Has the term “Super Tuscan” become as fatuous as “vintage of the century” and “100 Point Rating”? Has too much of a good thing cheapened the category?
It was never officially recognized by Italian wine laws and used with abandon by just about any Tuscan winemaker who blended cabernet sauvignon with sangiovese.
Mention “Super Tuscan” (S.T.) to pioneer Tuscan producers such as Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia and Ornellaia and you’ll get either a shrug or, more likely, a response that “that kind of hype is over.”
The Italian government hasn’t made things any simpler, at first prohibiting the iconoclastic new wines from carrying anything but a designation of “vino da tavola” (table wine), then, in 1994, coming up with “IGT” (typical of the geography).
Today, regulations allow some Tuscan blends to be called Chianti: few producers embrace a name once connected to Italian wines in straw baskets. The Super Tuscan name is also fading because all the best vineyards in Tuscany are already taken.
“Anyone in Tuscany can call their wine a Super Tuscan, and some of the new owners have no idea what grapes they have,” says Axel Heinz, winemaker for Ornellaia, made in Bolgheri since 1981 from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot. “We do not promote the name Super Tuscan any more, even though Bolgheri now has its own appellation.”
A sought-out classic wine like Ornellaia can cost $200 or more per bottle; in May, at record-breaking Sotheby’s (BID) London charity auction, Ornellaia raised 238,500 pounds ($364,000), with some custom-designed bottles selling for 80,000 pounds each.
Many of the now dozens of self-described Super Tuscans are excellent wines on their own and cost far less than the older names. Castello Banfi’s Tuscan blends are highly regarded but sell for more modest prices: ExcelsuS ($65), SummuS ($45), and Cum Laude ($35).
Says Banfi proprietor Cristina Mariani-May (no relation to this writer), “When the wine world was just starting to discover Tuscany in the 1980s, it was important for vintners to show what they could do with international varietals like cabernet and merlot. Once we caught the wine world’s attention, we were able to show what we could do with our indigenous varietals, including sangiovese. Today the emphasis is much more on Tuscan than on Super. Our goal is to make wines that express a sense of place, a unique identity tied inherently to our special land.”
I thought it a good idea, then, to sample recent vintages of five of the very first wines to acquire the Super Tuscan name. Here’s what I found.
Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2010 ($105) -- Marchesi Mario Incisa della Rocchetta had been making this cabernet sauvignon for his family since 1948. He brought the 1968 vintage to market in 1971.
Today it is considered as fine a cabernet as the best in Bordeaux. It can be a tannic wine in its youth, so I’d give the current 2010 vintage, which shows good, silky fruit, another five years for it to blossom.
Tignanello 2009 ($60-$70) -- Easily the best known label among the modern Tuscans, this widely available blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon, from the Marchesi Piero Antinori, first appeared in 1978, from a 1971 vintage.
It is one of those wines that just about everyone loves -- richness, elegance, fruit, and a refined Italian character that distinguishes it from more austere French Bordeaux.
Ornellaia 2010 (prices vary, suggested retail $220, $160 from Internet stores) -- Piero Antinori’s brother Ludovico made the first vintage of Ornellaia in 1985, and today the estate is owned by another aristocrat, Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi.
Since 2005 Axel Heinz has given Ornellaia a softer edge, with a riper fruit component. The tannic power of 53 percent cabernet sauvignon is softened by a generous 39 percent merlot, as well as 4 percent cabernet franc and 4 percent petit verdot.
Solaia 2009 ($255) -- This has always been one of my favorite wines in the world, a seamless composition of perfectly balanced elements, voluptuous in its bouquet and its long finish, with several spice and mineral flavors. Few wines are so well knitted to impress. The vineyard adjoins Tignanello.
Originally Solaia was only cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. It now contains about 20 percent sangiovese, which boosts its fruitiness.
Montevertine Le Pergole Torte 2009 ($105) -- Finding Tuscan wine laws too restrictive in the 1960s, Sergio Manetti withdrew from the Chianti Consorzio and in 1971 bottled a 100 percent sangiovese from a vineyard he called Le Pergole Torte.
The wines tend to be supple even when young, and this is a delicious example of what caused all the fuss in Tuscany four decades ago, when “super” was a novel descriptive.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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