The True Genesis of Super Tuscan Wine


The term Super Tuscan was born a controversy some 40 years ago. The controversy is ongoing. 
At this point, trying to define Super Tuscans is a waste of time. There have been arguments for decades over questions such as: What defines Super Tuscans in terms of taste? What makes a wine qualify for the Super Tuscan title? Exactly what composes a Super Tuscan? There are no strict answers to these questions. We’re talking about Italy here, the champion of small producers and diversity. Tuscany embodies that diversity, and Super Tuscan wines are as diverse as Tuscany itself.
Beyond this endless debate, there is certainty a history behind the Super Tuscan winemaking technique. Modern French winemaking has been adopted by Italian Super Tuscan winemakers.  Therefore, Super Tuscans embody the best of two of the greatest wine worlds. That is how they’ve managed to conquer our palates.
In the 1970s, Tuscan wine outside of Italy was mainly Chianti and not at its best. Italian restaurants were often offering low quality wines. Producers were relying on the infamous Chianti name and traditional ‘fiasco’ shape of the traditional bottles. At that time, despite the efforts of a few, the reputation of Sangiovese-based Tuscan wine was humble on the international scene. 
In addition, regulations for the production of Chianti DOC wines (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) dating from the 1960s were restrictive. They imposed the use of local, not always quality grapes, like Canaiolo or Malvasia Nera, and a mandatory proportion of white grapes which diluted the blends. 
Meanwhile, French wines had affirmed their leading status and had conquered the United States. French wine-growing was also modernizing rather quickly as Enology, the science of wine, allowed for an understanding about how to achieve a better product.
The Tuscans did 3 main things to start conquering markets with better quality:
  • Free up from DOC regulations
In 1971, Piero Antinori made his first Tignanello, a single vineyard wine from the heart of Chianti Classico area. Because his choice of grapes did not meet the Chianti DOC requirements, he labelled the bottling as ‘red table wine’ (Vino da Tavola) instead. This wine is considered to have pioneered the Super Tuscan movement. Many producers followed suit and started dropping the Chianti Denominazione to focus on wine quality rather than traditional rules. Looking beyond the strict regulations also allowed further exploration of modern wine-growing outside of the central hills of Tuscany.
  • Adopt French winemaking techniques and French grape varieties
Liberated from restrictive rules, Tuscans found their inspiration in the leading wines of Bordeaux. They introduced modern techniques pioneered in France both in the vineyard (low yielding, careful viticulture) and the winery to increase the concentration of tannins and flavours.
The adoption of Bordeaux-type barrels, oak containers smaller than the traditional large vats (botti), was an important milestone to create a more international style.
To enhance the traditional Tuscan blend, sometimes rustic and thin, Tuscans planted popular French grape varieties. Antinori introduced Cabernet in his Tignanello in the late 1970s. In 1968, his uncle Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet and Merlot in Bolgheri, a village on the coast. Its clay soil proved to be of world-class potential and will give birth to arguably the most famous Italian wines: Sassicaia and Ornelaia. 
Further South, the Maremma zone, historically poorly regarded by the Tuscans, also appeared a perfect host for French grapes. 
  • Adopt original names to market their new wines
It is unclear who first used the term Super Tuscans. However, it perfectly suited the cause of the Tuscan wine renaissance and was quickly adopted by locals. It provided producers, critics and merchants with an attractive way to describe wines labeled with a low-level appellation.
To further market their ‘rebel’ wines, producers also created original names for their wines. Such now-famous names include Solaia, Ceparello, Apparita or Saffredi. 
Super Tuscans today: Are they what they say they are?
40 years after the first release of Tignanello, the term Super Tuscans has lost some of its significance. Let’s have a look at common misconceptions:
  • Super Tuscans are made outside of DOC(G) appellations.
Chianti appellations now allow the addition of Cabernet or Merlot and blending white grapes is not common practice anymore. Many Chiantis produced now may have been called Super Tuscans a few years ago.
  • Super Tuscans are expensive wines from Tuscany.
To adapt to the new wine-growing practices, the IGT Toscana (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) was created in 1992. The majority of Tuscan wine comes out as IGT today. They could be called Super Tuscans because they generally do not respect traditional styles or DOC(G) rules (such as Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino or Vino Nobile de Montpulciano).
IGT wines start at $3 and reach up to $700 or more for a bottle of Masseto. Perhaps a Hyper Tuscans category should be considered!
  • Super Tuscans are blends and include French grape varieties.
There are in fact many examples of 100% Sangiovese Super Tuscans that do not claim the Chianti appellation e.g. Flaccianello della Pieve or Ceparello. 
There are also many mono-varietal wines such as the 100% Merlot Masseto or Tua Rita Redigaffi. One can even find Pinot Noir wines such as Fontodi’s Case Via Pinot Nero.
Over the years, the term Super Tuscans has become so applicable to many wines in Tuscany that it has lost a lot of its meaning. Like in the rest of the world, modern winemaking techniques have been adopted throughout the region, and French grape varieties have found some of their best worldwide expressions in Tuscany.  A piece of France, sublimated in the heart of Italy. Today the Super Tuscans are truly the people and vignerons who have given us the best of both worlds.
Keen to try some examples? I’ve asked Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media, and former lead critic of the Wine Advocate covering Italy, to give us a selection of so-called Super Tuscans:
Under the Radar Wines to Look For:
Ampeleia Ampeleia (Cabernet Franc-based blend)
Affordable Gems:

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,085

    A fantastic article. It seems like the blend of a Super Tuscan is a free for all. This probably is a good thing. However, the consumer has to do their homework because of the multitude of blends. I guess it is like a box of chocolates, you don't know what you are going to get.

    Feb 20, 2015 at 1:14 PM

  • Snooth User: idnomiar
    949331 7

    Just a comment/correction: the Cabernet Sauvignon for Sassicaia was first planted in 1942 (not 1968, which was the year of the first commercial vintage) at Castiglioncello by Marchese Incisa della Rochetta. The wine was made for friends and family (initially using traditional Tuscan methods, such as Governo and large casks). The original wine (made in the 40's and 50's from Cabernet at Castiglioncello) was tough as nails, but on opening some of the bottles stashed years later, the Marchese realized the potential and began to commercialize the wine...

    Feb 20, 2015 at 5:04 PM

  • Snooth User: Winemaven
    45331 30

    Cabernet Sauvignon has been grown in Tuscany for over 200 years.
    Syrah has also been around for quite a long time.

    Feb 23, 2015 at 11:58 AM

  • Snooth User: LeifK
    947999 26

    Great article Julien, I really liked to read it!

    For me the term 'Super Tuscan' emerged from the need from the American market to have a Sangiovese based wine like Chianti given more structure, body, complexity and intensity in the flavours, mostly with the help of French grapes like Merlot and Cabernet.

    I think the term 'Super Tuscan' has served it's purpose, it's time to put that up on the shelf, and talk more about what grapes, soil, microclimate, what enologist and agronomist that has been involved in the making. It's perhaps easy to say, but everyone involved in Tuscan wines should work more on give each type of wine from Tuscany more identity and character, and not hide the wine behind the term 'Super Tuscan'. I agree with you, let us use the term for the wine makers in Tuscany, they are the real Super Tuscans!

    I would guess that the biggest part of the reason to create the IGT Toscana was created to give the big wine houses a possibility to avoid calling their great wines Table Wines. Today there are at least 6 different IGTs for Tuscany.

    I believe the denomination Chianti Classico DOCG even forbid wine makers to put any Trebbiano or Malvasia in to their Chiantis nowadays. Those two grapes had a good purpose of making the Chianti to a more versatile and every day wine for more kinds of dishes, not only read meat. A common practice of making Chianti wine in Chianti, that the Baron Ricasoli once put on paper and had it defined as the true Chianti.

    At a recent wine fair in Florence (Chianti Classico Collection) I tried a 100% Canaiolo that had lot's of aromas, a good relative structured body, intensity and persistence. It's not a grape to be underestimated, nor the Malvasia Nera.

    For me finding a well made wine based of 100% Sangiovese is close to heaven. It's not easy to make them, but a real gem to have them! (Which the Brunello wine makers has known for a long time)

    Leif Karlsson

    Feb 23, 2015 at 12:13 PM

  • Snooth User: Winemaven
    45331 30

    There's no "super Tuscan" designation on labels. What "Super Tuscan" really is, is a designation that indicates what it isn't.
    I would be careful with the terms "traditional" or "classic" etc. Traditions change.

    As the article points out, the IGT designation carries some misperceptions. Some of the greatest Chianti's are not Chianti's but are IGT wines. I suggest that the grapes/blends should be indicated on labels. There are too many different wines under the IGT rubric.

    I believe the Tuscans were probably making wine from Cabernet Sauvignon before there was a Brunello designation. I also believe we should drop the "international" style or grape from the vernacular. Bordeaux and Burgundy have, in essence, been making international style wines from international varietals for a long time.

    Sangiovese is not an easy grape to grow and make wine from. If it were there wouldn't be so much effort to blend it or to cheat (how many scandals involving a "little syrah" in the Brunello have there been?

    Also the rapid expansion of Brunello--the increase in designated growing areas and the sheer number of cases produced sine the 19th century has resulted in a dilution of quality. One has to be careful and the Brunello on the label is no guarantee of quality.

    Feb 23, 2015 at 1:28 PM

  • My sense is that before the moniker "Super Tuscan" came along, these wines were at first referred to as "Predicatos." A bit of history on that term can be found at:

    Feb 23, 2015 at 4:00 PM

  • Snooth User: steve666
    392767 156

    I try to buy only wines that either list their component varietals, or have published that information elsewhere. There is so much wine out there that I simply don't want to take a stab in the dark.

    Feb 26, 2015 at 7:33 PM

  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,085

    I agree with steve666. it is what I do and if I cannot come up with any info, then I opt to pass rather than getting an unwanted surprise.

    Feb 27, 2015 at 9:25 AM

  • Thanks for the positive feedback and comments everyone.
    Everyone seems to agree that Super Tuscans ARE what they're not. Rather confusing and not easy to get our heads around this. That's when a bit of history comes useful.
    I agree Winemaven, 'tradition' is redefined every day by vignerons. And Tuscans have shaken their old traditions a lot. That's is the beauty of the world of wine: diverse, and evolving...

    Mar 01, 2015 at 6:54 PM

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