Food and Drink: How the `supertuscans' helped change the image of Chianti

While many would argue that Barolo from Piedmont is Italy's numero uno vino rosso, few would dispute the fact that Tuscany is the country's most dynamic wine region. Tuscany regularly scoops the lion's share of gold medals at the International Wine Challenge along with their equivalent in Italy's leading wine guide, Gambero Rosso Editore. It may seem surprising that a region best known for Chianti should be regarded as Italy's most innovative. But, thanks to a revival spearheaded by the new-wave "supertuscan" reds, it has shed the naff straw flask (fiasco) image and, at the top level, become exciting.

According to Giovanella Stianti of top Chianti estate Castello di Volpaia: "The image of Tuscany was killed by Chianti in a straw basket. We had to show that Chianti Classico is very different from what was available in the Sixties and Seventies." Producers realised that to rescue Tuscany's reputation and gain the confidence of a sceptical outside world required a major effort to re-cast Tuscany in general, and Chianti in particular. Cue the supertuscan.

The prototype of this phenomenon was Sassicaia, made from Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings obtained by Marco Incisa della Rochetta from Chateau Lafite in 1944. Sassicaia beat all-comers in a worldwide tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons in the late 1970s, but was different enough from anything the region had seen until then to not concern the Tuscany purists. Cabernet Sauvignon was soon adopted in blends with the best of the local Sangiovese grape to bring an international dimension to these Italian reds. Maturation in new French oak casks added an extra measure of refinement.

But in the eyes of Italy's archaic wine laws, Cabernet Sauvignon was forbidden fruit. Also, by law, Chianti had to include white grapes in addition to Sangiovese, the classic Chianti grape. Sangiovese on its own was not allowed either. The new wines just didn't conform. To get round the problem, the term "supertuscan" was coined for these pioneering vini da tavola. But their reputation took time to build. Without pausing to notice that Tuscany's heritage had become rather threadbare, critics initially derided these upstarts. As prototypes such as San Felice's 1968 Vigorello and Antinori's 1970 Tignanello met with international acclaim, however, critical tunes were changed.

In 1997, Le Pergolo Torto became the first supertuscan made entirely from Sangiovese. "Even as late as the 1980s, Sangiovese was still an unknown quantity," says Burton Anderson, author of The Wine Atlas of Italy.

It's certainly a fussier vine than Cabernet or Merlot. And while quality has improved and the delightful savoury and cherry-fruit characteristics of Sangiovese are better appreciated, new plantings and better vineyard management are still needed before it reaches its full potential.

Whether or not French grapes add to Sangiovese, and if so, to what extent, is a moot point. According to Sante Turone, of the Brunello estate, Tenuta Caparzo: "The British like Burgundy and Bordeaux. So Ca' del Pazzo (half Cabernet Sauvignon, half Sangiovese), with its international flavour, is easier on their palate than a pure Sangiovese." But Felsina Berardenga's Giuseppe Mazzocolin, producer of the supertuscan Fontalloro, says: "Sangiovese gave us an opportunity to show the grape when we couldn't make it officially as a Chianti Classico. For me, Sangiovese is more representative of Tuscany than Cabernet Sauvignon."

Now that more flexible regulations allow Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, as well as Sangiovese on its own, there is a trend towards upgrading the quality of Chianti Classico. As Sangiovese's true potential is realised, the French grape varieties are likely to become less important as a constituent in blends. Instead, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, even Syrah and Pinot Noir will stand on their own as useful additional strings to the Italian winemaker's bow. Tuscany, by this point, will have well and truly returned to its traditional roots

Top supertuscans

As the crema della crema of Tuscan wine, supertuscans are not inexpensive.

1994 Coltassala, pounds 15.95 (mail order), Adnams, Southwold (01502 727 200). From Castello di Volpaia, this is a stylish, richly cherried blend of 95 per cent Sangioveto with 5 per cent Mammolo.

Avignonesi's 1994 I Grifi, pounds 16.99, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. A classy, modern Cabernet Sauvignon/Sangiovese blend.

1994 Chianti Classico Riserva, Vigneto Racia. pounds 19.99, Swig, London NW3 (0171-431 4412). Felsina Berardenga's trophy-winning supertuscan icon is a beautiful balanced and fruity single-vineyard Chianti made entirely from Sangiovese.

Wines of the Week

1994 Chianti Classico Riserva, Ricasoli, pounds 7.99. Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Thresher. At a price that's a little closer to home, this is a well-crafted Chianti from Tuscany's Classico heartland, with the intensity of flavour you'd expect from a Riserva and nicely maturing, ripe-cherry fruitiness balanced by firm savoury tannins. 1996 Chianti Classico Rocca di Castagnoli, pounds 6.99. Waitrose. Victoria Wine. A contrast in style from the same zone, this is a herby, delicately spicy, youthful blend of Sangiovese and Canaiolo with an almost fruitcake- like sweet fruit ripeness polished by a stylish touch of oak.

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