly revolve around the restrictions or lack of restrictions around each. Chianti has to be made from around at least 80 percent Sangiovese, whereas Super Tuscans can be made from any of the international varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc – as well as Sangiovese in any proportion. Occasionally white Super Tuscans are also made.

Chianti has to meet certain strict criteria to be eligible for DOCG classification, whereas, Super Tuscans only have to meet the much looser terms of Toscana IGT.

The name ‘Super Tuscans’ came about as a way to mark these often very sophisticated wines as different from the ordinary table wines associated with Vino da Tavola. At the time, they could not use the DOCG classification reserved for Chianti and Vino da Tavola was not an indicator of premium quality.

Eventually, the Toscana IGT came into fruition which was widely adopted by the Super Tuscan producers and, since then, labels designating quality have become more fluid.

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