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Super Tuscan tasting
No, a Super Tuscan is not an Italian version of Superman. But it's a super kind of Italian wine, based in spirit on the historic Chianti but boasting a modern history that began hardly a generation ago.
The Italian wine industry is very old, with its roots reaching back to ancient Rome and Greece; and Chianti has been made in Tuscany for well over 600 years. But it was only in the 1970s that the Italian wine industry and government finally set up specific regulations aimed at ensuring the quality and preserving the tradition of the best Italian regional wines.
To earn the right to label a wine "Chianti," for example, a producer had to follow the rules much as they had been laid out in the 14th century and refined during the 1800s: The grapes had to be grown within the strictly defined boundaries of this Tuscan region. Only an approved blend of grapes dominated by red Sangiovese could be used, and specific rules were set down for barrel aging.
These strict rules ensured a consistent product, but they also frustrated more innovative wine makers who wanted to experiment with variations on the theme. During the late 1970s and early '80s, an increasing number of them said the Italian equivalent of "the heck with it." They dropped the white Malvasia out of the mix, added French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to the blend, and aged the wine in pricey French oak barrels.
Just as the regulators had feared, the wines - given proprietary names like Sassicaia and Tignanello and Ornellaia - were distinctly different from Chianti. But neither the critics nor the wine-buying public seemed to mind. The new wines sold out fast, even though the law permitted them to be labeled only as "Vino da Tavola" ("table wine"), a low-end classification that suddenly gained cachet.
Super Tuscans have earned a permanent place on the Italian wine landscape, and the combination of critical acclaim, demand and relatively limited supply has made this niche a spendy one, with prices for the most sought-after new releases approaching the three-figure range.
It was my pleasure to preside over a recent tasting in Louisville of eight very fine Tuscan wines - five Super Tuscans, a fine Chianti Classico, and one each of Chianti's cousins, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and, perhaps Tuscany's finest wine of all, Brunello di Montalcino. Thanks to Republic National Distributing Company of Kentucky for providing the venue and the wines at its annual portfolio tasting.
Here's a look at the wines. I regret that, since I was doing the talking, I was unable to take notes. All the wines were well-made and enjoyable, though; many, save for the elegant Brunello, were made in an intensely extracted "modern" style, but even there, complexity and balance saved the day. I wouldn't pour any of them out of my glass.
Tenuta Trerose 2004 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
A blend of Tuscany's Sangiovese and Canaiolo with French Cabernet Sauvignon, this is not a Super Tuscan but a traditional blend with a French twist from Montepulciano in southeastern Tuscany.
Ricasoli 2001 Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico
Again, under the new rules, a classic Chianti may now add the French Merlot and Cabernet - in limited proportions - to the traditional Sangiovese.
Tenuta Setti Ponti 2005 Oreno
First true "Super Tuscan" on the list, Oreno blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot with Tuscany's Sangiovese.
Tenute Caparzo 2003 Brunello di Montalcino
A true classic, made entirely from Sangiovese Grosso, the specific "clone" of Sangiovese that's the hallmark of Brunello. Lighter in color than the other wines on the table, it was intense yet subtle and elegant. My favorite of the group.
Tenuta di Biserno 2006 Insoglio del Cinghiale
A Super Tuscan that drops the Italian grapes entirely, blending the Rhone grape Syrah with the Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petite Verdot.
Gaja 2005 Ca' Marcanda Magari
Another all-French blend - Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc - from a highly regarded producer.
Tenuta San Guido 2006 Guidalberto
The (comparatively) low-end bottling from the maker of Sassicaia, it's a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Tenuta San Guido 2005 Sassicaia
The original Super Tuscan, produced commercially since the 1960s, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Deep, dark and intense, it's a blockbuster of an internationally styled wine.
Tenuta dei Pianali 2005 "Coronato" Bolgheri ($65)
Finally, here are my notes on still another Super Tuscan, tasted at home with medium-rare Green River Kentucky rib eye steaks:
Very dark ruby. Black fruit, fresh but not overripe plums, cherries and currants and a hint of licorice ... Bordeaux grapes, all or in part? Good black-fruit flavor and zippy acidity, full and fresh, with just a touch of smooth tannins in the finish. It carries its 14% alcohol well, without obvious harshness or heat. Good wine, comes into its own with medium-rare natural rib eye steaks; but its retail price tag would have to be justified by cellar maturity. U.S. importer: Wilson Daniels Ltd., St. Helena, Calif. (Sept. 11, 2008)
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