Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Super Tuscan

"Wile E. Coyote, super genius! I like the way that rolls out...'Wile E. Coyote...soooper geeenyus'!"

I've never been able to hear someone talking about a "Super Tuscan" wine without thinking about the Road Runner's nemesis pulling down that windowshade before the train arrives. This has as much to do with being a member of the last generation properly exposed to the brilliance of Bugs Bunny cartoons on Saturday mornings. I'm sure there's a longitudinal study somewhere correlating the effects of a lack of childhood exposure to cartoon violence with the likelihood that said child will grow up to drive a minivan, own the Dora the Explorer box set for their 3.2 kids, and overprogram the hell out of their childrens' lives, so I'll embrace my old school Warner Brothers tightly, thank you very much.

OK...back to the matter at hand.

Super Tuscan. Yet another WineSpeak term that can make a novice wine drinker feel over his or her head -- like "full malo" or "highly extracted." This term for certain Italian reds was all the rage for a few years, and I think has died down just a tad, but I still hear it. Since I love me some Italian wine, I wanted to make sure that I actually knew what this meant, so as not to sound even more ridiculous that I usually do. the research we go:

Let's take a little trip back to Italy, shall we? (Oh, twist my arm!) Not surprisingly, the Italians are pretty picky about their winemaking. They've been doing it arguably longer than anyone else in the world, and with time comes specificity. The Italians aren't quite as stringent about their classifications as their Gallic winemaking brethren -- but they've still got a few quirks.

All Italian wines are given a government designation. The ones we see most often in the US are "DOC" (Denominazione di Origine Controllata or "controlled origin denomination") and "DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita -- "guaranteed")." "DOC" wines are produced under the specifications that are regionally dependent. "DOCG" is a higher level of classification -- these wines are tested and tasted by the regulatory agencies before being bottled. DOCG wines have a numbered seal around the neck of the bottle. Since 1996, any wine you see that's labeled "Chianti" with "DOC" or "DOCG" is going to be made up of 70% up to 10% of a local grape called Canaiolo and up to 20% of any other approved red grape variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. (Before that, white grapes Malvasia and Trebbiano were included in the mix.) Wines that didn't follow these specifications were known as VdT (Vin di Tavolo -- table wine) classified.

That changed in the 1940's when the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta settled in Tuscany. He wanted to raise grapes to make wine for himself and his wife, and he imported some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from Bordeaux to do just that. He blended the Cabernet with some native Sangiovese and, lo, Sassicaia, the die was cast. These wines began being distributed in the late 1960's, and in 1978 it won a competition of the world's best Cabernets. Through the 1970's and 80's, more and more wineries started seeing the possibilities and the "Super Tuscan" term was born. Winemakers experimented with different grapes, blends, and aging techniques. Many winemakers started producing prized vintages -- which were officially labeled "VdT" because of their refusal to follow tradition. Some wore their non-DOCG status as a badge of honor. The Italian authorities adopted an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stance -- and created a fourth classification: IGT, which stands for Indicazione geografica tipica, meaning that the label may indicate where the wine is from -- but it's not a "traditional" blend. An IGT wine can be 100% Sangiovese or contain no Sangiovese at all -- once considered heresy. IGT wines are not limited to Tuscany, either. You can find these nontraditional blends sourced from all over Italy.

So, what does all this mean for us? Not to put too fine a point on it -- these are Italian-based wines that are produced for the "New World" palate. There's an emphasis on fruit-forwardness and a stronger level of tannin than many traditional Italian wines. There's usually a little less minerality. Like most Italian wines, they're really best with food -- especially rich foods. Many winemakers with a little flair (or some nontraditional terroir) try to make IGT wines as their top-ends. As for the price, well -- they can range from under $10 up into the hundreds. We looked at wines at a couple of different price points. For instance:

Fanti Sant'Antimo 2006 Rosso -- Super Tuscan blend. Fascinating nose. My first sniff got me something in the neighborhood of spice cake. There's some cherry that comes through, but the smells of baking are right there. Medium weight initially on the palate, but it almost feels like it "thickens" into a lasting flavor. Dark fruits and some of that Sangiovese "chalk." The finish lingers....and I do mean lingers with caramel and really nicely balanced tannins. Really looked forward to trying this with a shrimp & calamari fra diavola, since I figured the weight would handle all the flavors. It didn't let me down. It made a scrumptious pairing, since the extra fruit balanced out the spice in the sauce. ($15)

I had a bottle of the Tenuta Dell Ornellaia "Le Volte" 2006 at around $28 and the Ruffino 2007 Fonte al Sole Toscana at around $10. The former is 50% Sangiovese, 40% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the latter is a 60/40 Cab/Sangiovese blend. The SPinC got inspired and decided to put together a parmesan-crusted rack of lamb next to a side of zucchini sautéed w/mint, parsley & basil. We opened them side by side to get a contrast between price points and blends.

The Le Volte had a lighter but more complex nose than the Ruffino. The Ruffino smelled much more like a cabernet, while the Le Volte had more of that baking-spicy nose that I experienced with the Fanti. The Le Volte was medium bodied and subtly flavored. A really nice balance between the minerality and the depth of fruit. The finish was almost coffee-ish, which isn't something I've run into with many Italian wines. The Ruffino drank like a decent cabernet. In fact, if not for that little bit of sangiovese minerality, it could have passed as a cab.

As we figured, it was an interesting contrast. The Ruffino was a pleasant surprise with the lamb. The flavors stood up to the lamb and to everything else on the table. This type of flavor experience different greatly with the Le Volte. Rather than standing up to the lamb and asserting itself, the flavors here worked alongside the richness of lamb to produce a delicious, layered experience. If nuance is what you're after, the LeVolte was the obvious choice for a pairing like this -- when we could just let the lamb melt and ponder every sip. However, in a noisier setting -- such as if this were a big dinner party, I'd have no reservations of buying several bottles of the Ruffino (and maybe putting it in pitchers around the table).

We had another real surprise with our usual end-of-evening chocolate -- we had two bite brownies this evening. The Ruffino was not only the the superior wine, but it was downright delicious. The sweetness of the brownies didn’t get dented at all by the wine -- instead, the cabernet hopped right up and complemented the flavors. I really enjoyed this as a dessert offering.

Like Wile E., I am a big fan of experimentation, so I've come to really enjoy Super Tuscans. One of the hardest sells I have for people who are new to Italian wines is that they can be a little difficult to approach when poured on their own. With food, they're easy. The inexpensive Super Tuscans make excellent bridge wines. As for the more expensive ones -- these Italian cuvees give winemakers in Italy a chance to show off a bit with their blending skills. They're usually going to be really textured, interesting wines -- so add them to your list to splurge on from time to time.


Gary H. O'Brien said...

Nice summary of Super Tuscan wine!

The Naked Vine said...

Thanks, Gary. Had a chance to take a look around your place as well. Vine readers would like your offerings as well: