Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Super Tuscans came into being during the 1970s, when rebellious winemakers in Chianti, in Tuscany, began to experiment with different types of grape.
The DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) laws at the time allowed for up to 20 per cent of a chianti to be the produce of white wine grapes. Winemakers attempting to cash in on the popularity of chianti in the 1960s would put in the maximum allowed, to ramp up profits, causing a drop in quality which, of course, resulted in a decline in both the sales and reputation of the region's wines.
The rebels who used unauthorised grapes (which basically meant anything that wasn't Italian) had their wines labelled " vino da tavola" ("table wine") - the lowest rung on the designation ladder - by the wine police. They nonetheless persevered and, in time, the international wine press came, tasted and loved them. These winemakers, for the most part, continued to use sangiovese as a base but, instead of white wine grapes, they added cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Many of these adventurous producers planted these new grapes with cuttings sourced from the best vineyards of Bordeaux, in France.
One of the first was Tignanello, released in 1971 by the Antinori family, who have been making wines in Tuscany since 1385 - for 26 generations. The Antinoris had started experimenting with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc in the 1920s but the vines were abandoned during the second world war before being replanted in the 1960s.
Solaia, created in 1978 by Piero Antinori, came about because a superlative crop of cabernet sauvignon was harvested that year. Rather than including it in the Tignanello blend (sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc), Antinori tried his hand at making a wine with just cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Masseto was created at Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, by Lodovico Antinori, Piero's brother. Made entirely from merlot, it was first produced in 1986 and, for that vintage, was described simply as merlot. This wine's rarity and price, for any of the vintages, are comparable to those of another highly sought-after merlot-only wine - Chateau Petrus, from Pomerol, in Bordeaux.
Since 1992, super Tuscans have been given their own designation, IGT (indicazione geografica tipica), which allows for experimentation with non-Italian varieties, as long as all the grapes are grown in the area where the wine is made.
Some of these wine rebels have been rewarded with their own DOC. Sassicaia (mostly cabernet sauvignon), made at Tenuta San Guido, by the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, was one of the trailblazers. From 1948, the marchese produced Sassicaia for personal consumption, before releasing the wine commercially in 1968. He was one of the first to see the potential of Bordeaux grapes in Tuscany and had the courage to plant something different. Sassicaia is the only wine from a single estate to have its own DOC - Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC, granted in 1994.
Today's super Tuscans follow two paths - the original rebel version, which uses sangiovese as the base and grapes that are not indigenous to Tuscany; and wines composed of varieties from Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc). Both are equally enjoyable and are still the subject of much debate wherever wine aficionados gather to share a bottle.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.