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Wine topic of the day – Super Tuscans

tignanello_super_tuscan_wineThis is a very misunderstood concept (as is Italian wine in general). I recently overheard it said that they were cabernets and cabernet blends, at which point another said, “No they are Italian varietals of very high quality” and the conversation touched on the “fact” that they were anything but sangiovese and that’s what made them “Super Tuscan”. All of this was both right and wrong.

Super Tuscan is a marketing term attributed to Robert Parker back in the 70s after several Tuscan vintners brokered the concept of rule-breaking in the late 60s. Their original idea was to bring a Bordeaux sensibility to Tuscany, using some of the famed Bordeaux blending grapes to add additional body and structure to  sangiovese and other grapes used in famed Tuscan products and to try to expand the rather staid idea of what great Italian wine should be. At the time, the DOC (the Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) laid out the structure of classification of Italy’s better wines, much like the French system of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée).

The grandaddy of all Super Tuscans is Tignanello, first bottled by Antinori in 1977. It introduced Cabernet Sauvignon as a blending grape, which excluded it from both of the previously stated categories (it couldn’t be called Chianti or Chianti Classico, for example). Because it didn’t fall into the specified parameters of the upscale classifications, it was relegated to the vino da taviola (table wine) category. Although it had been preceded by his relatives’ famous wine Sassicaia by a full 8 years, the Incisa della Rocchetta family usually doesn’t get the credit for creating the Super Tuscan category with Sassicaia. That seems to fall to Pieto Antinori, whose Tignanello’s addition of approximately 20% Cabernet Sauvignon to Sangiovese seemed to set the Italian world alight. Perhaps Sassicaia, with the 80% Cabernet was just too exotic and pricey to be revolutionary. Tignanello came in at a much lower price point and was closer to what most people thought of as “Tuscan” because it had a much lower percentage of outside grapes.

In any case, this was all fortunate in several ways. First of all, these vino da taviolas that weren’t just “inferior” versions of better wines or “wines that the peasants drank” became a source of interest because they were actually more expensive than the standard “classified” wines and were more full-bodied and exotic. So, Super Tuscan came to be a nickname that separated these from what most people knew as table wines. It also caused a new classification to be created, so that it could be included in a category elevated it past mere “table wine” category (does one really call a $200 bottle of wine “table wine”)? This new category was called IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) and is found as a subset of vino da taviola. It basically allows a previously non-standard wine to be promoted as having the same strict standards found in the other two categories.

You generally don’t find the words Super Tuscan as a branding feature on the label. Sometimes you might find the importer using that term in the English back label. This is a category that you simply have to know about. It’s a fair bet that if the wine is listed as Tuscan or from Tuscany and it isn’t a “Chianti” of some sort or a Brunello or Barolo (the latter of which is actually from Piemonte but is sometimes confused with Tuscan), even if it’s 100% Sangiovese,  it’s a Super Tuscan. This is something that you almost need to know by brand name, or be told by your wine rep or your Keeper of the Wine List person.

Here are some known trade names:

Tignanello, Sassicaia, San Martino, Fontalloro, Il Bosco, Vigorello (sometimes called the very first super Tuscan), Centine and Cortaccio.

This is only a smattering of the great names in Super Tuscans. It’s time to do your due diligence and hit the research road. I do hope that I’ve given you enough to give a concise answer to a guest who either asks, “Do you have any Super Tuscans” or “What does “Super Tuscan” mean”?

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