How a Few Winemakers Broke All the Rules and Changed Italian Wine As We Know It

Posted January 05, 2015

Steve Unwin


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The Italians do things their own way.

It’s a beautiful thing really, since the swagger that comes from being a native of the boot has been the driving force behind massive advances in everything from art to aqueducts. Wine is, of course, no exception to this. While venerated wines like Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino may seem like quintessential examples of old-world, traditional winemaking, there are countless examples of Italian winemakers who bucked tradition in search of something greater, even if it meant dealing with a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense along the way.

How could the quest for better wine possibly be regarded as a bad thing?

To understand that, you need a quick primer in wine classification. The cliffs notes go like this:

A long time ago, winemakers all over Europe established rules that needed to be followed in order to name your wine after the region from which it came. This was a well-intentioned move to protect the standards within each region, and also to thwart anybody who wanted to make wine in Norway and call it Bordeaux. All good things, but what if, say, you wanted to experiment with your awesome terrior and produce wine from a variety of grape that wasn’t approved within your local set of rules? Nobody was going to stop you, but you weren’t allowed to market your wine under the name of your local town (which was likely the biggest selling point).

Enter: Sassicaia

It was shortly after all these rules were officially put into law in the 1960’s that Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta brought his Cabernet Sauvignon-based experiment, Sassicia to market. Produced just for family consumption since the 40’s, Sassicia was an expression of Mario’s love for great Bordeaux. When it finally came time to sell it to the public, he was faced with a pretty severe marketing issue: Because the wine wasn’t made with Sangiovese, he wasn’t able to market the wine as a Toscana DOC, and so was forced to sell the wine as a Vino de Tavola. Table wine. The two-buck-chuck of European wine. This is what marketing weasels would refer to as an “image problem”. A pretty bad one, considering Sassicaia was almost immediately recognized as one of the best wines on the planet.

The Antinoris join in the party

And there would be others: In the early 70’s the Antinori family (who also helped to market Sassicaia) developed their own experimental wine Tignanello which blended native Sangiovese with Cabernet, and later Solaia which went all in on an 80% Cab blend.

Say no to Trebbiano

In an even weirder twist, Sergio Manetti’s Montevertine flaunted Chianti Classico regulations by refusing to include any of the requisite white grapes mandated in the original classification. Yeah, you read that correctly. Younger wine drinkers may not be aware, but the original specifications for Chianti Classico actually forced winemakers to add a percentage of Trebbiano and Malvasia based on an antiquated formula. The result was several generations of genuinely sub-par wine, and a reputation that the region has only recently recovered from. At the time, though, Manetti was left with a wine whose official classification was marred by his insistent lack of white grapes.

These wines, massive critical and consumer successes, occupied the same level of classification as mass-produced table wines with no geographical designation, no grape information, or even a vintage. They were the founding fathers of a new class of wine: The Super Tuscan. Wines that combine some of the world’s best terrior with robust French grapes that yield juice with power, grace, and an indomitable lifespan in the cellar.

"Ok, enough with this nonsense"

Eventually, the EU got fed up with the consumer confusion that came from selling $100+ table wines, and basically forced Italy to come up with a new classification, Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), in 1992. IGT functions similarly to France’s Vin de Pays, which is to say that it’s technically a mid-level catch-all, but on the whole it’s regarded as an indicator of quality wine. Additionally, the 1984 Chianti Classico DOCG classification resulted in numerous changes, including lowering the addition of white grapes to a nominal amount, dramatically increasing the quality of the wines.

...and all is well under the Tuscan Sun

As a final affirmation, in 1994, the Italian government recognized Sassicaia with a one-of-a-kind gesture: They granted the wine its very own DOC. Bolgheri-Sassicaia DOC is the only individual classification to belong to an Italian wine from a single estate. A fitting conclusion, we say, and a damn sight more appropriate than table wine.


Steve Unwin (call him Stunwin) cut his teeth in the Washington Wine industry working in tastings rooms on the Red Mountain AVA. In NYC he became an early employee of the wine startup Lot18, where he would eventually earn his Advanced WSET cerification with distinction. Currently, he works with internet wine legend Gary Vaynerchuk creating awesome content all over the internets.

Product Label.

Antinori Solaia

97 Wine Enthusiast

Item: 69016

750 mL

Retail: $299.99

$209.98 per btl

Item: 82121

750 mL

Retail: $62.99

$49.97 per btl

Product Label.


95 Wine Spectator

Item: 82535

750 mL

Retail: $227.00

$149.99 per btl