Iconic Super Tuscans and several inviting – and affordable – ‘sidekicks’

Castello del Terriccio is a Syrah-Petit Verdot blend from Tuscany’s Maremma Coast.

When it comes to Italy’s iconic Super Tuscans, there’s almost always a reliable “second fiddle” in the house.

Think of famous movie sidekicks: Tonto to the Lone Ranger; Robin to Batman, and Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes.

The same is true for Super Tuscan red wines.

Tenuta San Guido’s “Sassicaia” ( SRP: $250-$300), which is Italy’s most famous wine in the world, can count on “Guidalberto” (SRP: $60) as a quality sidekick.

The Ornellaia Estate, owned by the Frescobaldi family, is renowned for its flagship “Ornellaia Ornellaia” (SRP: $250) which is consistently ranked among the top 1 percent of the world’s best wines. Its No. 2? Ornellaia Le Serre Nuove (SRP: $60) gets the nod although the winery’s entry-level offering, Le Volte dell’Ornellaia (SRP: $30),  is no slouch either.

Today, I’m delving into sibling wines that live up to the quality – if not necessarily the notoriety – of the top dogs.

First, what is a Super Tuscan?

The textbook answer is a category of red wines made by using international grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, etc.) in non-traditional Italian blends. Some of the best are crafted in western Tuscany, along the Maremma Coast and the tiny village of Bolgheri.

However, the birthplace of the Super Tuscan category is Chianti Classico.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, pioneering winemakers broke from Italy’s rigid wine law which required specific native red grapes and a percentage of white grapes to make up the Chianti “blend”.  The innovators wanted flexibility to improve the quality of their wines. It meant experimenting with sangiovese, a key native grape that thrived in the Chianti region.

One of the first things they did was eliminate white grapes from red blends. The second was to introduce French oak barrels – barriques – to the fermentation and aging process. But were no-nos under Italian wine law.

Traditionalists scorned the “renegade” wines that were produced. Regulators designated them vino tavola – table wine – placing them at the bottom of Italy’s qualitative DOCG and DOC classification scale.

Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia, one of the world’s top Super Tuscans. given the designation as “table wines” – the lowest rung on Italy’s quality classification ladder.

The pioneers persevered, however, and never looked back. By the 1980s, their wines were regarded as some of Italy’s best.

In Chianti Classico, the trailblazers included Piero Antinori’s Tignanello, a blend using sangiovese and Bordeaux-style grapes, and Tenuta San Felice’s Vigorello – a 100 percent sangiovese wine.

In Bolgheri, the prototype Super Tuscan was Sassicaia (“stony site”). It was the brainchild of Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta who began experimenting with international grapes in the 1940s. Sassicaia was released to the public in 1972. Today, it is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (85%) and Cabernet Franc (15%).

In 1992, Italian wine authorities, reacting to the Super Tuscans’ growing status, created a special “Toscana IGT” designation to codify flexibility.

A year later, Sassicaia became Italy’s first and only wine to receive its own designation (Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC).

In the 21st century, Super Tuscans rule far and wide. The very best are produced in limited quantities and demand high prices.

For wine lovers on a budget – like me – it’s a good strategy to get acquainted with the more affordable and accessible No. 2s.

Here are several to hunt down:

Castello del Terriccio 2016 Toscana Rosso IGT,  Maremma Coast, SRP: $125, abv. 14% – Il Terriccio is one of Tuscany’s largest estates (3,700 acres) and dates back 1,000 years to the  Etruscans.

The estate is located north of Bolgheri on a picturesque landscape of hilly vineyards that face southward toward the Tyrrhenian Sea. Today, 160 acres are planted to vineyards and 98 acres to growing olives. Limousin cattle are bred in the wild.

Castello del Terriccio is a sumptuous Syrah-Petit Verdot blend.

Il Terriccio owes its modern viticultural emergence to Gian Annibale Rossi of Medelena. In the 1980s, Rossi  modernized equipment and began planting international grapes.

Winemaker Carlo Ferrini was brought on board in the 1990s to oversee the project. Tassinaia (SRP: $30), a merlot-cabernet sauvignon-sangiovese mix, was the first wine produced in 1992.

A year later, Terriccio’s flagship wine, Lupicaia (SRP: $150), made its debut. A cabernet sauvignon-petit verdot blend, this rich, savory wine soon became a stunning success.

In 2000, Castello del Terriccio – originally a mix of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and other red varietals – was introduced. It found early success too and earned a gold medal at the 2006 Decanter World Wine Awards competition.

By 2010, the wine was transformed into its present-day blend of syrah and petit verdot.

I recently sampled a bottle of the 2016 Castello del Terriccio (“castle of soil”) with several guests over a dinner of grilled sirloin steaks and vegetables and oven-roasted potatoes. The reaction? Spectacular.

Castello del Terriccio is a polished, purple-colored wine that is nimble on the palate while structured solidly for the long haul.

To put it another way: I expected Castello del Terriccio to be heavy and dense only to find it quite glowing, smooth and balanced. The tannins are maturing nicely, showing a graceful hold that knits all the amenities together.

As to the flavors, they unwind in the glass with a bit of air. Blackberry and blueberry fruit are lush and penetrating, while secondary flavors – menthol, expresso, pepper, balsamic – lend complexity to an overall intoxicating experience.

Winemakers Carlo Ferrini, Emmanuele Vergara and Nicola Vaglini set a high bar for Castello del Terriccio. The best grapes are hand-selected in estate vineyards and then hand-sorted again prior to pressing. Maceration takes place for nearly 20 days in open cap stainless steel tanks. The liquid is drained and returned daily to enhance extraction and build tannic balance.

The wine is aged for 22 months in French oak barrels and briefly in bottle prior to release.

While only 10,800 bottles were produced in 2016, annual production is seeing a steady increase to a goal of 20,000, according to a winery representative.

So how do you track down this rare gem?

According to Daniela Porro, senior account executive at Colangelo & Partners, Castello del Terriccio is distributed in California, Florida and MIdwest locations, but not yet in New England.

She suggested that consumers purchase Castello del Terriccio and Lupicaia online through Benchmark Wine Group (https://benchmarkwine.com/winery/2453-terriccio-tenuta-del).

A recent search of BWG’s website revealed that 36 bottles of the 2016 Terriccio are in stock and selling for $70 a bottle. That’s a 56% discount off the suggested retail price.

Guidalberto: a rock solid No.2 to iconic Sassicaia.

Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto 2018, Toscana IGT, Bolgheri, SRP $60 – From the House that Mario Incisa Built with Sassicaia comes Guidalberto, a classy – and affordable – No. 2.

First produced in 2000, nearly 30 years after Sassicaia’s debut, Guidalberto is a 60-40 cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend.

Niccolo Incisa, Mario’s son and the estate’s director, named the wine after his great-great-great grandfather.

“The wine was created for two reasons,” says Niccolo on the estate’s website. “First of all, the desire to see what we could accomplish with Merlot, a grape that we had never used before; second, the desire to offer the consumer a wine which could be appreciated at a younger age compared to our veteran Sassicaia.”

I’ve been drinking Guidalberto since 2015 and in my view, the estate-grown merlot makes the difference. The medium-bodied wine exhibits a soft, smooth texture and radiates with rich, sweet cherry and blue fruit flavors. A secondary layer of licorice and baking spices emerges mid-palate and gives a nice lift to this pleasurable wine.

Since 2016, Vinous wine expert Antonio Galloni has rated Guidalberto 92 points or better.  The 2018 release earned 94 points.

“Finesse and elegance are the signatures,” wrote Galloni. “The 2018 is a terrific choice for drinking now, while some of the more powerful vintages of Guidalberto come together, or while waiting for its sibling Sassicaia.”

At this writing Guidalberto is available in New Hampshire Wine & Liquor Outlets for $44.99.

Tenuta Tignanello 2018, Toscana IGT, SRP: $149 – The House of Marchese Antinori, which dates back to the 16th century, produces two No. 1 Super Tuscan wines – Solaia (SRP: $300) and Tignanello – at its Chianti Classico estate.

Both are revered worldwide by consumers and collectors, but Tignanello’s larger annual production – a maximum 30,000 cases compared to Solaia’s 3,000 to 7,000 – and price point make it easier to obtain.

More importantly, Tignanello is the Super Tuscan trailblazer credited with launching Italy’s wine renaissance in the 1970s.

Produced by Piero Antinori with the help of oenologist Giacomo Tachis, Tignanello broke all the rules upon its release in 1971:

  • It was the first sangiovese red wine to be aged in small French barriques;
  • It was Italy’s first modern wine blended with Bordeaux varieties;
  • And it was the first red wine in Chianti Classico not to use white grapes as required by Italian wine regulations.

Today, Tignanello is a blend of sangiovese (85%), cabernet sauvignon (10%) and cabernet franc (5%).

Grapes are hand-selected from a 150-acre estate vineyard planted exclusively for Tignanello wine.

After fermentation, the wine is aged for up to 16 months in small French and Hungarian oak barrels. It sits in bottle for another 12 months before being released.

Antinori’s Solaia is a majestic Super Tuscan.

(Solaia has its own exclusive 50-acre vineyard site. Its blend is dominated by cabernet sauvignon (60% to 70%) and includes at least 20% sangiovese and the rest cabernet franc.)

According to Antinori CEO and longtime winemaker Renzo Cottarella, the formulas of both wines can fluctuate with each vintage based on the quality of the grapes.

During less-than-excellent growing seasons, Tignanello and Solaia are not produced – a decision the House of Antinori has made seven times for the former and five times for the latter.

Tignanello remains one of my all-time favorite wines, and I maintain a small collection dating back to the 2009 vintage.

The most recent bottle I drank was from 2016, an Antinori vintage in Chianti Classico that was rated off the charts.

Vinous reviewer Antonio Galloni gave it 97 points, saying, “I don’t think there is another wine anywhere in the world made entirely from estate fruit that can match Tignanello for quality, consistency and value within its peer group of top-flight reds.”

Tignanello commands great respect and it’s a tribute to the Antinoris that the wine is available at numerous U.S. fine wine outlets and online stores.

Guado al Tasso “Il Bruciato” 2019, Bolgheri DOC, SRP $32.99 – Antinori’s No. 2 Super Tuscan from its Tenuta Guado al Tasso estate is a rich, jammy blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. In addition, small amounts of petit verdot and cabernet franc round out the dark, intriguing wine.

Il Bruciato (“The Burned”) plays second fiddle to the highly acclaimed Guado al Tasso Bolgheri DOC Superiore (SRP: $140).

First produced in 2002, Il Bruciato has evolved into a truly distinct Maremma Coast wine.

The estate’s 790-vineyard acres are located at the foot of a plain encircled by the Bolgheri Amphitheater, a rolling hillside facing westward toward the Tyrrhenian Sea. The landscape helps create a unique mesoclimate of gentle ocean breezes that cool the sun-bleached vineyards and protect against harsh winter storms.

The soil in this part of Bolgheri is a mixture of silty-clay and scheletro, a very fine gravel. It is said to impart depth and complexity to Guado al Tasso wines.

Il Bruciato is initially fermented in both stainless steel tanks and oak barriques to preserve the aromatics of each varietal used in the blend. After final assembly, the wine is aged in barriques.

On the palate, Il Bruciato’s fruit is ripe, sweet and mouthfilling in black currant. Tobacco, chocolate and espresso are also expressed. The wine flows impeccably on a velvety core, leading to a dry finish of moderate length.

Il Bruciato usually scores in the 90-to-92 point range among top wine critics. It’s a good quality Tuscan wine that is fairly easy to find at prices below the suggested retail price.

Brancaia TRE 2019, Toscana IGT, SRP: $19.99 – It’s name, TRE, tells the story of this wine.

It is a conglomeration of three varietals – sangiovese (80%), merlot (10%), cabernet sauvignon (10%) – and is grown at three separate Brancaia estates – Radda and Castellina in the Chianti region and the Maremma Coast.

Brancaia is anchored by its prestigious “IL BLU” ($125), a classic, elegant red made from the best grapes produced at the two Chianti estates. Launched in 1988, IL BLU relies on the same three varietals in its blend as does TRE.

(Brancaia has an interesting story. The 50-plus acre Castellina property was abandoned before Bruno Widmer and his wife Bridgette, an oenologist, first saw it in 1981.  They bought it as a holiday destination for their family, which included three small children.

In 1983 a decision was made to restock the vineyards and make wine, led by Bridgette’s winemaking skills. Three years later, Brancaia’s first Chianti won rave reviews in a competition. Next came the creation of IL BLU and the rest is history.

Today, the Widmers are strong advocates of sustainable farming and growing organic grapes.

As the estate’s entry-level wine, TRE is quite an overachiever.

Monica Larner reviews Italian wines for Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate magazine. She said of the 2014 TRE, “There is no better entry-level wine than this.”

TRE, first produced in 2000, is consistently rated between 89-92 points by critics in annual reviews.

I’ve tasted the 2019 TRE frequently. It is a staple on my table for pizza, simple pasta dishes, and roasted chicken. TRE is a wonderful wine loaded with succulent red fruit and plum flavors that keeps its delicious form to the final sip.

TRE is readily available in most wine outlets. I saw it advertised at the Saratoga Wine Exchange (www.saratogawineexchange.com) for $14.99 a bottle based on the purchase of a 12-bottle case.

San Felice Vigorello Toscana IGT, SRP: $60 – Vigorello by all accounts was the first Super Tuscan of its kind made in Chianti Classico. Enzo Morganti produced it in 1968 using 100% sangiovese grapes, defying Italian wine law that required white grapes and other red varietals to be used in the Chianti Classico blend.

In essence, Morganti created the first 100% sangiovese wine in Italy.

Morganti had a vision that sangiovese could be a super grape. He respected the native varietal and in the early 1960s began replanting vineyards at San Felice, a tiny village and winery located in Castelnuovo Berardenga, near Siena.

Previously, olive trees were planted between each row of vines, a practice Morganti changed to improve the quality of the grapes.

Today, the 1,500-acre agricultural estate dedicates 370 acres to vineyards. Of that total, 315 is set aside for sangiovese. (There are also 15,000 olive trees on the property.)

Vigorello has undergone several transformations since its inception.

In 1979, the “pure” sangiovese bottling became a blend for the first time with the introduction of cabernet sauvignon. More than two decades later, in 2001, merlot was added to the mix and proved very desirable. After more study, in 2006, merlot replaced sangiovese in its entirety.

That was not the end of the estate’s quest for a truly Tuscan wine.

In 2011, the ancient and rare Pugnitello grape, which is native to Tuscany, was added and a new blend created. The present formula is pugnitello (35%), cabernet sauvignon (30%), merlot (30%) and petit verdot (5%).

No doubt authenticity is important at San Felice, and pugnitello has provided the key ingredient. The grape’s name means “little fist” and describes the vines’ small, tight bunches which resembles a fist. The varietal provides a ruby-red color with violet hues and full-bodied taste profile with good acidity and tannins.

Vigorello is a velvety smooth wine aged 24 months in French oak barriques and eight months in bottle. Built to last for up to 40 years with proper cellaring, Vigorello owns the distinction of being a generous and approachable wine even in its infancy. Of course, the best way to enjoy this Super Tuscan is with food; the winery suggests grilled meats, roast lamb and mature cheeses.

Over the past four vintages, starting with the 2015, Vigorello has really shown its unique character.

It’s made in a rich style of dark fruit flavors that get an overlay of menthol, bittersweet chocolate, licorice and vanilla. The acidity is smart and balanced.

Critics use such words as “volupturous” and “inviting” to describe it.

Vinous wine reviewer Antonio Galloni called the 2017 Vigorello “one of the most compelling wines in this range. It offers plenty of intensity with more freshness and better balance than other wines today.” He rated it 93 points.

Vigorello’s high quality and reasonable price makes it a very attractive buy. Although only 40,000 bottles are produced annually, an ample supply usually gets imported to the U.S. In fact, Vigorello is now selling for $54.99 a bottle in N.H.

Photos by Jim Campanini