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I vividly remember a childhood dinner in London’s Soho with my grandparents in the early 1990s. Long gone now, Topo Gigio was a Soho trattoria in the oldest sense: stale powdered Parmesan, soggy pasta, and warm Limoncello to finish. The image most indelibly branded into my memory is of hundreds of raffia-clad Chianti bottles hanging precariously from the ceiling — fiascos, to use the bottles’ actual, and fitting, name — baking slowly in the summer heat, amid wafts of cigarette smoke and burnt garlic.
For years, the reputation of Italian wine outside Italy was characterized by mass-market exports like these Chianti fiascos and Riunite, a sweet Lambrusco. Indeed, from the 1960s and into the 1970s, Italian wine was generally either excellent or rather poor. The greatest producers in Piedmont and Tuscany were crafting spectacular Barolo and Brunello, but many winemakers, particularly in Tuscany, were caught between the aristocratic and inflexible rigor of Brunello, and the sloppier definitions of Chianti, which allowed for a high percentage of white grapes, limited the percentage of Sangiovese, and forbade international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
Frustrated with these restrictions, a small group of would-be Chianti producers chose to craft wine to their taste and that of the growing international wine market, changing the course of Italian winemaking history in the process. While still not an official designation — most are officially classified as IGT [Indicazione Geographica Tipica] Toscana or Bolgheri DOC [Denominazione di Origine Controllata], classifications developed in the early 90s in response to their success — the 'Super Tuscans' are nonetheless among Italy’s most acclaimed and coveted wines, with names like Sassicaia and Ornellaia as recognizable among collectors as Screaming Eagle and DRC.
Super Tuscans were the diametric opposite of the light, insipid Chiantis that the region had become known, and at times mocked, for
Sassicaia was officially the first Super Tuscan. Its story began in the 1940s when Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines on his estate in Bolgheri to test how the local, maritime Tuscan terroir would respond to classic Bordeaux varieties. The resulting wine was initially kept for private family use, but after years of encouragement from family and peers, the 1968 vintage of Sassicaia was released commercially in 1971. The same year, Antinori produced Tignanello, a Sangiovese-heavy blend which also included Bordeaux varietals.
The reaction to Sassicaia and Tignanello had a profound impact on winemaking in the region, and during the next decade a number of Tuscan wineries began experimenting with their own Super Tuscans. Broadly speaking, this meant incorporating Bordeaux varietals, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, and using little to no white grapes, for cuvées deep in color with smoky, thick-skinned character. These were the diametric opposite of the light, insipid Chiantis that the region had become known, and at times mocked, for.
These wines were followed by such icons as Antinori’s Solaia, a more Cab-heavy blend launched in 1978, and Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia’s Ornellaia in 1985. Their success proved in many ways that the notion of terroir was fluid, that Tuscan hillsides weren’t restricted to Sangiovese and could in fact yield Cabernet as noble and high-toned as that of the Medoc.
With the case for Cab having been convincingly made, Merlot came next in 1986 in the form of Masseto, a single-vineyard, site-specific 100 per cent Merlot from Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia. If Sassicaia and Solaia’s inspiration came from Lafite or Latour, Masseto could be seen to be a bold vision of Bolgheri’s own Pétrus — a sumptuous, silken wine of inimitable concentration and finesse (and the requisite hefty price tag). The long journey from straw-clad fiasco to single-vineyard specificity was complete.
Today the quality of Chianti and Brunello from the region has improved to hitherto unimaginable levels (and Chianti laws adapted to allow many of the Super Tuscans if they wished), so Super Tuscans have much competition from their indigenous ancestors and conversation rages around the idea of 'authenticity' in the region. What is indisputable is that the advent of these innovative wines allowed Tuscany to find itself at the forefront of fine wine dialogue for the last 30 years.
Five Classic Super Tuscans from our Fall Arrival Auction
One of the great vintages of Tignanello from the 1980s. A deep, arresting purple in youth, this wine is now resolved, delicate and in full maturity.
Power and structure are tempered with elegance in the superb 1989, which is about as close as a Tuscan wine could be to Bordeaux. Earth, minerals and leather characterize this fully mature Solaia, which is rare to find in case quantity.
Unless you’re happy to spend well north of $1000 per bottle on the legendary 1985, 1990 is perhaps the greatest fully mature vintage of this, the original Super Tuscan. Here, we’re offering a full case in pristine condition with great provenance.
An excellent, and underrated, Masseto from a vintage that is often overlooked. A little more structured and angular than some of the riper Masseto vintages, this is an archetype of elegance.
Ripe fruit, abundant tannin and a sense of exoticism characterize the 1995 Ornellaia. This slow-to-mature vintage is now approaching its zenith, its once backward sturdiness softening into rounded complexity.
Visit Christie’s Wine Online Fall Arrival Auction to discover these five Super Tuscans and other exceptional wines, now through September 15.
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