Here’s what you need to know about Italy’s unique Super Tuscan wines
Bold, refined, and polished. Super Tuscan wines are a collector's dream but what are they, and what makes them special?
Among the most admired Italian wine styles of Amarone, Barolo, Brunello and Chianti, the Super Tuscans sound the most un-Italian. And yet, they exemplify one of the top expressions of the land.
The term was coined for a group of rebellious red wines that broke the winemaking rules of the land and found their way to superstardom.
Super Tuscans are a relatively new category of fine wines. They started to emerge in the 1970s in Tuscany, the heartland of Chianti. Some of these were French Bordeaux blends (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc), and others were blends of French and Italian sangiovese grape. Occasionally, they were single varietals.
At the time, Chianti Classico was the highest qualification of Tuscany, which oddly required wines to be blends of sangiovese and indigenous white grapes. It didn’t help that Chianti in the 1970s was diluted, thin, and characterless, which spurred winemakers to experiment with new styles.
Master of wine Annette Scarfe explained: “It is widely recognised that these wines [Super Tuscans] had a marked impact on the style where Chianti had previously been considered as an unripe wine bottled in a flask.”
When Chiantis were aged in big Slovenian oak casks, the Super Tuscans ‒ guided by celebrated French consultants like Emile Peynaud ‒ followed Bordeaux style ageing regimes.
Scarfe refers to them as ‘consultant made’ wines of unprecedented quality, which were "plush, richer, riper, fruitier, more luxuriant tannin wines aged in new French oak.”
The first cab off the rank was the prestigious Sassicaia from Tenuta San Guido, a pure cabernet sauvignon aged in French oak casks. Adventurous owner Marchesi Mario Incisa started experimenting with Bordeaux grapes in the Tuscan coastal town of Bolgheri in 1940s and, after many trials and errors, released the first vintage in 1968.
The now iconic wine Tignanello followed a similar timeline. Marchesi Piero Antinori of the famed Antinori family was equally inspired by Bordeaux wines and produced a blend of sangiovese and cabernet for his family. In 1971, the wine was released to the market.
Ornellaia, a pure cabernet sauvignon, soon followed, as did Antinori’s Solaia.
While no set definition of a Super Tuscan exists till now, consumers have learnt to expect a Super Tuscan to be a French grape-led wine from Tuscany. “What they have in common is that they don’t have anything in common with the others,” Vianney Gravereaux, sales and marketing director at Ornellaia and Masseto, shared. “It became anything that was not classical Sangiovese or Tuscany.”
Despite their slick attributes, the wines – with their non- Italian grapes – sat outside of any prevalent Italian wine conventions and were declassified to the lowest quality level of ‘vino da tavola’ or table wines.
Italian wine label classification ranks wines in four tiers: DOCG is the highest level for regions like Barolo, DOC the second highest, IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) sits at the third rung and Vino da Tavola is the lowest.
Undeterred by the low-quality labels, the producers audaciously priced the wines much higher than the top-quality levels of DOC. The market responded favourably to the polished tannins and the wines were an instant success.
Scarfe continued: “Everyone wanted to join in the success story, and today almost every producer (in Tuscany) will have a Super Tuscan alongside their DOC or DOCG wines.”
In time, some of the wines were elevated to DOC Bolgheri and DOC Maremma, while others were labelled as regional IGT and the category exploded.
THE COASTAL BOLGHERI STILL REIGNS SUPREME
“Bolgheri is the appellation in Italy with the highest average price per bottle,” said Gravereaux. The region now houses 85 wineries, and the Frescobaldi family owns the prestigious properties of Ornellaia and Masseto. The latter is the most expensive Super Tuscans on the market.
Cellarmaster and winemaker Gaia Cinnirella elaborated on some practices that make Masseto distinct. “When we speak about Massetto, we speak about the specific terroir.” First, the infertile blue clay soils hail from the Pliocene era. She explains how they cannot use a tractor as the grounds still have remnants of seashells. Second, the region benefits from a unique microclimate due to its location between the coast and the hills. The proximity of the sea plays a significant role as well, in mitigating the climate and maturation. The afternoon breeze from the sea cools the wines, and the water reflects the sunlight on the vineyards, which aids in ripening.
Under the leadership of Axel Heinz, the technical director of the estate (who recently left to join Chateau Lascomes in Margaux), the viticulture and winemaking are marked by minimal intervention.
Heinz advocated soft infusion and gentle process that ensured richness, without the heaviness or roughness, which has since become Masseto’s trademark. Think tea infusion, where leaves are left undisturbed to steep the flavours in the water. Heinz leaves the skins of the grapes to infuse their colour and tannins, without any harsh punch downs. Working closely with him, Cinnirella summed it up best: “We don’t have a recipe, but we feel the expression of the wine.”
Masseto’s production is limited to 30,000 bottles a year, and the wine is made from 100 per cent merlot. In recent years, Heinz added a smidgen of cabernet franc (which does exceptionally well in Bolgheri) and adopted bush wines, all to combat climate change effects.
PIONEERING WOMEN OF MAREMMA
Further south, the region of Maremma shot to fame in the 1990s after the launch of Saffredi.
Owner of Fattoria Il Pupille, Elizabetta Gepetti recollected: “At that time, there were very few Super Tuscans. Bolgheri was not yet a denomination.” The charismatic Gepetti took over the vineyard management from her father-in-law who passed away when she was barely 20. As a woman in an industry full of men, it wasn’t easy at first, but she soon made her mark as an inspirational leader.
She added Bordeaux varieties to her property after a successful planting experiment by her father-in-law Alfredo and oenologist Giacomo Tachis (of Tignanello and Sassicaia fame) established that the terroir was favourable for cabernet sauvignon.
Saffredi, launched in 1987, pays homage to Alfredo, as everyone called him Freddie. “We were quite lucky,” she recalled. “On our third vintage 1990, Robert Parker rated the wine 95 (points).”
Her success invited investment to the Maremma from the Frescobaldis, Antinoris and the, among others, the Mazzei family of Fonterutoli in Chianti Classico.
THE ELEVATED CENTRAL TUSCAN REGION
The Mazzeis are Florentine nobility and are counted as one of the founding families in Chianti. Their flagship Super Tuscan wine, Il Siepi, is an equal blend of merlot and sangiovese. It is produced at the family winery Castello di Fonterutoli located in the village of Castellina, Chianti’s heartland. As with all non-traditional blends, the wine is categorised an IGT wine (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) and embellished with the Mazzei family coat of arms on the label.
“The first vintage that we put on the market was the 1992, and it’s been growing steadily since then to establish itself among the greats,” said Smeralda Mazzei, the 25th generation of Marchesi Mazzei and Asia's brand ambassador. Since 2018, the label has been traded on the Place de la Bordeaux.
The Siepi vineyards, she added, sit at an elevation of 250m to 300m surrounded by forests and are planted on classic Chianti region soils of alberese marl. The sangiovese and merlot vines are spread across three vineyards and farmed organically. The grapes are hand-harvested, optically sorted, and aged in French oak barrels for 18 months, and the wine is released two years after harvest.
In addition to Bolgheri, Maremma and central Tuscan regions, other satellites are emerging which are making waves, like Tenuta di Biserno from Bibbona and Petrolo Galatrona from Val d’Arno di Sopra. And after 55 years of existence, the Super Tuscans are moving to lesser oak, regional identity and adapting to climate change.
However, with the proliferation comes another issue – how does the consumer identify a Super Tuscan?
The labels are a good place to start. Most wines are “named wines”. Also, a Super Tuscan is labelled in one of four ways: IGT, DOC Bolgheri, DOC Sassicaia Bolgheri or DOC Maremma.