Italy’s New Superhero is Tuscan

The Chianti area of Tuscany is the top destination for countryside holidays

The Chianti area of Tuscany is the top destination for countryside Holidays

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.

Antinori's vineyards

Antinori Vineyards

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.

Badia a Passignano

Antinori’s Estate Badia a Passignano is an historic monastery and cellars

[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)




3 thoughts on “Italy’s New Superhero is Tuscan

  1. Have to disagree on a couple of things. The great Italian wines have always been competitive with the French; Barolo, Brunello, Barbaresco, the white wines of Friuli Venezia Giulia. As for the food, when did Italy NOT have great, world class cuisine? I don’t believe that because of the Super Tuscans, all of a sudden great food began to be created in Italy. There are far to many amazing dishes all over the country to even think of listing them here. As for Chianti, it wasn’t all inferior and being sold in a straw covered fiasco didn’t mean it was. The bad wines were produced and sold by people who only cared about making a buck, not about the product. Two names of consistant quality over the years in Chianti come to mind: Ricasoli and Nozzole. I wonder about the whole Super Tuscan and, “International” wine thing. Why is it Italian vintners felt compelled to use French grapes in making their wines while the French have not begun using Italian grapes? And by saying a wine is, “International,” are they not really saying it is made to be more appealing to the American Market and specifically, those who take Robert Parker’s word as Gospel?

    • Dear Frank,

      Thank you for your comment; it is so nice to have such an informed participation in the discussion. You make some fantastic points, and I would first and foremost like to reiterate that we are the biggest supporters of the indigenous Italian grapes. The blog was not intended to downplay their superb quality, but instead meant to say that by borrowing some of the French hygienic techniques and experimenting with grapes (whether they be French or otherwise) brought the rest of the world into the conversation, which therefore put Italy more so on the map. I personally have to admit that I do not often agree with Robert Parker’s ratings on many of my favorite Italian wines, and it actually took me a few years to warm up to the idea of supporting Super Tuscans. However, once I did more research, I realized their unique role in turning the world’s head towards Italy. It opened the door, so to speak, for the discussion of high quality Italian wines from Tuscany, and I can very much appreciate and applaud Piero Antinori’s role in this process the difficulty he had to go through to reach it as a pioneer. Chianti was not particularly known for its quality – many (not all, thank you for pointing this out) of the fiascos that were exported and sold cheaply were the lower quality table wines.

      I do not believe that there was ever poor quality Italian food in the US or in Italy, so we are 100% in agreement about this – Italy’s rich and diverse cuisine is what I love the most about its food!


  2. Hi Martina,

    In total agreement regarding the Super Tuscans bringing greater respect to Italian wines and opening new markets, both positive things. And certainly Antinori’s efforts and contributions cannot be overstated. I’m not against change, invention or creativity, that would be totally opposite of so many things Italian. I am however, somewhat of a traditionalist. It wasn’t the newer style of Barolo that made it my favorite wine. No matter how creative the chef, there’s nothing he or she can do to improve a well made cacio e pepe and all Ferraris should be Italian Racing Red. Buona Pasqua!

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