One of the most enduring and instructive wine stories of the latter years of the twentieth century — and one with the most importance for anyone who would seek to build a brand, for either a wine region or a specific wine, into a global presence — is the story of the so-called Super Tuscans.
How did this category emerge, despite no help from the official standards bodies (DOC and DOCG in their case), and how did it come to force the official standards bodies to change to catch up? An early hotbed of Super Tuscan subversion was the region around Bolgheri, on the Maremma coast of Tuscany. Among the best-known wines here are Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia, Angelo Gaja’s Ca'Marcanda, Marchese Antinori’s Guado al Tasso, and Tenuta dell'Ornellaia’s Ornellaia.
The founder of Ornellaia, Lodovico Antinori, Piero Antinori's brother, sold that operation years ago and, in 2001, founded Tenuta di Biserno, in the village of Bibbona, just north of Bolgheri in the Alta Maremma. Judging from the reaction of critics, he has managed here to repeat his success at Ornellaia.
Repeat, but not clone. The varietal backbone of Ornellaia was merlot. At Biserno it is cabernet franc. Their flagship wine, called simply Biserno, is made primarily from that grape, with merlot playing a secondary (though important) role, along with some cabernet sauvignon and trace amounts of petit verdot. Exact percentages are vintage-dependent, but the breakdown is usually roughly 60 percent cabernet franc, 20 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 5 percent petit verdot.
Wine writer James Suckling, who has observed Biserno since its inception, told me that though Biserno uses French grapes, “they maintain the freshness and intensity of great Tuscan reds.” He added, “I see a general trend at Biserno of reds with more finesse and structure than just pure power."
I took part in a vertical tasting of four vintages of Biserno at the classic Italian Adelmo’s Ristorante in Dallas with the winery’s export director, Sebastiano Rosa. (Vintages that are no longer available at regular retail may be found through secondary markets at varying prices; if you buy from these, verify your source, as this wine is a favorite for counterfeiters.)
2007 (secondary market only). The most mature and most resolved of the four, though likely at its peak. This was the softest wine, with complex fruit and forest-floor consistency. My favorite, but probably hard to find.
2008 (secondary market only). This one appears to be bigger than the 2007 and is certainly at an earlier stage of its evolution. I suspect that it could reach greater heights at its peak, though.
2010 ($130). Notably youthful and not yet fully developed, with impressive red fruit, cabernet franc greenness, and herbal and forest-floor notes on the palate. One to keep.
2011 ($130). A lesser vintage in Bolgheri than the others, at least according to eRobertParker.com, and one whose wines are usually already ready to drink. Not so with this wine, which presents itself as young, with a nose of vibrant cherry fruit, chocolate, and mocha, and then firm tannins and a long finish in the mouth.