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Bibi Graetz's Innovative Twists in the Super Tuscan Genre
By Jim Clarke
Apr 12, 2023
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The “Super Tuscan” designation embraced a wide swath of wines, most of which first appeared in the last decade or two of the twentieth century.  Some were from traditional region like Chianti Classico, even if they eschewed that DOCG, or were not eligible for it because they failed to blend their Sangiovese with other varieties; others came from different areas, especially the coastal regions of Bolgheri and Maremma, and were made with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  In any case, the term is as tired as alluding to “Sideways” when writing about Pinot Noir, and fortunately the creation of proper DOCs for at least those Tuscan coastal regions has obviated the need to use it much.

However, that does leave us struggling for a categorical designation for the handful of producers making 100% Sangiovese wines within the borders of Chianti or Chianti Classico who opt not to use those DOCG names.  One such is Bibi Graetz’s Testamatta (“Crazy Head”).  A relatively late addition to the Super Tuscan fold – his first vintage was 2000 – the Testamatta wines rose through the ranks quite quickly, and exemplified the bold, rich style one associates with a term like Super Tuscan – or, during that decade, with highly-scored red wines from just about anywhere; this was the era of the so-called “international style” where red wines, regardless of origin, were by-and-large praised for extraction and power more than finesse and elegance.

I had tasted these wines only once or twice before 2011, when I took over the wine program at Armani Ristorante in Manhattan and inherited a cellar with several vintages of both the Testamatta and Testamatta Colore wines.  The chance to taste and sell them on the restaurant floor on a regular basis turned me into a fan.  Rich and powerful they were, but there was still a vibrancy and energy to the wines that appealed.  They were at a fairly extreme end of what I expected from Sangiovese, but still bore the grape’s stamp.

By the time I left Armani two years later, Graetz was reconsidering his approach and the character of the wines he was making.  “In 2013 I was showing the 2009 and 2010 wines in the market,” he says, “and people fell for the more Burgundian 2009 and not the powerful 2010.”  At that point he concluded that concentration might earn high scores from critics, but that wine drinkers at home or in restaurants might feel differently.  In 2015 he began making changes, and eventually stopped using new wood, cultivated yeasts, and other tools that enriched the wines.  He says the challenge is to make lighter wines that nonetheless possess length on the palate.

A decade on from that powerful 2010 Graetz harvested what he calls “the most fun wine I’ve ever done.”  The 2020 Testamatta comes exclusively from north-facing slopes, and he made a point of removing overly concentrated berries.  The wine shows red fruit – cranberries, redcurrants, cherries – mixed with savory wild herbs and sage.  The tannins are delicate, and the acidity pronounced, giving the wine a tension and liveliness.  Graetz may call it a “fun” wine, but it has complexity and energy and oughtn’t be considered a “gluggable” fresh wine that won’t profit from aging – not by any stretch.

The Bibi Graetz Colore from the same vintage shows some similar characteristics, but older vines (70 years plus, compared to “just” 35-50 years for the Testamatta), higher elevations, and south-facing slopes darken the fruit spectrum and provide added muscle to the wine, keeping it firm and focused.  Rose and graphite notes complement the lack cherry and plum fruit, as does a touch of spice.  The Testamatta may be the most fun, but Graetz says this might be the best wine he’s ever made.

Both the Colore and Testamatta are 100% Sangiovese, but from the same vintage Graetz is introducing a small amount of single varietal, single vineyard wines from the three classic red grapes of Tuscany: Sangiovese, Colorino, and Canaiolo.  This is the Balocchi (”Toys”) series.  The Sangiovese in the lineup is made with grapes from the first vineyard he ever worked with, and is named, appropriately enough, #1.  It’s a softer wine than the Testamatta or Colore, though still firm; its structure driven more by acid than tannins.  Plum, strawberry, and floral notes dominate, with a touch of earth and blood orange, especially on the finish.

The #8 is 100% Canaiolo; Graetz is excited about the chance to show off the variety, which he calls the “the most amazing grape we have.”  The wine is more substantial, and spicy, with green peppercorn, earth, black cherry, and floral notes.  It comes from a higher vineyard – 320 meters in elevation, compared to 250m for the #1.  The “8” in this case refers to the age of the artist – Bibi’s son, Ludovico – when he drew the label; the colorful artwork fits into the Testamatta lineup seamlessly.

The final wine in the trio, the Colorino, is named #3.  The wine is darker in color, fuller-bodied, and shows a darker range of fruit notes, especially blackberry and blackcurrant.  It’s rich and sports ripe tannins, but is still well-structured, with a long finish.  Bibi says Colorino’s robust character gives him “the chance to play the ‘Super Tuscan” game.” He means the Super Tuscan style of past decades, but the new, more restrained Testamatta wines are equally super if elegance and complexity are the goalposts.             

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