The Birth of Super Tuscans: A Victory of Wine over Regulation

In 1935, France became the first country in the world to legally regulate where and how wine could be produced within its borders.  These regulations -- the AOC system -- restored consumer trust that had been frayed by several years of wine fraud.  Almost overnight, longstanding regional traditions became enforceable strictures.  And the cost to running against the grain was high.  For instance, a grower who had planted a white grape in a region that now only permitted red could only qualify for the lowly designation of Vin de Table or Table Wine.  Those who had already been growing the approved variety would sell as AOC wine and be able to sell for a higher price.  It was no coincidence that this style of regulation was created by the French: their winemaking has extraordinarily strong local traditions, with consensus about which grapes were best suited to which terroir.

Italy also has strong local traditions, but, unlike France, consensus has never been among them.  Thus, in 1963, when they adopted wine regulations -- the DOC system -- modeled after the French, the implementation was significantly more problematic.  Case in point is, the region of Chianti, which had always been an Italian standard-bearer.  Until well into the 19th century, there was little agreement about which grape varieties should be included in the DOC-certified Chianti.  In 1872, Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the second Prime Minister of Italy, weighed in with a recipe composed of mostly Sangiovese, but also including 10% white grapes (Malvasia or Trebbiano).  Even though Baron Ricasoli reportedly noted that the white grapes may not be essential, the DOC rules required the addition of 10-30% white grapes in order to qualify for Chianti DOC, perhaps as a nod to Baron Ricasoli, and perhaps as a nod to the region’s white grape growers as well.

It was immediately clear that the higher the percentage of white grapes included in a bottle of Chianti, the lower the quality.  As long as white grapes were required, producers could not hope to attain the high prices of other famous wine regions.  So, they focused on volume.  This was the Chianti of the straw-bottomed fiasco bottle.  It was cheap, easy-drinking stuff that served just as well to drink with dinner as it did a candle-holder on a red and white checked table cloth.  (Fun-fact:  the use of fiasco as a term for “complete failure” is derived from the Italian expression far fiasco, which literally translates ‘to fail to make a bottle’.)

Within every wine region, there are those who are content to make wine that is salable, and those who strive to make the best wine they can each year without regard to what sells.  The latter group in Chianti decided to eliminate the white grapes, forego the DOC designation, and sell their wines as Table Wine.  Pioneer labels like Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Tignanello even experimented with French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  These wines found little stigma in the designation of Table Wine, and quickly commanded prices well in excess of even the best Chiantis.  Perhaps there was still a little hostility to the term Table Wine, because not long after these wines became collector’s items, they were anointed “Super Tuscans,” a name that has stuck to this day.

In the end, the only real consensus that formed in Chianti was that the mandatory inclusion of white grapes was a bad thing.  The quality-conscious movement that gave rise to Super Tuscans prevailed over the bureaucracy of the DOC system and in 1995, the mandatory inclusion of white grapes was finally abandoned.  Chianti DOC must now be at least 80% Sangiovese, and the classification of IGT Toscana was created for those producers who wanted even more flexibility of the grapes they used.  By softening the constraints inherent in the French system, the great winemakers of Tuscany no longer have to eschew the DOC system to make super wines.

Just a Taste

The iconic Super Tuscans are very expensive, but you can get a taste of what they’re all about by trying other wines by the same, renowned producers.  Guidalberto, from the makers of Sassicaia, and Le Volte dell’Ornellaia from Ornellaia are reasonably priced examples of the style of wine that was compelling enough to get Italy to change its laws.  And that is no small feat