There are many examples in the history of wine when the impulses of winemakers have revolutionized the industry. We think of the pioneers who grew vines on California mountainsides where no one feared to tread or through the enormous rocks of the Rhone Valley. We think of pioneers like Abe Schoener of California’s Scholium Project who is creating very expressive wines by abandoning or adjusting conventional wisdom. We think of the young French winemakers, such as Michel Chapoutier, who rejected his ancestor’s winemaking techniques to forge new and successful directions.
And, in today’s column, we think of the winemakers in Italy’s often maligned Chianti region who created the now famous “super Tuscan” wines by defying 19th century regulations.
You probably have heard of “super Tuscans,” the blended wine that was surprisingly created in the 1970s but not exploited until decades later. Their history is rooted in the frustration of legendary Chianti winemakers, including Piero Antinori and Marchese Nicolo Incisa della Rocchetta.
Both well-respected wine producers were frustrated by their region’s regulations that required them to use only indigenous grape varieties. Chianti, for instance, had to contain a fair amount of sangiovese, other lower quality red varieties and even 10 percent white grapes. It was all about pride for the locally grown grapes that were part of Chianti’s history.
But the government’s insistence on this indigenous blend sullied Chianti’s reputation for years because the wines were often acidic and uninspiring. Antinori and Marchese Rocchetta knew they could make better wine if they could add other grape varieties to the blend, particularly cabernet sauvignon and merlot, to moderate the high acidity common to sangiovese. They began to grow the grapes in small lots and experimented with blends made for just themselves. They witnessed the improvements.
When government regulators refused to amend its DOC certification, Rocchetta broke ranks. He made a wine called Sassicaia with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc and released it for sale in the late 1960s without the prized DOC title or even “Chianti” on the label. In fact, the declassified wine had to be called table wine – a derogatory title usually reserved for cheap plonk.
Sassicaia was hardly cheap or inferior. It soared in popularity and encouraged Antinori to do the same with his now famous Tignanello blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Both wines cost more than $200 today.
These were the first wines of what we now call Super Tuscans.
After other winemakers joined the crusade, government regulators finally relented. In 1992 they created a new designation, IGT, to elevate Super Tuscans from its table wine position. However, wine producers continued to use unique names to identify their wines.
Their success encouraged winemakers in other regions of Italy to defy restrictive regulations. Most notably, Angelo Gaja declassified his barollos and added cabernet sauvignon to the local nebbiolo grapes in the Piedmonte region.
Unfortunately, Super Tuscans have no definition today. They can be a blend of almost any grape variety, including syrah, and the quality is all over the board. A $15 Super Tuscan is not hard to find, but it hardly compares to the like of Sassicaia.
Nonetheless, we found a half dozen extraordinary Super Tuscans for less than $30 that over deliver:
San Felice Bell’Aja 2016 ($25). A blend of 60 percent merlot and 40 percent cabernet, this fruit-forward wine from the Bolgheri region of coastal Tuscany has a medium body with smooth and bright cherry and plum flavors. Tannins are fine and persistent.
Le Volte dell Ornellaia 2016 ($25). A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and sangiovese combine to create a juicy blackberry and blueberry profile with a good dose of licorice. We have enjoyed this wine over several vintages and it never fails to please.
Argiano Non Confunditur 2016 ($16). The name is Latin for unique, unmistakeable. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah work with the local sangiovese to offer a layered and textured profile. We loved its generous floral aromas, full body and notes of black currants and red berries.
San Felo Aulus Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($25). Our favorite of this flight, this single-vineyard wine doesn’t need any other grape varieties to soar. Complex aromas of cherries and raspberries, it opens to a dense and layered profile of ripe black plums and cherries with hints of mineral and chocolate.
Marchese Antinori Tenuta Guado al Tasso Il Bruciato Bolgheri 2016 ($25). A second label to Antinori’s legendary Tignanello, this exquisite wine has ripe red berry and spicy aromas, and persistent cherry and blackberry flavors with a hint of licorice and chocolate. Soft texture and long finish. It is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah. From Bolgheri, the wine has been produced by Antinori since 1990, which makes it a pioneer in the super tuscan movement.
Tenuta Luce della Vite Lucente 2016 ($29). A second label of this property, the Lucente is a blend of merlot and sangiovese. It has impressed us year after year. Ripe red berry fruit aromas are followed by pure cherry and wild berry flavors with a hint of tobacco. Round in the mouth and long in the finish. Wine Picks
Dutcher Crossing Bacigalupi Zinfandel 2016 ($17). We liked this firm but reasonably complex zinfandel from the Russian River Valley. Generous raspberry and black cherry aromas mingle with blackberry and cherry flavors with oak-inspired hints of spice and vanilla. Excellent finish.
Cakebread Cellars Two Creeks Vineyards Pinot Noir 2017 ($45). We always think of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon when we think of Cakebread Cellars, but this pinot noir got us to thinking again. Floral and cherry aromas give way to opulent raspberry and strawberry flavors and fine, supple tannins. Delicious and long in the finish.