Super Tuscans for Mere Mortals
The Super Tuscans of Bolgheri are among Italy’s most prized—any pricey—wines. But you can get a taste of Bolgheri without breaking the bank
As a wine journalist and wine-tour operator, I’m pretty lucky. My professional credentials have allowed me to taste iconic wines that are well beyond my price range. I’d tried the pinnacle of Super Tuscans, wines like Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Masseto, and Grattamacco—names that inspire a certain kind of hushed awe. Oh, the praises sung! But ouch, those prices: $125 and up. Even less famous examples can easily fetch $60.
So, you might reasonably ask, what’s so super about Super Tuscans? More important, where can I get some without mortgaging the house?
The quick answer is this: Nowadays, there are affordable Super Tuscans made all over Tuscany.
Every winemaker with a few hectares of land puts together some kind of blend that falls outside the official DOC and DOCG categories, utilizes French grapes, and adopts this nomenclature.
But to fully experience Super Tuscans’ seductive siren song, you have to go to the land of their birth: Bolgheri, a small town in the province of Livorno, in the coastal area known as the Upper Maremma. And to truly appreciate their shock value and influence, you have to travel back in time to the days when cabernet, merlot, and other bordelaise varietals were no more common in Italy than Dijon mustard or Brie cheese.
The story begins with Sassicaia and its creator, the Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta. Born in the Piedmont town of Rocchetta, the Marquis schooled in Pisa and by age 30 had married a Bolgheri aristocrat, Clarice della Gherardesca, whose family once lorded over coastal land from Pisa to Piombino. In the 1930s, the Maremma was a region of peaches, strawberries, swamps, and thoroughbred horse farms, not wine. Tuscans drank a light, simple sangiovese that was bottled and ready to quaff six months after harvest. The Marquis, who’d grown up with age-worthy Bordeaux favored by the Piemontese gentry, yearned for something more sturdy and enduring. After devoting his energies to horseracing in the pre-war decades, he turned his attention to wine after 1942 when the Gherardesca property was divided between two sisters. His wife inherited Tenuta San Guido and a tract of land called Sassicaia, named after the rocks, or sassi, pulled from the soil. Her sister, Carlotta, had married Nicoló Antinori, the 25th generation of a great Florentine family that had been making noteworthy wine since the 1300s. Like the royal marriages of yore, these unions laid the groundwork for a powerful synergy.
Nicoló Antinori began making a rosé after settling into the Gherardesca’s Guado al Tasso estate in Bolgheri. Marketed with billboards along the Aurelia Way, the ancient Roman road that runs along the Tyrrhenian coast, this rosé became Bolgheri’s first commercially successful wine. (Its modern incarnation, Scalabrone Rosato, is a delicious, savory blend of sangiovese, cabernet, and syrah, originally devised by famed enologist Giacomo Tachis, who was hired early on by Antinori.)
Meanwhile, Incisa della Rocchetta took a different, unblazed path. He decided to make an Italian cabernet. He’d first tasted cab during his childhood in Rocchetta Tanaro, and cabernet was the grape his great-grandfather Leopoldo had recommended as “the most reliable” in his 1869 catalog of 376 grape varietals. (Such agricultural inventories were common after 1866, when the newly created Kingdom of Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture launched a commission to study and improve management of the country’s poor farming practices.) What’s more, the gravely soil on the Marquis’s properties reminded him of the soil in Grave, Bordeaux, another alluvial region close to the sea.
The Marquis planted his first thousand cuttings not in Sassicaia, but up in the hills where he’d hid from SS roundups during the war. Called Castiglioncello, this plot of land was surrounded by virgin woods and was high enough to catch the cool sea breezes, which provided a freshness and temperature excursion well suited for grapes. But when his workers tasted the wine that March—the standard waiting period among peasant-farmers to judge a new vintage—they pronounced it undrinkable. “Porcaio,” a mess fit for pigs.
Disillusioned, the Marquis set aside his project. But when he tasted the cabernet some years later after the tannins had mellowed, it was a different wine entirely. The butterfly had emerged, and it was resplendent. Italy’s most prominent wine critic of the time, Luigi Veronelli, gave it a hearty endorsement. Encouraged, the Marquis expanded his vineyards, planting in Sassicaia and another plot nearby. He modernized his cellar and started aging the wine in French oak barriques at the suggestion of his nephew, a recent enology graduate—much like the Bordeaux the Marquis so loved. In 1968, Sassicaia, the first Super Tuscan, was commercially launched.
The premise of Sassicaia—an Italian wine using French varietals, nurtured in barrique, and intended for long aging—was revolutionary. Its ripple effect spread across the peninsula and endures to this day.
But back in 1968, they had a problem. The Marquis’s son recognized that they had no expertise, no contacts, and no track record in wine marketing or distribution. But their Antinori cousins did—a good 700 years’ worth. So the families partnered up, forming a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The Antinoris took over sales, and Niccolo Incisa recruited their enologist. A master blender, Giacomo Tachis helped refine Sassicaia’s cabernet sauvignon–cabernet franc mix and began overseeing their wine production. Soon Sassicaia was winning accolades worldwide.
In 1994, Bolgheri Sassicaia became a DOC—the first in Italy tied exclusively to one winery. The reason wasn’t just politics; it was terroir. As the Marquis recognized, the rocky soil of Sassicaia was special. “It was a very strange choice,” says Attilio Scienza, professor of enology at the University of Milan and one of Italy’s greatest authorities on the science of the vine. “It’s only in that exact spot that this type of soil exists in Bolgheri. It came from the waves of a torrent,” deposited there during the flooding of the Mediterranean eons ago, after Africa’s northward drift reopened the gates of Gibraltar. This rush of water created the hills and valleys at the foot of the Apennines and accounts for the vastly different soil types on Tuscany’s coast, which range from marine sand to 100-million-year-old soil from the third geological era. The Sassicaia vineyard, says Scienza, “is rich in metals and has a degree of clay that’s not present elsewhere in Bolgheri. This is important for giving wines long life.”
Other wineries sprang to life and all followed the Marquis’s lead, using French grapes and barrique aging. These early pioneers included Grattamacco, Michele Satta, Tua Rita, and Ornellaia, the latter founded by Nicoló Antinori’s son Ludovico. His other son, Piero, created the first Super Tuscan in the Chianti Classico region (Tignanello in 1971) and more recently pushed Gualdo al Tasso into the modern age with its eponymous Super Tuscan.
This Gold Rush has continued unabated over the past decade, with winemakers and investors from all over Italy snatching up property up and down the Tuscan coast, including Piedmont’s Gaja (Ca’ Marcanda), Amarone producer Allegrini (Poggio al Tesoro), and Chianti’s Castello di Fonterutoli (Belguardo), among other wine stars.
The result is a bounty of riches in wine—at least for the rich. But happily, budget-minded buyers can enjoy the goods too. With some strategic shopping, great Bolgheri reds can be found at reasonable prices.
Look for second-tier wines from marquee names. Virtually all the top wineries now have one or two labels made from “lesser” vineyards (that is, with younger vines or in less advantageous positions) or from grapes that don’t undergo quite the same rigorous selection at harvest. Since it’s the same winemakers who craft these wines —with the same skill and pride—the standards are high. At the entry level, there’s Le Difese ($25) from Tenuta San Guido, Il Bruciato ($22) from Gualdo al Tasso, and Le Volte ($23) from Ornellaia. Like most classic Bolgheri reds, they contain a dose of cabernet—in this case, 70 percent, 50 percent, and 10 percent respectively, while the balance is sangiovese for Le Difese, merlot and syrah for Il Bruciato (which has Bolgheri’s prettiest label, picturing the ubiquitous umbrella pines), and sangiovese plus merlot for Le Volte.
Splurge a bit more, and you’ll take a great leap forward: Guidalberto ($45), the second label to Sassicaia, and Le Serre Nuove dell’ Ornellaia ($55) usher you into the realm of dark plush fruit that gets its ripeness from the Tuscan sun. Both have a classy elegance that’s characteristic of the best coastal Super Tuscans. Like their top-tier brethren, these polished wines don’t overreach or aim for ultra-extraction. They are, after all, Italian, which means they’re made for food. (And nothing tires the palate like an over-extracted, high alcohol fruit bomb.)
Look just outside the Bolgheri DOC zone. These wines will be labeled under the broader category “Toscana IGT.” Ludovico Antinori recently created Tenuta di Biserno in Bibbona, just north of the DOC border, and its entry-level Insoglio del Cinghiale ($24) is truly superb. Perhaps it’s the presence of dark, briary syrah in that blend that strikes my fancy, since I also adore Il Bruciato, another blend containing syrah. Lagone ($15) from the Aia Vecchia winery is also a good buy from the area between Bolgheri and Bibbona. Perhaps the best deal among coastal Super Tuscans is Monte Antico Rosso ($10). Found in wine shops everywhere in the U.S., this is a proprietary label created for wine importer Neil Empson, which comes from an area about 25 miles north of Bolgheri, in the province of Pisa.
Try the following list. This selected line-up includes other good, well-priced coastal Super Tuscans that I’ve encountered at professional tastings, through wine shop recommendations, and at the wineries themselves. Consider it a shortcut to a great wine adventure:
While working your way through the list, keep the words of one winemaker in mind: “The soil is similar to Bordeaux, but the sun is ours—a Tuscan sun.” That brings us to a nice, concise definition of Super Tuscans: French grapes under a Tuscan sun. It’s a handy mantra. Just drink and repeat.
Published in the October 2010 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.