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Are Super-Tuscans Still Super?

Super-Tuscans, once among the world’s most sought-after wines, have fallen out of fashion. Lettie Teague investigates why, and searches out the timeless bottlings.

What happens to a wine when people stop wanting it? A wine once glorified by critics and collectors alike, that has faded, Sunset Boulevard-style, from public view? I was put in mind of the old Hollywood classic after a recent chat with my friend Scott Manlin, a Chicago-based wine collector. Scott had called me to complain that his Super-Tuscans weren’t holding their value and that he’d stopped buying all but a handful of the wines. "No one is buying Super-Tuscans, at least not like they once did," Scott opined.

Could this really be true? After all, less than 10 years ago Super-Tuscans were some of the world’s most sought-after wines. The first Super-Tuscans were created several decades ago by frustrated Chianti producers who bridled against government mandates that included the grapes required to be used in their Sangiovese-based blends—especially white grapes like Malvasia and Trebbiano. The earliest Super-Tuscans epitomized experimentation and daring. Most often made from non-native varieties (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah), they were sometimes blended with the native Sangiovese, sometimes not. They were also treated differently from Chianti—aged in small French barriques rather than in large Slovenian casks. But because they were created only in accordance with the winemaker’s personal vision, not Italian winemaking law, these Super-Tuscans were entitled only to the lowliest official designation, "vino da tavola." It wasn’t until 1994 that the government recognized the quality of the wines, by granting producers their own category, IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).

But what’s cutting-edge one day, with early superstars like Sassicaia and Solaia, can become predictable the next. Over the years more and more producers began selling so-called Super-Tuscans that owed less to a winemaker’s vision than a good marketing scheme. Packaging and a fantasy name (preferably one ending in "-aia") became much more important than the actual wine. In the meantime, few wine drinkers probably even knew that the term Super-Tuscan had originally been coined to connote a wine made outside the law (a.k.a. "super"), not just one with a three-figure price tag.

I’d pretty much stopped drinking Super-Tuscans some years ago, probably for the same reasons as everyone else. They were too expensive (averaging more than $100 a bottle); they were confusing (a fantasy name looked nice on a label, but was rarely accompanied by useful information like the wine’s varietal blend or place of origin); and, finally, more and more of the new Super-Tuscan bottlings seemed, well, generic in style. Whenever I tasted an unidentified wine and found that it had good structure, ripe fruit, decent acidity and evidence of some time in barrique, I’d guess that it was a Super-Tuscan—and more often than not I’d be right.

When I called up Todd Hess (who was until recently the wine director of Sam’s Wines & Spirits in Chicago) and asked why he thought Super-Tuscans weren’t selling, he said he believed it was a problem of provenance, or its lack, even more than price. "Wine drinkers today are looking for indigenous grape varietals and traditional wines," Hess posited, adding that even Chianti was selling better today than most Super-Tuscans. Hess blamed the producers. "I think every winemaker in Tuscany felt like he had to make a Super-Tuscan. Winemakers would come into my store and say, ’We produce this for the American market,’ and I think that sort of malaise infected the customers."

Ben Nelson at the Hart Davis Hart auction house also noted a strong movement toward traditional wines and away from Super-Tuscans, although he was more optimistic about certain Super-Tuscans—in certain vintages at least. For example, he said, "The 1997 Sassicaia is only going up in price." (The retail price is around $400.)

Mannie Berk of the Sonoma-based Rare Wine Co. found exceptions as well, particularly among 100 percent Merlot Super-Tuscans such as Messorio, Masseto and Redigaffi as well as certain vintages of Sassicaia. But Berk was cautious about the demand for Super-Tuscans in general. "The market for Super-Tuscans is pretty soft," he said. And, in an echo of Hess, Berk added, "People are looking for a wine with transparency—a wine that screams that it’s from a place."

But what sort of place should a Super-Tuscan "scream" that it is from? After all, Tuscany is quite large (the fifth largest region in Italy, covering some 8,877 square miles), and its geography quite varied. What was the taste that these wines, made all over the place from all kinds of grapes, could be expected to share? Was it really place—or its absence—that was the trouble with Super-Tuscans, or was it something else? I decided to take a trip to Tuscany to find out.

Scott Manlin announced he’d be coming along. "How else will I know what wines I should buy?" he explained. Never mind that the answer entailed a nearly 5,000-mile plane ride; Scott is decidedly one for the grand geographic gesture. After all, he’d traveled all the way to France with me just to drink a few bottles of Raveneau Les Clos Chablis. He would taste anything but had one stipulation: We had to have our last meal in Rome, at the restaurant Al Bric. "It has a great wine list with lots of Super-Tuscans at good prices," he said. I readily agreed to his condition; if there was one thing Scott could do it was comparison-shop.

A drive through the Tuscan countryside is a perfect way to appreciate the diversity of its wines. In Chianti Classico, the hills can be quite steep, while in coastal Maremma it’s all flat maritime plains, though both are bisected by the same narrow roads. In fact, it was with the diminutive roadways in mind that I’d rented a very small car. "Did you have to get the tiniest car that they had?" Scott complained when he first saw our "Panda" Fiat. "I can’t even fit my suitcase in that." (He had brought along many changes of clothing, all of them black.) "We’ll be driving along some really narrow roads," I explained. "The smaller the car, the better, I thought." Scott just shook his head. "Do you know I drive a Porsche at home?" he said.

As we drove out of Florence, Scott recited the names of all the Super-Tuscans he was no longer buying: Tignanello, Solaia, Sassicaia. In fact, he added, of all the 2001 wines, the only one he’d bought so far was Redigaffi, the Super-Tuscan Merlot from Tua Rita winery. "I think it’s a very sexy expression of Merlot," Scott explained (priced at a not-so-seductive $200 a bottle).

Our first stop was Castello dei Rampolla, a winery whose fame had been built on Cabernet. In fact, the founder of Castello dei Rampolla, the late Alceo di Napoli Rampolla, was one of the region’s great Bordeaux varietal pioneers, having planted his first Cabernet Sauvignon vines some 30 years ago—grafted off vines from Château Lafite Rothschild.

Though his ideas were widely mocked in those early years, di Napoli believed that the Panzano area of Chianti was particularly well suited to Cabernet Sauvignon; the critical acclaim that followed for his two Super-Tuscans, Sammarco (first created in 1980) and Vigna d’Alceo (launched in 1996) proved him right. In fact, today d’Alceo is regarded as not only one of Italy’s greatest Cabernets, but also one of its leading wines.

Alceo’s son, Luca di Napoli Rampolla, has been making the wines since his father’s death, in 1991. A spare yet elegant man, Luca di Napoli was preparing for harvest when Scott and I arrived. We were late because a nearby road was washed out. (This was a problem we encountered surprisingly often on our travels, leading me to wonder if the lack of "place" in Super-Tuscans was simply a matter of soil erosion.) But Scott and I didn’t mention the road and Luca said nothing about time; we just began tasting the wines—some of the best of our trip.

We began with the basic 2003 Chianti, a supple and juicy wine. When we voiced approval, Luca informed us that the 2002 was even better. How was that? The 2002 vintage was considered very difficult throughout Tuscany. "We didn’t produce a d’Alceo, so our basic Chianti was mostly Cabernet from that vineyard," Luca replied with a look.

How had he gotten such a wine past the government authorities? I knew the restrictions had eased considerably in recent years regarding the grapes that could legally be blended into Chianti (up to 15 percent of grapes like Cabernet and Syrah can now be used; even an all-Sangiovese wine can now be labeled "Chianti"). As far as I knew, a predominantly Cabernet wine still wasn’t legal. How had Luca gotten his Chianti approved? It was easy, Luca replied with a smile. "They didn’t ask what was in it and we didn’t say." Besides, he added "It was a very good wine." (Alas, the wine was sold out, so we weren’t able to taste it then and there, although Scott vowed he would track it down.)

The next two bottles that Luca opened for us were very good too: the 2003 Sammarco (a Cabernet and Sangiovese blend that was one of the first Super- Tuscans) and the 2003 d’Alceo. While the Sammarco was well-made and polished, the d’Alceo was a truly remarkable wine. Structured and elegant, the d’Alceo was also strikingly accessible, with a plush texture and fine tannins. Scott and I exchanged looks over our glasses. "I’m buying this wine before we get to our next stop," he vowed under his breath.

Noting our enthusiasm for the d’Alceo, Luca left only to return with another bottle for us to try, the 1996 vintage. Though nearly 11 years old, the wine was still quite youthful and bright, with a lively acidity. It didn’t taste like a Napa Cab—the acidity was too high—nor for that matter like a wine from Bordeaux. Were we experiencing the taste of Tuscany, or simply the vision of Alceo?

If only more Super-Tuscans tasted like this, I lamented to Luca, people would drink them regardless of price. (The 2003 d’Alceo costs about $225 a bottle.) Di Napoli shook his head. The problem with Super-Tuscans, he posited, was that there were too many wines, particularly from the region of Bolgheri. "The market is too full of them," he said. I decided not to mention that Bolgheri was where Scott and I were bound next.

Bolgheri is a DOC (an official wine appellation) in the Tuscan province of Maremma, a fairly long drive from Chianti (almost three hours by car). Bolgheri is home to Sassicaia as well as other early Super-Tuscan stars— Ornellaia, Masseto and Messorio. In the past decade or so it has also become home to lots of new wines and vineyards, as Luca had noted. And many of the new names are also the best-known, including Piero Antinori, Angelo Gaja and Giovanni Folonari.

Giovanni Folonari is from one of Italy’s oldest winemaking families—the Folonaris have been producing wine since the 1700s. They are also one of the more recent investors in Bolgheri, thanks to Giovanni’s father, Ambrogio, who bought land there several years ago. Ambrogio Folonari had actually wanted to invest in Bolgheri many years earlier, according to Giovanni, but the rest of the Folonari family did not. A year later, the family split up, with one side taking the mass market wines and the other side, under the direction of Ambrogio, taking the Super-Tuscan Cabreo Il Borgo, the Chianti estate Nozzole and the vineyards in Bolgheri.

Although Giovanni Folonari looks like a native Californian (deep tan, very white teeth) and he did, in fact, graduate with a degree in enology from U.C. Davis, his driving style was pure Italian. That is to say, very fast. (Folonari picked Scott and me up in his BMW M3 for a tour of the vineyards, a vehicle change that clearly pleased Scott.) Did Giovanni think too many wines were being made in Bolgheri now? He did not. In fact, he believed there was room for more. Though not necessarily Super-Tuscans. "We want to make wines from Bolgheri," Giovanni said. "We want our wines to taste of Bolgheri." (Had he heard the criticism that Super- Tuscans lacked a sense of place?)

Alas, as much as Scott and I liked Giovanni (though Scott may have liked his car even more), we thought his 2001 Cabreo Il Borgo was a bit generic-tasting—even though it was well-made and well-priced (about $45 a bottle). We did admire his crisp, refreshing 2005 Bolgheri Vermentino, which might have been the cheapest wine Scott had ever tasted in his life. "This wine is $17 a bottle?" Scott asked Giovanni in disbelief several times.

Our next stop was Tenuta San Guido, producer of Sassicaia, a Cabernet blend created in 1948 (1968 was the first public vintage). It is not only a wine of Bolgheri but of Sassicaia itself, as the wine was granted its own appellation or DOC, in 1994. This is a distinction few wines in the world can claim—and surely one that would silence the critics of Super-Tuscans who claim these wines don’t taste of a place. Sassicaia, after all, tastes of…Sassicaia.

How had Marchese Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta (the son of the winery’s founder, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta) managed such a coup? I asked Sebastiano Rosa, Sassicaia’s winemaker. Rosa, a soft-spoken man with long hair and a beard, looked a bit like a rock star and a bit like Jesus Christ. I figured Rosa would know the answer; after all, the Marchese (as Rosa referred to him) was his stepfather as well as his boss. Rosa affected incomprehension at the question; never mind that up until then his English had been impeccable. He suggested that we taste the wines.

The three of us sat on simple wooden benches facing a low wall and a row of stainless steel tanks. The winery was plain, if not downright austere. In fact, the only decorative touch in the entire place was the eight-pointed Sassicaia star set into raised wood on the cellar doors. "People are surprised when they first visit the winery; they can’t believe how simple it is," Rosa remarked when he saw me looking around. The Marchese apparently liked it that way.

The Marchese also favored a less opulent style of wine that is quite different from most Super-Tuscans today, which tend to be bigger, more extracted, more ripe. But, said Rosa, the wine style was the vision of the Marchese, even if it wasn’t one always favored by the critics (who have given certain vintages such as 2000 low scores). And yet, Rosa added, the demand for Sassicaia was still "very strong." In fact (and despite what Todd Hess had said) he asserted that the demand was "even bigger than it was two years ago." (The current vintage of Sassicaia costs about $200 a bottle.)

Rosa brought out three vintages of Sassicaia for Scott and me to taste: the 2003 currently on the market, the 2004 to be released next year and a barrel sample of the 2005 wine, which would spend another year in the barrel. Of the three, I found the 2003 pleasant but lacking in depth; the 2005 was much bigger and richer; but overall I preferred the as-yet-unreleased 2004—a structured and elegant wine. "A very classic vintage for Sassicaia," said Rosa approvingly when I voiced my admiration.

A few miles down the road from Tenuta San Guido but a world away in aspect and feeling was Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia, home to two other top Super-Tuscans, Ornellaia and Masseto. Created in 1981 by Marchese Lodovico Antinori (brother of Piero Antinori and cousin of Nicolò Incisa), Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia produces a Cabernet-dominant wine, Ornellaia, aged in French barriques. It was said to be Lodovico’s competitive answer to his cousin’s Sassicaia and his older brother’s Cabernet-based Solaia (whose first vintage debuted two years earlier). Masseto, which had its first vintage in 1987, is an all-Merlot wine inspired by no less a bottling than Château Pétrus, which in great vintages it is said to equal.

The wines Sassicaia and Ornellaia are as different as the estates where they are produced. Sassicaia tends to be structured and even austere while Ornellaia is softer, more approachable in its youth. And whereas Tenuta San Guido looked like a Tuscan gentleman’s farm, Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia (purchased by the Frescobaldi family about two years ago) was surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped fence and put me in mind of a white-collar prison. Why such tight security measures? I asked Leonardo Raspini, Ornellaia’s agronomist. To keep impassioned Super-Tuscan fans at bay? Raspini just laughed nervously by way of reply.

According to Axel Heinz, Ornellaia’s winemaker, the estate had been inspired by Lodovico Antinori’s many trips to California some decades ago, where he had "fallen in love" with what he’d found there. (I wondered if Lodovico had squeezed in a side trip to San Quentin State Prison along with winery visits in Napa and Sonoma.)

I refrained from saying as much to Heinz, as he seemed like a quite serious sort, perhaps because he’d been on the job for just under two years. (Heinz had been the winemaker in Château La Dominique in St-Émilion before taking the job). No doubt expectations were high, not only for Ornellaia but perhaps even more so for Masseto—one of the most expensive Super-Tuscans ($250 a bottle) as well as one of the most sought-after Merlots in the world.

"Masseto is one of the few Super-Tuscans that I’m still buying," Scott said to me as Heinz readied bottles of Ornellaia and Masseto for us to taste, in vintages ranging from 2001 to 2004. Apparently everyone else was buying it too. Even Masseto from the unmemorable 2002 vintage was, according to Heinz, "completely sold out" though a taste of it revealed a wine that was pleasant enough but without the richness, the depth and the texture of the previous vintage, or for that matter, the 2003 or the monumental 2004. And yet they were all priced the same. Why was that? I asked Heinz. "Why not?" he replied. "It was just as hard to make as the 2001—actually even harder." Scott had bought the 2001 Masseto upon release. "It cost me $240 then. Now I couldn’t buy it for less than $500 a bottle. And that’s too expensive," he said. But he told me that he would buy the 2004 Masseto, as well as the super-rich, superconcentrated 2004 Ornellaia—provided he could find them at the right price, of course.

The next day Scott and I drove back to Chianti for our appointments at Fattoria di Fèlsina and Montevertine, two wineries that have turned out first-rate Sangiovese-based Super-Tuscans for nearly three decades. Scott was in a good mood; he’d not only managed to buy two cases of the 2003 d’Alceo the day before ("for only $117 a bottle") but he’d also overtaken a Lamborghini on a hilly road. "Did you see the look on that guy’s face when we passed him in the Panda?" he chortled.

Fattoria di Fèlsina has long been considered a top Chianti producer; its Riserva Rancia is consistently one of the best Chiantis in the world. Fèlsina also turns out two exemplary Super-Tuscans—Maestro Raro, a Cabernet wine, and the all-Sangiovese wine Fontalloro—both under the direction of Giuseppe Mazzocolin and acclaimed winemaking consultant Franco Bernabei.

I’m a particular fan of Fontalloro. Scott, who had never tasted it before, was a bit dubious. "It’s just not a wine I collect," he said. I wasn’t surprised. Fontalloro isn’t a "cult" Super-Tuscan (for one thing, at about $50 a bottle its price is too low), as it’s subtle and slow to reveal itself, although it ages beautifully, gaining in richness and texture. Scott was so impressed by the 2001 Fontalloro that he began e-mailing retailers while we were still sitting at the table tasting the wines.

As Scott worked his BlackBerry, I asked Mazzocolin how his Chianti sales compared to those of his Super-Tuscans. The market for Chianti was definitely stronger, Mazzocolin acknowledged. Why did he think that was the case? Mazzocolin clasped his fingers together in a scholarly way (he was once, in fact, a school teacher) and thought for a long while before answering. "I think one of the problems is that Super-Tuscans are misunderstood," he said. "These wines are not just the story of a vineyard or a grape but the story of a people who created something that is unique."

The late Sergio Manetti of Montevertine was certainly an author of one such story. One of the early rebels of Chianti, Manetti refused to add white grapes to his wine as dictated by the law back in the 1970s. Instead, he created a 100 percent Sangiovese in 1976 that he called Le Pergole Torte. And while the wine could now legally be labeled Chianti, his son Martino refuses to do so. "It would dishonor my father’s memory and all that he stood for," he said, pouring Scott and me a small taste of the bright and lively 2001 wine.

Our final night in Italy was spent, as I had promised Scott, at Al Bric restaurant in Rome. Scott ordered not one but three of his favorite Super-Tuscan Merlots because "the prices are so good": the 1999 Masseto, 1998 Le Macchiole Messorio and 2000 Tua Rita Redigaffi. And while the quantity of bottles seemed a bit profligate, the quality of the wines was astonishingly good. In fact, they were extraordinary—from the voluptuous Masseto to the earthy, minerally Redigaffi to the astonishingly elegant yet powerful 1998 Messorio, of which Scott delivered his highest praise: "This is not just a Super-Tuscan. This rivals any great Merlot in the world."

As we tasted one wine and then another, I thought about the wines that we’d tasted on our trip and how impressive each had been in its turn. And I thought about what Giuseppe Mazzocolin had said, that Super-Tuscans were never about a place or a particular terroir but instead were wines born of a vision, an individual’s resistance to the status quo. And the wines that retained the integrity of that original vision—wines like Redigaffi, d’Alceo, Masseto, Fontalloro and a few others—were still highly sought-after, still very good. All those other Super-Tuscans—the ones that weren’t selling—had never been a product of anyone’s imagination at all. Albert Einstein once said, "Imagination circles the world." Perhaps it also circumscribes great winemaking in Tuscany, too.

Published December 2006
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