Super Tuscans: Legacy of a One-Time Wine World Darling
Super Tuscans were darlings of the wine world from the mid-’90s through the early 2000s. These wines, whose producers include some of Italy’s most illustrious and historically significant, are based sometimes on blends of Sangiovese with international varietals–like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot–and sometimes just on international varietals. The term Super Tuscan is used to describe any red wine from the Tuscan region that does not conform to the region’s DOC(G) blending requirements, such as the Chianti DOC rule that the dominant grape of the blend has to be Sangiovese. Many Super Tuscans garnered very high scores from Parker and the Wine Spectator, leading to much demand and increasingly high prices for these wines. By the middle of the first decade of 2000, however, many Italian producers were offering Super Tuscan blends, most of which were indistinguishable from red international varietal blends from elsewhere. The market grew increasingly soft for these kinds of wines, and only the top, most well established names are still commanding prices well over $100 a bottle, and the demand even for these wines is much reduced from their heyday.
Super Tuscan history is a little murky, as competing claims for first this and first that are made by different producers. As best I can make out from competing accounts, the following were the significant events along the way. Sometime after 1900–when Piero Antinori, head of the great Antinori winemaking family that has been producing wine for 600 years, purchased several vineyards in Chianti Classico, including 47 hectares at Tignanello–he planted some Bordeaux varieties in Tignanello. Piero’s son Niccolo scandalized the region in 1924 by making a “Chianti” containing these Bordeaux varieties. A couple of decades later, in the mid-1940s, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, founder of Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri, started producing a wine called Sassicaia (“stony field” in Italian) using Cabernet Sauvignon vines sourced from Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. This wine, made only for family consumption for many years, was aged in French barriques instead of the large Slovenian casks that otherwise dominated winemaking in the region. Starting in 1968, renowned consultants Emile Peynaud and Giacomo Tachis were engaged to improve the quality of this wine. The resulting Sassicaia was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, but it was not released commercially until the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, in 1968, Azienda Agricola San Felice produced the first commercially available wine of the type that would subsequently be called Super Tuscan, by eliminating the white grapes (Malvasia and/or Trebbiano) that were then required in Chianti, and making the wine instead entirely out of Sangiovese. They named it Vigorello. In 1971, the grandson of the Piero Antinori who purchased the Tignanello vineyard, whose name was also Piero, was inspired by trying his cousin’s Sassicaia to produce a Sangiovese-based wine that included Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for greater richness. The wine thus created he named Tignanello, after the vineyard that was the source of the grapes. From 1975, white grapes were also eliminated from this wine and it included 20% Bordeaux varieties. Since 1982, this wine has been made with 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc.
In 1977, Montevertine released a 100% Sangiovese called Le Pergole Torte. In 1978, the Antinoris released the first Solaia, from a 10 hectare vineyard adjacent to Tignanello. The 1978 version was 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc, but the blend is now 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese and 5% Cabernet Franc. In that same year a Decanter Magazine tasting of “great clarets,” judged by a panel including critics Hugh Johnson and Clive Coates, declared the 1972 Sassicaia the winner over 33 wines from 11 countries. After Tignanello and Sassicaia became critical and commercial successes, the Chianti Classico DOCG rules were changed to accommodate wines without white grapes, and to include up to 20% of red grapes other than Sangiovese. From 1979 through the mid-1980s, a couple dozen producers created their own new Tuscan wines, including I Sodi di San Niccolo by Castellare di Castellina (Sangiovese and Malvasia Nera) in 1979; Cepparello by Isole & Olena (100% Sangiovese) and Sammarco by Castello dei Rampolla (Cabernet Sauvignon based) in 1980; and Camartina by Querciabella (Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon) in 1981. Also in 1981, the vineyards for Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia, adjacent to those of Sassicaia, were planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc by Piero Antinori’s younger brother, Marchese Lodovico Antinori. Ornellaia’s first vintage was 1985, which was also the first vintage for several other new Super Tuscans (San Martino by Villa Cafaggio, Vigna L’Apparita by Castello di Ama, Balifico by Castello di Volpaia, Il Pareto by Tenuta di Nozzole and Veneroso by Tenuta di Ghizzano). In 1986, Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia started bottling Merlot from the seven hectare Masseto vineyard as a varietal wine, inspired by Bordeaux’s Chateau Petrus. They started calling it “Masseto” in 1987, and for me, it is the greatest and most consistently impressive of the Super Tuscans.
Until 1994, these wines that didn’t comply with any of the existing DOC(G) rules had to be labeled as “vino da tavola,” i.e., table wine–the European Union’s lowest classification for wine. In 1994, an IGT category was added to cover these wines. In 1995, the DOC rules were further changed to allow Chianti to be made from 100% Sangiovese. Despite these changes, Tignanello and many other Super Tuscans that could now use the Chianti DOC continue to be labelled as Toscana IGT wines. And in the late 1990s, Sassicaia was granted its own DOC, becoming the only wine in Italy from a single estate to be so recognized. By this point, Super Tuscan generally meant a very modern styled, powerful, dense wine with significant tannins and plenty of new oak.
Our buddy Sandy collected a number of the more significant Super Tuscans on release. We put together this dinner to check in on several of these wines from the 1997 vintage, nearly a dozen years or so after their release, and to ponder, while we were at it, the Super Tuscan phenomenon and whether the earlier enthusiasm for these wines had been justified. Sandy generously provided eight mature Super Tuscans for the dinner, seven of them from 1997, including the Sassicaia, Tignanello, Ornellaia and Solaia. Others in the group contributed additional wines, so we started out with two lovely Champagnes, including the 1996 Krug, followed by a Chablis flight, before our three flights of Super Tuscans. Besides the seven 1997s, we added two Ornellaias (1995 and 1998) for an Ornellaia vertical flight. And then there were the delicious additional wines for our cheese course and after dinner. These included two vintages of Dal Forno Valpolicella Superiore Vigneto Monte Lodoletta, a 2003 Dal Forno Vigna Seré Veneto (my WOTN), and an Ornellaia Grappa.
The 1997 vintage was hyped as the greatest vintage in decades by Tuscan winemakers. Tignanello’s Piero Antinori claimed, ”I have never seen a vintage like this and I have been making wine for 30 years. I have never seen the grapes in such perfect condition.” Prices mounted and both the 1997 Super Tuscans and Brunello di Montalcinos disappeared off the shelves. Unfortunately, however, the Brunellos did not live up to the hype, and their prices tumbled once people started opening and drinking them. Recent reports suggest consumers needed to give these traditionally styled, long aging wines more time, and that they are just now starting to come around. So how are the modern styled Super Tuscans showing from a top year like 1997, now that they have some significant bottle age on them? The answer, from our dinner, is generally pretty well. My favorite of the ’97s was the Sassicaia, which is mature now and quite tasty, and which should go another five to seven years. My next favorite was the Solaia, which was quite youthful and complex, and which should go another 10 to 12 years. It impressed me a lot more than the Tignanello from ’97, which still seemed quite closed down, needing another three to four years yet. The 1997 Ornellaia was powerful but also bretty, and I very much preferred the 1998 version of that wine, which should go another two decades or more. Of the lesser known Super Tuscans in our first flight, the best was the Isole e Olena Cepparello, which was rich, mature and cedary.
From this tasting, which confirmed mini samplings I’ve done of these top Super Tuscans in the past few years, I do believe the very best producers–Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Tignanello and Solaia–used their considerable resources to produce excellent wines, especially in favorable years like 1997 and 1998. I think they’re generally holding up well, and still have significant lives ahead of them. I also think the high scores and intense attention on Tuscany in the late ’90s and early 2000s led to over-planting, overproduction and a glut of mediocre wines that have tarnished the early strong reputation garnered by the leading houses. From the new releases of the top houses that I’ve tasted in recent years, I think they are continuing to produce powerful, impressive and ageworthy wines. They may not be worth the high prices that some of the big names still command, but they are, on the whole, very good. One must be very careful, however, buying other wines that use the Super Tuscan name, as there is now a sea of mediocrity going under that designation: a host of dull, generic, international styled wines. But those of you who bought Sassicaia and Ornellaia back when those names were golden are still in for some excellent drinking over the next several years. Enjoy!
For my detailed tasting notes, and an additional note about the wines of Romano Dal Forno that we enjoyed at the end of our dinner, see below.
- N.V. Vilmart & Cie Champagne Grand Cellier d’Or 1er Cru – France, Champagne
Light yellow color; lovely, lightly yeasty, tart apple, tart peach nose; tasty, poised, delicate, high pitched, yeasty, tart apple, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 1996 Krug Champagne Brut – France, Champagne
Light medium golden yellow color; rich, yeasty, hazelnut, peach, apricot nose; tasty, yeasty, balanced, hazelnut, tart apple, tart peach, very tart apricot palate; long finish (94 pts.)
- 2002 François Raveneau Chablis 1er Cru Monts Mains – France, Burgundy, Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru
Light medium yellow color; a little reduction, tart lemon nose; tight, tart lemon, mineral, reduction, lime palate; needs 4-5 years yet; medium-plus finish (decanted for 6 hours) (91 pts.)
- 2008 Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos – France, Burgundy, Chablis, Chablis Grand Cru
Light green-tinged yellow color; floral, tart lemon, lemon gelee, green apple nose; tasty, tart lemon, green apple, mineral palate; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
First 1997 Super Tuscan Flight
- 1997 Isole e Olena Cepparello Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
Slightly cloudy, bricking, dark red violet color; nice tart plum, dried berry, tart currant nose; rich, mature, tart plum, dried berry, cedar palate with firm tannins; good now and should go for 8-10 years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 1997 Ruffino Romitorio Di Santedame Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
Dark red violet color; mature, plum, berry, red currant nose; maturing, tart currant, tart red plum, herbal, oak palate; good now and should go 7-plus years; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 1997 Fattoria Le Pupille (Elisabetta Geppetti) Saffredi Maremma Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Maremma, Maremma Toscana IGT
Very dark red violet color; redolent, berry, black plum, light herb nose with a touch of brett; tasty, herbal, tart plum, oregano palate; most youthful of the flight, needs 2-plus years and will go 8-10; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- 1995 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – Italy, Tuscany, Bolgheri, Bolgheri Superiore
Bricking dark red violet color; mature, cedar, tart currant nose; mature, tart currant, cedar, mushroom palate; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 1997 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – Italy, Tuscany, Bolgheri, Bolgheri Superiore
Very dark red violet color; cinnamon, brett, berry, currant nose; tasty, poised, powerful, tart currant, cinnamon, brett, raspberry palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 1998 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – Italy, Tuscany, Bolgheri, Bolgheri Superiore
Very dark red violet color; berry, currant, lavender nose; powerful, youthful, berry, tart currant, black fruit, iodine palate with sweet, firm tannins; needs 2 years but will go 20-plus; long finish (94 pts.)
Second 1997 Super Tuscan Flight
- 1997 Tenuta San Guido Bolgheri Sassicaia Sassicaia – Italy, Tuscany, Bolgheri, Bolgheri Sassicaia
Bricking dark red violet color; mature, mushroom, menthol nose; tasty, mature, currant, tart plum, menthol, umami, tobacco, smoke palate; drinking well now, should go 5-7 years; long finish (94 pts.)
- 1997 Antinori Solaia Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
Very dark red violet color; black fruit, plum, oregano nose; tasty, youthful, tart plum, currant, oregano, green herb palate; should go 10-12 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1997 Antinori Tignanello Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
Very dark red violet color; tart black fruit, herbal, currant nose; tight and/or shut down, tart black fruit, tart currant, iodine palate; needs 3-4 years yet; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
Dal Forno Valpolicella Flight
I thought it very appropriate that we ended our dinner of modernist Italian wines from Tuscany with these modernist artisanal wines from one of the great producers of the Veneto, Romano Dal Forno. Dal Forno’s pricey and sought after wines are derived from the extremely low yields of the family’s 12.5-hectare estate in Val d’Illasi, outside the Classico zone. Romano Dal Forno, who took over the running of the family operation in 1983, has taken this already well considered estate to new heights, with the construction of a new winery in 1990, and the introduction of a number of new techniques (e.g., the use of stainless steel punch-down pads that Romano designed). The Valpolicella Superiore was, until 2002, made by blending fresh grapes with grapes dried for about 30 days, but Romano switched to entirely dried grapes in 2002. The blend of grapes is 70% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 5% Croatina and 5% Oseleta. Fermentation is in controlled temperature stainless steel tanks, with cap submersion every 90 minutes for four to five days. The wines are then aged in barriques for three years, and in bottle for an additional year. The two wines in our flight are both quite young yet, and the ’01 in particular needs some more years of bottle age to show its best. The complex and rich 2002, however, is already drinking well now, and makes a good argument for the change to 100% dried grapes.
- 2001 Romano Dal Forno Valpolicella Superiore Vigneto Monte Lodoletta – Italy, Veneto, Valpolicella, Valpolicella Superiore
Opaque red violet color; lavender, ripe cherry, berry, cantaloupe nose; tight, rich, extracted, berry, cassis, red berry palate with firm tannins; needs 4-plus years; long finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 2002 Romano Dal Forno Valpolicella Superiore Vigneto Monte Lodoletta – Italy, Veneto, Valpolicella, Valpolicella Superiore
Very dark red violet color; redolent, dried berry, black raspberry, lavender, cassis, pepper nose; ripe, concentrated, rich berry, cassis, raspberry, roasted coffee palate; drinking well now; long finish 93+ points (first vintage where they used 100% dried fruit) (93 pts.)
Dal Forno Recioto
Our final wine from Romano Dal Forno was my wine of the night. This is also made from dried grapes, only in particularly favorable years, but by the passito method. The grapes are dried slowly over a period of five to six months. Fermentation is then at controlled temperature of 76-77 degrees Fahrenheit, with maceration on the skins for two days. The wines are aged in barriques for two years. The blend is 55% Corvina, 15% Rondinella, 20% Croatina and 10% Oseleta. This wine was formerly Dal Forno’s Recioto, but the DOCG commission rejected the 2003 from that classification, so it was relabeled as Passito Vigna Seré. (Shades of the DOCs’ rigidity in Tuscany for many years, summarized above.) This is a truly delicious sweet wine, full of dark chocolate, tar and acacia honey. It should last for decades. It’s exceedingly expensive, but a wonderful treat.
- 2003 Romano Dal Forno Vigna Seré Veneto IGT – Italy, Veneto, Veneto IGT
From 375 ml – opaque black red violet color; bittersweet chocolate, chocolate syrup, creosote, tar nose; rich, chocolate syrup, tar, 70% dark chocolate; acacia honey palate; will go decades; very long finish (96 pts.)
We concluded, Italian style, with a grappa made by Tenuta dell’Ornellaia from the skins and other solid material from the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes after they make the wine for the Ornellaia. This material–also known as pomace or marc–is pressed and taken to their distillery. Only the best lots after distillation, the most elegant and balanced, are used for the grappa. After these best lots are blended, the result is aged in barriques for 18 months before bottling. This was a particularly flavorful and intense grappa, with huge tannins. It needs a decade, in my opinion, before it’s at its ideal drinking window.
- N.V. Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Grappa – Italy, Tuscany
Light medium golden orange color; whiskey barrel, peat moss, rye, orange cream, tobacco nose; intense, whisky, rye, peat, baked apple, pear, cantaloupe palate with serious tannins; needs 10+ years; very long finish (42% alcohol) (93 pts.)