The More You Know: What is a Super Tuscan?
Ever had a Super Tuscan? Ever wondered what the hell that means? In short, the term can be attributed to the media and the origin of that term can be attributed to the rebels. And being a Star Wars fan, I love the rebels.
Just south of the bustling city of Florence are the Chianti hills. A bucolic landscape of green buttes spotted with cypress trees and ancient hill towns with names like Radda, Castellina, Gaiole and Greve. In and around these towns are vineyards growing the famous Sangiovese grape, along with other native varieties such as Canaiolo, Colorino and Ciliegiolo. This is not only where the story of Chianti wine begins but also that of the “Super Tuscan.”
From the rise of the Medici family in the 15th century, to 1960’s post World War II Italy the wines of this region – known as the Conca D’Oro (Golden Shell) – were held in the highest regard. The British, who have been frequenting these undulating hills for years since the middle ages, call it Chiantishire.
Historically, Chinati had always been a blend of the natives grapes of the region, with the Canaiolo grape taking the lion’s share. Then along came a man by the name of Barone Bettino Ricasoli who, after a decade of experimentation, decided that Sangiovese was best as the majority grape in the blend, as it had more aromatics and vigor, allowing Canaiolo and other native grapes to play minority roles, adding color and tannin. The historic Chianti blend we all know was born.
By the 1960’s, when the Italians saw that the appellation system (AOC) the French had created thirty years earlier was a runaway success, they decided to follow suit creating their own appellation system entitled the DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata), a direct translation of the France’s AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) meaning controlled designation of origin. This nationwide system was a way to control the quality of wine by putting rules in place within a designated area so that from vintage to vintage, even though weather patterns change, there were guidelines to aid in maintaining the legacy of a wine region controlling everything from the makeup of the blend to harvest yields and alcohol levels.
In 1967 Chianti was awarded it’s own DOC and because the Barone Ricasoli blend was the most used at the time, this was the blend that made it into law. But there was a snag, the Ricasoli blend allowed up to 20% of white wine to be added. Enter the catalyst for the rebel alliance.
The Rebel Alliance Forms
As the DOC in Chianti gained in popularity on the international market, winemakers looking to get more bang for their buck by increasing volume utilized the 20% white rule to the fullest. The result was a significant drop in the quality of the wine and by the mid 70’s Chianti’s international reputation began to dwindle. By 1975 certain winemakers were fed up with these rules and began going out on their own, making whatever they wanted, thereby eschewing the DOC laws in order to make better quality wine. But to make wine outside the DOC guidelines meant forcing that wine to be labelled Vino Da Tavola (table wine), the lowest of the low rung on the designation ladder.
But the rebels did not back down and when the American press came to taste these unlawful wines that were causing such a stir, they fell in love with them immediately. They were full bodied and French barrique aged (the norm was a different kind of oak from Slavonia) with more intensity and absent of any white wine. In fact, some of them used Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon as the framework for the blend, causing many members of the press to compare them to great Bordeaux. This created a common misconception that a Super Tuscan is always a Bordeaux style blend, but this is not the case. For example, on my wine list at In Vino I have a wine made from 100% Ciliegiolo, one of the original native grapes in the Chianti blend.
The press ran back to the states to write about these wines but couldn’t bring themselves to call these amazing bottles Vino Da Tavola. They were more than that. So they used a term that they had heard being bandied about among these rebel winemakers, Super Tuscan. Wine made outside the law, but commanding a presence unseen since the Great War.
By the 1980’s the Super Tuscan phenomenon was at an all time high on the international market with wealthy Americans buying them up left and right as they catered to the intense oaky, high alcohol national palate of the time. In 1984 Chianti bowed to this success and rewrote it’s wine laws, doing away with the allowance of any white wine and adding another letter to the the DOC acronym, G, for Garantita, DOCG. These more restrictive rules began the rebirth of good Chianti wine over time.
But even with this new DOCG in place the Super Tuscan idea would not let up, so in 1992, partly in response to this popularity, the government created yet another acronym, IGT, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, which was in a way a direct reflection on France’s Vin de Pays or Country wines. A designation allowing for experimentation, as long as the grapes came from the area the wine was being made. And so it came to pass that from then on Super Tuscans were to be dubbed IGT, and most still are to this day.
There are some of these trailblazers though that have since been awarded their own DOC, especially in Bolgheri where it is said the first Super Tuscan was made by Tenuta San Guido called Sassicaia, a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. Both Bolgheri and the Sassicaia estate have a received DOC status.
So to drink a Super Tuscan is to drink a wine made in Tuscany that uses the IGT label. It doesn’t follow the traditional DOCG rules, but still uses grapes grown in the Tuscan region.