What is a Super Tuscan?

What is a Super Tuscan?

Names such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Tignanello continue to resound through the wine world like a thunderous echo of pleasure. What do these vinophile giants have in common? They are all Super Tuscans. In other words, wines that come from Tuscany and are committed to an international wine style. And they simply don't fit into any of the Tuscany rules. Which is why for a long time they had to be marketed as simple country wines, i.e. Vino da Tavola. Until they were given their own quality category, IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), in 1992, which boosted sales once again.

Since the 1970s, there have been many myths surrounding the so-called Super Tuscans, which are often referred to as Supertuscans in Italy and internationally. There is talk of rebels and innovators. Or of ingenious marketers and pioneers. However, the Super Tuscans did not even have a name until the 1980s, although they had already been causing a furore for a decade. It's high time we took a closer look at the phenomenon of the Super Tuscans. And it started in two different places in Tuscany in two different years. And yet everything is connected.

Tignanello - the first Super Tuscan?

Tignanello - the first Super Tuscan?

Tignanello, which Marchese Piero Antinori and his star oenologist Giacomo Tachis brought onto the market for the first time in 1974 with Vintage 1971, is still regarded as the first Super Tuscan. But that's actually not quite true. Yes, Tignanello was the first red wine from Tuscany to violate the Chianti statutes with great media impact at the time and proudly labelled itself as a simple table wine - knowing full well that the quality in the bottle was anything but simple. At that time, a Chianti had to consist of at least 70 per cent Sangiovese. However, Antinori and Tachis lowered this percentage and also added Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In other words, two grape varieties that are not authorised for a Chianti. And then they also matured the wine in barriques.

You couldn't have broken more rules with a wine. And this came from a member of Italy's most prestigious wine family, of all people. As a ‘young savage’, Antinori was putting quite a lot on the line. But he had backed the right horse. Critics and wine lovers all over the world celebrated this simple table wine like a genuine superstar. Such depth! This complexity! This complexity! Everyone suddenly wanted to have Tignanello in their glass. Due to this extremely rapid rise to fame, Tignanello is still regarded as the first super Tuscan to this day. The story of these extraordinary wines began back in 1944 with a relative of Marchese Piero Antinori.

Super Tuscans - how it all really began

In 1944, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta had a problem in the Maremma, the coastal region of Tuscany. Due to the Second World War, the Bordeaux wines he loved so much were no longer available to buy throughout Italy. And the stock in his own wine cellar was dwindling and dwindling. So the Marchese decided without further ado to make his own Bordeaux. Only here, on the coast of Tuscany, where, in his opinion, the terroir was very similar to that of Graves in Bordeaux. Incidentally, the plan was not as daring as it appeared at first glance. Mario Incisa della Rocchetta was related to another noble family who knew a lot about winemaking. The Marchesi Antinori.

He therefore received sufficient support when he planted the first vineyards with the two grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc on the chain of hills between Bibbona and Castagneto in the area now known as Bolgheri. This was in the vineyard called Sassicaia - named after the many small stones (Italian: sassi) that lay on the soils characterised by clay and limestone. In the 1940s and 1950s, however, Sassicaia was not yet the glorious Super Tuscan star that it is today. This was because Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta made it exclusively for his own enjoyment.

The first Sassicaia comes onto the market

The first Sassicaia comes onto the market

But wait a minute! Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc? Aren't these also the two grape varieties that make Piero Antinori's Tignanello so unique? That's right. Because Antinori also tasted Sassicaia at his uncle's house at some point - and was delighted. Sassicaia thus inspired Tignanello, so to speak. The only difference was that the Antinori wine also contained Sangiovese - the great grape of Tuscany. In 1968, Piero and his cousin Nicolò convinced their uncle that Sassicaia absolutely had to be made available to other people. The 1968 vintage was first launched on the market in 1971. This was precisely the year in which his nephew Piero Antinori, together with his oenologist Giacomo Tachis, brought the first harvest for the Tignanello to the cellar.

And yes, the Sassicaia also caused a sensation. But not as much as the Tignanello. Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta was better known far beyond Italy's borders for horse racing than for wine. For example, he owned the legendary stallion Ribot, who won countless horse races. Accordingly, the wine was not quite so much in the focus of critics. They recognised the quality and also the big difference to Sangiovese wines such as Chianti, Vino Nobile or Brunello, but could not yet really classify the wine.

Unbeatable duo: Sassicaia and Tignanello

However, this all changed in 1974, when the 1971 Tignanello was launched on the market for the first time. Wine experts immediately recognised the parallels between the two wines. Tuscan wines that are not Tuscan wines because they are committed to the French style from the Bordelais and thus brought international flair to the rather battered wine region. Brunello and Vino Nobile also had a certain standing in the 1960s and 1970s, but Chianti wines were simply no longer taken seriously at that time. The quality was far too poor for that.

Sassicaia and Tignanello gradually led to a complete rethink in the region. And in several directions. Due to the great commercial success, international grape varieties were now cultivated, particularly on the coast of Tuscany. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were followed by Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot. They also wanted to produce this international style, which was so well received by wine connoisseurs. In return, they were happy to accept that the wines did not have a high quality status, but had to be bottled as simple country wines.

And what about the Vigorello?

At the same time, however, there was another movement in Tuscany. At the same time as Sassicaia, Vigorello 1968 was launched on the market in 1971. This was also only allowed to be called a country wine. But for different reasons. Enzo Morganti, manager of the Tenuta San Felice, used 100 percent Sangiovese for the Vigorello. However, according to the Chianti statutes, this was also forbidden at the time! While some used no Sangiovese at all (Sassicaia) or too little (Tignanello), the Vigorello used too much. Crazy wine world!

Vigorello also attracted a lot of attention, but its meaning was interpreted completely differently. While the country wines with little or no Sangiovese suddenly opened the flavour door to the big, wide world for Tuscan winegrowers, Vigorello taught the world that Sangiovese was the region's special grape treasure. Like no other in his time, he made the origin tangible. This also had an impact on the region. Suddenly, many winegrowers made a real effort again with their Chianti in order to achieve better qualities in the bottle.

100 percent Sangiovese for Chianti - thanks to Super Tuscan

Little by little, the Chianti reputation grew again. This is probably also the reason why Vigorello was officially reincorporated into the Chianti region. With 100 percent Sangiovese, it was not allowed to call itself that. In 2006, however, the production rules were changed. A single-varietal Sangiovese could now also be called Chianti or Chianti Classico again. And these two wines not only have a protected geographical indication, as is the case with Super Tuscans, but also a protected and guaranteed designation of origin - which can be recognised at first glance by the banderole on the neck of the bottle with the three letters DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita).

However, Leonardo Bellacini, Enzo Morganti's successor at Tenuta San Felice, did not want to lose the Super Tuscan status - even if it was not nearly as successful as Rocchetta or Antinori. After the change in the law, he therefore banned Sangiovese from the Vigorello and from then on favoured a common Bordeaux blend, which he combined with the urtuscan grape variety Pugnitello. An interesting move, but it did not make Vigorello one of the giants of Super Tuscany.

To this day, Enzo Morganti's contribution to the Sangiovese grape variety is highly appreciated. However, the extent to which the oenologist is partly responsible for the success of the Supertuscans is still the subject of much debate. Or whether the laurels should go solely to Rocchetta and Antinori.

Bolgheri becomes a Supertuscan hotspot

After Sassicaia and Tignanello celebrated such great triumphs in the 1970s, the history of the Super Tuscans always reads as if many winegrowers jumped on the bandwagon of success. Which is true. But not immediately. The transition from a wine with a protected designation of origin to a simple country wine was a little too daring for many winegrowers. And anyway, nobody could guarantee them commercial success! Quite apart from the fact that there was no certainty that the international grapes in the Maremma, i.e. around Bolgheri to be precise, would really reach such a high level, as Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta never tired of emphasising.

Only the marchese's nephew, Lodovico Antinori (yes, another Antinori!), dared to plant Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in some of the vineyards of his Tenuta dell'Ornellaia in 1981. You may have guessed it: Ornellaia also went through the roof - both in terms of quality and price - and is still one of the great first-class Super Tuscans today. When the 1985 Sassicaia also received the legendary 100 Parker points for the first time, there was no stopping other great Italian winemakers. The hills were converted into vineyards using large excavators. Prices per hectare in Bolgheri literally exploded after Angelo Gaja, the oenological star from Piedmont, for example, set up his Ca'Marcanda winery here. As did the Folonari family, who built an offshoot of their Ruffino winery, which had already made a name for itself with its wines in Chianti, Chianti Classico and Montepulciano.

Why is Bolgheri ideal for international grape varieties?

What sounds like top-class hype was actually hype. But it had many different faces. Even though the gravel soil with its many small stones, which had already made Sassicaia famous, was extremely popular, it was soon discovered that there were other advantages for the Super Tuscans in Bolgheri. The further south-west you go, the sandier the soil becomes. And this makes them ideal for the Merlot grape variety. In the north, south and east around the town of Bolgheri, however, the soils were found to contain not only gravel but also limestone and marl. These are also ideal for international red grape varieties, which were joined by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc as well as Petit Verdot and Syrah.

The red wines from Bolgheri quickly became the talk of the town. The epicentre of the Super Tuscans grew up here. The small region, with less than 100 hectares of vineyards in the 1990s, was loved for precisely this reason. It came as it had to come. In 1994, Bolgheri was awarded DOC status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). This upgrading of the area brought the next growth spurt. In 2000, 200 hectares were already under vines. However, this is no comparison to today. Now there are no less than 1,200 hectares! Such growth is truly unique in the world for a small wine region that did not even exist in the 1940s. This would not have been possible without the Super Tuscans! Here, too, Sassicaia stands out once again. Because when Bolgheri received its protected designation of origin, Sassicaia was the only wine in Italy to receive its own DOC! Which makes it a Super Super Tuscan, so to speak.

What characterises a Super Tuscan?

Bolgheri may be the epicentre of the Super Tuscans. In fact, however, these wines can be produced anywhere in Tuscany. To this day, there is no separate set of rules for Super Tuscans. However, certain characteristics that are typical of such wines have been agreed upon. This starts with the international grape varieties and ends with consistent barrique ageing.

In addition to Sassicaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia, there are still many other well-known Super Tuscans that enjoy genuine cult status. These include Solaia, Messorio, Le Pergole Torte, Masseto, Paleo, Duemani, Siepi and, of course, Gusto di Notri. What they all have in common is their international style, their complexity and their impressive longevity. What's more, these Super Tuscans are regularly celebrated by wine critics and awarded a veritable shower of points. This is precisely what has earned them their cult status. Super Tuscans are among the great stars of the wine world.

How did Super Tuscans got their name?

How did Super Tuscans got their name?

But this brings us seamlessly to a final question. Namely, where the name Super Tuscan comes from in the first place. But it's actually impossible to put a definitive name to it. What is certain is that the term originated in the United States. The word ‘Super Tuscan’ is often attributed to the critic guru Robert Parker. He used the term very often during his time as an active critic - and thus played a decisive role in coining it.

However, it could just as well be that Parker adopted the term from one of his writing colleagues. In any case, he still does not claim to be the creator of this word creation, which he first used in the mid-1980s. Incidentally, the name Super Tuscan for these exceptional Tuscan wines finally became established at the end of the 1980s, when Parker gave the 1985 Sassicaia his legendary 100 points. Since then, many, many more top ratings have followed. Not only for Sassicaia, but also for numerous other Super Tuscans. Which still makes them living legends.

Talking Wine Romana Echensperger MW

Talking Wine Romana Echensperger MW

Visit blog
Added to favorites.