Gambero Rosso in San Diego (or What Would Happen if All Tuscans Became Super Tuscans?)

Above: Giovanni Folonari pours his new Super Tuscan, Campo al Mare (Bolgheri) at the Gambero Rosso Tour in San Diego, California.

Does the world really need another Super Tuscan? This question plagued me as I tasted through the wines on display at the Gambero Rosso “Top Italian Wine Roadshow” at the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center in downtown San Diego.

Otherwise useful as a directory of Italian wineries, the Gambero Rosso Guide to the Wines of Italy favors the big “lip-smacking,” luscious wines that seem do sell well in the United States. The three-glass scoring system used in the guide is yet another – however poetically veiled – points-based system, and while the same big-name wines seem to score well year after year in the guide, few small producers and even fewer lower-end wines make it up the ladder.

When I asked how the guide has grown in the 20+ years he’s served as editor-in-chief, Marco Sabellico told me, “the guide hasn’t grown because Italians are making more wines. The guide has grown because Italians are making more higher-end wines.”

It’s not really clear to me how the wines are chosen for the Gambero Rosso “Top Italian Wine Roadshow” (held this year in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and for the first time San Diego). Its “Three Glass” tasting features only those wines that have won the guide’s top award. For the roadshow, it seems that Marina Thompson PR might have something to do with the selection. Marina happens to be Gambero Rosso president Daniele Cernilli’s wife.

What lured me to the event this year was the fact that it was held for the first-time in San Diego, California.

Above: Tim Grace of Il Mulino di Grace, a Chianti Classico producer in the township of Panzano.

I was asked by many presenters to taste this or that “new” Super Tuscan.

Giovanni Folonari had me taste his Campo al Mare, made from Merlot, Cabernet, and Petit Verdot (no Sangiovese). The estate, he told me, lies between Sassicaia and Ornellaia. The wine was well made, not overly woody, and not too high in alcohol. But does the world need yet another Super Tuscan? Maybe it does and since I’m not a fan of Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon in the first place, maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. Giovanni told me it will retail for about $35 and that’s good news, I guess. Maybe the world does need a new reasonably priced Super Tuscan.

I also tasted a Super Tuscan (Gratius) by Mulino di Grace (Panzano, Chianti Classico). The Grace family’s Chianti Classico is a blend of Sangiovese with smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet. I kinda liked its Chianti Classico, where the addition of small amounts of international grapes give the wine more color and forward fruit, thus making it more modern in style. But I really liked the Gratius, 100% Sangiovese, a wine that showed the balance of fruit, acidity, and gentler tannin, and the lightness in the mouth that you get with Tuscany’s Sangiovese. To my palate, the Gratius tasted the most like Chianti Classico of all the wines he was pouring (in fact, owner Tim Grace told me, the wine could have been classified as Chianti Classico DOCG).

Some believe that the term Super Tuscan was coined by Nicolas Belfrage and was first used in print in Life Beyond Lambrusco (1985), co-authored by Nicolas and Jancis Robinson. The early Super Tuscans were generally made with international grape varieties and the wines generally saw some time in new wood. Because the wines — most famously, Sassicaia and Tignanello — did not meet standards for any existing appellations at the time they were first released, they were officially classified as vini da tavola or table wines, even though they were marketed as high-end wines.

According to usage, a Super Tuscan is a Tuscan-made wine that 1) does not meet requirements set forth by local appellation laws (in many cases, this is due merely to the fact that a given wine uses grape varieties not allowed by the appellation); or 2) has been intentionally declassified by the producer (as in the case of Tim Grace’ wine). While barrique aging is often used for Super Tuscans, barrique is not a sine qua non.

One of the reasons why the term Super Tuscan helps winemakers to sell wines in the United States is the moniker itself: it just sounds good and it implies that the wines are somehow better, that they surpass the rest of the field. I certainly can’t blame Tim for declassifying his wine. Chianti is a confusing appellation for Americans and if declassification helps him to promote awareness of his wines, more power to him (and his wines are good and deserve attention).

But because the term Super Tuscan is now applied to wines made in Bolgheri (on the Tuscan coast), Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Fiorentini (and other subzones), Montalcino, Montecucco, Montepulciano… and the list goes on… it has became a de facto über-classification that eclipses the personality of those places and the character of the persons who make those wines.

Tuscans are a highly diverse group of people and their language, their food, their traditions, and their wines change from city to city, town to town, from village to village (and from principality to principality, we would have said in another age). Just ask a Florentine what s/he thinks of the Pisans and you’ll see what I mean (and I won’t repeat the colloquial adage nor the often quoted line from Dante here). I’ve traveled extensively in Tuscany and have spent many hours in its libraries, its trattorie, and wineries. I would certainly be disappointed if the Tuscans, like their wines, all became Super Tuscans.