The evolution of the Super Tuscan: Sass, class and Cabernet

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Super Tuscan phenomenon. Richard Woodard looks at how it came about, what it meant and how it’s developed since that first vintage of Sassicaia ’68


Tracing the origins of the Super Tuscans is about as straightforward as finding a precise definition for the term – but, as the first commercial vintage of Sassicaia, 1968 is a good place to start.

Released in 1971, it was a sensation that said as much about the mediocrity of the contemporary Tuscan wine scene as it did about its own excellence. Fifty years on, the moniker Super Tuscan is anachronistic, but its influence is still felt in Tuscany and beyond.

It’s a tale of winemakers thumbing their noses at the establishment and prioritising quality over antiquated and wrong-headed rules – but that’s not how the story began. Instead, the Tuscan wine revolution starts with a Piedmontese aristocrat and racehorse breeder, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, and his 1930s acquisition of the Tenuta San Guido estate. Located near the Tuscan coast, close to the small settlement of Bolgheri, this was an area previously dismissed as a malaria-infested backwater.

A lover of French wines, the Marchese saw the stony ground, felt the sea breeze and had one thought: Graves. He planted Bordeaux grape varieties and, for the next 25 years, Sassicaia – the atypical Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend that resulted – was the Marchese’s house wine, reserved for family and friends. He liked it, and it seemed to age well.

By the end of the 1960s, the Marchese’s son Nicolò and his nephew – one Piero Antinori – had managed to persuade him to release the wine commercially. Its success led to the involvement of the great Giacomo Tachis and Sassicaia’s reputation began to grow, culminating in Robert Parker awarding the 1985 a 100-point score, admitting that he often mistook it for ’86 Mouton.

What started as a personal project pioneered the establishment of a new fine wine region – Bolgheri – and led many in Tuscany to re-evaluate how they made and bottled their wines.

Nowhere was this more keenly felt than in Chianti, where shortcomings in vineyard and winery had created a broken model that resulted in mostly pale, insipid wines with little longevity and, frankly, no great appeal either: whole cluster fermentation of Sangiovese, no malo, the liberal use of white Malvasia and Trebbiano to soften the wine’s acidic bite. In that context, Sassicaia was a revelation.

Others followed its lead, in Bolgheri as well as Chianti and elsewhere in Tuscany: Antinori with Tignanello and Guado al Tasso; Ornellaia, Solaia, Luce, Tua Rita.

These wines, launched between the late 1960s and the early 1990s, are what many think of as the classical Super Tuscans.

‘It’s a family of labels that were able to change the minds of winemakers to help them to make different wines,’ says Paola Banchi, brand manager at Tua Rita.

‘Those were the wines that created the category,’ agrees Ornellaia winemaker Axel Heinz. ‘Most of them have stayed there and remain the most sought-after wines. But those who thought that there could be some kind of “recipe” for the Super Tuscans have often failed to stay the course.’

The bandwagon became fully laden by the 1990s, when it seemed that every winery in the region had its own top wine that was hankering after hallowed Super-Tuscan status.

Wine of the times
But how do you define a Super Tuscan wine? A blend of international grape varieties, as with Sassicaia? But what of the 100% Sangiovese wines labelled as Vini da Tavola or Toscana IGT because of the rules of the time?

Today we’re quite far away from the original definition and why it was born,’ says Heinz. ‘I would say the original one corresponded to wines that were not made according to local tradition, and therefore could not claim any local appellation.’

What is a Super Tuscan anyway?

‘The problem is that there is no clear definition, as it was invented by journalists who were stunned by the unexpected quality of certain Tuscan wines coming out during the ’70s and ’80s that disobeyed the rules of the appellations. To me, the real Super Tuscans are the historical ones: Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia, Ornellaia, Masseto, Flaccianello, Guado al Tasso and a few others.’
Luca Soldo, UK brand ambassador, Antinori

‘People have tried to define them later on as a kind of stylistic category, which has never really worked in my view. They’re from very different areas. Are they non-Tuscan in terms of grape variety? That’s not true either – some were 100% Sangiovese, which was something that you could not do then.’
Axel Heinz, winemaker, Ornellaia

‘It’s an odd one – using non-indigenous grapes, so more French grapes, or at least the blend being a majority of French grapes. The laws have changed so much – at one point, if you were 100% Sangiovese, you weren’t Chianti DOC. But broadly it’s non-indigenous varieties.’
Ronan Sayburn MS, 67 Pall Mall

The Super Tuscan concept was born of a desire to throw away the rulebook, then – irony of ironies – its strength became diluted thanks to its lack of definition. As the numbers aspiring to be Super Tuscan grew, the status of the term was diminished.

‘The problem with this term is it is so damn generic,’ says Andres Ituarte, head sommelier at Coq d’Argent. ‘It is a catch-all for the wines that slipped through the cracks from the 1970s to 1990s.’

The Italian authorities responded, modernising the rules governing Chianti, granting Bolgheri its own appellation – in effect, legalising what was previously illegal, and attempting to usher these enfants terribles into respectability.

‘This has worked to a degree, but no one embraces the new appellations as they should, and “Super Tuscan” is still the catch-all term used to describe these wines,’ says Ituarte.

‘Now there’s a huge assortment of wines in varying styles from a multitude of grape varieties,’ he continues. ‘They call themselves “Super Tuscan”, but in reality most can only offer the Tuscan.

‘“Super Tuscan” should be a term reserved for only the best. This makes me think of Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello, Tua Rita, etc. They should be the first growths of Tuscany, made with a twist.’

The rule changes were essentially irrelevant to the Super Tuscan pioneers. Once established, they didn’t need a DOCG label to sell their wines. ‘Some Chianti Super Tuscans from the 1980s still don’t use the name, even though they could,’ points out Heinz.

Instead, these wines transcended the Super Tuscan category, which lacks the value it once had. ‘I think they have their own names now: Ornellaia, Tignanello, Solaia, Guado al Tasso, Sassicaia, Luce, Le Macioche,’ says Ronan Sayburn MS of 67 Pall Mall.

Xavier Rousset MS agrees: ‘Those early ones have their own brand within it. For me, it’s not a Super Tuscan if you haven’t heard of it.’

The super effect
Does Super Tuscan have an enduring resonance with customers? Ituarte says that people do tend to understand the term. ‘Here at Coq d’Argent we have a sub-category of Tuscany that is just for Super Tuscans. I’ve listed wines like Cepparello under this category as it ticks all the boxes for me as a Super Tuscan, while still retaining pure Sangiovese blend,’ he says.

‘Yes, they do ask for it,’ Rousset agrees. ‘We had a customer recently who was offered a magnum of Ornellaia 1995, but he said that he didn’t want a Super Tuscan. The guy was very knowledgeable.’

The original Super Tuscans remain a staple for many high-end restaurants.

‘It’s a must-have for any semi-serious list,’ says Ituarte, ‘especially now that you don’t need to have a triple-digit wine on your list to have a Super Tuscan – look at Brancaia, for example. Our top Super Tuscan is probably Ornellaia – we don’t sell a lot of the category, but we sell a bottle every few months.’

While the rules for Chianti and Chianti Classico have changed, wineries have responded to the Super Tuscan challenge by making strides in vineyard and winery, planting better clones of Sangiovese and dragging winemaking into the 21st century.

‘What has evolved is the overall quality of all Tuscan wines,’ says Luca Soldo, UK brand ambassador for Antinori. ‘Thanks to the revolution of 30 years ago, now the rules have changed and the confidence among all of the producers is much higher.’

‘Generally, Chianti Classico has upped its game with the Gran Selezione,’ adds Sayburn. ‘They’re more reasonably priced, and Chianti is actively trying to clean up its act.’

However, Rousset reckons that Super Tuscan pricing remains ‘fair’, adding: ‘Sassicaia and Ornellaia are not majorly expensive – £100 ex-VAT maybe, but look at Burgundy or Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet.’

There’s a feeling that the Super-Tuscan concept is now a tradition in its own right – after all, Sassicaia has even gained its own DOC.

Grapes and terroir
‘This was a revolution against Italian laws that were very stringent,’ says Daniele Valoti, on-trade account manager at Armit. ‘Now it’s more attached to terroir – there’s an increasing sense of place whereas before, wines were trying to copy an international style.’

Heinz microvinified 90 parcels when he took over as Ornellaia’s senior winemaker in 2005, in an effort to understand the intricacies of each plot.

‘Ornellaia is trying to be an adult now,’ he says. ‘There was an idea about making a great wine in this place without any criteria, apart from the fact that the neighbouring property, Sassicaia, was making interesting wines.

‘It takes time to create an identity. We had to learn what our wines are supposed to taste like and look like. Now we’re getting there with mature vineyards and a second wine,’ he concludes.

The movement in recent times has been back to indigenous grapes, but Bordeaux blends in Tuscany aren’t quite as international as they first appear anyway.

The legend is that Sassicaia’s original Cabernet Sauvignon vines were cuttings from Lafite; actually, they came from 50-year-old Cabernet vines planted near Pisa. By the time Sassicaia was released, its Cabernet had spent almost a century adapting to the Tuscan climate.

Somm dream #2
Your boss comes in, gives you a blank cheque and tells you to buy anything you like… as long as it’s a Super Tuscan. So where should you start?‘This makes me think of Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello, Tua Rita… I did buy four vintages of Luce dating back to the ’90s last year – I’ve yet to sell any though!’
Andres Ituarte, Coq d’Argent‘If you’re a fine-dining restaurant – obviously not if you’re a gastropub – the top wines to list would be Sassicaia, Tignanello, Guado al Tasso and Ornellaia.’
Xavier Rousset MS, restaurateur‘Sassicaia has got to be in there – no indigenous grapes, and it created the category. Plus Ornellaia, Masseto, Tignanello, Guado al Tasso, Solaia, Luce, Redigaffi – that’s a great wine. Then there’s Solengo from Argiano, Testamatta, Cepparello, Poliziano Le Stanze.’
Ronan Sayburn MS, 67 Pall Mall

Lasting legacy
Querciabella winemaker Manfred Ing describes Cabernet as ‘more domesticated’ in Tuscany now. The winery’s Camartina is based on 17-year-old Cabernet, after its 40-year-old vines were pulled out in 2011 when yields became minuscule.

‘The grape varieties have been present since the late-19th century, but they weren’t part of any local tradition,’ explains Heinz. ‘There was a time when we looked to Bordeaux as our only reference point. Now we have enough confidence to look beyond that and
have our own identity.’

In 50 years, Super Tuscan might be confined to history. The top wines – Sassicaia, Tignanello, et al – have left it behind and carved out their own identity, while those that followed have been largely unsuccessful in attaining the same status.

The influence of the original Super Tuscans still resonates, but more in a philosophical than any geographical sense. For instance, Agricola Punica in Sardinia is described by UK agent Armit as ‘following the Super Tuscan model’ – and the majority of us have something of an idea of what that means.

The new Tuscan wines of the 21st century, while they may acknowledge some historical debt to the Super Tuscan movement, are less likely to want – or need – to ride on its coat-tails. ‘I don’t think it’s relevant for new wines,’ says Soldo, indicating the loss of appeal for

The next generation
‘All the great producers are still striving for excellence and keep raising the bar.

‘At Antinori, for example, we now make Matarocchio at Guado al Tasso estate. It’s pure Cabernet Franc of outstanding quality and pleasure, but no one is calling it “Super Tuscan” as far as I know.’

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Richard Woodard

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