What makes the wine of Bolgheri so Super?


What makes the wine of Bolgheri so Super?

13 March 2019

Tuscany is known for Chianti and Brunello DOCGs, but what about Super Tuscans? Bolgheri is this unofficial denomination's star player, and for good reason!

Tuscany is known for Chianti and Brunello DOCGs, but what about Super Tuscans? Bolgheri is this unofficial denomination's star player, and for good reason!

Italy is synonymous with wine; one of the joys of travelling throughout the country is sampling the variety of bottles on offer. From north to south, the grapes, appellations, and recipe rules change making it a thirsty escape for any budding wine lover.

Tuscany is one of the most famous Italian wine provinces with Chianti arguably the region’s most famous export. Producing wine since Etruscan times, with records in Florence dating back to the 11th century, this area is all about bold reds. The last few decades have been seeing the rise of the Super Tuscan.

But what makes a Tuscan wine so Super?

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To understand the origins of the term 'Super,' it's best to go back to the 1930's. In France, the regional regulation of wine, by categorizing its dominations, saw an increase in quality and the country’s wine gaining reputation and Italy was keen to follow suit. So, beginning with Chianti in 1967, a government body created a formula to control the blend, enforcing a base of Sangiovese grapes mixed with other Tuscan varietals including up to 20% of white wine. This saw a rise in the consistency of Chianti production. Within a few years, the winemakers of the region were restless. What if they wanted to experiment?

They did.

Producers began to create blends outside the wine ‘box', mixing not just native Italian grapes but also classic French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. These bottles were distinctly more Bordeaux in style with a full body and aged in French barriques as opposed to the more popular Slavonian oak of the time. It created a robust red wine full of dark fruit flavours (blackberry, dark cherry) with an intense oak finish.

But there was one snag.

To make wine outside the D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) guidelines meant calling these new bottles Vino da Tavola, essentially table wine by name and considered the lowest of quality. So, when wine writers came to taste the latest vintages in the late 1970's, it seemed erroneous to label them solely table wines for they were superior to the norm – and the term Super Tuscan was born. The Bolgheri region of Tuscany boasts being the birthplace of the first Super Tuscan wine, made with a Cabernet Sauvignon base. A rocky terrain of limestone within the soil reflects its close maritime location to the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Maremma, southwest of Tuscany. With it similar topography to Bordeaux in France, it is often argued that this terrain is what makes the use of French grapes in this part of Tuscany so unique. It is a happy cousin to the French appellation.


Bottles of Sapaio 2004 and Volpolo 2005 Bottles of Sapaio 2004 and Volpolo 2005. Photo © Courtesy of Sapaio Winery

Super Tuscans of Bolgerhi have their own production rules being granted a D.O.C. in 1994. Each bottle can contain up to 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc. Or, up to 50% Syrah or Sangiovese, and blended with a complimentary grape such as Petit Verdot (up to 30%). For Superiore labels, a wine must also be aged for at least two years with a minimum of one year in oak barrels. And as each winemaker ultimately decides on their final ‘recipe,’ it makes for an enjoyable, and possibly decadent, way to discover what Super is.

Fifty-two wineries now operate in Bolgheri. Many are boutique, small in size and independently owned. Sapaio is a family run estate, with only 25 hectares of vineyards, which creates just two labels. Its namesake, Sapaio, is a Superiore aged for 18 months in barrique barrels then rested for up to 10 months in the bottle while its D.O.C. label, Volpolo, stays 14 months in barrique barrels before six months in bottle. Both wines are a reflection of the quality and character of Bolgheri Super Tuscan wines.

How to Pair Bolgheri

Bistecca - by Jason Leung Bistecca. Photo by Jason Leung.

Robust on the palate, it’s wine best paired with foods like Tuscan favourites Bistecca, wild boar stew or a plate of cold cuts, such as salami and Pecorino Toscano cheese. The juiciness of these meat dishes compliments the high tannins of the wine, with the notes of berries and dark cherry matching the salty flavours of the food. For non-meat eaters, a rich tomato-based pasta sauce or winter vegetables including white beans cooked with garlic and rosemary, are a perfect pairing.

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