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A Fistful of Cabernet: Enter the Super Tuscans (May 21, 2013)

Yes, Virginia, there are cowboys in Italy. In Maremma, that swath of land that stretches along the coastal plain encompassing Tuscany and Lazio, you'll find the butteri. These cowpokes ride Western-style saddles with long stirrups and wear chaps made of goat's skin. They wrangle the elegant breed of long-horned Maremmana cattle that graze the Tuscan prairie. The open pastures here were once mosquito-infested marshlands that were drained during the Mussolini era.

Maremma is famous for its beaches that sweep for miles along the turquoise and emerald waters of the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas, a favourite vacationing spot for Romans. But the region is also gaining a reputation among wine lovers as a place where some of Italy's finest wines are being produced. It is the home of the first Super-Tuscan wine, Sassicaia.

The name Sassicaia comes from the Italian sasso, meaning "stone," which speaks to the soil in which this Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blend is grown. Sassicaia was first produced in 1948 by Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta purely for his family's consumption. The Marchese, who bred horses, owned what many consider to be the greatest race horse of all times – Ribot (1952–1972). This British-bred and Italian-trained thoroughbred was never defeated in 16 races over all distances.

There was a rumour that the Cabernet vines planted in the vineyard of Tenuta San Guido, the Sassiacaia estate, originally came from Château Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux; but that legend was put to rest by Mario's son, Nicolò, the current owner of the property, who acknowledged that the vines were raised from "cuttings from 50-year-old vines from a friend's estate near Pisa." For twenty-three years Sassicaia was the family's "house wine" until Nicolò and his cousin Marchese Piero Antinori convinced Mario to put the wine on the market. The 1968 vintage, released in 1971, was an instant success and created the concept of Super-Tuscan, a wine that is made from grapes not sanctioned by the local DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) regulations.

It was the same year that Piero Antinori released his wine, Tignanello, which broke the mold of Chianti. Up until this time Chianti had been rigorously based on the original recipe created by Baron Bettino Ricasoli in the mid-nineteenth century: 70% Sangiovese grapes, 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia Bianca. (Ricasoli later became the second prime minister in the Kingdom of Italy, after Cavour). Antinori confounded the industry not only by introducing 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc into the blend but by doing away with the white Malvasia grapes entirely. And equally heretical, according to the traditionalists, he and his winemaker Giacomo Tachis fermented their wine in 225-litre French barriques as opposed to the large Slovenian oak casks called botti.

Sassicaia and Tignanello ushered in a whole new era of Italian wines and opened the flood gates for a host of Super-Tuscans that made a mockery of Italian wine law. Since they did not conform to the regulations they could not be labelled with the DOCG or DOC appellations; they had to bear the ignominy of being classified as mere vino da tavola (table wine, the most basic appellation). Which was, of course, absurd since they were exceptionally fine wines marketed at prices that far exceeded Chianti Classico Riservas.

It wasn't until 1992 that the authorities saw the light and instituted a new appellation to cover these wines – IGT (Indicazione geografica tipica). But such was the prestige and importance of Sassicaia that in 1994 the wine was granted its own DOC (Sassicaia DOC) – the only wine from a single estate in Italy to be so honoured.

Maremma also boasts such Cabernet-based Super-Tuscan wines grown around the town of Bolgheri as Solaia, Ornellaia, Guado el Tasso and Matarocchio. These wines may overshadow a delightful style of Maremma Sangiovese that is as easy on the pocketbook as it is on the palate. It's called Morellino di Scansano. Maremma's Morellino is grown on the slopes of the rugged, low-lying hills that look nothing like the manicured hills of the Chianti Classico region between Florence and Siena. Some of the locals will tell you that the name Morellino comes from the colour of the sturdy Maremmano horses ridden by the butteri, but a more plausible explanation would be that it comes from the Morello cherry, which is deep red in colour and has refreshing acidity. And if you taste Morellino di Scansano, the first descriptor that comes to mind is cherries.

The climate in Maremma is warmer than the inland Chianti Classico zone and it receives less rain. The result is that the wines made with Morellino di Scansano – a grape that sounds as delicious as it tastes – have more up-front fruit than Chianti and softer tannins. The white wine of the region that complements Morellino is called Vermentino. But that, as the butteri would say, is a horse of a different colour.




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