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Billionaire Wines

A Very Affordable, Great-Tasting Substitute for Super Tuscan Wines

Chilean Cabernet is an affordable alternative to the hyper-expensive Super Tuscan wines

Henry Jeffreys By June 18, 2021
The entrance to Ornellaia in Bolgheri in Tuscany
The entrance to Ornellaia in Bolgheri. Photo courtesy of Ornellaia.

Sassicaia, Tignanello, Ornellaia: for wine lovers those names conjure up Italian flair and style every bit as much as Alfa Romeo or Ferrari. Even their collective name sounds like a fast car — Super Tuscans. Whoosh!

The Super Tuscan story begins in the 1940s when an aristocrat called Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines on his estate in Bolgheri in coastal Tuscany. He was a Bordeaux fan, but World War II had disrupted his wine supply. 

He made a wine every year for his family, but the big change came when he released the 1968 vintage commercially, on the advice of his nephew Piero Antinori. Named Sassicaia, it caused a sensation. British wine expert Oz Clarke recalls his first encounter in his memoir “Red & White”: “I have never tasted a wine of such thrilling purity. Such piercingly beautiful blackcurrant fruit. This must be what every Cabernet dreamed of tasting like.”

The birth of Sassicaia marked the dawn of the Super Tuscans, a group of wines made by ambitious winemakers using international grape varieties. Today, these wines are frighteningly expensive, bought by the kind of people whose butlers own Alfa Romeos. Thankfully, for those without Alfas or butlers, there are alternatives that offer some of that plush Cabernet magic for Kia-driving prices. 

The coming of the Super Tuscans

Sassicaia’s success inspired Piero Antinori to plant Cabernet in Chianti to make Tignanello. Then in the early ‘80s came Ornellaia, also in Bolgheri, and others. The Super Tuscans had arrived.

Because these wines broke the DOC rules, which specify the grapes allowed in each region, or were planted in areas with no quality wine history, they were labelled simply Vino da Tavola, or table wine. But they were table wines at hundreds of dollars a case. Beatrice Bessi, head sommelier at the luxury Chiltern Firehouse in London, said: “They changed the history of Italy, Tuscany, and its reputation forever.” 

Read the wine press, however, and it would appear that the Super Tuscans have fallen out of fashion. Bordeaux-style wines made by Tuscan aristocrats don’t get the wine press as excited as rough-handed Burgundian peasants or Sonoma hipsters. But the secondary market tells a different story — these wines are hot investment items, horse-traded for profit.

And plenty of people are drinking them, too. Eduardo Porto Carreiro, formerly of Grace in Los Angeles, and now beverage director at Rocket Farm Restaurants in Atlanta, said: “We certainly know that we’ll always have guests who are seeking out those styles of wine. Sassicaia is a favorite of the blue chips.”

For anybody who wants in, the latest release of Sassicaia will cost around $250 a bottle retail  — but you’ll have to put your name down to get it. It’s the 2017 vintage which, ideally should be kept for at least 10 years before anyone even thinks of opening it. It’s worth the wait, according to Bessi who explained she got “quite emotional” trying old vintages. 

Another option

But for anyone seeking those same pure flavors and elegant tannins, there is another option. While Oz Clarke was enjoying Sassicaia, another seminal English wine writer was grappling with another 1968 Cabernet. In his “Wine: A Life Uncorked,” Hugh Johnson writes of a wine he imported and bottled himself: “It had the ripe dark blackcurrant flavour of good-vintage with a dry, earthy tang. Had it been Bordeaux, it would have come from the far end of the Medoc.” But it wasn’t from Bordeaux, or Italy. It was from Chile.

This Latin American country has a long and proud viticultural history. Master of Wine Peter Richards said, “Chile has been making wine longer than the Medoc.” It’s certainly been growing Bordeaux varieties far longer than Italy. Vineyards were planted in the Maipo region with Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings from Bordeaux to make wine for the country’s elite in the 19th century. 

Carreiro said: “If I were to look for a Cabernet-based wine from a different region, I think Chile is a good option.” He recommends: “The ‘icon’ bottlings from some of the old guard producers in Chile certainly deliver the supple texture with an underlying minerality and length that speaks to the stylings of a lot of your traditional Super Tuscans.”

Take one of the country’s oldest wineries, Santa Carolina. Richards raved about old vintages dating back to the ‘50s. He thinks Chile’s wines lost some of their distinctive character in the ‘90s and ‘00s going for too much oak and ripeness, but he said, “the pendulum has swung back with wineries reducing alcohol and making more refined wines.”

The 2012 vintage of Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon Luis Pereira ($70) shows this rediscovered elegance, beautifully weighing in at only 12.5% ABV, all for $70 a bottle. But there’s no need to go for the top end wines to get that pure blackcurrant fruit that got Johnson so excited all those years ago. The same company’s Reserve de Familia ($18) has plenty of class as well. Other ridiculous bargains include Concha Y Toro’s Casa Concha Cabernet ($15) and Errazuriz’s Max Cabernet ($14), or Richards’ favourite La Ronciere Licanten ($30).

How is this possible?

Why are they so cheap? Richards blames “the tyranny of the familiar,” and Clarke agrees: “This very affordability was persuading critics and sommeliers to describe them as lacking prestige, lacking stature, as though price and puffed-up self-importance were the only things that mattered.”

Unlike the Super Tuscans, Chilean Cabernets do not have names that conjure status or a place on the secondary market. But they’ve got it where it counts — in the glass.