by Fred McMillin
for November 6, 1997

The Shafer Supertuscan Saga

Prologue:

  • Supertuscans are a new breed of Tuscan red wines, commonly made with the assistance of French vines. One of the most celebrated is Antinori's Tignanello, typically 20% French Cabernet Sauvignon, 80% Tuscan Sangiovese.

    ...The Oxford Companion to Wine

  • It was a rainy night in San Francisco's North Beach in 1986. with my wild mushroom risotto the restaurant owner suggested a red wine that proved absolutely wonderful. It was the Antinori Tignanello."

    ...John Shafer, founder of Shafer Vineyards

The Rest of the Story: John Shafer is a man of action. (He piloted a bomber in World War II.) He was soon in Tuscany tasting Sangiovese-Cabernet blends. Several clones of Sangiovese were growing in the Shafer vineyards the following year. The first vintage was 1991; the blend was 39 Cab, 61 Sangiovese. As the Tuscan vines matured, they took over a larger role in the blend, 84% by 1993, and 87% in the latest, 1994 release.

The Italian grape provides bright cherry-anise fruit flavors, the Cabernet Sauvignon a chocolatey backbone. President-Winemaker Doug Shafer, John's son, learns every year...Sangiovese responds better to Italian yeasts...Merlot doesn't provide the umph of Cab...etc. Given Doug's phenomenonal success with Cabernet (James Laube says he makes some of Napa's best), it's a slam dunk that this blend is headed for stardom, too. Now, to its name.

Give Me a Break

At 2 P.M., Monday, June 22, 1981, the first whisp of smoke appeared above the parched hillsides of the eastern Napa Valley. Doug recalls the resulting "wildfire roared down the slopes of Stags Leap Palisades, heading directly for Dad's house. Everyone pitched in with shovels, hoes, and flares. In the nick of time they dug and burned a firebreak that stopped the flames before they reached the vineyards." The burned area was converted to a vineyard and planted with the vines used in their Supertuscan. Both the new vineyard and it's wine were named "Firebreak."

The Wine:
1994 Shafer Firebreak, Napa Valley
87% Sangiovese, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon
Food Affinities—Robust pizza, pasta and red meat dishes
Contact—Susan McWilliams, (707) 944-2877
Price—$25


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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