Italy: From fine wine backwater to Sassicaia superstar


Tuscany: the home of the Super Tuscan (Source: Getty)
It is only in the last 40 years that Italy has been re-discovered and recognised as a high quality wine producer - but now it is a source of a great variety of fine wines.
There are an estimated 1,000 vitis vinifera varieties cultivated in Italy and it has more than 300 different wine producing regions and Greek settlers may have established vineyards as early as 800 BC. Italy is divided into 20 administrative regions. 
In 1963, Italy created its system for labelling quality wines and thus all regions of quality are labelled DOC, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata. An elite subset of DOC wines are labelled Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or ‘DOCG’.  These wines go through strict control boards guaranteeing the authenticity of the wine. In 1992, a new classification was created to bridge the gap between Vino di Tavola and DOC: the IGT, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica.
While Italy has many wines of note, Piedmont is one of the top regions for collectors.  Piedmont translates as ‘the foot of the mountains’ and the Alps are north and west of the regions. The most important region in Piedmont for quality is located around the 45th parallel, which is about the same as Bordeaux.
However, Piedmont has a continental climate, with hot summers and very cold winters. The best soils have a high percentage of calcareous matter. The typography is varied; with pockets of microclimates. Piedmont was once part of the Savoy kingdom, which also owned Burgundy, giving it French winemaking influence. Here the most famous wines are made from the grape Nebbiolo, which gets its name from the Italian word for fog, Nebia, that is extremely thick in this area. Nebbiolo has naturally high tannin and high acidity, meaning the wines can age for decades. The two best-known wine regions in Piedmont are Barolo and Barbaresco, both of which have wines comprised 100 per cent of Nebbiolo.
Veneto is outside the city of Venice and it is here that Valpolicella is found.  Known for its DOC wines blended from three different varieties, Corvina, Rodinella and Molinera. Corvina is valued for its structure and aromatics, hints of herbs. The great wine from this region is Amarone, which is produced by harvesting the grapes late, then laying them out to dry on bamboo mats in a process called appassimento. Once the grapes are dried, they are pressed and fermented dry in oak. 
The designation Chianti was defined by grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de Medici in 1716, and located between the cities of Sienna and Florence. As such, wines made between these regions are labelled Classico DOC. Chianti Classico also has its own DOCG with seven sub regions which can put Chianti on the label. Brunello di Montalcino is south of Chianti which makes it warmer and drier, as a result the grapes are a bit riper and the alcohol a little higher.
The altitude of the hill of Montalcino is also higher than Chianti and the higher the altitude the smaller the berries, therefore, a smaller pulp to skin ratio, which means a thicker grapes of higher concentration and tannic gripe. 
In the 1940s and 50s, a handful of elite wine producers in Tuscany found the DOC laws for producing wines in their region too restrictive and wanted to create wines with Bordeaux varieties which could rival the wines of France. Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc on his estate, calling the wine Sassicaia, meaning ‘place of many stones’.
As he could not legally name it Chianti, the name Super Tuscan was born. Sassicaia achieved legendary status when it won the international tasting of Cabernets in London in 1978, putting Italy on the map for international high quality wines.