Italian Wine and the Rise of the Super Tuscans

How vine pests, world wars, and the depression played a role.

Wine is strongly intertwined with Italian history dating all the way back to the 2nd century BC, and even when the Roman empire fell during the Middle Ages, monks kept winemaking alive for sacramental purposes. The Renaissance spurred a winemaking revival all over the country, which was especially important in poorer areas where clean water was hard to come by.

However, the devastating effects of the phylloxera outbreak (vine pests), two world wars, and the great depression all took a toll on the wine industry yet again, and it wasn’t until the 1950’s that winemakers were back on their feet. This time around there was a need for speed and an emphasis on pumping out low-end bulk wines, but shortly thereafter around the late 1960’s there was a complete turnaround with an emphasis on creating a better product, as reflected in the newly developed Italian wine laws that were greatly influenced by the French AOC system.

Italy’s rising need for quality wines was a step in the right direction, but it caused some Tuscan winemakers to face an identity complex, and despite wanting to raise their standards, the new restrictions also struck a nerve as they struggled to find their own voice in the international wine scene. For example, winemakers in Tuscany had to choose between producing Chianti under the DOC standards, which was the highest quality designation, or a common drinking wine within the category of Vino Da Tavola considered to be of lower quality. The interesting thing was that the Chianti DOC required up to 20% of white wine to dilute down this red blend, thus shortening the shelf life and reducing the aging ability of the bottle, and this didn’t sit well with some Tuscan winemakers because they felt like it cheapened the brand.

Some dared to venture outside of the lines of the DOC laws, like the wine producer Tenuta San Guido, for example, who used grapes common in Bordeaux like Cabernet Sauvignon while refraining from adding white wine. Thus, the concept of the “Super Tuscan” arose, which broke all the rules of the DOC system while distinguishing itself from the commonality of other Vino Da Tavola’s. After all, Tuscany was the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to great minds like Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci, so it was quite natural that winemakers followed suit and formed their own identity.

These marginalized wines were caught in limbo for some time until 1992 when Italian Wine laws formed a new category called IGT, and hence the Super Tuscans were granted “IGT Toscana” status. Even though IGT is technically lower than DOCG and DOC wines, many high quality Super Tuscans are deemed to be some of the greatest wines in the world.