When the Italian region of Tuscany is mentioned in connection with red wine the first – and often only – wine which springs to mind is Chianti. For many people the image of a bottle of Chianti red wine in its raffia basket is synonymous with Tuscany.
However, if you have an interest in red wine you should look beyond Chianti as there are a host of other excellent reds to be found in the Tuscan hills. Not only are there top class DOCGs such as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino but there are many lesser classified but no less excellent red wines known as Super Tuscans.
The Super Tuscans arose out of red wine producers wishing to experiment with grapes and blends outside of the fixed DOC and DOCG restrictions of Chianti. As over the years these restrictions have changed and relaxed slightly the door has opened to some of the Super Tuscans to come into the Chianti fold but many others continue to wear their lesser IGT classification with pride.
Chianti is the most famous red wine to come out of Tuscany. The whole region has the top DOCG classification but this is due more to the political clout of the Chianti wine makers than any guarantee of quality. When the DOCG status was awarded producers agreed to reduce their yield, small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and other red grapes were allowed (but not required) in the blend with the dominant Sangiovese grape and the use of white grapes in Chianti Classico was banned.
Within the wider Chianti classification there are a handful of sub-regions which truly deserve the DOCG label. Chianti Classico, produced in the original hilly Chianti area, is generally regarded as the finest but Chianti Rufina and Colli Fiorentini are also worth looking out for.
The DOCGs of Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are actually sub-regions of Chianti and both use localized clones of the Sangiovese grape in their red wine. They are among Italy’s most prestigious reds and deserve their DOCG classifications.
Brunello di Montalcino reds contain 100 per cent Sangiovese and are usually made with such harsh tannins that they need aging for at least 20 years. The best wines have enough fruit in them to allow the tannins to soften during aging but some wines are macerated for too long and are not destemmed meaning the tannins stay harsh and fail to soften over the years. Producers to look out for include Argiano, Villa Banfi, Fattoria dei Barbi, Casse Basse, Lesini and Pertimali.
The Vino Nobile di Montepulciano classification includes 20 per cent of Canaiolo in a blend with Sangiovese. The best red wines are like a Chianti Classico reserva and are full of bright, ripe cherry and plum flavours. Recommended producers include Avignonesi, Bindella, Boscarelli, La Casalte and Poliziano.
Carmignano is a small DOCG from west of Florence. The classification regulations allow a blend with Sangiovese which includes Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon and some white grapes. The resulting red wine is not dissimilar to a medium-bodied Chianti but it is less acidic and has a chocolaty character. Good producers include Ambra, Capezzana and Piaggia.
So finally to the so-called Super Tuscans. The birth of the Super Tuscans is largely credited to the now-famous red wine Sassicaia. In 1948 Mario Incisa della Rochetta used Cabernet Sauvignon vines said to be from the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild estate with the aim of producing a quality Italian red wine from the greatest grape in Bordeaux. For a few decades the wine was only used for personal consumption until the 1968 vintage was unleashed on the general public in 1971 with great success. Today, Sassicaia is regarded as the ultimate Super Tuscan red wine.
Many other great Super Tuscan red wines were created around the same time as Sassicaia. In 1968 Azienda Agricola San Felice developed a Super Tuscan which he called Vigorello and this was followed in the early 1970s by another iconic Super Tuscan, Tignanello. This wine was produced by Piero Antinori who was from a wine making family with a 600-year history. Tignanello was intended as a halfway house between the reds of Tuscany and Bordeaux with a blend of mainly Sangiovese and smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
The success of these wines encouraged other producers to experiment and a raft of Super Tuscan red wines have emerged in recent decades. Initially, because these wines did not meet any of the requirements of the DOC or DOCG classifications they were labelled as table wines or vini da tavola, an irony as many of the wines were far superior in quality to some of the DOCG wines. Today, these Super Tuscans are given IGT or Indicazioni Geografiche Tipiche status and are worth discovering as an alternative to the traditional Tuscan reds.
Image by Maarten Van Hoof.