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Innovation to Inundation?

Supertuscans changed the face of Tuscany, but with Chianti regulations now more liberal, have they run their course? By RICHARD BAUDAINS

Italy’s IGT denomination was originally intended for everyday wines at the bottom end of the quality pyramid. Today, it has come to represent an elite category at the top. At the very summit, the term Supertuscan has attached itself to wines registered by their producers in the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) category, but aimed at the super premium end of the market. IGT is a largely open-ended denomination that co-exists with DOC/ G (Denominazione di Origine Controllata/e Garantia) in most parts of the country.

In Chianti Classico, most of the small, independent estates and all the big bottlers make at least one non- DOCG wine, and some of the area’s most sought-after bottles belong to this category. This situation originated in the 1970s and early 1980s in response to the depressed state of viticulture in Chianti and the inadequacy of DOC norms which permitted gargantuan yields and imposed the blending of red and white grapes in the production of Chianti Classico (see box below). Abandoning the DOC in favour of the freedom offered by table wine legislation, qualityoriented producers began to set their own, much higher, standards, bottlingpure Sangiovese and experimenting with innovative blends and non-traditional monovarietals. In stark contrast to the anemic Chianti Classico of the period, these new IGT wines offered bold colours, ripe fruit flavours, body and mouthfeel. By the mid-1980s, despite the upgrading of Chianti Classico to DOCG, the Supertuscans were dominating quality production in Chianti and riding a wave of success that swept through the region.

Fast forward to 2008 and the picture is radically different. The Chianti Classico production norms have been modified to incorporate the innovations introduced by the IGTs. The current DOCG allows for both monovarietal Sangiovese and cuvées with up to 25% of other authorised red varieties, which, in practice, means principally Cabernet and Merlot but also Syrah and Petit Verdot. The influence of the Supertuscans has also been seen in the convergence of winemaking styles. The concentrated oak and berry flavours which used to be the trademark of exclusive IGTs can now be found throughout DOCG wines. New clonal selections of Sangiovese, lower yields and vastly improved vineyard management have brought huge improvements in the general level of Chianti Classico, closing the quality gap that used to exist between the DOCG and the Supertuscans.

Ten years ago, the Gambero Rosso Vini d’Italia guide gave its top Tre Bicchieri (Three Glasses) award to 13 IGTs from the Chianti Classico area and to only threeChiantis. Even five years ago, IGTs were picking up more than double the number of prizes as Chianti Classico. In this year’s guide, for the first time since the beginning of the Supertuscan boom, Chiantis and IGTs came out level, with 12 awards each.

Point of difference

The result is a substantial overlapping of denominations in Chianti. The IGTs originally set out to distance themselves from Chianti Classico in terms of grape varieties and winemaking style, but developments in recent years have minimised the differences between them. It is common to find Sangiovese-based wines from neighbouring estates made from the same varieties and vinified in the same way, labelled by one producer as Chianti Classico and the other as IGT. Which somewhat begs the question, what is the point of the IGT?

And, have Supertuscans had their day? Nobody would deny the historic importance of the Supertuscan movement. The IGTs took up the baton of Tuscan wine which the DOC had dropped. As consultant winemaker Vittorio Fiore, one of the architects of the Tuscan renaissance, says, ‘There was no way that the DOCG was qualified to express the potential of the terroir of Chianti in the early 1980s.’ It is no exaggeration to say that without the innovative IGTs,

Tuscany would not enjoy its status as Italy’s leading quality wine region. The Supertuscan experience taught producers the value of quality grapes and the concept of phenolic ripeness. It helped them discover the fruit aromas of Sangiovese and it revolutionised the approach to the extraction of tannins and oak ageing. Basically, it dragged Tuscany into the world of modern winemaking,

while generating enormous waves of excitement and enthusiasm along the way. To a large extent that thrill has gone. Technically, Supertuscans are no longer cutting edge, while, in terms of image, a lot of the glamour attached to the novelty of international varietals in Tuscany and the daring liberalism of the pioneer wines has faded. There are even signs of a backlash. What if the commercial success of the IGTs has been taking Tuscany in the wrong direction? Producer and Chianti Classico Consorzio chairman Marco Pallanti argues that the typical Supertuscan emphasis on new oak and hyper-concentrated fruit leaves no room for the terroir to emerge. ‘IGTs are becoming progressively more Super and less Tuscan’, he says.

He is not alone in feeling that this style shouldn’t be taking the lead in defining the character of the wines of the region. That said, the Supertuscans are not

going to go away in the foreseeable future, for two sound economic reasons. The first is that they are still much in demand in certain markets. The second is that, at the bottom line, Supertuscans still command a considerably higher price than DOCG wines, which makes it unthinkable for a producer to reclassify an IGT as a Chianti Classico and makes it very tempting to slip a little 3,000-bottle, highly priced super selection into the production plan of a new estate.

Written by Richard Baudains

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