On Super Tuscan Wines, and the only Super Tuscan DOC (so far…)

Over the past year or so, and continuing onward, we’ve been on a run of exceptional Super Tuscan expressions we’ve acquired from Italy (Lots 717, 803, 804 – more to come!).

While generally misrepresented as Bordeaux-style wines, due to the inclusion of Bordelaise grapes used in the blends and the astronomical price tag some bottles carry (triple digits are sometime just the beginning, depending on the producer), the perception of a Super Tuscan leaves many consumers expecting every bottle to basically be a big French or Napa Cab clone – which is far, far from the case in actuality.

Much like the 1976 Judgement of Paris upset with CA wines blindly taking high placement, history states that a bottle of Italian (Tuscan, more specifically) Sassicaia red was quietly slipped into a wine competition in 1978, and out did many of its French Bordeaux peers at the time, causing quite the stir and upset upon reveal.

So what exactly is a Super Tuscan then?

A “Super Tuscan” is the nomenclature used around experimental wines from the Tuscan region that historically offered wines mainly based around or 100% from Sangiovese grapes.  As it goes, winemakers unhappy with strict Tuscan DOC regulations in combination with the lighter profile of Sangiovese and reliance on barrel programs to add structure and body to the wines or blends based on this grape, instead looked to dosing their wine or red blends with fuller structured French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, etc. (the Bordelaise reds) and even Syrah, and in some cases, skipping the Sangiovese altogether.  While this immediately removed them from being bottled, certified, and sold as any form of Tuscan DOC or DOCG wine (Chianti, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, etc.) – effectively killing any market presence or distribution outside of the winery and local area itself – it served to remove restrictions that held back the creativity of the winemakers.  Essentially, they decided to just have tons of fun making epic table wine. So epic, it forced the hands of the Italian governing body that oversees wine to do away with the previous table wine classification (VdT) across Italy, and formed the current IGT labeling and standard, something that is synonymous with “Super Tuscan” wines.

Here is a very basic breakdown of how that looks relative to price and price perception…

Before the Super Tuscan boom:

  • Vdt = $
  • DOC = $-$$
  • DOCG = $$-$$$

Now:

  • DOC = $-$$
  • IGT (specifically Super Tuscan wines) = $$-$$$
  • DOCG = $$-$$$

It’s not hard to draw a line between the fact that historically low priced “table wine” is now one of Italy’s shining stars, and therefore the winemakers and producers would not be happy just remaining indefinitely categorized as IGT, or, “fancy table wine” if you will.

At some point, the IGT Super Tuscan folks getting top dollar for their goods and rightful global acclaim (and still hoping for yet more) would want to classify outside of the table wine category, no matter how IGT was or could be further be rebranded.  Essentially, they’re going to get antsy and frustrated and want DOC or DOCG status associated with their wines and vineyards.  This is the modern arena that we’re now playing in.

The aforementioned Sassicaia was pivotal (amongst other regional producers) in pushing for this trajectory within a region by the name of Maremma.  No one would fault you from the wine world if you’re unaware of the namesake as it only achieved DOC status in 2011 – which in the wine world is basically yesterday.  It’ll be another ~20 years in the wine world before you have the first rumblings of consumers inquiring for Maremma DOC wines, at least.  Sassicaia took it all one step further and established their own independent DOC in 2013, the Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC.

Long and short, unbeknownst to the vast majority of wine drinkers, there is a DOC Super Tuscan, an exceptional showcase of quality that technically surpass IGT expressions, and plays by its own set of rules.

It’s worth noting, Super Tuscan wines haven’t stopped evolving  – nor have regional producers stopped attempts to expand these programs.  Currently you can find IGT expressions from a few top-name producers in Chianti Classico DOCG (Castello di Ama comes to mind), and while they aren’t labeled DOCG due to no DOCG Super Tuscan existing currently, it goes without saying, these are premier examples from the top growing region of the area.  For DOC Super Tuscan, currently one needs to look solely to Maremma DOC, or even more specifically (and a touch pricier) Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC.

And while we’re on the subject of Super Tuscan wines and their evolution, we’ve mentioned before, even in this article, that the consumer perception of Super Tuscan wines is one of Bordeaux knockoffs or wannabes.  That is not the case anymore.  At one point in time, around the 1970s, yes, that was what was being produced.  100% Bordelaise varieties, or heavily influenced blends from Bordeaux grape varieties.  Over time however, that has shifted back towards showcasing Sangiovese with touches of Bordelaise varieties to accent or accentuate the finished wines (but as we always say, there are exceptions to the rule in the wine world). Winemaker Bibi Graetz best sums this up when discussing the current state of Super Tuscan wines saying, “Winemaking has changed, with less muscle, more elegance, less concentration and more smoothness.”  Even Graetz is proud of the lack of restrictions, allowing him to bottle and label an IGT Super Tuscan wine made entirely from local Tuscan grapes, no sign of Bordelaise varieties.

So, as you move forward with us on our Super Tuscan journey, keep in mind each wine is different.  You’re at no loss to ask what grapes make up each unique blend.  That said, simply stating it’s a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, or Sangiovese, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t really tell you much for the profile as that grouping can sway in a thousand or more directions based on numerous factors.  It’s best to approach each bottle with a blank slate (and a full plate of dinner) and allow each winemaker to show you their own expression of Super Tuscan, as each is really one-of-a-kind, in some vintages, never to be replicated exactly again.

One final note: If you ever see some in the wild, take the chance, and grab some Maremma DOC red.  It’d be fun to show your friends your new score, and now you can tell them the brief overview of Super Tuscan wines and share with them the only (current) Super Tuscan DOC in Italy.

Cheers!

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