This episode of Wine 101 features Maze Row Wine Merchant’s esteemed partner Brancaia, a winery located in the centuries-old wine region of Tuscany, Italy, the subject of our deep dive. Brancaia has crafted acclaimed, complex wine that has captured the Tuscan identity and terroir for over 40 years. This is where wine meets world history. We’re talking Renaissance architecture, medieval cities, ancient vines. To try Brancaia, follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com, where you’ll find a Chianti Classico and a critically acclaimed Tre Red Blend.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers dives into the history of Super Tuscans. Born through a rough patch in Tuscany and Chianti production, Super Tuscans may not be as prominent any longer, but their history is rich. Tune in for more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and for the entirety of my life, I thought it was, “Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man.” But it’s, “Pat a cake.” Oh my God, it makes so much more sense.
What’s going on, wine lovers? From VinePair’s Podcasting Network, this is “Wine 101” and my name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tasting director of VinePair, and how are you doing?
Okay, people have been DMing, people have been asking for three years. Here we are, the Super Tuscan story. It’s cool. It’s fun. Let’s get into it.
Okay, wine lovers, literally, seriously, people have been asking about Super Tuscans for quite some time now, and I’m glad we’re here. I’m glad we’re here because the term, or this idea, the thing that we call the Super Tuscans, it’s cool. But the thing about this word, well, first of all, it’s one word. No one said that it had to be one word. It says “Super Tuscans.” For some reason it’s not “Super” and then “Tuscans,” it’s just all one word and is Tuscan capitalized? Is it not capitalized? Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
This term endures today, but the thing is, just like the word “Meritage,” has anyone heard of the word “Meritage”? Some of you raise your hands, some of you raising your hands? You? Okay, great. You, right, remember that?
“Meritage” is a word that was once used in California to define red wine blends in California that used specifically only Bordeaux varieties. That doesn’t really happen anymore, no one really cares. Make good wine. The red blend is now a thing, and you can’t really do a Meritage… I mean, whatever, it’s just an old term that exists, but no one really uses it anymore.
“Super Tuscan” is one of those words, but the story and the impact that it had on our culture is huge, and in Italy. What’s also interesting is the term Super Tuscan is uniquely English in that there was something like it being spoken in Italy at the time; we’ll get into the story, but it’s a very uniquely English word used for us to define something that we were a little bit confused on what it was, actually. So without further ado, let’s just talk about this thing, because today, there are Super Tuscans, technically, but there really aren’t as well. And the fact that there are not really Super Tuscans anymore is kind of great. And we’ll get into that. Let’s talk about it.
If you’ve listened to our Tuscany episode, the Sangiovese/Chianti episode, or the most recent detailed Chianti episode, maybe give those a listen before or after this episode because it all ties in. I’ll go ahead and put those hyperlinks in the description of this episode so you can just go straight there.
Okay. So Italy, before its appellation system was created — and actually in almost every country before an appellation system is created — often what is being grown in the vineyards would be, okay, maybe one variety, but also maybe a few varieties. For a long time, they were just mixed, like everywhere else in Europe, just field blends. Then, over time, the guy, Barone Ricasoli — this is a few previous episodes that you were going to listen to — but when the formula for Chianti was agreed upon, through experimentation, and then when the authorities awarded Chianti its DOC, then eventually DOCG, at that moment that blend became law. No longer was it financially advantageous just to make an awesome whatever blend of whatever you got around. It now was, “If you want to be a Chianti, you have to do this.” That right there, in a lot of places in Europe and in the New World for wine, that is a point of contention for a lot of winemakers.
You have winemakers that would absolutely adhere to the laws, “That’s great. Thank you so much. We can put this on the label. It’s easier for distribution, easier for marketing, all this,” but then you have some winemakers, “I get all that, and that’s really cool, but now I can no longer do what I want and still have the prestige of my region. Now I have to adhere to some rules to get that prestige.” And that was a point of contention. As we talked about in the Languedoc-Roussillon or the Languedoc episode, there’s a little bit of that as well.
While Chianti was evolving as a wine region and as it was expanding, and people were able to blend 20 percent of white wine into the red wine blend, increasing volumes, at some point, the quality of Chianti began to dilute, because of this, not mass production, but they were scaling up and they were using that 20 percent of white wine to help scale it up.
Not everybody in Chianti was doing this, but enough people were doing this that the reputation of the region started to decline a little bit. No one was going to give up on Chianti, but are like, “Hey, what are you guys doing?”
Stories emerge about winemakers in the area that do what they want to do and they make wine, whether it’s good or not, but they make their wine, and because they don’t adhere to the rules, they have to be called “Vino da Tavola.”
Now, “Vino da Tavola” used to be a term relegated to the lowest rung on the ladder for Italian wine. After the appellations were created and awarded, you would have Vino da Tavola,’ then you would have DOC, “Denominazione di Origine Controllata.” Then you would have DOCG, which is the same thing with a “Garantita” at the end. Just different tiers of restrictions and laws to protect and preserve legacies in all.
This is the 1960s. While all this is happening, there’s this big family called the Antinori family. They were one of the, not the founding families of Florence, but they were a banking family that came from the countryside while Florence was being built in, I think it was the 14th century, they came about.
They’ve been around for a while and their presence has been there for a long time. By the 1960s, that family was very well established in this area. Not only that, but their family was big and two wines, one immediately connected to the Antinori family; the other one connected through an extension of the family, because of their influence, because of their place in this region, the wines that they made made such an impact that people started noticing something different happening in a land where the general idea is, “We’re just putting as much of the 20 percent wine in these blends as we can.”
Whenever we talk about wine, especially old stuff, we talk about what we think may have happened, and there’s a lot of legends, and it mixes with reality and all that, but the stories are fun. When it comes to Italy, wow, there are so many myths and legends and stories around wine. And it’s mostly just the Middle Ages and before, and around there. This is one that’s in the modern era, in that a lot of things happened between this family and extension and the two wines, the details are kind of foggy, but the general focus…
You have Niccolo Antinori in 1966, who inherits his family’s business, the winery, and it’s not doing terribly, but it’s not really doing well. He is trying to figure out the next path for his family’s business. There’s talk that he actually went to California and met with Robert Mondavi and saw what was going on in America and said, “Oh wow, that’s really amazing. I’m going to do that.” That, I’m not sure is true, but it’s kind of fun.
He comes back and on the property, there’s a vineyard called Tignanello, and this is one of those vineyards that has multiple varieties in it. Because at some point he comes back and says, “You know what? We’re dropping the white wine from this blend.” At the time, it was required for Chianti to have 20 to 30 percent of white wine blended into the wine. He’s like, “Nah, I’m not doing that, and in addition, I’m going to use smaller, newer barrels called barriques.”
Without that white wine in the blend, it was no longer a Chianti DOC. It had to be a Vino da Tavola, the lowest rung on the ladder. And then in the 1975 vintage of Tignanello… Tignanello, the vineyard, is derived, they say, from the Etruscan God Tinia, which is kind of Zeus, the Zeus of the Etruscan mythology. But in that vintage, they added a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and that went, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! First you’re dropping the white wine. Now you’re putting Cabernet Sauvignon in it? Oh my gosh. You’re still Vino da Tavola. Gosh.”
Right next to the Tignanello vineyard is a vineyard called Solaia, and in 1978, the Antinori family produced Solaia, which was initially 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Cab Franc. These days, it’s not like that anymore. These days it’s mostly Sangiovese.
The Tignanello, because of the influence of the Antinori family, is considered one of the first like, “Okay, so this is Vino da Tavola, but this is not just Vino da Tavola.”
In the extended Antinori family, there is a man by the name of Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta. This guy marries into a family and the dowry gives him, I think, over 7,000 acres of land. And he was an Italian, a Tuscan, obsessed with the wines of Bordeaux.
He wanted to create that vibe, the Bordeaux wines, but he wanted to do it in Tuscany, on his estate just outside of Bolgheri in Tuscany, towards the coast. What he did was he started planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc, and he had one vineyard in 1944 called Castiglioncello. Then just below that vineyard, he built a vineyard called Sassicaia.
The thing is, this guy loved Bordeaux so much, and Graves was one of his favorites. “Graves” meaning gravel, “Sassicaia” is loosely translated to “the laying of stone, scattering of stones.” It has a gravel vibe to it, so you see what he was doing there. These wines he was making, Cab Sauvignon and Cab Franc, were solely for his family. He just wanted to make really great wine, Bordeaux-style and just live this Bordeaux-style life in Tuscany.
But his friends and his family, including the Antinoris, were like, “Look, this wine is so good. You should definitely commercially release this thing. This is ridiculous,” just like that. But then in 1968, they released, commercially, Sassicaia.
Here we are. One family, extended or not, released these wines that are outside of the rules. Because of their prestige and because of who they are, it was weird that these wines were just Vino da Tavola. They were not DOC anything, and Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson calls Tignanello and Sassicaia, I mean, even Solaia, the prototypes for the Super Tuscan. A lot of this work has to be credited to two enologists, one Émile Peynaud, and Giacomo Tachis. These are the two guys that led and helped this family and extended family make these wines in the way they were made, to make the impact that they made.
By the late 1970s into the early ’80s, there was a word being bounced about in the area of Tuscany. And it wasn’t Super Tuscan, but it was sort of on that level of, “These wines are absolutely stunning and powerful, but they’re Vino da Tavola and they just can’t be called that; it has to be something else.” American journalists come over and they’re doing their regular tastings and they taste some of these Vino da Tavolas, and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, these are amazing.”
Now, this is another one of those foggy places. There are some wine critics that believe they are the ones that created the term Super Tuscan, or that they heard it in Italy and they brought it back, put it in print. I don’t know who it was. I don’t think it really matters, but what matters is the word Super Tuscan becomes very, very popular.
By the 1980s, everyone’s looking for Super Tuscans. If you think about it, in the United States, we’re realizing that in California, Cab is going to be our No. 1. We’re starting to really understand bigger, fuller-bodied wines in the ’80s. Robert Parker is doing his thing. For us and our palates, if a prestigious, expensive wine is coming to us from Italy and it’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc — and it’s big and bold and powerful with a tannic frame — oh, yeah. We’re loving that.
The Super Tuscan thing blows up on the American market. The Italians are like, “Whoa!” The Tuscans are like, “Whoa, this is crazy!” And for a while there, the Super Tuscan thing became as popular, if not more popular, than Chianti wine, even Chianti Classico. What?
In the early ’90s, the authorities for wine in Italy were like, “Okay, we got to do something about this. This is crazy.” So they came up with an idea and implemented it in 1994. They brought a new acronym into the world of wine in Italy. Where once it was Vino da Tavola, DOC, DOCG, now Vino da Tavola is gone and instead of Vino da Tavola, it’s IGT: “Indicazione Geografica Tipica,” then DOC, then DOCG. What IGT, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, did is it opened up a whole new world of Italian wine. It’s a category where you do whatever you want to do with whatever grapes you want to do it with. As long as those grapes are within the indicated geographic area, geografica tipica, meaning the varieties have to be a typical of that area.
If Cabernet Sauvignon has been in that area since the 1940s, then that is typical of the area, because it’s in the area. It’s just basically, do whatever you want and you can call it an IGT. So really today, if a Tuscan wine is made and it’s made outside of the rules of any of the DOCs or DOCGs in Tuscany, it is no longer called Vino da Tavola. It’s called an IGT. What that did in 1994 is it got rid of the Super Tuscan term, because now, all of Italy was doing this. There were Super Friulians, Super Campanians, Super Lazians! Not Super Piemontes, that’s a whole different world. We’ll talk about that at some point. And because all IGTs were becoming “Super” this and “Super” that, it diluted the Super Tuscan term a little bit.
What was a Super Tuscan now? We had IGT, and there is something so wonderful about the IGT. The Italians were really smart here, because Super Tuscans are cool, but this applies IGT to the entire country. And like I said, it opened up all these different new wines for us to explore. Italian winemakers can now just do whatever they want and make really great, wacky, cool stuff. And they can also make their DOC and DOCG stuff to make their money and have this other IGT fun. I don’t know. I think it’s kind of great.
That’s how it happened with the Super Tuscans. It was a family, and extended family, that is very prominent in the region. They did something different, and because of their place in this region, the popularity gained and gained and gained, American media saw it, the Super Tuscan thing became a thing, but that all needed to happen to get to the IGT and give Italian winemakers the freedom to be as creative as they want with wine.
All right, that’s it. I love the Super Tuscan story because it’s a great story of evolution in wine. And today, if you get an IGT from Tuscany, call it a Super Tuscan. It’s cool, whatever, they exist. I’m just saying the word is not a thing as much as it once was, but it’s sticking around because over the past three years, I’ve been getting people saying, “Hey man, you doing the Super Tuscan thing?” Here’s the Super Tuscan thing. I’ll see you guys next week.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair Wine 101. Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazing wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from every day to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine! Visit thebarrelroom.com today to find your next favorite. (Where shipping is available).
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.