Thursday, March 24, 2016

Top 4 Things to Know About Super Tuscan Wines

If you’ve explored much Italian wine, you’ve heard the term “Super Tuscan,” but you may not have known what it means. It doesn’t mean a really good Tuscan wine...although it might also be a really good Tuscan wine.  

1.  Super Tuscans exist because of Italian wine regulations.

The Italian wine system of “denominations” is similar to the appellation system in France.  Italy names its wines after the region in which they are produced.  The smaller the region, the higher the quality.

The Italian wine regions on the map below are IGTs.  (However, no IGT-level wines are made in Piedmont or Aosta Valley.)  These IGT regions contain DOCs and DOCGs within them.  For example, Tuscany (Toscana IGT) has 33 DOC and 9 DOCG regions within it.

Each level of classification carries requirements for grape variety, winemaking techniques, etc.  The most elite categories (the smallest regions) have the strictest rules.  The goal is to ensure a standard of quality and give consumers confidence that if a wine says “Chianti DOCG” (the most famous DOCG in Tuscany), it meets those high standards and will generally taste like a Chianti.  

But what if a winemaker wants to experiment with a different grape or technique?  If the requirements of the highest quality level (DOCG or DOC) are not met, the wine must be labeled with the larger region, which will have a lower quality classification and fewer restrictions (IGT).  The origins of the name “Super Tuscan” are disputed, but it has been used since at least the 1980s to refer to wines that use unapproved grape varieties in Tuscany.  These are wines that could otherwise be DOCs or DOCGs, except they include the "wrong" grape variety and must be labeled as IGT. Despite the lower classification, Super Tuscans have a reputation for high quality and have often commanded high prices.

2.  They use non-traditional grapes.

While Sangiovese is the traditional Italian grape of the region, the Super Tuscans started by blending in popular international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Today, a Super Tuscan might be made from 100% Sangiovese, 100% another grape, or a blend of several grapes.  The grape varieties and blends are up to the producers.  The end result tends to be a big, red, powerful wine with rich flavors.  Personally, I love them.

3.  The term may be losing its meaning.

Though Italian wine law must continue to protect its indigenous varieties and traditional wine styles, it must also adapt to modern techniques and improvements in quality.  The great success of the Super Tuscans has driven changes in the law such that some Super Tuscans now qualify as DOC or DOCG wines, because limited amounts of non-Italian grape varieties have been approved.  For example, many Super Tuscans now come from the Bolgheri DOC on the Tuscan coast.  

Winemakers also recognize that as Super Tuscans are produced in a variety of regions, with a variety of grapes, the name and the style begin to lose their identity.  One solution has been to focus on the naming and branding of specific winemaker’s blends.  Many Super Tuscans are labeled this way, with the branded blend in quotation marks, like Castello di Fonterutoli “Siepi” Toscana IGT.  Another solution has been to develop the unique identity of the smaller regions within Tuscany which are producing these wines, such as Bolgheri.  These moves make sense, because these winemakers are not only trying to differentiate their product, but also want their wines to reflect a sense of place.

4.  Beyond Tuscany…

Other regions in Italy are adopting the Super Tuscan approach and using unapproved grapes or unorthodox techniques to make high quality wines labeled as IGTs.  The Veneto (Veronese IGT) has several producers doing this.  They do not yet have a catchy title.  (Super Veneto?  Molto Veneto?)

At a recent wine tasting I sampled Super Tuscans and innovative IGT-level wines from the Veneto, and I can recommend all the ones I tried. They were delicious and could all age for quite a few years (even the white).

From Tuscany:

Banfi Tuscany "ASKA"
Grape Variety:  Predominately Cabernet Sauvignon with a lesser percentage of Cabernet Franc.
Region:  Bolgheri
Denomination:  Bolgheri Rosso DOC
Winemaking:  "Brief maceration in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks for approximately 12-14 days.  Once the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations are complete, the wine is aged for 10 months in oak barrels, followed by bottle aging."

From the Veneto:

Bolla "Torr’Alta"
Grape varieties:  Corvina, Rondinella, Merlot, Cabernet
Region:  Veneto
Denomination:  Veronese Rosso IGT
Winemaking:  "The majority of the grapes are vinified in steel tanks with cold maceration for 2 days to extract the fruity aromas and to obtain a vivacious color.  A selection of Merlot and Cabernet grapes are dried.  This is followed by vinification and then aging for 1 year in new oak barrels and then aging in the bottle for a few months."

Bolla "Creso"
Grape varieties:  65% Corvina, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon
Region:  Veneto
Denomination:  Veronese Rosso IGT
Winemaking: "Fresh Corvina and partially dried (40 days) Cabernet Sauvignon are vinified to create a cuvĂ©e of truly special elegance and structure.  The fermentation takes place between November and December and lasts about 15 days.  The wine then ages in French barriques (new and 1 year old) for about 12 months.  Creso is then further matured in the bottle for about 6 months."

Sartori di Verona "Regolo"
Grape varieties:  100% Corvina
Region:  Veneto
Denomination:  Veronese Rosso IGT
Winemaking:  "Select grapes are gently pressed, then undergo skin maceration at low temperatures for 8-10 days.  In February the wine rests on Amarone pomace, which enhances the wine’s aromatics and aging potential.  After malolactic fermentation, the wine ages for approximately 18-24 months in medium- to large-sized oak casks, followed by a minimum of 4 months’ bottle refinement before release."

Sartori di Verona "Ferdi"
Grape varieties:  100% Garganega
Region:  Veneto
Denomination:  Blanco Veronese IGT
Winemaking:  "A 'white Amarone.' Select hand-picked grapes are dried for 40 days to reduce water and concentrate sugar content and color.  The grapes are then pressed, followed by short skin maceration at a low temperature.  Part of the must is fermented in oak casks, with the remainder in stainless steel.  The wine then matures on its lees for 6-7 months for added mouthfeel, flavor, and intensity.  A minimum of 4 months’ bottle refinement follows."

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