Today, the term Super Tuscan has become almost meaningless because its widespread use encompasses anything from expensive wine made entirely from Sangiovese to low-end blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with Sangiovese.
The original Super Tuscan moniker referred to innovative wines, blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, or those varieties with Tuscany’s traditional Sangiovese. The wines arose in two distinct areas of Tuscany for different reasons.
Sassicaia was born on the coast in Bolgheri because, as the story goes, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta was enamored of the wines of Bordeaux, but could not find them in Italy so he planted and made his own.
In the center of Tuscany, Piero Antinori was dissatisfied with the traditional blend for Chianti Classico, so he created Tignanello by omitting the proscribed white grape varieties from the blend and adding Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. While Sassicaia and Tignanello were the first, or at least among the first, Super Tuscans, Mazzei, another well-established Tuscan family, had its own visions.
Founded in 1435, Castello di Fonterutoli, located in the Chianti Classico region, is the Mazzei family’s primary estate. It has remained in the family for 24 generations, making them one of the oldest winemaking families in Italy and the world. Upholding the family tradition of innovation—Ser Lapo Mazzei is considered the “father” of Chianti since he was the first to use its name in a contract dated 1398, according to their website—Mazzei introduced Merlot to the Chianti Classico region in the early 1980s at Fonterutoli “on a hunch,” according to Francesco Mazzei, the current CEO of Marchesi Mazzei.
Mazzei felt that Merlot might be a complimentary grape to Sangiovese, the Tuscan standard-bearer. Francesco explains that their aim was to produce “an ideal wine.” He felt that Merlot adds power, color, and roundness to complement Sangiovese’s inherent structure and acidity.
Mazzei already had an old 35-acre vineyard, called Siepi, which was considered to be a fantastic Sangiovese area, according to Francesco. He noted, with pride, that Biondi Santi took Sangiovese cuttings from the Siepi vineyard when he started in Montalcino. In the early 1980s, when replanting a parcel of the vineyard with Sangiovese, Mazzei decided to include Merlot, winding up with a 15-acre portion planted roughly equally with Sangiovese and Merlot, which serves as the source for their Super Tuscan, labeled Siepi. The wine made from the remaining portion of Sangiovese in the other 20-acres is destined for their stunning Castello di Fonterutoli Chianti Classico Gran Selezione.
The blend of Siepi aims to reflect the vineyard—equal proportions of Merlot and Sangiovese. But since the two varieties have different growing cycles—Merlot buds and ripens well before Sangiovese—they will be affected differently depending on the weather, so Mother Nature actually determines the blend in any given year. For example, in 2002, a notoriously difficult year in Tuscany, Mazzei made a little Siepi, but the blend was Merlot heavy (80%) because it was harvested before the rains.
Mazzei typically ages the wine in 225-liter French barriques made from Allier oak. The duration of oak aging and the percentage of barriques that are new vary according to vintage and variety. For example, Mazzei might age three-quarters of the Merlot in barriques, half of which are new and the next vintage age all of the Merlot in barriques three-quarters of which are new. It’s clear from Francesco’s description that there is no formula.
Mazzei is proud of their new gravity-dependent winery, which took four years to build and was finally ready for the 2007 harvest. Designed so that the movement of grapes to juice to wine occurs by gravity without the need for pumps ensures a gentle extraction. It also allowed them to “parcelize” the vinification for all their wines, not just Siepi.
Mazzei has about 650 acres at Fonterutoli, 117 acres of which are planted to vines. Those 117 acres are divided into at least 120 parcels, all of which they can now vinify separately, according to Mazzei. The parcelization of vinification allows them to “fine-tune” the final blend of their 2,500-case production of Siepi.
Francesco Mazzei was in Boston recently to lead a tasting of Siepi marking its 20th vintage. Though Mazzei planted the vines in the early 1980s, the first commercial vintage was 1992, after the vines had achieved some maturity. The wines he showed were the 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011 and the 2012, the current release. They made no 2009, hence the 20 year “anniversary” from 1992 to 2012. The 2010 was not included in the tasting because they were out of stock. The prices listed below after my point score are taken from wine-searcher.com.
What I value in vertical tastings is the ability to sense the overall style of the wine (is it recognizably consistent?) see its evolution, and get a sense of what age it might be ready to drink. The downside of such a tasting, of course, is that many perfectly fine wines pale in comparison to the one that is showing the best.
2005: The Siepi 2005 was a product of hot and dry summer with adequate rain in the fall. Mazzei described the vintage as “good, but not exceptional.” To me, at 11 years old, it was exceptional for current drinking. Fully mature, it was plush, round and full, but still fresh. Rating: 94, $100
2006: Mazzei considers the 2006 vintage as a great one because of the power of the wines. The 2006 Siepi was indeed powerful with youthful and prominent tannins, which I found overwhelming for a ten-year-old wine. To be fair, Tom Maresca, an authority on Italian wines, attended a similar vertical tasting in New York where the 2006 was his favorite wine, so there may be variation bottle to bottle. Rating: 89, $104
2007: You can immediately feel and taste the benefit of the new winery in the 2007 Siepi. Velvety with fine tannins, there is more fruitiness than minerality at this stage. It tastes more than two years younger than the 2005 and has far better balance than the 2006. Elegant with impeccable harmony and the signature Tuscan energy, it should develop beautifully over the next couple of years. Though, I must admit, it is hard to resist now. Rating: 95, $93
2008: Thick and juicy, it has the plushness of the 2007, but is far more youthful, which makes it seem less elegant at this stage. In an adolescent phase now, it will turn out just fine. Rating: 93, n/a
2011: All the other wines pale in comparison to the 2011, which is a shame because for current consumption, I’d pick the 2005 or even the 2007 over it. Mazzei recalls that it was a hot summer. He remembers that instead of removing leaves to expose the young berries to the sun, in 2011, they left the leaves. Whatever they did, it worked. It’s a dazzling wine. Mineral-infused and juicy, this was a harmonious, long and refined wine that had remarkable freshness. A delight to taste, it will be a thrill to drink in another five or so years. Rating: 97, $99
2012: Youthful and juicy, the wine opens in the glass revealing minerals and dark fruit flavors. The signature Tuscan acidity amplifies the finish. The virtue of the new winery is seen in the fineness of the tannins and the wine’s overall glossy texture. Rating: 95, $83
The bottom line: Siepi is a true Super Tuscan. There’s a family resemblance that connects these vintages: a harmony of dark fruitiness and minerality—the balance of which depends on the wine’s age—a plush texture, and enlivening Tuscan acidity. Unlike the case with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, Merlot does not dominate the blend. I guess you’d have to say that Mazzei’s “hunch” was right.
Email me your thoughts about Siepi or Super Tuscans in general at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on twitter @Michael Apstein.