Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Ins and Outs of Supertuscans

Over at Kyle Phillips's Italian Wine Review, the author has contributed an excellent post on the subject of Supertuscans (read here). Phillips, an American who has been living in Tuscany for several years, discusses a recent tasting of ten Supertuscans he attended and gives his typically thorough notes on the wines.

He also lends a valuable lesson on the history as well as the meaning of these wines. Phillips points out the vagaries of Italian wine laws over the past 30 or so years, mentioning how some wines originally identified as Supertuscans - basically red blends that did not adhere to the strict denomination laws - could now be labeled as a DOC or DOCG wine, thanks to the changes in these categories (such as allowing Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot in a Chianti Classico).

So what is a Supertuscan, the author asks? It is an important question, if not for quality's sake, then certainly for the sake of prestige and marketing. The answer is not as easy as you might imagine, especially when you consider the various approaches that individual wineries in Tuscany take when it comes to labeling their wines. For some the Supertuscan term is a helpful one, as it is a category they can use when they produce a wine that does not fit the DOC or DOCG requirements. A great example of this is Camartina from Querciabella, one of my favorite Supertuscans from one of my favorite Chianti Classico producers. As this wine is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Sangiovese, this cannot be labeled as a Chianti Classico, as that wine type must contain a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. Thus the wine is legally labeled as IGT Toscana Rosso (a big improvement over the old labeling of Vino da Tavola or "table wine."); IGT may be its legal identity, but in reality, the wine is a Supertuscan.

This is great for Querciabella, as the Supertuscan term denotes a special wine, not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of importance and limited availability. It's as though the winery is saying, this is our best wine (it is, along with their monovarietal Merlot called Palafreno) and we can take special care to make this a wine of the highest quality (and quite often a wine of the highest price range for any particular estate). As Querciabella also makes an excellent Chianti Classico, the winery offers both a DOCG wine as well as Supertuscans and the consumers have a choice.

Then you have the case of Tignanello from Antinori, which was one of the first Supertuscans, as Piero Antinori used Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend (along with omitting white grapes such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, which were required until changes in the 1990s); at the time (early 1970s), Cabernet Sauvignon was not allowed in a Chianti Classico, so Antinori could not label it as such. Yet recent changes in DOCG laws now permit small percentages of Cabernet Sauvugnon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc to be part of the blend, so Tignanello can today be labeled as a Chianti Classico, should Antinori choose that option (a typical blend for Tignanello these days is 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc). So why does Antinori not label the wine as a Chianti Classico? In Phillips's words, "Tignanello is quite well enough known as it is, and calling it Chianti Classico would likely have no positive impact on its sales."

I agree completely and think the author is on to something when he writes that "a Supertuscan is what a winemaker wants it to be." That may not fit neatly into wine laws, but it represents reality. These wines represent a philosophy, which is generally a winery telling us that this is a special wine that they believe doesn't fit neatly into one category or if it does, exceeds the typical quality of that category.

Of course, some wines are by necessity categorized as Supertuscans, as they may contain less Sangiovese than is required; this may be a winemaking decision based on the weather, when the Sangiovese did not ripen properly due to cool weather or late season rains (perhaps a blend, let's say of 70% Sangiovese and 30% Merlot, thus not legally a Chianti Classico). In these instances, the Supertuscan category is necessary (though the category is in reality, IGT Toscana Rosso, as mentioned above).

Then you have wineries that believe that they can produce better DOC and DOCG wines and eschew the Supertuscan category. These producers believe that Supertuscans are confusing for consumers, who better understand the historical importance of the Chianti Classico or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano name (among others in Tuscany). Thus their marketing and wine production revolves around a given and not a fleeting category.

In the end, it's an interesting debate. Phillips has written an excellent post (which includes a brief history of Chianti Classico laws); it certainly gave me valuable insight as well as an incentive to express my own thoughts on this category. I'm certain this debate will continue for many years to come.


  1. I suggest you try "Piastraia" made by Michele Satta in Bolgheri. I drank the 1997 recently and it was amazing.

  2. I have had the Pistraia and do enjoy it. The 2006 is an excellent Supertuscan from this vintage.