What’s So “Super” About “Super-Tuscan” Reds?

SuperTuscanImage

With this week’s feature of two great wines from Castello dei Rampolla, including a sizzling great Chianti Classico and a very super “Super-Tuscan” Sammarco red, we know at least some of you have a couple of questions:

1) Who are these guys at Castello dei Rampolla?
2) What the heck is a “Super-Tuscan”?

Let’s take the second question first. Bear with us, because we’re going to need to cover some background and history before we actually answer the question.

The Power of Place Names

As you know, wine in Europe has a long, long, history. From Greek/Roman times through the mid-20th Century, neither consumers nor many wine growers knew much about how wine was made or what grapes it was made from. But they did know that wines from some places – say Burgundy, Rioja, or Chianti in Tuscany – tended to be better than most. So, wine lovers started searching out wines made from specific places with the expectation that a Bordeaux or Chianti would be better than other wines grown nearby.

Not surprisingly, wine growers in places not so famous soon started calling their wines by famous names (in America, think of Gallo “Chablis” and “Hearty Burgundy”.) And unscrupulous wine growers/makers in famous places began taking shortcuts, including planting high-yielding but lower quality vines, to take advantage of their famous names.

So, over the years, governments and local associations began making rules about what wines could have what place names on their labels. At a minimum, the grapes for the wine had to be grown in specified areas. Most regions also added rules about which grapes could be used, sometimes including how much/little of each. And, really picky regions included rules on maximum yields, minimum alcohol, and even requirements for minimum aging time in barrel and bottle before the wine could be sold.

Tuscan Rules Bent Out of Shape

In Italy, the rules for Tuscan reds took shape and became law in the 1930s-1950s. At that time, the only regions in Tuscany that made really good wine were Chianti, Montepulcianno, and Montalcino – so those were the only geographic names allowed. And Chianti was still made using the recipe created by Barone Ricasoli in the 1880s, so the rules required Chianti growers to add an assortment of local grapes, including white grapes, to their Sangiovese.

Two big problems emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. First, the very best Chianti growers discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were better for Chianti than the traditional grapes and learned how to get their Sangiovese ripe enough to bottle without adding any other grapes at all.

The second problem: the Tuscan coastal region of Bolgheri where no one was making wine in the 1930s or 1940s. It was in this remote, disease-riddled, rural region that Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon in 1948. And, it was here that the Marchese’s nephew, Piero Antinori, convinced him to offer his wine for sale to the world in 1971. Since Cabernet Sauvigonon wasn’t recognized in any Tuscan wine region, Rochhetta had to label Sassicaia as simple “Vino de Tavola,” the designation meant for cheap, everyday, plonk.SuperLabels

At the same time, the owner of Chianti Classico estate Le Pergole Torte, Sergio Manetti, revolted against the rules requiring him to dilute his magnificent Sangiovese with other grapes. So, he made a pure Sangiovese, dropped the Chianti Classico label, and also offered it for sale as Vino da Tavola.

By the late 1970s, wine critics and consumers around the world had fallen hard for Sassicaia, Pergole Torte, Tignanello, Solaia, Sammarco (launched in 1980) and a handful of other wines from Tuscany that carried the Vino da Tavola label. But what to call them? “Bolgheri Bordeaux Blend” didn’t really grab anyone, nor did “It Could Be Chianti Except for Stupid Rules,” or – in the case of Sammarco – “Cabernet Sauvignon from Chianti.”

“Super!”

Someone – probably Decanter Magazine – decided to lump all these Vino da Tavola wines together as “Super-Tuscans,” a name quickly embraced by the wine trade – because, well, “Super!”

As the Super-Tuscans began to attract more attention and capture much higher prices than Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulcianno, and even Brunello, the Italians became a little embarrassed – it didn’t look good to have Italy’s most famous wines come from entirely outside the legal naming system. So, over the years, Chianti’s rules have been changed to allow all Sangiovese and/or blending with Cabernet and Merlot. And a new Bolgheri region was created for those wines plus a “Toscana” designation for everything else.

But the “Super-Tuscan” moniker stuck because – again – “Super!” Today you’ll hear “Super” appended to lots of wines in Italy and even beyond that “break the rules” – whether rules legal or simply traditional. Lots of those wines really aren’t very Super at all. Sammarco 2011 most definitely is.

Historic Quality from Historic Tuscan Estate

Castello-dei-Rampolla

As Wine Advocate said a couple of years ago, “Rampolla is one of the most fascinating wineries in Tuscany, and Italy, for that matter. The relentless pursuit of excellence is evident in these spectacular wines.”

Castello dei Rampolla sits in the southern valley of Panzano, the Conca d’Oro, south of Greve in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. The land has been owned by the Di Napoli Rampolla family since 1739, although serious viticulture didn’t begin until Alceo Di Napoli took over in 1964. In 1975, Alceo began working with his good friend enologist Giacomo Tachis (who led the creation of Tignanello and Solaia) and bottled his first wine.

The big change came in 1978, when Alceo began grafting some of his Sangiovese over to Cabernet Sauvignon and, later, a little Merlot and Petit Verdot. In 1980, he released his first Super-Tuscan blend, Sammarco, made from 95% Cabernet and 5% Sangiovese. Despite ups and downs in quality during the late 1980s (after Alceo retired and before his children took over the estate), by 1996 Wine Spectator reported, “Rampolla’s Sammarco remains the benchmark super Tuscan red in its region for its powerful concentration of fruit and tannins and unique character.”

Since the early 1990s, the estate has been run by Alceo’s children, Luca and Maurizia, and quality has never been higher. Luca converted the vineyards first to organic and then biodynamic viticulture, lowering yields and heightening already impressive ripeness and concentration. Harvest and winemaking are all done by hand according to the phases of the moon, and the di Napoli’s are now experimenting with fermentation in Roman-style clay amphora for optimal wine/air contact.

Staying True To The Core

Through all these changes, the di Napoli’s have never lost their intense focus on their two most important wines: Chianti Classico and Sammarco.

chiantiThe Chianti continues to draw its fruit from one of the region’s greatest vineyards. After harvest, Sangiovese (about 90%) plus Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are fermented and aged for 8 months in concrete tanks. Then, after blending, the wine spends a full year in large (12 hectoliter) French oak casks and a further 6 months in bottle before release.

Rampolla Chianti is always a bit intense at first, with pure blackberry and black cherry fruit and firm, fine, tannins. It shows well with grilled/roasted meats from release and softens, broadens, and gains still more finesse over a decade or more in cellar.

sammarcoOver the years, the di Napoli family has reduced and now eliminated Sangiovese as a blending partner to Cabernet Sauvignon in Sammarco, turning instead to Merlot. In the warm 2011 vintage, the Cabernet ripened so perfectly that only 4% Merlot was used. It’s very young, primary, and full of fruit right now and already delicious with an hour or so in decanter. It’s going to shine through at least 2030, although I suspect you’ll struggle to leave it alone that long!

Rampolla’s local importer, Downey Selections, has worked with us to create a very compelling buying opportunity on Rampolla’s 2011 Sammarco and 2013 Chianti Classico. Don’t miss this chance for huge savings on some of Italy’s most compelling reds!  You can see more information on both wines here.

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