News, Super-Tuscan, Tuscany

The Super-Tuscan Snafu: Considering James Suckling’s list of Top 12 Tuscan wines from over 10 years ago.

When learning Italian, I have been told many times the most beautiful accent to learn is from Siena in Tuscany because Tuscans are the poets of Italy.

 

The language of wine in Tuscany is also very rich, with a long tradition of culture and history with interesting local idiosyncrasies, yet the recent past, dominated by James Suckling, Wine Spectator and their lists of Super-Tuscans, has left many in Tuscany not singing but mumbling.

 

Before I go any further, let’s get this out of the way. James Suckling was not the person to coin the word “Super-Tuscan”. It was used in a book co-authored by Nicholas Belfrage and Jancis Robinson called “Life beyond Lambrusco” (1985). It’s a common misconception in the wine trade, perhaps driven by James Suckling’s enthusiasm of Super-Tuscans during his time at Wine Spectator.

 

On his website, Suckling recently published his 12 Most Collectible Tuscan Wines from over ten years ago (Question: How many of these wines are NOT made from “international” varieties? Answer at the end of this post ):

Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli
Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Toscana Masseto
Antinori Toscana Solaia
Argiano Solengo
Castello dei Rampolla Toscana VIgna d’Alceo
Tenuta San Guido Bolgheri-Sassicaia Sassicaia
Avignonesi Toscana Vin Santo
Tua Rita Toscana Redigaffi
Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Ornellaia
Castello dei Rampolla Toscana Sammarco

 

It is clear he is a man of his time: perhaps a time when it was okay for bankers to talk about their bonuses in public and people did not hesitate drinking £120 bottles of wine for the label. Super-Tuscans were the obvious wines to get caught up in the bling.

 

 

If anyone was to ask what the wine was of the past 10 years, I’d have to say: Sassicaia. A misunderstood wine, a Bordeaux blend, often drunk way too early, but with brand recognition from non-wine trade (ie Normal person) second only to Jacob’s Creek. The cool name, the star on the label, about £100 per bottle and it makes a perfect gift to take for a dinner to impress the boss.

 

This is not through any particular promotion by Sassicaia. Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia is a genuine innovator in Italy with a long history and excellent wines. Is it worth the money? The same could be said about a lot of wines from Bordeaux. Let’s face it, the name Sassicaia is cool, sassy. It has a nice feel about it that most people like actually saying and it has its own appellation Bolgheri Sassicaia (from my experience with customers, pronounced as Bulgari). It rode the wave of hype of the time.

 

However, some of the wines on the list are obviously overblown and probably best drunk with a cigar, but I am not going to knock them solely because they are expensive and “international varieties”. Each to their own taste. As much as I love ADORE Sangiovese, I think Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah grown in Tuscan soil are unmistakeably Italian and do speak of the warmth of the land. These grapes are immigrants to Tuscany, but that does not mean they are second-class citizens.

 

Also it is worthwhile reflecting on the definition of Super-Tuscan.

 

According to usage, a Super Tuscan is a Tuscan-made wine that 1) does not meet requirements set forth by local appellation laws (in many cases, this is due merely to the fact that a given wine uses grape varieties not allowed by the appellation); or 2) has been intentionally declassified by the producer. While barrique aging is often used for Super Tuscans, barrique is not a sine qua non. Dr Jeremy Parzen

 

Super-Tuscan has had a legitimate role over the past 30 years as a way of innovating outside the Appellation laws. Barrique is seen as an “international” way to make wine, although it is not necessary, but does give the wine a “Bordeaux” polish which is something I question, as much as I question too much reliance on oak in any wine to express a style. To confuse things further, one of my favourite wines of all time, Le Pergole Torte, is 100% Sangiovese but made outside of the Chianti system and it is one of the original Super-Tuscans.

 

So what’s the problem? The Super-Tuscan hangover has left some winemakers in Tuscany to suffer. Wine Spectator, partly responsible but also responding to its time, has created an image problem for Tuscany. When Tuscany is divided up between bulk supermarket Chianti and super-bling Super-Tuscans there is not a lot of places to go. The list of James Suckling is a time capsule; we are seeing the after-effects in a very different world.

 

My only hope is we are entering a post-credit crunch phase of authenticity for Tuscan wine, which is already happening with clonal selection and the emergence of quality from “new” regions such as Morellino di Scansano, and hopefully, the Tuscan spirit will do what it does best, which is only to sing deeper and keep moving forward.

 

Answer: Only 2 – Altesino Brunello and Avignonesi Vin Santo.

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