Snake Oil From Tuscany

It is hardly news that the term Super Tuscan has steadily been losing its luster. Created in the 1970s to put a name to some exceptional wines that didn’t fit into the structure of Italy’s DOC laws, it has been widely co-opted by lesser products seeking to bask in the sunshine of the original success. Just how devalued the name has become was demonstrated to me at a recent wine tasting.

Invited by the seller to try a “Super Tuscan”, I was immediately wary when I noticed that the wine in my glass had a definite brown color at the edges. True Super Tuscans are big wines with tons of aging potential and this one was only 5 years old (vintage 2010, which happened to be a pretty good year in Tuscany). The aroma wasn’t conclusive, but my first thought upon tasting was, “This seems a bit tired.” In fact, what it really reminded me of was a Chianti past its prime.

A glance at the spec sheet confirmed my instinct. The wine was 85% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot, and 5% Syrah (meeting the rules for Chianti), and made just outside of Montalcino, well within the borders of the Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG. So why would a wine made in the style of a top level appellation settle for carrying a Toscana IGT name? There are several possible reasons, but I think the clues we have, coupled with a quick look at Italian wine law yields the most likely answer.

The Toscana IGT rules allow winemakers to do pretty much anything they want as long as the grapes are grown in Tuscany and the yields are 16 tonnes per hectare or less (for red wine grapes). The Chianti rules are stricter, requiring the wine to be 75% Sangiovese and limiting yields to 11.5 tonnes per hectare in Colli Sensei. Sangiovese is a grape variety that will produce bountifully if you let it. By selecting the IGT appellation, the winery can legally harvest nearly 50% more grapes from the same land.

The trade-off in doing this is that the resulting wine tends to be thin and acidic without much aging potential. Merlot and Syrah are exactly the right grapes to balance out a thin and acidic wine in its youth, and that completes the picture of what’s going on here. The winemaker was creating an inexpensive quaff meant to be enjoyed while young. Nothing wrong in that… until the sales channel starts trying to pass it off as something more.

The definition of “snake oil” is a product with questionable or unverifiable quality. The problem with unofficial names like “Super Tuscan” for wines is that there are no rules, which means there is no framework for evaluating the quality. Even legally defined terms can be of little value when they are too broad or too vague, as demonstrated in the discussion above. Some of the original Super Tuscans now have their own DOC designations, a step that provides a much more reliable guide to their composition and quality. Everything else being marketed under the Super Tuscan name is best covered by an ancient Roman law: caveat emptor.

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