“Super Tuscan” is the unofficial name given to a category of wines from the Italian region of Tuscany that don’t comply to the strict winemaking rules imposed by law.
Many Super Tuscans adhere today to the newly create IGT denomination, which is less stringent and more inclined to welcome the spirit of innovation and experimenting that brought these wines to life and prominence.
Despite the fact that blending Sangiovese with international grapes was far from uncommon in previous years, the history of Super Tuscans starts in 1872. Baron Bettino Ricasoli set the first rules on how Chianti Classico should be made, mandating that wines must contain at least 80% Sangiovese grapes.
The rule was first circumnavigated by Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta. In 1940, he and his wife moved into a horse farm in Bolgheri, southern Tuscany, and started producing wine for personal consumption. He imported Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the famous Chateaux Lafite in Bordeaux, observing that the soil in Bolgheri was quite similar to the Graves area.
In his Tenuta San Guido estate, the wine was aged in French oak barriques, instead of the large Slovenian casks then common in Chianti. The wines were called Sassicaia and initially gained little appreciation, despite their quality.
It was his relative, Marquis Piero Antinori that convinced Incisa della Rocchetta to release 250 cases to his distribution company, in 1968, and Sassicaia soon became a hit.
In 1978, Piero Antinori produced his Tignanello, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, which, like Sassicaia before, was unable to get DOC status, eventually becoming declassified to “table wine”.
The reputation of these peculiar wines, however, kept growing, especially in affluent markets, such as the US. It is believed the name “Super Tuscan” was given in the 1980s by Robert Parker, to highlight and praise their superior quality.
It was in 1992 that many Super Tuscan producers began to adhere to the new IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica, “Typical Geographical Indication”) rules, which were less stringent than DOC and DOCG and more suitable for the experimental approach of these wines. The IGT indication can be found on the label of Super Tuscans, along with the vineyard name, the region (Toscana), the family name of the producers and, not uncommon, the specific name of the wine.
Today, Super Tuscans are among the highest examples of Italian winemaking, to the point that it is now claiming its own denomination, DOC Bolgheri Sassicaia, leading the path for others to follow.
There is no specific climate for Super Tuscans, as the IGT rules are related to winemaking and viticulture rather than a specific geography. Super Tuscans enjoy the Mediterranean climate of the region, with little seasonal change throughout the year and mild winters.
Most precipitation occurs in winter, often making it necessary to supplement irrigation to reduce the risk of drought.
IGT wines in Tuscany in 2017 were estimated to hit a production of 463,000 hectolitres, 83% of which were reds. The vintage was negatively affected by climate change, with an overall loss of 38% compared to the previous year.
The IGT denomination itself represents today about 25% of the total production of wine in Tuscany.
However, it is important to highlight that not all IGT wines are Super Tuscans and not all the Super Tuscans are necessarily under an IGT denomination.
Super Tuscans were born of a need for flexibility, allowing producers to experiment with the blending of grapes. The most common grape in the appellation is Sangiovese, the base for vast majority of the wines, alongside additional international grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
Because of the origin of some of the grapes, some are commonly described as “Bordeaux blends” to highlight similarities in style with the French region.
Some Super Tuscan are made from only Sangiovese, but they share full-bodied, longevity and strong structure features with many blended wines of the same category.
Unlike other appellations, IGT was created to allow for the deviation from the stricter DOC and DOCG denominations.
The most important feature of IGT is, therefore, the freedom it provides its growers and winemakers to continuously experiment. Among the most significant, it’s important to acknowledge the introduction of international grapes in adding some excitement and style, as well as the usage of French oak barrels for ageing.
Super Tuscans are often labelled as bringing an international style. This usually means the fruit aromas are quite prominent and the oak used for ageing the wine can often be perceived on the palate.
Still, Super Tuscans are very Italian in their soul and they are very suitable for pairing with food because of their strong acidity. A common trait is also the fact that they are built to age as the thick tannins make them unapproachable upon release.
The most prominent estate when referring to Super Tuscans has to be Tenuta San Guido. Not only are they the producers of the famous Sassicaia, but they also offer the more approachable “second wine” called Guidalberto, which is often described as outstanding.
Antinori is a family related to Tenuta San Guido. Aside of having had a pivotal role in pushing Sassicaia in the market, the estate is today renown for the production of another fine wine within the Super Tuscans’ category: Tignanello.