10 Italian Rebels: Super Tuscans
Thank God the old lady in Sienna took kindly to our praise of her family’s wines. She was kind enough to contact her brother, who had an entire villa full of spare rooms for young blonde Americans to crash. Forget “don’t talk to” strangers. This was “go find a stranger and sleep in his house.”
Her gnarly old hands slowly and shakedly drew us out a map, demonstrating where to find her “Brot’s” (which I assume meant bother’s) winery and vineyard outside of the walls of Sienna. I expected a small mud-shaped house, a horse, and an old man with a canister of Chianti. So, imagine my surprise when we approached the grandeurs Tuscan villa that was DieVole Winery & Vineyard. Our eyes widened as the taxi drew near the gate. Thankfully, the gate opened, and let the likes of us into the villa’s estate. The taxi wound its way up the dirt road lined with cypress trees like the yellow brick road leading to Oz. Then we were on our own.
I was praying for an English speaker, and we were both praying for a shower, more wine, then bed. We knocked on the large, wooden front door, and a solid, 50-something Italian man answered the door. “Hi. I think your sister may have let you know we were coming. We’re international students of wine” (it was close enough to the truth) “and we’d love to stay with you, if you’d have us.” The man stepped back, slid his glasses off his face, put his hand on his waste, and evaluated our worthiness exactly as his sister had done back at the wine bar in Siena.
Sensing unease, CiCi piped in, “We love your wine! Just drank a ton of it at your sister’s place.” Her smile and enthusiasm lightened the mood. This lead the old man also to smile, introduce himself, and welcome us in. His name was Lucho, and he was the great-great grandson of the winery’s first owner. He’d lived in the Tuscany region his entire life, and offered a plethora of great wine knowledge.
After CiCi and I cleaned up a bit, we joined Lucho, and his family in a grand dining room that seemed to be at least 400 years old. The chandeliers were still lit with actual candles, and the Chianti flowed freely. Lucho told us about the proud Italian winemaking history, and how the country of Italy was like one big vineyard, growing all different kinds of wine. He then tested our (lack of) wine knowledge with a simple question, “What’s your favorite Italian Wine?”
I hesitated, knowing CiCi would reply “red,” if I didn’t come up with something better. Thinking back to my waiting tables days, I fumbled out an answer, “I really like Super Tuscans.” Lucho slowly grinned and mischievously called my bluff. “Do you know what a Super Tuscan is?” Admittedly, I did not. Luckily for me, flirting worked with Lucho, “No, I don’t really,” I answered with a coy smile. “But I’d love to learn.”
Some people are listeners. Some people are talkers. Lucho was a teacher. He began generally by putting me at ease for my lack of Italian wine knowledge. According to Lucho, Italy and France are the toughest countries to learn. Italy, because it has a ton of “grapes,” France because it has a ton of “places.” In fact, Italy has over 500 different types of grapes, so Step 1 in our “Boones to Bordeaux” process is a bit complicated when it comes to Italian wines.
Traditionally, for each place (or appellation) in Italy, you could only grow certain types of grapes. Take the following example: Tuscany is known for its Chianti. However, Chianti is just a wine made from mostly Sangiovese (san-gee-oh-VAY-ce) grapes. Side note: Sangiovese comes from the Latin term, sanguis Jovis meaning “the blood of Jupiter, and is the workhorse of Tuscany. In fact, at one point, almost all wine in Tuscany was some clone of Sangiovese, and Sangiovese has hundreds of clones, all with entirely different names. How’s that for complicated?
In order to be considered a wine of quality in Italy (which meant you got a nifty little sticker on your cap), you had to abide by certain wine laws. These laws told the winegrower what type of grape (of the over 500 different types) he or she could use in the wine. In 1980, the government classified five “really good” kinds of Italian wines: (1) Barolos; (2) Barbarescos; (3) Chianti; (4) Brunello di Montalcino; and (5) Vino Nobile di Montepulcino. In order to make it into this elite class, your wines had to undergo the scrutiny of a live tasting panel. Today, there are over 37 wines in this category known as DOCG — which is Italian for “the good shit.”
After the little Italy 101 lesson, Lucho got back to my original conundrum: Super Tuscans. He explained that a few growers got sick of just using Sangiovese or what ever the government required them to use in the area where they made wine. So, these wine rebels allowed their wines to be downgraded in the Italian wine system, to merely, “table wines.” In doing that, they had the freedom to blend all different kinds of wine grapes into their wine—including French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon (the big red daddy from France) and Merlot which I think of as “mellow” because it chills out the Cabernet.
Anyway, the joke was on the governmental bodies, because people started to take note of these killer table wines. Eventually, the Italian government made a new class for these Super Tuscan wine rebels – called IGT –which means the winemaker can do what he wants, but the wine is better than the average table wine. Since then, Super Tuscans have been the “Wine Rebels” of Italy in my mind. And I finally knew what the hell I was drinking. All good.
The four-hour-dinner with the Lucho family wrapped up, and CiCi and I headed to one of the 14 guest rooms to pass out. I slept like the dead. Morning came quickly with a slight wine hangover and horse hoofs. The Palio de Siena horse race commenced directly outside our bedroom window. Lucky us. As the 12 riders representing the 12 neighborhoods of Sienna lined up, the noise from the crowd, the horns, and the vendors precluded any sleeping in. The day had started, the races had begun, and we were in for another day of wine travel.