Second Coming

The wines that started a revolution in Italy are now undergoing their own renaissance.

They started out in the tradition of The Scarlet Pimpernel—aristocratic rogues working outside the system and traveling under odd aliases, with names such as Tignanello, Sassicaia, and Ornellaia. They were Italian wines of a type never seen before, combining the ripeness and sensuality of Tuscany with the refined structure of Bordeaux. Riveting and unprecedented, these wines, dubbed "Super-Tuscans," burst onto the scene in slumbering, tradition-saturated Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino in the early 1980s. Suddenly the most venerable estates of Tuscany plunged into experiment, combining red French varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) with the local Sangiovese—Blood of Jove—and sometimes ignoring old Jove altogether. (Imagine Château Latour deciding to add Sangiovese to its blend.) No wonder that inside Italy these high-profile heretics were often greeted with hostility. But in the shops and the restaurants favored by wine lovers around the world, they were—and still are—a smash hit.

Three decades down the road, the Super-Tuscan wines have created an alternative Italian wine universe—and spawned imitators from California to Australia. Many, among them the original revolutionaries, have achieved international cult status, becoming nearly as impossible to lay hands on as, say, Château Le Pin or Screaming Eagle. But some cults are worth joining.

The late 1990s (especially the 1995 and 1997 vintages) are the most complex and intriguing Super-Tuscans since 1990. Economic prosperity has allowed the top proprietors to push the quality envelope further and further. In the past few years, London and New York auction houses have been avidly seeking the established names, and now there seem to be new "topper" wines debuting all the time (latest candidates for cult stardom: Argiano's Solengo and the Frescobaldi; Mondavi joint-venture wine Luce). The Super-Tuscan wines being bottled today may be the world's most collectible wines you can't stop yourself from drinking.

The Tuscan phenomenon started out as a family affair in a family not known for thumbing its nose at tradition. The acknowledged godfather of the new style is Marchese Piero Antinori, an urbane, sleekly tailored Florentine whose title (in British terms, he ranks below a duke and above an earl) stretches back to the 17th century. Whatever his wealth and pedigree gave him, however, complacency wasn't part of the legacy.

Thirty years ago Antinori looked out on his family's extensive vineyard holdings in the Chianti region—and beyond to the region itself—and realized that things had gone very wrong. "There were many, many mistakes made," he remembers, "and the quality of Chianti was going down. The wines were starting to be very thin and light and very tired after two or three years."

To make matters worse, the 1967 Italian DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wine regulations virtually legalized those degraded conditions in the Chianti Classico region. Among other things the regulations permitted high crop yields, which produce less intense wines, and mandated 10 to 30 percent white grapes in the blend: a kind of Hamburger Helper for Sangiovese that further diluted the wines but allowed them to be consumed (and sold) young.

If the laws enshrined Chianti's mediocrity, that didn't set the area apart from most of Italy's wine regions in that era; and most Italian winery owners were not exactly wringing their hands about it. In the salad days of the seventies and early eighties a decent Italian winery that kept its prices down could count on a massive domestic market plus a thriving export trade to the United States. By 1980, Italy was selling nearly 23 million cases of wine a year in the United States, accounting for almost two out of three bottles of imported table wine. The catch was what they were selling.

"The Italians were selling all the bottles, but the French were taking home the dollars, because they were exporting their best," states master of wine Mary Ewing-Mulligan, who was employed in the 1970s by the Italian Trade Commission. "When you thought of French wine, you thought of Château Lafite; Italy had nothing like that here. The country's most expensive and prestigious wine in those days was Brunello di Montalcino, but until 1975 there was not even a single brand of Brunello imported here."

Back in Chianti, Piero Antinori found himself faced with two mammoth hurdles: the reality of Chianti's situation and, even more intractable, the perception among the general run of foreign consumers that Italian wine could be divided into two categories—"pizza red" and "pizza white." Antinori was determined to save Chianti from itself, and the place he decided to launch his crusade was a vineyard called Tignanello.

Antinori of course understood that white grapes had no place in his red wine: Tignanello (tee-nyah-NELLO) would be primarily Sangiovese, with other red grape varieties. Antinori also realized that the way in which Chiantis were aged (in giant, old, oak casks, sometimes until they were sold) dried them out. "So," he says, "we reversed the concept completely: We aged the wines for a shorter time in small barrels of new oak. That guarantees that the wines won't be oxidized, and gives them an extra dimension." Tignanello, produced from the 1971 vintage, debuted in 1974; it was one of the very first Italian wines ever to be aged in small French oak barrels.

Essentially, the cosmopolitan Antinori was following a Bordeaux model, not exactly a welcome innovation in the precincts of proud Chianti but one that had already been pioneered in small quantities by his uncle, Marchese Incisa della Rocchetta. He'd begun making a Bordeaux-like blend of Cabernet and Sangiovese called Sassicaia (sahs-see-KY-yuh) on the Tuscan seacoast. Produced by Antinori oenologist Giacomo Tachis and marketed by the Antinori firm (until '82), Sassicaia would eventually emerge as the most famous of the Super-Tuscans. But its first vintages created ripples mainly among connoisseurs.

In contrast, Piero Antinori's second vintage of Tignanello set Chianti on its ear. For as it turned out, Antinori's father had planted Cabernet Sauvignon in Tignanello back in 1935 as an experimental blending component. Those vines were abandoned during World War II, but for Piero, who remembered the wine that his father had made, Cabernet was the glimmer of another possible future, a sliver of light.

Antinori replanted most of the vineyard to Cabernet, and when Tignanello reappeared in 1978 (the '75 vintage) it touched off a revolution. No matter that it was so far outside the Chianti DOC regulations that it could only identify itself, with self-conscious humility, as Vino da Tavola (ordinary table wine). No one, neither the wine lovers who praised it nor the fellow winemakers who excoriated it, missed the point: that Tignanello's French-barrel aging and blend of 80 percent Sangiovese/15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon/five percent Cabernet Franc yielded a compulsively drinkable wine of breeding and style.

"At the beginning there were many critics among other producers and wine writers," Antinori remembers, "but there was an immediate success in Tuscany and Florence itself; the local market gave it a great consensus." So did the American market, unconstrained by concerns over Tuscan tradition, where the wine was taken up by tastemakers such as Sirio Macchioni at New York's Le Cirque and wine writers like Robert Parker. Even as they grumbled, Tuscany's winemakers scrambled to retool and put something into their vats that looked and tasted—and got noticed—like Tignanello.

Tuscany's more conservative factions saw Tignanello as a Trojan Horse for introducing foreign ideas, and they were right. But since then the once-staid region has never stopped innovating or exporting wines that captured collectors' imaginations around the world. (Ewing-Mulligan refers to them as "Italy's celebrity wines.")

In fact, even as Tignanello was drawing its early criticism and praise, the two wines that would surpass it in price and prestige were quietly making their marks. They did not command the same attention—partly because Tignanello was such a lightning rod and partly because they came not from the famous heart of Chianti but from little-regarded Bolgheri, on the Tuscan coast. Piero Antinori was certainly aware of them, however; he had to be. Sassicaia was being produced by his uncle, and Ornellaia by his brother, Lodovico Antinori.

Sassicaia, or "stony place," began from a 3.75-acre hillside vineyard that had been planted with Bordeaux-style grapes as far back as 1944. Marchese Incisa della Rocchetta realized the potential of this old plot and began to expand it. Sassicaia, which is now produced from 90 acres of 20- to 25-year-old vines, put Bolgheri, with its temperature-moderating maritime breezes, on the connoisseur's wine map of the world. Seductive, elegant, and perfumed, Sassicaia has become the most famous, and among the most prized, of the Super-Tuscan wines.

"Was there any rivalry?" says Marchese Lodovico Antinori. "Certainly never with my uncle. With my brother . . . well, we could say we had different opinions. But that was a long time ago." Be that as it may, he can't resist noting that while brother Piero runs a colossal operation (Tignanello is a fractional part of the Marchesi Antinori wine empire), he himself believes "in the kind of craftsmanship of a small-dimension operation." Not part of the family firm, his labels list his name simply as "Marchese Lodovico A./Winegrower in Bolgheri."

The 1990s have been good to Lodovico Antinori. Tiny Bolgheri, which his uncle and he colonized, has become one of Italy's hottest wine areas; it has attracted, among others, Piedmont superstar Angelo Gaja, who harvested the first grapes from his Ca' Marcanda estate in 1999, as well as Piero himself, who produces the superlative Guado al Tasso, a Cabernet-based wine with Merlot and Syrah. Lodovico's flagship Cabernet; Merlot blend, Ornellaia, has long since achieved cult status, as well as a more-than-respectable bottle price of approximately $75, while the all-Merlot Masseto, from the estate's oldest section of vines, is tickling $170.

What prosperity and growing demand have meant to Lodovico Antinori, and to other ambitious winery owners in Tuscany, is a chance to take the next step up the ladder into the quality stratosphere. "When your balance sheet is sound, then you can command things your own way," is how Lodovico explains it.

And he has walked the walk: reducing his production and making a dramatically more severe selection of lots to be bottled as Ornellaia. Though the estate had two more hectares in production in the great vintage of 1997 than in '95, there will be only about 12,000 cases of 1997 Ornellaia versus 17,500 cases of the 1995. Much of the difference will go into a new second label, called Le Serre Nuove, which means taking a financial hit that wouldn't have been possible without the prices the wines are now commanding.

"I am speaking for myself," says Lodovico, "but perhaps for others around the region too. From 1997 on you will see the difference in quality and concentration even when compared to the wines of the early '90s. I foresee a group of Tuscan winemakers who will really differentiate themselves from the others."

What may ultimately separate out this Tuscan elect is, paradoxically, its desire to start over and rework the vineyard from the ground up. In a country whose vintners long took it as axiomatic that centuries of trial and error had perfectly matched vines to vineyard sites, the influx of "foreign" grapes and foreign thinking has restarted history. It is the second great wave of innovation in a generation, and elite Tuscan winery owners are starting to sound like let's-give-it-a-try Californians.

"We have begun planting with a much higher density [of vines per acre] now," explains Leonardo Frescobaldi of Marchesi de' Frescobaldi, who joined with Napa Valley's Robert Mondavi to produce the Merlot; Sangiovese blend Luce. "Although this limits the yield per plant, the resulting quality of the wine is much higher. The wine that we produce is softer, but with more intensity of color and more dimensions of structure."

Says Piero Antinori, "We are working with different clones and grape varieties, how we manage the vineyard, how we define it in terms of spacing, managing leaf removal, grape exposure—small details that together can really make a difference."

At least part of the desire for improvement comes from the fact that European Union regulations now make it very difficult to plant new vineyards. Since estate wineries like those that produce the great Super-Tuscans can't readily expand, they have to upgrade their products to justify the higher prices.

To be sure, there are a lot of "peers" now jostling for elbowroom in the Super-Tuscan category. There are so many, in fact, that when general manager Sebastiano Rosa and his team at Argiano wanted to devise a new wine back in 1991, they had to reach for a very unusual concept: a blend of Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah, from a vineyard that had previously been devoted to Brunello di Montalcino. Then they had to come up with a name.

"I tried many names," states Rosa, "but there was always something too close to it that had already been copyrighted." At last he settled on Solengo, which means, he says, "solitary wild boar." In just three vintages the Boar has reached white heat among collectors, and the third release, the 1997, tied for the highest score (97) given by The Wine Spectator in a rating of 700 Tuscan wines.

The Super-Tuscan boom is still putting new hits on the charts, and the golden oldies are themselves more sought-after than ever before. "Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Tignanello are a trend that has already gone on for twenty years," says Piero Selvaggio, the owner of Valentino in Santa Monica, a restaurant that stocks more than 100 Super-Tuscan labels. "There are enough takers so that these wines are strictly allocated. Where ten years ago I could buy all of the Tignanello that I wanted, now even a restaurant like ours has to consider price and allocation."

What Selvaggio does not have to consider is the appeal of these wines: "They are not bold like a Brunello, or big like a Bordeaux; they have, perhaps, the intensity of a Rhône and the elegance of a Burgundy." When you serve them, Selvaggio says, forget lamb or steak. "I drink them with gamebirds such as quail or partridge. There has to be a sense of delicacy, which is so much a part of these wines. Their sexiness has to shine through."

Bellissimo Bottles

How do you know an Italian wine is a Super-Tuscan? Look under the name on the label. The faux-humble Table Wine designation has largely been replaced with the new Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) Toscana appellation—at last, official recognition of these rogue wines.

Look particularly for wines from the 1995 vintage and the highly acclaimed 1997 vintage, which will begin to show up here this spring and summer. As for the 1996 harvest, it suffered from September rain but nevertheless turned out some beautiful Super-Tuscan wines. However, they are generally softer and earlier drinking than the more structured 1995s.

Incidentally, many Super-Tuscan names end in "aia" because it means "place of" in Chianti dialect. (It may also be an attempt to suggest a kinship with the superstar, Sassicaia.) Here are a baker's dozen Super-Tuscans to look for.

The Antinori stable, under the proprietorship of Piero Antinori, offers three distinctly different Super-Tuscans. The best of the current lot is the mouthwateringly rich, deep, super-concentrated Guado al Tasso 1996 ($52), a Cabernet-based wine with Merlot and Syrah. (Rating: Superb.) The Solaia (soh-LIE-yuh) 1996 ($90), an 80/20 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese from the heart of the Chianti Classico region, is smoothly elegant, but with plenty of stuffing, which means it can be drunk now or in 2015. (Rating: Excellent.) The Tignanello (tee-nyah-NELLO) 1996 ($52) is a reverse image of Solaia, blended from 80 percent Sangiovese and 20 percent Cabernet. It's delicious, but it doesn't have the liveliness or complexity to be one of the more memorable Tignanellos. (Rating: Good.)

Lodovico Antinori has two beauties on the market. The Masseto 1995 ($167), a Merlot made from old vines on his Bolgheri estate, is a wow wine: almost impossibly rich, chewy, and extracted, yet elegant and perfectly proportioned. (Rating: Superb.) The Ornellaia 1996 ($74) sneaks up on you, adding weight in the glass and building on its lively, spicy, berry character. Rich and memorable; a wine to drink ca. 2005. (Rating: Excellent.)

Montalcino's Argiano hired legendary oenologist Giacomo Tachis, who worked at Sassicaia, to perfect its Solengo, an uncommon blend in that Syrah is mixed with Merlot and Cabernet. Tachis has the touch: The Solengo 1997 ($58) is a deep, silky, spicy wine already wafting confectionary aromas of black cherry, currants, mint, and vanilla. (Rating: Superb.)

Col d'Orcia's Olmaia 1995 ($49), a Cabernet Sauvignon, has benefited from its extra bottle age: juicy, deep, and velvety, it almost glides down your throat. (Rating: Excellent.)

The Sassicaia (sah-see-KY-yuh) 1996 ($110) begins to blossom in the glass after a few minutes' breathing and then doesn't stop. Like the best Sassicaias, it's a notably refined wine with a luscious crushed berry character. Give it another three to five years if you can muster the self-discipline. (Rating: Excellent.)

Castello Banfi's Excelsus 1995 ($47) is broodingly dark and so concentrated it's almost compacted, a wine that seems to have extracted everything from the grapes but the harsh tannins. A potential superstar in five to 10 years. (Rating: Excellent.)

International glamour bottling Luce (LOO-chay)—a joint venture between two of wine's first families, the Frescobaldis and the Mondavis—may be only the third best 1996 Super-Tuscan from Leonardo Frescobaldi's stable. Frescobaldi's own Lamaione 1996 ($45) is a sweet, voluptuous, big-time Merlot with hidden depths of flavor just beginning to emerge. (Rating: Excellent.) The Mormoreto 1996 ($47) is a vibrant, young, medium-rich Cabernet Sauvignon, full of currant, vanilla, and light herbal notes. (Rating: Excellent.) The Luce 1996 ($60) is a lovely wine itself, supple and well-crafted, blended from Sangiovese and Merlot in the Montalcino region. If Luce has a fault, it's that it may be too polished for its own good. (Rating: Very Good.)

Jacopo Biondi Santi's Schidione 1994 ($100) is a Sangiovese/Cabernet/Merlot blend that's structured like a young St. Julien—you can taste its charm, but it is still tannic and angular. Give it five years or so to put some meat on its fine bones. Still, it's expensive for what it is, and in comparison to these other bottlings. (Rating: Very Good.)

Richard Nalley is Departures' New York-based contributing editor for wine and spirits.