It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a…bottle of wine! And are you really surprised? Can’t say that it’s too farfetched that one of the greatest contemporary Italian superheroes is none other than a good bit of vino. It is also similarly par for the course that said ”Super-wine” hails from the same soil as creative greats such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (that spectacular Tuscan soil consistently makes more than just spectacular wine). All hail to the Super Tuscan: the wine that saved a region in its time of peril.
The tale begins millennia ago when the Etruscans deemed Tuscany’s land appropriate for the cultivation of grapes, but to spare our dear readers from a lengthy history lesson, we’ll skip to the juicy part (no pun intended). Fast-forward to the early/mid-1900s, and Tuscan powerhouse zone of Chianti is stuck in a wine growing and making system called mezzadria, similar to sharecropping, in which group growers gave half of their crop the landowner in exchange for living on their land.
As the mere result of being part of a system in which you don’t get to keep your own grapes might suggest, many Italian wine exports were commercial, mass-produced, and had little to no stamp of territorial or maker identity. The small amounts of high-quality artisan wine were made mostly for local and familial purposes, and here in America, cheap bottles of Chiantistrewn on checkered table clothes in wicker fiasco baskets were the norm, scoffed at by sommeliers and fine diners alike.
You Say You Wanna a Revolution…
The Tuscan winemakers committed to their land’s excellence were unsatisfied with the image of the wines were getting, and began experimenting with the grapes. Experimentation was not taken lightly in the area. Italian DOC regulations strictly required only indigenous grapes (mostly red with a small percentage of white mixed in) and aging in the traditional Slovenian oak barrels, but the Tuscan pioneers were implementing non-traditional methods, such as blending international varietals (which found a comfortable home in that magic soil) and using French oak barrels. Most of this innovation was done in home cellars for familial vini da tavola; many believed that this mere table wine could never compete against the DOC Chianti.
But “many” were wrong. In 1968, the well-known winemaker and creative pioneer Piero Antinori convinced his uncle, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta and owner of the renowned racehorse Ribot, to place the family’s vino da tavola on the market. The blend, made partly of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes growing at the Tenuta San Guido estate since 1944, was Sassicaia.
Well, You Know…
Interest piqued, and the Antinori family struck, particularly Piero, who was also known for his hunger for knowledge, self-betterment, and innovation. Piero Antinori was fiercely committed to his home territory of Chianti’s particular soil and beloved Sangiovese grape, and for years he had produced his wine Chianti Classico Riserva Vigneto Tignanello DOC under the regulations of Italian wine-making law. However, Antinori knew that although DOC laws proved useful in the maintenance of the traditional wine-making methods, they left little room for growth and improvement in a market that desperately desired them.
We all Want to Change the World
Antinori had been experimenting with using French barriques and small percentages of international grapes in his Chianti Classico Tignanello DOC for years. He had deemed the use of French oak a positive addition to the winemaking process, providing the balance that the wine sometimes lacked. Piero Antinori eliminated the percentages of white grapes, and instead added structure and aromatics to his Sangiovese blend by using Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in the blend. The result? Tignanello: an age-worthy powerhouse based on the indigenous grape of Tuscany with an astute expression of terroir, but a wine whose quality couldn’t get past the ironclad rules of the DOC commission. Piero made the tough choice to place his wines in the “low” rank of vino da tavola, right next to Sassicaia’s Bourdeaux blend, prepared to take the hit for refusing to compromise his beliefs.
Don’t you know its gonna be…
The risk paid off. The simple vini da tavola made their way around the world and it was at one tasting of Antinori’s wines that an American wine enthusiast exclaimed, “These aren’t Tuscan wines. They are Super Tuscans!” And the name stuck.
Since the initial birth and rocky road of the Super Tuscan, the wines have established themselves quite well in the international and Italian wine world. Bolgheri DOC was created in 1992 and allows the use of international grapes (allowing Sassicaia to return to the DOC throne). Chianti Classico DOC has since eliminated white grapes as a requirement in the blend and in 1994, the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) category in the DOC rankings was created specifically for the Super Tuscans, indicating that the grapes were grown in and indicative of the territory with which they are labeled. Tignanello is still an IGT to this day.
[and it is] Alright!
The Super Tuscan is so much more to Chianti and to Italian wines than just a high quality, innovative wine. It was the courage of the first Super Tuscan creators to question the age-old laws and insist upon improvement of technique which truly elevates the wines to greatness. This courage and the quality wines which resulted from it allowed for other winemakers across Italy to question their production processes, to give themselves permission to strive for improvement and personal touch on their wines. Outside of Italy, the Super Tuscan caught the eyes of the world. Italian wine, once known for mediocrity, was now presenting something rivaling the French. And with good wine came good food, fine food, not just that which was served family-style in the Italian American trattorie*. With the Super Tuscan, Italian food and wine became a competitor to that of reigning France.
The Super Tuscan is one of Italy’s contemporary heroes. It represents the ability of a country so rooted in tradition to continue to improve and grow for its embetterment. It is a statement of the stubborn Italian will to succeed and the fierce commitment to one’s own land. It is a super expression of what we love about Italy and its artisans.
*For the record, the author LOVES Italian American trattorie (or trattoria’s, as her family would call them)