Monday, November 15, 2010

Supertuscans: Are they Or Aren't They?

Supertuscan is a journalistic term born in the 1970s, and this begs explanation: the 1970s were an extraordinarily difficult period for Tuscan winemaking, especially in the Chianti Classico region, to the point that in some ways it's a wonder that winemaking survived at all. Doesn't seem possible today, but then the area was reeling: in the late 50s and early 60s the tenant farmers who had worked the land for centuries abandoned it in favor of better paying manufacturing jobs in cities and towns (and new homes with amenities such as hot and cold running water, which had not yet reached the countryside). The landowners, who had until then lived in the cities and let someone else run things suddenly found themselves forced to make a go of farming, a task for which most were totally unprepared. So they continued to do what the farmers had done, emphasizing quantity over quality.

At the same time, Italy was adopting the Frech AOC system and establishing Denominazioni d'Oridine Controllate, or DOCs to govern the production of the wine. The people writing up the regulations were not winemakers, but rather bureaucrats, so rather than devise a strategy for the future they took a snapshot of the situation at the time, voted to high volume production, and damn near carved it in stone. In Central Tuscany -- Chianti Classico, and Chianti too -- this meant the adoption of the "traditional" red-and-white grape blend said to have been formulated by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the developer of Chianti: 50 to 80% Sangiovese, 10 to 30% Canaiolo Nero, and 10 to 30% Malvasia and Trebbiano (white grapes), calculated as percentages of vines in the vineyards. The inexperienced landowners read the rules, and since Trebbiano vines (which Baron Ricasoli did not use) produce twice as much as most others, planted as much Trebbiano as they could, assuming that the more Chianti they made the more they would sell. Many were making what was nominally a red wine with 50% white grapes. The stuff didn't age well, didn't travel well, and wasn't well received. Prices plummeted and wineries went with them.

By the late 60s the more forward-looking producers realized they had to do something and began to experiment. San Felice introduced Vigorello, a wine made with just Sangiovese, while Antinori introduced Tignanello, a wine made with Sangiovese and Cabernet aged in barriques, the small oak barrels used by the French. Both wines caused tremendous stirs, and soon others were following their lead. Of course, since these wines weren't made according to the Disciplinare governing the Chianti Classico Appellation they couldn't be called Chianti (the tasting commissioners who did encounter them, when faced with unusual non-Italian varietal flavors and small oak, had fits), nor did they qualify as IGT, and therefore the winemakers called them Vini da Tavola, table wines -- the bottom rung of Italian wine production, which had until then been exclusively jug wine.

There's something seriously wrong in a system in which the winery's best, most innovative, most interesting (and most expensive) wines are classed along side what's sold by the jug, and since the bureaucrats in charge of the appellations were in no hurry to correct the situation (they didn't officially allow French varietals until 1984, but in doing so continued to require white grapes as well), an unknown -- at least to me -- journalist called the extremely good non-appellation wines he was tasting Supertuscans. And the name stuck.

So what, you ask, is a Supertuscan?
It's a wine that is not made following the rules of the appellations governing a given wine region. Or maybe it is; Since 1984 the Chianti Classico Disciplinare has been altered several more times, and now many of the wines that could only be called Supertuscan in 1970 would qualify as Chianti Classico. Including Tignanello, though not Vigorello, which is now a Cabernet-Merlot blend. So why haven't the winemakers whose wines now qualify for the appellation they are made in signed them up?
In some cases because they feel no need to -- Tignanello is quite well enough known as it is, and calling it Chianti Classico would likely have no positive impact on its sales.

In some cases because they don't want to have anything to do with the Appellation; the late Sergio Manetti of Montevertine withdrew from the Chianti Classico appellation because he didn't want to put white grapes into his red wine, and subsequently -- as the changes in the appellation proved him right -- found the quality controls wanting; his son Martino promised him he wouldn't return to the fold and hasn't.

Still others want to be free to do as they want: Giampolo Motta of the Fattoria La Massa started out making Chianti Classico, but felt stifled and left to do his own thing, eliminating Sangiovese from the blend of his top wine, while Tommaso Cavalli of the Tenuta Degli Dei never planted Sangiovese at all.

The bottom line is that a Supertuscan is what the winemaker wants it to be, and its quality is entirely dependent upon the winemaker. Piero Antinori, in presenting a vertical of his famed Solaia, perhaps defined it best: A Supertuscan is not a vaietal wine, because while there are some made from only one varietal, many are blends. It's not a reserve or a selection from an Appellation, because in many cases they don't follow the rules set forth for appellation wines. What it is, is a vineyard wine, one that is consistently excellent and stands the test of time. Anyone can call his wine a Supertuscan, but only a few meet the test of time and truly are Supertuscans.

And Here Are The Wines We Tasted, in a presentation organized by the Biennale Enogastronomica Fiorentina:

Castello di Bossi Corbaia 2004
70% Sangiovese and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon
Deep black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is intense, and pleasant, with savory balsamic accents mingled with leaf tobacco and some dried flowers, and also some spice with underlying vegetal notes, moderate pepper and some greenish notes. Quite pleasant, and deft in a mature key. On the palate it's full, and rich, with powerful decidedly savory minerality with some sour berry fruit underlying it, though it's more about minerality and leather than fruit, and supported by savory notes as well that flow into a bitter finish, while the tannins have a marked burr, and are rather savory. Quite pleasant, and very much alive, though it's not a wine I would want to drink by the glass far from the table -- more of a wine for succulent red meats, and in terms of style it is influenced by the cabernet, which gives it a distinctly international feel, especially in the tannins, which are rather dusky.

Castello di Gabbiano Alleanza 2004
Primarily Merlot with a dash of Sangiovese.
Deep black cherry ruby with black reflections; by comparison with the Bossi it looks younger because the ruby is deeper and less orange. The bouquet is fairly intense, with elegant spice mingled with slight iodine accents, green leather, and also black currant fruit Nice balance and considerable depth; it gives a rather lush impression of itself, in a mature key. On the palate it's ample and rich, with powerful cherry plum fruit supported by bright slightly mineral acidity that has some leathery accents -- I get an impression of a leather strop for some reason -- and is supported by very smooth tannins that flow into a clean fresh berry fruit finish -- plum, with some black currant fruit as well. Quite pleasant, and will drink very well with succulent, not too fatty grilled meats or roasts.
2 stars

Tenuta Santedame - Ruffino Romitorio di Santedame 2005
60% Colorino and 40% Merlot
Deep black cherry ruby with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is dusky, with fairly intense bitter greenish accents mingled with some cedar and savory notes, and also slight balsam, with some black currant fruit as well. It's pleasant, and though clearly not a hot weather wine -- it's more savory and mineral with brambly accents -- is pleasant to sniff. On the palate it's ample, with raich savory plum cherry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins that flow into a clean fresh berry fruit finish with underlying savory tannic notes and slight hints of balsam; it's quick to write, but quite harmonious, and pleasant to sniff and sip. A pleasant surprise, because the 2005 is rarely this nice.

Cavalli Tenuta Degli Dei 2007
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Alicante
Lively black cherry ruby with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is powerful, and quite rich, with elegant cherry plum fruit supported by pleasant spice and some leathery notes, and also slight underbrush. Quite young, and very elegant in a decidedly international key; it has a great deal to say and is impressive. On the palate it's ample and smooth, with rich powerful cherry plum fruit supported by moderately intense mineral acidity and by dusky tannins that are very smooth and gain definition from dusky pencil shaving bitterness, and flow into a clean fairly rich plum cherry finish with cedary underpinning. Very pleasant in a rich international key, and if you like the style you will enjoy it very much because it has a great many facets to plumb. Even if you're more towards the traditional end of the spectrum you will find things to appreciate and enjoy. It's also quite young, and will develop quite nicely over the next decade or more.

Cecchi Coevo 2007
50% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 % each Merlot & Petit Verdot
Deep black cherry ruby -- it's almost impenetrable -- with cherry rim. The bouquet is muted, though swishing brings up moderate spice and red berry fruit with some balsamic accents; as it opens some cherry plum accents also emerge, together with savory notes. Delicate, and developing. On the palate it's full, and rich, with fairly bright sour cherry fruit supported by brambly acidity and by tannins that have a warm savory burr and flow into a clean rather savory finish with tannic underpinning. It's the antithesis of Cavalli, a wine that revolves more around tannicity and brashness than smoothness, and is a wine that you will enjoy if you prefer more traditional, more aggressive wines, but will also find things to ponder and enjoy if you prefer the softer more international style.
2 stars

Fattoria La Massa Giorgio Primo 2007
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot
Deep cherry ruby with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is powerful, with deft cherry and black currant fruit supported by some vegetal accents and hints of leather with a fair amount of spice as well; it's quite deft, and has a great deal to say in a fairly rich rather international key. On the palate it's full, and rich, with powerful cherry fruit supported by plum accents, and by tannins that are quite young, and though in part smooth, also have a youthful burr to them, and flow into a clean rather bitter berry fruit finish. It's quite pleasant, in a rather scrappy key, and this is its youth at work; it needs a few years for the tannins to smooth and fold in, though it will drink now with a porterhouse steak and be very nice. In other words, if you're impatient all is not lost But if you have patience, it will give a much better accounting of itself in 3-5 years, and continue to do so for many more years thereafter.

Montevertine Le Pergole Torte 2007
Elegant ruby with black reflections and some orange in the rim; by comparison with Giorgio Primo it's considerably paler, and this is the difference between Sangiovese and some of the French varietals. The bouquet is elegant, with rich sour cherry fruit supported by some floral accents and deft sour cherry acidity. Quite graceful in a delicate, willowy key that does have considerable power behind it as well. It has a lot to say. On the palate it's full, with powerful cherry fruit supported by bright sour cherry acidity and by tannins that have a warm youthful burr and flow into a clean savory finish with some sour cherry underpinning. Again, it's very young, and will benefit from further bottle age though one could drink it now with a steak. It's a slightly more brambly expression of Pergole Torte than in some vintages, and this is the nature of the vintage. Quite nice, and if you prefer the traditional style you will enjoy it very much.

Tenute del Cabreo - Folonari Cabreo Il Borgo 2007
70% Sangiovese, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon
Impenetrable pyrope with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is quite fresh, with powerful black currant fruit supported by some floral accents and wet leather with underlying savory notes and some spice, and also some India ink bitterness. Quite pleasant, and has a lot to say in a very youthful, quite international key. On the palate it's ample and quite smooth, with fairly rich cherry fruit supported by moderately intense sour cherry acidity and by smooth sweet tannins that have a slight cedary burr that is youth, and flow into a clean cedar laced finish. It's quite pleasant in a decidedly Supertuscanish key -- it's almost an archetype of the style (as is Antinori's Solaia, or the Tignanello that follows here), and though I can hear the 1970s talking to me as I sip it, I like it.

Tenuta Tignanello - Antinori Tignanello 2007
80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc
Deep black almandine with black reflections and cherry rim with slight orange accents. The bouquet is muted at first swish, though more swishing brings up cherry plum fruit with some vegetal notes and hints of underbrush, and also clean spice and some savory notes. It's still developing, and needs time. On the palate it's ample, and smooth, with fairly rich cherry fruit supported by dusky bitterness and bitter mineral acidity, and by tannins that have a cedar laced bitter burr and flow into a rather bitter finish with savory tannic underpinning. It's very young, and needs another couple of years to come together; as is the case with some of the other wines it has a 1970s feel to it, but is quite pleasant and will drink very well with succulent grilled meats or roasts, e.g. leg of lamb.

Podere Poggio Scalette Il Carbonaione 2008
Impenetrable pyrope with black reflections; it's quite dark and this is in part youth. The bouquet is deft, and quite fresh, with violets and some spice mingled with cherry fruit and some ripe plum; there's something luscious about it, though it's clearly a work in progress and needs another couple of years to come together. On the palate it's quite elegant, with rich sour cherry fruit supported by deft sour cherry acidity, and smooth tannins that have slight brambly sour notes to them, and flow into a clean sour cherry finish with savory tannic underpinning. Beautiful depth and great finesse; it has been a number of years since I last tasted Carbonaione, and it is just as exciting to me now as it was the last time. If you like the style, which makes no nods to polished smoothness, but rather captures Sangiovese's rather aggressive nature, you will like it very much, and even if you prefer smoother softer wines you will find things to think about here.

So, do these qualify as Supertuscans?
I would say they do -- they are as a group distinctive, albeit in very different ways, good, and have certainly stood the test of time.

A more important question is, is there still a place for these wines in Tuscany, especially given the swing of the pendulum towards Sangiovese and other autochthonous varietals? Giampaolo Motta said, rather angrily, that he gets frowns and minimization when he tells people that there isn't any Sangiovese in his Giorgio Primo, and I know that some wine journals have downplayed Supertuscans of late.

My reaction to the frowns and the downplaying is that the people doing this are missing the boat. Some of these wines do have a slightly 1970s feel, but that's because they were introduced then, and at the time the use of Cabernet and small oak barrels was so revolutionary that it burned itself into our collective conscience; we continue to associate the flavors and aromas with the first time we met them, and that the wines are still being made now as they were then means they are a success, because the winemakers would not still be making their Supertuscans that way if they didn't sell. Others feel quite different -- Cavalli is riper and softer, with more fruit and less wood, more modern if you will (it is a more recent wine) and Giorgio Primo has tremendous depth, while Pergole Torte simply is.

They can't really be bundled together, except to say that they stand out, both for their quality, and their character.

They are what the winemaker wants to do, and as Vittorio Fiore notes, are also a reaction to the strictures of the Italian Appellations. At the end of the tasting he said, "In Bordeaux the rules take up a single page -- the first lists the varietals that can be used -- 17 or so. Then there's something about yields, and a few more points, but it's all in a page. Here the regulations say how often we should blow our noses in the vineyards. When it comes to agronomy, they say the vineyards should be planted "in the traditional manner," which means that if we plant to high densities, which aren't traditional, a judge could declare us all out of bounds. It's ridiculous."

As is, he added, keeping a winemaker from using the grapes he thinks will give him the best expression of his land. And at this point Giampaolo Motta grinned and applauded.


tom hyland said...


Excellent post and I learned quite a bit.

Two things:

1) You mentioned that Barone Ricasoli didn't have Trebbiano, so when he created the "recipe" for Chianti Classico, was he only referring to Malvasia for white grapes or was there another white variety used at that time?

2) I like your statement, "A Supertuscan is what the winemaker wants it to be." Well put and quite true.

Can we also agree that wines such as Sassicaia and Ornellaia are NOT Supertuscans? They are DOC wines from Bolgheri (in the case of Sassicaia, it has its own epoymous DOC).

I've read articles from some pretty intelligent wine writers who call these wines Supertuscans. They don't help things by doing this and only add to the confusion.

Kyle Phillips said...

Tom, Glad you liked the post!

Barone Ricasoli had two formulas. For wines suitable for aging he used Sangiovese, which provided the backbone, and Canaiolo, which tempered the Sangiovese and added grace, as he put it. No white grapes at all. For wines to be drunk young, he also added Malvasia del Chianti, the white grape, because it adds life and verve. He doesn't mention Trebbiano, though it was certainly grown, and farmed for its high yields, which were important because they gave the farmers more calories with which to survive the winters. Ricasoli, who didn't need the extra calories to survive, didn't use - so far as I know - Trebbiano in the wine he was making for himself.

I would agree that Orenallaia is not a Supertuscan, but rather a Bolgheri Superiore DOCG.

Sassicaia is slightly different, because when the elder Marchese Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet in a small vineyard high up on the hillside there was no Bolgheri DOC, and he was very much doing what he wanted -- and ignoring all the locals, who had no experience with Cabernet, didn't like it, and said the wine "had fire in it."

Sassicaia is the reason we have the Bolgheri appellation (and it now qualifies as a sub-appellation of Bolgheri), so to be strictly correct it is now an appellation wine. However, if you take a broader historical view of it, it's just as much a Supertuscan, and I thus consider it to be a Supertuscan because of its roots.