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Tuscan superiority – a masterclass in rebellious winemaking

December 3, 2020

The Tuscan wine region has been known for its wine production for hundreds of years, especially for its red wines like Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. Rolling hillsides and winding country roads make the region picturesque. But its specific location within Italy – with its western side facing the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian seas and its eastern side sitting high in the Apennine Mountains – make it legendary for producing wines of great quality and distinction.

The climate has rich diversity, with typical Mediterranean warmth along the coastal regions and cooler inland temperatures that match the rise in elevation. Several red wine-producing regions are located within Tuscany, including Montepulciano and Montalcino in the south, Chianti in the north-central part, and the Tuscan Coast that includes Bolgheri and Maremma. Of these regions, it is Chianti and Bolgheri that produce the most extensive array of ultra-premium, modern day blended wines, known around the world as super Tuscans.

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The concept of super Tuscan wines is an interesting story whose origins are linked to the famous Chianti Classico and the limits imposed upon it due to the strict regulations on usable grapes. The term has become synonymous with adventurous winemaking and a rebellious pact. Understanding how and when these wines shifted from being referred to as simple “table” wines to outstanding “innovative” wines is key to appreciating their true identity.

Super Tuscans

(c) Luce/Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits: The Super Tuscans of the Luce Estate in Montalcino came to be after a meeting and subsequent handshake agreement between Robert Mondavi and the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi.

Italians introduced the DOC wine appellation system, modeled after the French AOC, during the 1960s. Each region forged rules for viticulture and production. Chianti’s DOC/DOCG rules were often criticized as restrictive. Others were considered misguided (a requirement that inferior local white grapes comprise a portion of red blends was frowned upon by many producers who were ambitiously looking to up the ante on the quality spectrum).

By the end of the 1960s, a handful of renegades balked at the regulations. They created new brands to blend cabernet sauvignon or merlot with sangiovese, making their own “Bordeaux-style” wines. They also played with aging periods and vessels like cement and small oak barriques. Yet, such diversions weren’t tolerated under the DOC or DOCG label designations.

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This age of innovation and rebelliousness would eventually aid in the marketing of the super Tuscan story, but initially came with consequences. Producers like Marchesi Antinori had to bottle their Bordeaux-style red blends and varietal wines under the generic category of Vino da Tavola, Italy’s lowest-quality tier (table wine). But as the wines grew in prominence, authorities would begin to acknowledge the labeling system’s inadequacies.

Super Tuscans

(c) Ornellaia/Mark Anthony: The Ornellaia Estate in Bolgheri produces some of the finest expressions of super Tuscans.

In 1992, the Italian government introduced a new wine classification: Toscana IGT. Toscana IGT, however, held little romance for critics or consumers, so the term super Tuscan took hold.

Brands like Sassicaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia became darlings of wine critics. In fact, in 1978, Decanter magazine organized a blind tasting, and it slipped Sassicaia in among top Bordeaux. The obscure wine beat out much of the competition, only to be revealed as Italian. Regarded as one of Italy’s flagship wines, Sassicaia was first released commercially in 1968 – the first ever ‘super Tuscan’ – and steadily gained a reputation before exploding in popularity when Robert Parker scored the 1985 vintage a perfect 100 points. Bolgheri Sassicaia would eventually earn its very own independent DOC in 2013.

Sassicaia

Super Tuscans wouldn’t be what they are without Sassicaia. In 2018, I was invited to a three-vintage vertical tasting of Sassicaia and its two subsidiary labels (Guidalberto and Le Difese). Wines were presented by Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta of Tenuta San Guido at Don Alfonso Restaurant in Toronto.

Wine lovers during the ‘80s and ‘90s pushed prices into the realm of upper echelon collector status. Owning a top tier super Tuscan was considered worthy of showing off, a crown jewel of any wine cellar. Even Robert Mondavi wanted a piece of the pie and began collaborating with the Frescobaldi family in the early 1990s. The result was the creation of Luce, now celebrating 25 years.

Today’s super Tuscans seem to follow two distinct paths – the original rebel version, which uses sangiovese as the base and grapes that are not indigenous to Tuscany; and wines composed of varieties from Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc). Both are equally enjoyable and can still be the subject of much debate, but the overall consensus remains the same: rebellion has never tasted so good.

OrnellaiaLe Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2017

Made with the same passion and attention to detail as flagship estate wine Ornellaia, this 20th anniversary vintage is a true second vin worthy of outstanding praise. A modern day blend of mostly merlot, with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot in support, this is a wine that combines approachability and a depth of flavour with proven aging potential. Silky smooth with notes of fresh eucalyptus on the finish, this is a wine that’s masterful in its elegance, complexity and expression of terroir. ($69.95)

 

 

 

LuceLuce Della Vite Lucente 2016

Now celebrating 25 years, this is the first super Tuscan from Montalcino made by way of blending sangiovese and merlot grapes. The Luce brand was formed thanks to the inspired collaboration of the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi families and remains a contemporary styled wine perfectly representing the unique territory where it is produced. This ‘Lucente’ is Luce’s second wine but it’s not to be considered second-rate. It’s highly attractive label aside, this is a wine that’s gifted with great complexity. ($34.95)

 

 

 

Ruffino ModusRuffino Modus 2017

Made up of almost equal parts sangiovese, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, Modus continues to be one of the best value bets available – especially for a wine that’s also making its 20th vintage with this 2017 edition. It’s full-bodied and complex with finesse and style, packed with intensely rich and matured fruits and velvety soft on the palate. It’s definitely ageworthy but it can be enjoyed now – especially after decanting. Quite harmonious, I barely noticed the 14.5 percent alc./vol. ($29.95)

 

 

 

AntinoriGuado Al Tasso Il Bruciato 2018

The Guado al Tasso estate is located in the small but prestigious Bolgheri DOC appellation on the coast of Upper Maremma, about 100 kilometers southwest of Florence. This appellation has a relatively recent history as it was established in 1994 but has gained worldwide recognition as a new reference point for producing stellar modern blends. This is comprised of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah and it offers very good structure and balance. Another terrific value option. ($24.95)

 

 

 

SassicaiaTenuta San Guido 2015 Sassicaia 

Regarded as one of Italy’s flagship wines, Sassicaia is the original super Tuscan. It was first released commercially in 1968 and steadily gained a reputation before exploding in popularity when Robert Parker scored the 1985 vintage a perfect 100 points. Named 2018’s wine of the year by many international wine critics, this version of Sassicaia uses 85 percent cabernet sauvignon and 15 percent cabernet franc. It’s simply elegant, boasting an amazing array of complex aromas of red fruit. In the mouth it is rich, fresh and harmonious, with very balanced tannins. The finish is long with a depth and structure that ensures its extraordinary longevity. Has the strength to age for decades. (Tasted in 2018.) ($249.95)