Did I just say budget Super-Tuscan? Isn't this one of those contradictions in terms, like "jumbo shrimp"?
Well, maybe. It's certainly true that most of the wines in this much-publicized Italian category are found at the pricey end of the retailer's shelf. The sought-after Ornellaia, for instance, will set you back a cool $100 for the 2000 vintage. Antinori's Tignanello, one of the pioneering entries in this category, will run around $60, although pricing varies wildly, so high-rollers in pursuit of a Tig' experience would be well advised to shop around.
But what's a Super-Tuscan anyway? Nowhere is it written (although "Super" certainly implies it) that this has to be a high-end wine.
Let's take our wine time machine back 25 years or so, to the birth of the Super-Tuscan niche, for a fresh look at a concept that's still relatively new. The 1970s was a time of, er, ferment in the world wine industry. The Baby Boom was reaching adulthood, and the Western world was seeing an awakening interest in good food and wine. Around the world, and certainly in Italy, wine producers were modernizing and marketing; and in some of the most traditional wine regions, they began questioning the conventional wisdom.
There's probably no wine region more traditional than Tuscany, where Chianti traces its vinous heritage back to the 1400s, a 600-year tradition that was firmly enshrined in law. If you wanted to make a Chianti, you would make it the old-fashioned way, using the traditional grapes and making them in the historic style.
But more than a few Tuscan producers wanted to try new things. A little Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend with the traditional Sangiovese? A taste of Merlot? A red blend made without the dose of white Trebbiano and Malvasia Biance grapes that the law required? Or even a little time spent acquiring the rare perfume of French oak barrels? Hoping to compete in the luxury market with the top wineries of France and elsewhere, Tuscan wine makers wanted to play.
But if the wine wasn't made by the Chianti method, it couldn't be called Chianti, even if it remained recognizably Tuscan in style. Nor could it bear the sought-after "Denominazione di Origine Controllata" designation on the label, indicating that the wine met the traditional standard for the source of its grapes and the purity of its technique.
Instead, turning necessity into a virtue, the innovative producers proudly claimed the simple "Vino da Tavola" ("Table Wine") designation that had previously been reserved for the cheapest, simplest wines, presenting them not as the bottom end of their portfolio but the top.
These new styles quickly captured the taste of that increasingly sophisticated wine-buying public, and the nickname "Super-Tuscan" was born.
Now, a generation later, the tradition-based wine laws are catching up with reality. A new wine-labeling category, IGT (an Italian acronym for "Indication of Geographical Type") permits broad variations under the regional label "Toscano" or "Toscana" ("Tuscan"). And the Chianti law itself has been simplified. Gone is the old, precise formula recipe with Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Trebbiano and Malvasia; the Chianti rule now simply calls for Sangiovese (at least 80 percent, up to a full 100 percent), with the balance to be of "other local red varieties" - not excluding Cabernet or Merlot. The change was intended to encourage at least some "Super-Tuscan" producers to begin marketing their top wines as Chianti again, and it appears to be working.
Today's featured wine, a Tuscan IGT from the historic and respected house of Mazzei in Fonterutoli, contains 80 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent each Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; like the more pricey Super-Tuscans, it spends time (9 months) in the small French oak barrels called "barriques." In contrast with the higher-end Super-Tuscans, though, it is made to drink young and fresh, and it's made to sell at a reasonably affordable price point in the range of $10 to $15. Is this "super"? It works for me!
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Mazzei 2001 Poggio alla Badiola Toscana ($12.99)
This is a very dark garnet wine, showing bright reddish-orange glints against the light. Typical Tuscan-red aromas blend ripe black-cherry fruit with "sweet," earthy hints of leather. Mouth-filling and luscious, tart cherries and snappy lemon come together in a fruity flavor profile with good acid balance, with fresh, lemony acidity outlasting juicy fruit in the finish. U.S. importer: William Grant & Sons Inc., NYC. (March 18, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: The dark, earthy flavor of duck meat is a favorite with Sangiovese-based wines, and this one served well with a simple duck-leg confit used as topping for a dinner salad with Point Reyes blue cheese.
VALUE: Excellent value at this price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Best for enjoyment in its youth, but there's no real rush.
WEB LINK: The Mazzei Website is online in Italian and English, with the English language home page here:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Look for Mazzei wines on Wine-Searcher.com:
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Friday, March 19, 2004