Many of the greatest success stories in history are a result of people who take creativity into their own hands. They step outside the boundaries of what is acceptable by current standards and break from tradition to pioneer new ideas. This independence is the basis of the story that surrounds one of Italy’s most famous wines.
A brief history of beverage turmoil before we discuss the adventurous winemakers who broke from tradition long ago in the beautiful Tuscan hillside.
Chianti is unquestionably the most popular wine in Italy history, if not the world. Yet with great fame comes inevitable dispute. Subsequently, the food friendly red has fallen in and out of favour for reasons that are beyond the control of any one group or organization. Chianti is a product of Tuscany in central Italy. It has served as Europe’s thirst quencher of choice for centuries, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that the light-bodied red became popular here in North American culture.
The supply of Sangiovese, the key grape in Chianti could not keep up with the surging demand of an international market and by the 1960s, in an effort to increase the volume of production, Italian winemakers were harvesting inferior clones of the Sangiovese and adding greater quantities of the mandated white grapes to the blend. Chianti’s downfall, like so many other products of mass production, was that these inevitable shortcuts also led to a serious deficiency in quality. Suddenly the term fiasco not only identified the straw covered glass bottle that held the wine, but also the contents as well.
During the demise of Chianti’s reputation, a small group of talented and proactive Tuscan winemakers began experimenting with the idea of blending unconventional amounts and varieties of red grapes while eliminating the white Malvasia and Trebianno grapes. The results, while considered illegal in terms of Italian winemaking regulations, were also unprecedented in terms of quality. Government officials expressed outrage at the blatant disrespect for regulations and quickly shunned the new products by forbidding the use of DOC certification (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) for labelling and marketing of the rogue wines. Winemakers were forced to sell their proud new products under the classification of VdT (Vini da Tavola) – the lowest possible level of certification in Italy.
The first of these non-regulated Tuscan red wines ever sold commercially was the product of fruit harvested in 1968. That wine was called Vigarello. In the same year, the famous Sassacaia made its inaugural appearance, though it is said that winemaker Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta had already been enjoying his secretive wine for decades by that point.
In time, many Chianti producers broke from the mold of tradition. The media quickly caught on to this new wave of winemaking ideals and labelled the high quality wines Supra Vini da Tavola, which eventually morphed into the English-speaking phrase Super Tuscan. In its most basic sense, a Super Tuscan is a wine made from unconventionally blended or straight proportions of grapes grown in the Tuscany region of Italy.
The grapes used can be indigenous fruit from the region itself, such as Sangiovese and Malvasia Nera or any combination of international varieties which to this point have included Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. There is no stipulation that forbids the use of white grapes in the making of a Super Tuscan, but we should note that the new requirement for including white fruit in the traditional Chianti blend was a driving force behind the surge of regulatory noncompliance in the first place.
This theoretical information becomes valuable to the consumer as you stand in the wine shop among the sea of labels and price tags. Every shelf or bin of wine sold in Ontario at the LCBO is affixed with a product information card. Printed on these cards is the country and region from where the wine is sourced as well as the foreign certification of that wine i.e. the familiar VQA here in Canada.
In the Italian section, most wine is certified as DOC or DOCG. If the wine in question is a red from Tuscany and the product information card indicates a certification level of IGT, then it can be considered a Super Tuscan. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but this will serve as an introduction. Additional research will reveal what grapes or combination thereof were used in the making of the wine, but remember, IGT wines are not strictly regulated and they will vary dramatically in terms of grape composition.
The dispute between Italy’s wine regulatory agency and the producers of non-compliant Tuscan wines continued for decades. In fact, it wasn’t until 2006 that the longstanding requirement for supplemental white grapes in the production of Chianti in the ‘Classico’ region was finally dismissed. Foregoing the white juice now allows the many of the Super Tuscans to once again qualify under the umbrella of the Chianti name and DOGC certification. With that said, most producers have chosen to remain labelled IGT in favour of the Super Tuscan persona.
As the consumer, if you are not a fan of the medium bodied and brightly acidic style of Chianti, but prefer instead heavier wines such as the Bordeaux blend, California Cabernet, and Aussie Shiraz, then a bottle of Super Tuscan in the decanter is sure to tempt your palate. The winemaker’s choice of bolder grapes combined with the use of barrels instead of the larger traditional wooden casks contributes not only to the Super Tuscan’s complexity, but also to its aging potential. If properly stored, better examples will continue to improve over the next 5 to 15 years.
The most famous and widely available Super Tuscan is a product made by Piero Antinori called Tignanello or ‘Tig’ for short. But I won’t beat around the bush, big-name wines such as Tig, Sassacaia, and Solaia are all very expensive and perhaps better reserved for special occasions. Fortunately though, the immense popularity of the Super Tuscan has resulted in the production of a wide range of wines, many of which have come down in price in recent years. With the holiday wine selection now on display at the LCBO, I encourage you to ask your local product consultant in the Vintages department for an introduction to the Super Tuscan phenomenon.
Prepare to be wowed!