Winemaking in Italy fell into the doldrums by in the late 19th Century until the mid-20th Century and to rectify this in 1963 the first official Italian wine classification introduced DOCs, based on the French AOC Appellation system. This system controls a wine’s designation of origin, thereby regulating which grapes can be used, winemaking techniques, yields and quality of wines from each region. This classification helped re-ignite Italian winemaking in the 70s, 80s and 90s. However, a group of disobedient Tuscans had already set out to break the mould creating wines that would later be labelled Super Tuscans. They were named such to denote all Tuscan wines that do not conform to traditional regional winemaking practices.
The main reason for breaking convention was the use of international grape varieties, recreating Grand Cru Bordeaux by mimicking techniques such as ageing in New French Barrique for 18-20 months, as well as using predominantly Bordeaux blends. Some Super Tuscans such as Tignanello and Le Pergole Torte are made from Sangiovese and some now even experiment with Syrah. Sassicaia even went as far as to take vine cuttings from Lafite Rothschild in the 50’s. Another reason for upsetting the apple/grape cart was to make wine outside the conventional Chianti zone, in sub-regions such as Bolgheri, found closer to the shore and thereby benefiting from its cool breeze and more marginal climate, more closely reflecting that of Bordeaux.
All this meant that they could only be classified as Vino di Tavola (table wine) and to distinguish themselves from the inexpensive low quality wines that bear this name they cleverly branded themselves as Super Tuscans. In 1978 Sassicaia won the elite wine tasting ‘Great Clarets’ which consisted of 33 wines, including Bordeaux First Growths and in 1985 it received 100 points from Robert Parker. Faced with a dilemma, the authorities created the classification IGT, a notch above Vino di Tavola, distancing them from it and giving producers legitimised flexibility. In 1994 the authorities also created a DOC Bolgheri.
The leading Super Tuscans are now considered investment grade wines, making them even more collectible and sought after. Over the last 5 years Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia and Masseto have seen a 90% increase in value. The global fine wine market is broadening and Italy is benefiting from this. The less than homogenous ‘land of the grapes’ provides traditionally great wine such as Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo and Amarone. However it is not restricted to these, and outside Tuscany in Piedmont, Angelo Gaja has been a pioneer, bringing in new practises and pushing the boundaries of the grape Nebbiolo. Although never short of controversy it is an exciting time for the Italian wine industry and few would argue that the DOC and DOCG appellations have brought order and raised quality. Although often to be great is to be different.