The Italian wine revolution began in Tuscany when, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, producers ignored the restrictive laws and began to produce high-quality vini da tavola, thereby opening up a new realm of possibilities.
The Supertuscans, as they were dubbed, exposed the ludicrous limits of the Italian DOC system and brought Italian wine back on to the world stage. The use of Cabernet Sauvignon and the introduction of barrique ageing is what most people remember, but underpinning this utilisation of "international" techniques was a firm belief in the qualities of Tuscany's greatest variety, Sangiovese.
Now there's a new wave of "legal" Supertuscans, wines where this concentration on local varieties is to the fore. There are established names like Tignanello and Cepparello, newcomers like Casalferro and Torre a Destra. Call them the Post-Supertuscans. They have adapted the lessons learned from the Cabernet/barrique experience and applied them to Sangiovese. They are modern wines which, in theory, represent the finest expressions of Tuscany's top grape.
Caterer's panel convened in the Halkin in London's Belgravia to look at a cross-section of them.
The panel comprised Alessandro Corlini, head sommelier, the Halkin; David Gleave MW, managing director, Liberty Wines; Livio Italiani, head sommelier, Sartoria; Massimo Miliano, sommelier, the Halkin; Fiona Sims, wine editor, Caterer & Hotelkeeper; Nick Tarayan, wine buyer, Leith's; and Dave Broom, drinks journalist.
All wines were tasted blind. David Gleave's marks for wines handled by Liberty were not considered.
The wines were a pretty mixed bag, and the panel was disappointed by the overall standard. While there were some out-and-out stars, the general opinion was - given that these were all meant to be cutting-edge Tuscan reds (at not inconsiderable prices) - that there should have been more world-class wines and certainly fewer wines that were faulty.
"I was generally disappointed," said Gleave. "I thought that too many lacked freshness and balance. Wine-makers are trying to take shortcuts and make wines with power, but Sangiovese doesn't necessarily produce powerful wines.
"There's not as much change in these as you would expect and a lot are simply not going to give the consumer the confidence they need to come back to try Tuscan wines again."
Tarayan was equally downbeat. "I'd expected more exceptional wines… but they weren't there," he said. "The most disappointing were the oldest. The wines from 1993 and 1994 were like old Riojas - lots of wood and a lack of balance between fruit and acidity." This was an analysis that was echoed by the rest of the panel.
The 1995 vintage [which was affected by heavy rains in September] showed equally poorly, with one notable exception. "1995 was a difficult year," said Italiani, "and it showed. It had the same unclean, musty nose as the wines from the previous two vintages."
Thankfully, things improved with the wines from 1996, which, though also affected by humidity and September rains, produced the largest haul of recommendations. "The best wines came from 1996," said Gleave. "The top ones were nicely balanced, but the poorest showed a pruney character or green tannins. It was the same in 1997, where there was often a lack of freshness - and too much oak."
Though in broad agreement, Italiani was more upbeat in his reading. "You could see the potential of the 1997 vintage," he said. "There was a consistency that was lacking in other years, but too often the tannins weren't ripe. I think this shows that there has been a change in approach to Sangiovese from 1995 on. The old-style, oxidised, heavily oaked wines have gone."
It was an evolution also seen by Tarayan. "There did seem to be a change in wine-making after 1995," he said. "The previous two vintages had a lot of wood and bitter tannins, while 1995 seemed to be an intermediate stage in the evolution. The two youngest vintages were a real step up in quality."
For Gleave, this wasn't just the result of vintage conditions - if anything, 1996 was more difficult than 1995 - but demonstrated which estates had improved their viticultural techniques. It's easy to forget what a terrible state the Tuscan vineyards were in until relatively recently.
Corlini referred to the work being done by the Chianti 2000 project, which has researched every aspect of viticulture to try to establish a template for better-quality wines. "Sangiovese needs to be grown on the best sites and needs the right clones, and Chianti 2000 has helped in this," he said. "You have to get the fruit ripe if you want to make a good Sangiovese."
Gleave tried to put things in perspective. "It doesn't take long to change wine-making techniques, what does take time are the changes in the vineyard. People are working in the wrong sites with the wrong clones, getting high yields and using bad canopy management, all of which added up to being unable to get the fruit ripe.
"In 1995 and 1996 the estates which had got the clones, site, spacing, canopy and yield in balance were able to push the harvest dates back to late October or even early November and get ripeness in the fruit."
Disappointing it may have been, but with the younger wines showing the greatest intensity, ripeness and rounded tannins, the prospects for this new wave are good; although maybe the revolution isn't as widespread as we have been led to believe. Given that the 1997 flight didn't include the top wines (most of which have yet to be released) and the fact that the replanted vineyards are now coming into maturity, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the best is yet to come.
Encouragingly, as Tarayan pointed out, these aren't wines which slavishly follow international fashion. "It would be too simplistic to say that the best are just bland, ‘fruit-filled' wines," he said. "They are still getting the character of Sangiovese. You couldn't deny these were Italian wines. They have retained their individuality." n