I’m asked all the time what is meant by the term “Super Tuscan” and although the answer could invariably be “it depends” there really is a concise answer. To get there clearly, there has to be an understanding of Italian Wine Law.
Many of Italy’s best, and at least their most famous wines, possess a designation called: “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita”, or simply DOCG. This means that the wine conforms to the Italian National Laws for production. More specifically, it guarantees that the wine in the bottle is made of specified grapes, grown in protected, specific geographic areas, and meets certain aging and alcohol percentage requirements.
For example, let’s take the world famous Brunello di Montalcino. In order for a wine to be labelled Brunello di Montalcino, it must be made from 100% Sangiovese Grosso grapes and grown within the geographically defined Brunello Production Zone around the commune of Montalcino. Further, it must contain at least 13.5% alcohol, and it must be aged a minimum of 4 years before release, two of which must be in oak barrels. That’s how you “make” Brunello. But what if a producer makes a wine from 80% Brunello and 20% Merlot? It’s illegal to label that wine “Brunello di Montalcino” so Italian winemakers give the resulting wine a proprietary name, and voila! – a Super Tuscan is born.
The Super Tuscan concept was created in the 1970’s by winemaker Piero Antinori. The DOCG laws that covered the Chianti Classico region mandated at the time that wine labeled Chianti Classico must include at least 10% of Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes. These were widely regarded as inferior to the prominent Sangiovese grape and thought to produce inferior wine.
Wishing to prove the rule-makers wrong, Antinori shunned the regulations and produced a wine from 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet. He chose to make the best wine he could possibly make, regardless of law. Since the wine did not conform to the laws, he could not label it “Chianti Classico” so he called it “Tignanello” and charged a premium for the wine. It proved to be a huge success and soon became known as a “Super Tuscan”. His cousin later followed with a wine called “Sassicaia”; based entirely on the Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet and Merlot.
So where does that leave us in defining the term “Super Tuscan”? To be considered a true “Super Tuscan” a wine must be grown in Tuscany, and typically made from grapes that do not conform to any approved DOCG law. Most prominent producers, upon realizing Antinori’s successes, now produce a Super Tuscan of their own. To summarize:
- It must be made from grapes grown in Tuscany
- It will not conform to any of the DOCG laws
- It will be a premium wine, one of the best the estate can produce
- It will likely be expensive
- It will likely contain grapes not native to Italy
That’s it in a nutshell. The premium wine aspect should not be understated. An $8 wine made from Sangiovese and Cabernet is not considered a “Super Tuscan” although many retailers will attempt to market it as such. Beware of the phraseology, “Baby Super Tuscan”. It’s a term people selling wine use when they want you to think the wine is better than it really is. Is it a bad wine?