On St Patrick’s Day 2011 I was not downing the traditional Guinness or Jameson’s but rather, indulging my love for wine and my love for learning about wine – at Edinburgh Cellars in Adelaide, where Jacopo Pandolfini presented a range of Antinori’s wines. On booking my spot for this tasting, I looked up Antinori Estates and found the connection to the label ‘Super Tuscan’. I was keen to learn more from one of key Super Tuscan producers and of course to taste some examples.
To understand more about the wines, Jacopo talked us through the history of Tuscan wines and the birth of the so-called Super Tuscans. Jacopo is the son of a winemaker and the godson of Piero Antinori, who is considered to be one of the four key people who turned the focus of Italian wine from quantity to quality in the 1960s and 1970s. Remember the Chianti bottle wrapped in straw – the best candle holder in the world he said! It was generally a very tannic, acidic, easy-drinking sangiovese, which had to go with food.
Piero, his uncle Niccolo Incisa from Sassicaia, his brother Ludovico Antinori from Ornellaia and friend Angelo Gaja from Piedmont are the four people considered to be the fathers of modern quality wine production in Italy. They introduced new winemaking techniques, clonal selection, and a change in focus towards quality and the ability to age wines, learning from the French where this had long been the focus for the premium end of the market. This had not been the case in Italy where the norm was to produce table wine.
Chianti has always been made predominantly from sangiovese. However, it surprised me to find out that it used to be required for Chianti wines to include white grapes, and it was made in big casks. These wines could not last a long time, and Piero wanted to make better quality wines that would age well. He wanted to get rid of the white grapes, make the wine in barriques, be more selective about the clones he used, and to add other red grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon and created Tignanello in 1971, a blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. A few years before, in 1968, he sent his winemaker to assist in the production of Sassicaia, a blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon and one of the most amazing wines in the world in my humble opinion! I tried one recently and was told before tasting that it would be like ‘sex in the glass’. It more than lived up to this! Any wine lover should try this at least once in their lifetime.
Jacopo told us that the name Super Tuscan was coined by the Americans and includes Tignanello, Ornellaia, Solaia and Sassicaia, all produced in Tuscany and not following any rules other than having to be made from grapes typical to the region. They are full-bodied wines (by Italian comparisons – not necessarily by Australian!) and ‘super’ good.
We started our tasting with a very pleasant white called Campogrande Orvieto Classico – a blend of five local white grapes. Though a 2009, the wine was fresh and floral with a mineral character. Tuscany is not known for its white wines – this white is from a town called Orvieto in the neighbouring region of Umbria, a region famous for easy-drinking white wines. It has similarities to Chablis in its mineral soils, producing the mineral characteristic in its wines.
The most awarded white wine (for the Gambero Rosso, Italy’s major wine guide) in Italy is also from this area and is a chardonnay and grechetto called Cervaro. Made in the Chablis style it can easily age for 20 years.
All of the rest of the wines we tried were based on sangiovese, the most produced red grape in Italy. The three main areas in Tuscany for sangiovese are Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano. More about these below but a quick note about the wine classification system which is important in understanding these wines.
Originally there were the DOC, the DOCG and vino de tavola (table wine). The first two categories were essentially linked to appellations and the table wine had far fewer restrictions and was associated with lower quality. There were rules surrounding DOC and DOCG wines and if broken then the wines would only be allowed to be sold as table wine. So for example if cabernet sauvignon was added to sangiovese it could not be called a Chianti, but would have to be reclassified as a table wine, even if it was so good that the cost was four times as much. The same was true with Tignanello (the first sangiovese/cabernet blend), Ornellaia and Sassicaia – they were costing hundreds of thousands of lira so the government came up with a new category – IGT (meaning Indicazione Geografica Tipica – typical geographical indication).
IGT is not related to an appellation. The grapes just have to come from that region and be typically cultivated in that region, e.g. Tuscany. It is not tasted at all to pass any tests. The table wine category remains – this wine cannot be called IGT because it uses grapes from other regions too. So for example, a wine with malbec cannot be called IGT Toscana because malbec is not typical to that region.
I was interested to learn that most wines from Tuscany are blends. This is because the dominant grape, sangiovese, is a late ripening grape and it is difficult to pick it perfectly ripe, especially in Chianti because this is the coolest region where it ripens latest. To avoid the rain it needs to be picked, often too acidic and too green, so other grapes are added to give roundness and balance and to counter the acidity of the sangiovese. This is because of the lack of clonal selection in previous years to find clones best suited to this cooler climate.
The regions and rules
As stated above, the three main areas in Tuscany for sangiovese are Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano. Here is an overview of regional characteristics and blending rules:
- Due to its high altitude, this is the coolest of the three regions and the latest to ripen.
- Wines must contain at least 80% sangiovese and any of six red grapes up to 20% (the six include cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah). No white grapes are allowed.
- Wines must be aged for a minimum of one year before sale. It can be released on 1 October of the following year from bottling.
- Located in south-east Tuscany, it is far from the sea but the large Lake Trasimeno helps to keep temperatures warmer in winter and cooler in summer. This helps with ripening so the grapes are more tannic and less acidic than in Chianti.
- Wines must contain at least 70% sangiovese and any of the six red grapes listed above.
- Wines must be aged for a minimum of two years before sale.
- Located closer to the sea and at a lower altitude, sangiovese ripens first in the three regions. The grape skins are thicker here, giving more tannins.
- These wines must be 100% sangiovese – the grapes always ripen in Montalcino so there is no need for blending.
- Since these are powerful tannic wines, they must be aged for five years to be released, and six years for the riserva.
Back to the wines we tried…
Jacopo took us through a range of sangiovese-dominated wines:
- 2006 Santa Cristina Sangiovese (sangiovese 90%, merlot 10%)
- 2006 Villa Antinori Toscana Rosso (sangiovese 60%, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah)
- 2007 Peppoli Chianti Classico (sangiovese 90%, merlot and syrah 10% together)
- 2006 Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva (sangiovese 90%, cabernet sauvignon 10%)
- 2005 Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico (sangiovese 100%)
- 2003 Pian delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino (sangiovese 100%)
Jacopo talked about these wines, saying in general they are made to go with food, being dry, tannic and savoury. We started with the 2006 Santa Cristina and worked our way down the list (and up in price!). This he called a traditional Tuscan every-day wine. Garnet/cherry red in colour I found it savoury with a cutting acidity and pleasant red berry flavours. The 2006 Villa Antinori Toscana Rosso, which went from being a Chianti Classico Riserva to an IGT in 2001, was a little rounder.
The next three Chianti Classico were all a step up and I would have been happy to have them with or without food. The Peppoli had a mellow mid-palate and soft tannins and is Antinori’s most successful wine in Australia. I found it had a fragrant and complex nose dominated by red fruits and florals, with a touch of ripe berries and mint. The soft palate of pleasing raspberry and spice was long, and the balanced acidity and soft tannins were evident.
The 2006 Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva had a bit more body and a sweeter flavour. I got purple berries on the nose and palate. An elegant wine, it was all in balance with soft tannins and cleansing acidity.
The 2003 Pian delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino gave me a ripe nose, and very pleasing savoury, earthy notes and a strong whiff of licorice.
All of the wines were good, my three picks were the Chianti Classicos but I also loved the Brunello – oh heck I couldn’t really pick!
And finally, a couple of interesting snippets…
- With Ste Michelle Wine Estates, the Antinori family owns Stag’s Leap Estate, one of the leading (and most famous) wineries in Napa Valley, California.
- For the first 40 years of the 20th century, Antinori supplied wine to the Italian royal family.