Demystifying the Italian stallion of the wine world

Renee Kuo
Have you ever felt as though the world of wine was an elite club?

Have you ever felt as though the world of wine was an elite club, made up of snobs intent on throwing around words such as “mouthfeel”, “cuvée” and “vinification”? You are not alone. Learning about wine can seem daunting, and plenty of people will try to convince you that their palate is more sophisticated than yours because they prefer Pinot Noir to Pinot Grigio.

My belief is that wine is no different from food: you know what you like to eat, so why lack confidence in what you like to drink?

That said, there are many wine terms that can be confusing, and I myself am guilty of using them in everyday parlance. “Super Tuscans” is one of them, and one I think it is extremely important to demystify, given that I can think of no other wine region so universally beloved by wine drinkers both new and experienced.

In general, “Super Tuscans” describes wines from Tuscany which are not made with the traditional grapes of the region such as Sangiovese. Instead, they use “international” varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. To understand the genesis of the term, one has to attempt understanding Italian wine laws in the 1960s and 70s, which decreed that all red wines from the Chianti region in Tuscany be comprised of at least 10 per cent and up to 30 per cent white wine grapes. Dressed in straw flasks, these Chiantis found their way to red-and-white checked tablecloths of Italian restaurants across the globe. Unsurprisingly, the quality was lacking.

One man, the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, changed the course of Italian wine history when he decided to produce better quality wines from Cabernet Sauvignon rather than Sangiovese and local white grapes. He called his wine Sassicaia. Originally produced for family consumption, the wine would have remained unknown had it not been for the Marchese’s nephew, Piero Antinori, who convinced the Marchese to sell the wine commercially. Piero himself had started producing wine; in 1971 he released Tignanello, a 100 per cent Sangiovese which in later years incorporated Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Both Tignanello and Sassicaia were instant hits, and in 1978 Sassicaia took top position at a London wine tasting of the world’s best Cabernets. Other estates, seeing the critical success as well as the high prices the wines commanded, followed suit; Ornellaia was founded in 1981. However, because none upheld the local wine laws, their wines could not be labelled Chianti and instead were given the lowly designation of “table wine”. The producers instead developed their own marketing term, “Super Tuscan”, to reiterate the high quality of their wines. Despite Italian wine laws changing in the 1990s, the term stuck.

So there you go: you are now armed with enough information to qualify you as a wine snob. But please don’t go spouting off; we prefer those who drink wine to those who pontificate about it.


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