The Super-Tuscan phenomenon has its origins in the 1968 bottling, by Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, owner of Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri, of a wine called Sassicaia. The idea, though, goes back much further. The Marchese says he retained ‘an indelible memory’ of tasting claret in barriques at his grandfather’s house at the beginning of World War I, and he rediscovered ‘that same bouquet’ 10 years later in a Cabernet from a friend’s Tuscan estate. On encountering these characteristics again in a 1924 Margaux, the Marchese made it his mission to create a wine with comparable ‘stature, harmony and tone’. In 1948 he planted Cabernet Sauvignon at Tenuta San Guido, with the aim of making a Bordeaux-style wine for the family to enjoy.
As his ambitions grew, the Marchese drafted in Giacomo Tachis, consultant oenologist at Antinori, to turn his artisanal wine into something to rival the best of Bordeaux. Tachis had spent time with revered oenologist Emile Peynaud in Bordeaux, learning about the use of French barriques, among other things. In 1972, after years of experimentation, the Marchese enlisted the help of his nephews Piero and Lodovico Antinori to market and distribute the new wine. As it happened, around the same time, the Antinoris were working on their own Super-Tuscan – a predominately Sangiovese blend with around 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon and later 5% of Cabernet Franc. This was to become Tignanello, with the first vintage, the 1971, released in 1974. Then, in 1978, came the Antinoris’ Solaia, a Bordeaux blend to which they would later add Sangiovese. Tachis was again the winemaker with the skill to realise the brothers’ vision.
All these wines either broke the rules or invented new ones
Younger brother Lodovico later left to set up on his own, releasing his first Bordeaux blend, Ornellaia, in 1985 and then, in 1987, the single-varietal Merlot, Masseto. All these wines either broke the rules or invented new ones – Tignanello, for example, had to be released as a vino da tavola because the Chianti Classico regulations forbade non-Italian varieties but also mandated the inclusion of white grapes alongside Sangiovese. Meanwhile, other producers began crafting 100% Sangiovese wines: Montevertine’s Le Pergole Torte, Fontodi’s Flaccianello della Pieve, Monsanto’s Fabrizio Bianchi Sangioveto Grosso and Isole e Olena’s Cepparello. In time, the critical and commercial success of such wines saw them become the main drivers for change in Tuscan wine.
As prices rose and acclaim for these wines grew over the years, two things happened in the mid-1990s: first, the creation of a new IGT (indicazione geografica tipica) for Tuscany, allowing producers greater freedom and flexibility; second, and more importantly for the quality and reputation of Chianti Classico, the requirement for white varieties was phased out and the use of up to 20% of Bordeaux varieties allowed. In 1996, 100% Sangiovese wines were also permitted.
The success of Sassicaia established Bolgheri, on the Tuscan coast, as a world-class wine-growing region, a fact that was reinforced by both Ornellaia and Masseto. Importantly, there were no rules here, either to follow or to break. Bolgheri DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) was only established in 1983, and then only for whites and rosés; by the time the regulations were revised to include red wines, in 1994, they formalised the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
There has since been an influx of producers to Bolgheri, all of whom want to make their own version of a Super-Tuscan; the Bolgheri DOC consorzio now has 65 members, including such famous names as Ca’ Marcanda, Le Macchiole, Argentiera and, another Antinori estate, Guado al Tasso.
The influence of the Super-Tuscans has spread beyond Bolgheri and Chianti Classico. Tua Rita’s 100% Merlot Redigaffi, an IGT Toscana from Tuscany’s Upper Maremma area, and Luca d’Attoma’s 100% Cabernet Franc Duemani, an IGP (indicazione geografica protetta) Costa Toscana wine, have also acquired cult status. And in 2001 Lodovico and Piero Antinori reunited to establish the Tenuta di Biserno estate in Bibbona, on the border with Bolgheri. These wines and others are expanding the boundaries of Tuscan wine into lesser-known areas, using the grape varieties best suited for their locations. And where a Super-Tuscan leads, many more will follow.
Sassicaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia set Tuscan wine and, ultimately, Italian wine on a new course that made the rest of the world pay attention
But what of those early pioneers today? In terms of style, Sassicaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia are quite different. Sassicaia is deeply coloured, like the very best Bordeaux in character but more towards Lafite and Haut-Brion in terms of weight and elegance, and with a wistful fragrance, delicacy and refinement. There is always a tantalising freshness and thrill of acidity that runs through the heart of Sassicaia – alcohol levels are never too high, and the texture is like liquid velvet, reminding me of the wines of Bruno Giacosa from Piedmont.
In 2002, Lodovico Antinori sold the Tenuta dell’Ornellaia estate to a Mondavi/Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi partnership, with the Frescobaldis eventually acquiring full ownership in 2005, when current estate director and winemaker Axel Heinz joined them. Throughout these changes, Ornellaia has retained its status. It is lavish and luxurious in style – much bolder, more deeply coloured and richer in flavour than Sassicaia or Tignanello, and often with higher alcohol. It is densely concentrated but balances this with a refined structure and pleasing freshness. It is classically aligned to the premiers crus classés of Bordeaux; and in the bold and generous way it sweeps across the palate, it reminds me particularly of Mouton Rothschild.
Tignanello is very different and expresses quintessential Sangiovese at its best. It is paler in colour and, in weight and texture, more akin to Burgundy than Bordeaux. The tannins are very fine, chalky, and silty – Sangiovese tannins, compared to the denser tannins of Cabernet. Tignanello is, as CEO Renzo Cotarella describes it, ‘a soulful wine’. For me, it has a beautiful, haunting quality of the vineyard etched in its memory.
All three wines have retained their iconic status and have become standard-bearers for Italian wine on the international stage. They remain highly sought after by collectors but have managed to cross over into popular culture; they are the favourite wines of A-list celebrities, too. But what is more impressive is that they continue to improve. Tasting back over four decades (see below), my scores from the most recent vintages show the quality of all three is better than ever.
Sassicaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia set Tuscan wine and, ultimately, Italian wine on a new course that made the rest of the world pay attention. They were Italy’s first contribution to the world of fine wine. Today, they are still some of the most sought-after and memorable wines you will ever drink.