Culinary Arts

What Is a Super Tuscan Wine? Learn About the Unique History of This Italian Red Wine

Written by MasterClass

Jul 1, 2019 • 4 min read

New wine styles are rare, especially ones that shake up the wine establishment in a country with as long a viticultural history as Italy. But that’s what happened when a few iconoclastic winemakers created a global craze for Super Tuscan wines, a remix of French grapes with Italian terroir. Super Tuscans dominated the market in the 1980s and still remain a powerful force in the highest echelons of the wine world today.

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What Is a Super Tuscan Wine?

Super Tuscan refers to a style of red wine that originated in Tuscany, Italy, in the early 1970s. Many examples come from the region of Maremma, on the Tyrrhenian Sea coast in the southwest of Tuscany. The earliest Super Tuscan wines were high quality red wines made by noble winemaking families that did not fit into the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) classification system because they used grapes not allowed by the rules of the DOCs in the region.

Super Tuscan wines vary in style, but the influence of Bordeaux is apparent in their use of new oak barrels and French grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot in addition to sangiovese, the classic grape of Tuscany. The best Super Tuscans are rich and full-bodied, with well-integrated tannins and spice from oak, and can age for decades. Inexpensive examples can be found, but the most iconic Super Tuscans routinely appear on wine lists for hundreds of dollars a bottle.

What Are the Origins of Super Tuscan Wines?

Winemaking is Tuscany is an ancient practice, but the Super Tuscan style is a recent invention. Super Tuscans came about in the early 1970s when winemakers began making wines that did not conform to the rules for appellation wines of the region, such as Chianti DOC. The first of these wines was Sassicaia from Tenuta San Guido in the village of Bolgheri, which was a Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc released in 1971.

Because it used French grapes (the so-called “international varieties”) rather than the traditional Italian grapes of the region, the wine was relegated to the least prestigious level of classification, Vino da Tavola. Another wine, 1974’s Tignanello from Antinori in Florence, was labeled Vino da Tavola because it was made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes when the Chianti appellation rules specified that white grapes must be blended into the wine. To entice customers to buy Vino da Tavola wine, the producers used proprietary names so that consumers could remember the wine by brand, rather than by appellation. Many producers use the suffix “-aia,” which refers to a vacant plot of land in Italian, in their proprietary names to indicate that the wine is a Super Tuscan. Other examples include Ornellaia, Rondinaia, and Solaia.

Wine writer Burt Anderson may have been the first to call these wines “Super Tuscans,” and the name caught on as the wines continued to grow in popularity in the 1980s. The producers of these wines aged them in expensive Bordeaux-style small oak barrels called barriques, which lead to more pronounced flavors of vanilla and spice, emulating the great wines of France. English-speaking consumers were happy to not have to worry about learning complicated Italian appellation rules: just ask for a Super Tuscan and get a wine made in the popular international style.

The Italian government recognized the success of Super Tuscan wines in 1992 by creating a new wine quality classification, Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). IGT wines were ranked higher than Vino da Tavola but lower than DOC or DOCG wines. IGT wines were allowed to use grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah, that were banned in the stricter appellations. Two years later, Bolgheri DOC changed its rules to allow certain international varieties, a move which finally integrated Super Tuscan wines into the DOC system.

How Is a Super Tuscan Wine Different Than a Chianti?

Super Tuscans and Chiantis are both types of red wine made in Tuscany. The difference between a Super Tuscan wine and Chianti is DOC status, a legal designation given to wines that adhere to strict guidelines. For a wine to be labeled as Chianti DOC, it must be made from at least 80 percent sangiovese grapes that are grown in one of the approved Chianti areas that lay between the cities of Florence, Sienna, and Arezzo.

Super Tuscans don’t follow the strict rules of the Chianti appellation and can be made entirely from sangiovese, or can include or be made entirely from international grapes like cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, and syrah. Super Tuscans are labeled IGT, a designation that came about in 2013 and that indicates a lower quality level. This does not mean, however that Super Tuscans are cheaper than Chiantis—quite the opposite, even the best Chiantis do not usually reach the high prices commanded by the top Super Tuscans.

How to Taste Super Tuscan Wines With James Suckling

Ask for a Super Tuscan wine like Tignanello at your wine shop. Taste the bottle side by side with single-varietal wines made from the components of the Super Tuscan, like a bottle of sangiovese from Chianti and an Italian cabernet sauvignon. Can you taste the elements that each of the single grapes bring to the Super Tuscan blend?

Suckling also recommends the following Super Tuscans to taste:

  • Sassicaia 2004 — Tenuta San Guido (Tuscany, Italy). The first Super Tuscan, made from cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc on Italy’s coast. Very Bordeaux-like, elegant and iconic wine
  • Oreno 2013 — Tenuta Sette Ponti (Tuscany, Italy) Blend: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot. One of Italy’s top Super Tuscan reds made next door to James’s house in Tuscany. Mouth-filling but mineral-driven
  • Crognolo Super Tuscan Blend, 2016 — Tenuta Sette Ponti (Tuscany, Italy)

Learn more about wine appreciation in James Suckling’s MasterClass.