Tuscan risorgimento

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 60

It is one of the oldest storeys around: rebels kick at the Establishment, make their fortune, then join the Establishment. Whether it's rock stars buying country estates or soixante-huitards becoming bankers, the pattern is the same. In wine, the picture is only slightly complicated by the fact that the rebels originally came from impeccably establishment backgrounds. But they too had their right-on moment.

The rebels in question are the so-called Super-Tuscans: wines that emerged in Tuscany in the 1970s and 1980s as a reaction to the underwhelming quality that prevailed in the region at the time. The wine laws of the day stifled innovation: winemakers who wanted to take Tuscany forwards had to accept that their wines could not have the DOC (Denominazione di Orgine Controllata) badge that, like France's Appellation Contrôlée, was supposed to mark out the best wines. So the dissenters settled for the lowest denomination of all: Vino da Tavola. They shouted their rebellion from the rooftops and charged sky-high prices. Not surprisingly, people queued in the streets to buy them. The success of the wine was enormous; the rout of the opposition complete.

Now, 30 or 40 years later, we have come satisfyingly full-circle. Some of the rebels have their own DOCs, having forced a change in the law; some have shrugged and opted for lesser denominations. Their effect on Italian wine has been so dramatic that it hardly matters: nobody buys Sassicaia because of its DOC.

Sassicaia was the original Super-Tuscan. The first vintage, surprisingly, was 1941, but only with the 1968 vintage was it sold commercially. Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta had planted vines for fun on his estate in Bolgheri, near the sea. And instead of planting Tuscany's main red grape, Sangiovese, he planted Cabernet Sauvignon, the great grape of the Médoc – for the simple reason that he loved Bordeaux.

Tuscany promptly went wild for Cabernet. In 1971, Rocchetta's nephew, Piero Antinori, launched Tignanello, which included some Cabernet. Some years later, in 1985, Piero's brother Lodovico launched his own Bolgheri red, Ornellaia, into a market that was by then somewhat crowded with Super-Tuscans.

The success of French winemaking techniques and French grapes prodded growers into looking again at Sangiovese, and into improving both their viticulture and their winemaking. They discovered that if they applied to Sangiovese what had been learnt from Cabernet, the wines could be just as good. Tuscany is still busy arguing about grape varieties, but the quality war has been won – and by both sides.

Where are the Super-Tuscans now? Sassicaia is still the most elegant of its peers. It is Cabernet that tastes Italian through and through: you could never describe it as international. It is polished, precise, refined, succulent, delicate – yet concentrated and powerful, for all that. The 2015 vintage, released last February, is superb: it wears its power with the ease of an Armani suit.

Ornellaia, launched in the shadow of Sassicaia in both a vinous and family sense, always had to try harder to impress. It is a punchier, showier wine, riper and richer; yet now a greater effortlessness seems to be prevailing. "We have the confidence to do less," says Ornellaia's winemaker Axel Heinz. Tignanello, the other family rebel, is mostly Sangiovese, aromatic with fennel and leather, wild herbs and fruit. Like the others, it ages superbly.

Other great Super-Tuscans, like Le Pergole Torte, for example, or Cepparello, or Flaccianello della Pieve are still flourishing. Tipicità is what high-end consumers demand now: the greatest Super-Tuscans were always Tuscan through and through – whatever their labels said.

The award-winning wine writer, Margaret Rand, is Editor of Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book and co-author of Grapes and Wines (Pavilion).

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