In the world of Italian wine, Bolgheri is very much in the premier league. It produces some of the greatest Cabernet-based wines in the world which feature in lists of the ‘ten best wines of the world’ beloved of journalists.
We visited Bolgheri properly for the first time in the summer of 2009, which was on our seventh trip to the Maremma. Having fallen in love with the Tuscan varieties of Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo and even Trebbiano, we were loathe to pay homage in the courts of Sassicaia and Ornellaia where Cabernet and Merlot are king. This was no doubt partly inverted snobbery (‘not really Tuscan’). But it was partly a straightforward preference for the edgy, slightly rustic, quality of Sangiovese, when compared with the big fruit-led flavours of Super Tuscan wines. And the Sangiovese, of similar quality, was often half the price of the fashionable French varieties, especially important in restaurants. But in the end you can’t really ignore Bolgheri and its huge contribution to quality wine in Tuscany and Italy in general.
Bolgheri: Michele Satta, Ca’Marcanda, Campo alla Sughera, Poggio al Tesoro, Ornellaia, Sassicaia
For the wine lover, Bolgheri is magical. There are vineyards all over Tuscany, often in close proximity to each other. In the tiny area of Bolgheri there seems to be virtually nothing else. The excellent map of the DOCG shows the vineyards, side-by-side, fanning off the Via Bolgherese in a nearly unbroken line. Rather like the Côte d’Or in Burgundy, it’s wine first and everything else a very poor second. In more humdrum reality, most of the land surface is wooded.
The Bolgheri effect
What is all the fuss about? First, we need to remember that the reputation of Italian wines in the 1960s was, to put it politely, cheap and cheerful. Quality wine came from France, cheap plonk came from the Mediterranean South. Fine wine in Tuscany came from the inland hills – Chianti and Montalcino – the flat land was good for breeding horses. Up to this point only rosé had been made here commercially by Antinori, on land which had been marshes in living memory. However, back at the end of the second world war, a Tuscan aristocrat, Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, who bred racing horses and had estates on the Tuscan coast, decided that he would plant Bordeaux varieties on his family estate. The Marquis had a taste for the wines of the Medoc and he noticed some similarity of maritime climate and soil between the gravel of the Medoc and the coastal plain in Tuscany. The name ‘Sassicaia’ means ‘stony ground’. The first vineyards were planted in 1944 and the Marquis matured his wines in small barrels (barriques) on the French model, to the amazement of his workers. Surely wine was made to be drunk before the next harvest came in?
Mario Incisa kept the wine for family consumption at first (as most wine was then) but then a bit of aristocratic inter-marrying played a key role. The Marquis married Clarice della Gherardesca, the sister of Carlotta, the wife of Nicolò Antinori. This important Florentine banking and wine family saw the potential and began the process of commercializing the wine first sold in 1968. The wine itself drew favourable comment from Luigi Veronelli, tireless promoter of quality Italian wine, in 1974. Internationally the breakthrough came through a Decanter tasting of 1978, a small British contribution to this story. The world of fine wine was already in a state of shock. In 1976 Stephen Spurrier (the English again) organised blind tastings of Californian and Bordeaux wines in his Paris shop and, shock horror, the Californians came top – on French soil! – if by the smallest of margins. Two years after the so-called ‘Judgement of Paris’, Hugh Johnson lined up Cabernet Sauvignon based wines from around the world and the unknown Sassicaia triumphed over the French classics of the Medoc and the Californians. Since then the wine has kept its place among the most sought after wines of the world.
We need to keep some perspective here. Although this story did change the face of Italian wine production, it didn’t come from nowhere. The year of Sassicaia’s initial triumph, 1978, was, by chance, the year in which the DOC category was given to Morellino di Scansano, further south in the Maremma – so standards were already on the rise. What Sassicaia did was to show that you could make world class wines in Italy and especially in unconsidered parts of Italy. Successive waves of investment followed first in Bolgheri and then more generally in the Maremma. And, above all, wine producers all over Italy rose to the challenge of producing, not just simple table wine, but quality wine and, occasionally, wines that could compete with anything for anywhere. As a result, the old Tuscan classics of Chianti, Brunello and Montepulciano are seriously better than they were fifty years ago and they are now accompanied by a range of Super Tuscans. Much of this revolution is of course due to better, modern, wine-making but some is due to a change of ambition, a cultural change. At least for some Italians, wine was not just an everyday accompaniment to food, quality wine production, in the vineyard and the winery, became an aspiration, a road to a good income, for a few, to fame and wealth, a contribution to la dolce vita twentieth century style.
Michele Satta – alternative Bolgheri
Among the Italians setting up wine businesses in Bolgheri, Michele Satta is as rugged an individualist as you could wish to meet. In a sea of Cabernet-led wines in the DOC he insists on making one of his top wines from Sangiovese and his vineyards include the grape variety Teroldego, at home in northerly Trentino. He is also giving Viognier a go. While he is not in the most sought after part of the plain, his wines are very well made, show much more diversity than most producers in Bolgheri and he has been a tireless promoter of the region and his wines. Satta is absolutely not the usual story of big investment in Bolgheri on the basis of money made elsewhere but of someone who started as a field hand at Grattamacco, has bought vineyards as they have come up and planted his favoured varieties from massal selection of vines that he preferred. The wines include:
Costa di Giulia 2008: 65% Vermentino, 35% Sauvignon Blanc, nutty, herbaceous, very refreshing. An excellent use of Sauvignon Blanc in coastal Tuscany as it really lifts the Vermentino. We have a particular soft spot for ‘Costa di Giulia’ which is brilliant with the outstanding fish to be had at Ristorante Belvedere in nearby Castagneto Carducci.
Giovin Re: 100% Viognier (of which ‘young king’ in Italian is an anagram!). A big structured oaked wine. While Michele speaks of its outstanding aromatic qualities, I find this over oaked.
Bolgheri Rosato: 70% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet, 10% other: three hours of skin contact produces the pink of this rosé, nice fresh fruit aromas, a lovely mouthful of strawberry fruit, refreshing acidity (5/07 on the 2006)
Bolgheri Rosso: a unique five way blend of Cabernet (30%), Sangiovese (30%), Merlot (20%), Syrah (10%) and Teroldego (10%), aged in barriques for one year. An excellent wine, good value at €13 (rare in these parts!), juicy, rounded in the mouth, good fruit. Both this wine and the corresponding Bianco got an excellent ‘two glasses’ rating from Gambero Rosso in 2009.
Piastraia 2005: mid-price Super Tuscan with an equal four-way blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, Sangiovese, but in a serious style: much higher acid and tannin, much more persistence. the aim is to marry the big fruit of Cabernet and Merlot with the elegance and softness of hot climate Sangiovese and Syrah and it pretty much succeeds.
The two top wines should receive equal billing!
Ca’Marcanda – Gaja in Bolgheri
Angelo Gaja is probably the biggest name on the Italian wine scene (see Decanter’s Italy supplement, January 2010), certainly the biggest promoter of the wines of Piemonte and with it Italy. He virtually singlehandedly put Barbaresco on the fine wine map. Having established himself in his own territory, he has bought two properties in Tuscany, one in the Montalcino area and Ca’Marcanda in Bolgheri.
The name ‘Ca’Marcanda’ is a typical Gaja joke, meaning ‘house of endless negotiations’, a tribute to the difficulty of persuading the previous owners to sell – but being Gaja, he got there in the end. He then built a superb winery, 90% of which is concealed under ground, at places down to 70m. Enormous care was taken to landscape the grounds, including importing ancient olive trees by the lorry load. The interior is part super modern winery, part sculpture gallery.
In coastal Tuscany Gaja has gone for a very typical Bolgheri line up: three red wines, the top two based on Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, the third with some Syrah and Sangiovese. During our July 2009 visit, we briefly met Sig. Gaja and were shown around very graciously by Valentina.
Promis, 2004: good bouquet, dark fruit and oak evident, bit light weight in the mouth, still a bit tannic, can just taste the Sangiovese (7/07)
Magari 2005, 50% Merlot, 25% each of the Cabernets. Another Gaja pun in the name: magari = ‘if only!’ or, in a different sense, ‘perhaps’. 18 months in mainly new barriques: gorgeous nose of red and black fruit, violets, velvety and full in the mouth, good persistence – very attractive. (7/09)
Camarcanda 2005, 50% Merlot again, but 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Franc. The top wine in which the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon is preferred to the rustic drinkability of Cab Franc. 18 months in new barriques and a year in the bottle. Great black fruit especially blackcurrant, tobacco, just getting into its stride; would like to taste in 10 years’ time. (7/09)
Nick Belfrage is in mildly controversial vein when he writes that: ‘Angelo Gaja, too, has taken up the Bordeaux challenge here [in Bolgheri], at his Ca’Marcanda, a kind of architectural opera d’arte more notable for its visual aesthetics than for the personality of its cold if perfect wines, in which, somehow how one can taste the fact that the owner lives a long way away. (Finest Wines of Tuscany, p 164) I didn’t find Magari cold … and I don’t think the Gaja wine maker, Guido Rivella, will be very happy, though I am sure he can live with it!
Campo alla Sughera – alabaster, building materials and wine
The ‘cork field’ (as the winery name means in Italian ) is next door to Gaja and shares some connections, especially inward investment from somewhere else. Here it is the Knauf family who are behind the world-wide building materials group of the same name. The characteristic pink of alabaster can be seen in the finish of the winery, founded 1998, a rather lovely, quite traditional new building surrounded by a rose garden and vineyards.
But however beautiful the building, what matters in the end is the wine and that doesn’t disappoint.
Arioso 2008: mainly Sauvignon Blanc, a little Viognier, a nice vegetal nose, good balance with ‘only’ 12.5% alcohol in hot Bolgheri.
Achenio 2008: Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, a rare example of a successful oaked white, part fermented in new oak. The wine is kept on the lees for 6 months and matured in the bottles for 6 months. Good whiff of oak and ripe fruit, refreshing acidity, good structure.
Arnione 2005: the star of the show! Four way Super Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%), Cabernet Franc (20%), Merlot (20%) and Petit Verdot (10%). We kept meeting this wine, I suspect because at the price (€33) it is an excellent ambassador for new wineries in Bolgheri: at the summer festival Convivio in Bibbona – dense red berry fruit and good oak, excellent, 8/08; at a seminar on the Etruscan coast and at the TasteItaly section, both at Vinitaly – deep ruby red with purple edge, cherry and blackcurrant in spirit, vanilla, balsamic; powerful and intense, tannic but quite refined, 4/09; at the vineyard: beautiful fruit-led nose, very good.
Poggio al Tesoro
In short, Poggio al Tesoro is a new winery, founded 2001, which produces some excellent wines at reasonable prices and some that may well improve as the vineyards mature. It’s the product of cooperation between Allegrini (of Valpolicella, Amarone and La Grola/La Poja fame) and an American wine distribution company. The new winery is one of the few we have visited on an light industrial estate and is strictly functional, but no one is going to care. Tasting notes from 7/09.
Solosole 2008: made from Corsican clones of Vermentino with small berries, one of the best Tuscan Vermentini: pale straw in colour, complex nose with fruit, herbs and nuttiness, proper counterbalancing acidity. Good value. Great name too (‘just sun’).
Mediterra 2007: an inexpensive Super Tuscan blend from new plantings of Syrah (40%), Merlot (30%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (30%). Pepper and spice on the nose, ripe fruit, not very poised yet – it will improve as the vineyards get into their stride.
Sondraia 2006: medium priced Super Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (65%), Merlot (25%) and Cabernet Franc (10%). Deep red rim, decent combination of red/black fruit and oak. Needs more time in the bottle.
Dedicato a Walter 2006: unusual top red made from 100% Cabernet Franc, in its third vintage, matured in barriques for 18 months. Once you know the story, it’s difficult not to be influenced by the dedication to the brother of the family, sadly killed in an accident, but this is nonetheless a very good wine, first tasted at a Caviste ‘Super Tuscan’ evening with David Gleave MW of Liberty Wines and then a few weeks later at the winery: my Caviste notes starts with ‘ripping’, an attempt to convey the zing of fresh, wonderfully rustic fruit with mint and tobacco. Huge mouthful of fruit, lots of tannin and acid so definitely worth ageing.
Having seen some of the products of the Bolgheri effect, we must finally talk about the wineries which produced it, Ornellaia (first vintage 1985) and finally Sassicaia. These are now, big, well-resourced wineries with immaculate estates, very photogenic!
|the viewing platform|
|A hundred euro bunch of grapes, on the turn from green to red/black|
|The Masseto vineyard being replanted|
|The Masseto chapel|
Ornellaia, was originally founded by the Antinori. Despite several changes of ownership, it continues to make world class wines. It’s now mainly owned by the Tuscan Frescobaldi family with a little help from Russia. Appropriately enough we visited it with a Russian family. As else where, much of the conspicuous consumption in Tuscany comes from there or thereabouts. But as the author of this blog is a Chelsea supporter, I can’t really complain about that. The 100 hectare estate produces four red wines.
Le Volte 2007: 51% Sangiovese, 34% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 500,000 bottles produced at €13. One year in old barriques, one in bottles. An affordable brush with a great name, a more Tuscan blend than the rest. Nice purple edge, good aroma of leather and fruit, freshness in mouth, good tannins, typical bitter Sangiovese finish. 2005: ‘another great second wine’ I noted in 2007, actually a third wine: loads of cassis, cherry and oak on the nose, great black fruits, very slightly rustic, nice bitter finish, some persistence.
Le Serre Nuove di Ornellaia 2006: O’s ‘new green houses’ (ie the new plants) is a more typical Super Tuscan blend of Merlot (50%), Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), Cabernet Franc (9%) and Petit Verdot (6%), aged 70% in second year barriques and 30% in new. Presumably the plan is, as replanting takes place, they will always use newer vineyards for this wine. Lovely nose of violas, black fruit and some balsamic notes. Good black fruit as you would expect. Some guides liked this (L’expresso), some found it over-oaked (Gambero rosso).
Ornellaia: the top wine is a four-way Bordeaux blend: 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petit Verdot – they obviously like exact numbers here! 70% new oak, 30% second year. €120 a bottle at the vineyard. 2006: tasted in a half bottle, one for the future: oakier nose but also rich fruit, leather and liquorice, very dense texture, high acidity and tannin, needs some years (7/09) 2001 tasted 11/06 with Michael Garner: very black colour, seductive cassis on the nose, fresh, herbal, some smoke; rich, and spicey on the palate, juicy but with good structure. Ageing potential but very accessible after 5 years.
Hoping to add a Masseto (100% Merlot) tasting note in due course. If there are 135,000 bottles of Ornellaia in a good year, there are 32,000 of Masseto + world-wide demand = price between €200-330 on release, but the wine only shows its real potential after many years in the bottle.
Sassicaia – where the quality revolution started
The story of Tenuta San Guido, the estate which produces Sassicaia, is told above. We haven’t managed to visit it yet – bookings are dealt with by the consortium of the strada del vino which is well run but a bit overwhelmed. It always seems to be either too early or too late to book. And of course, you can always taste the wines of which there are three reds – well, Sassicaia itself if the purse strings run to it. My few notes of the second wine of the estate (nil) and third (one v. short note) make me wonder if I have been unconsciously avoiding them!
Sassicaia: 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, the rest Cabernet Franc. Low yields, aged in barriques for two years, barriques one third new each year. 2003: the closeness to the sea helped in a very hot year. Dense purply ruby; really ripe black fruit, cedar, concentrated and powerful but with real poise. Will last but approachable now (11/06) 1996: not originally a great vintage but now balanced , elegant, fresh. What is noticeable is how mellow it is and how the fruit is complemented by the oak. (£165; 7/09).
Guidalberto is the second wine: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, small amount of Sangiovese
Le Difese the third, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese: 2004 powerful nose of oak and blackcurrant fruit, smoky, well integrate, very good (5/07); 2006: quite rustic (a very short note, clearly not concentrating! 7/09)
The quality wine regulations for the DOC seem to play relatively little role in Bolgheri – but that’s because they drawn up recently and flexible enough. They are not trying try preserve a part of the Tuscan heritage, like the 100% requirement for Sangiovese in Brunello di Montalcino or – completely unsuccessfully – the requirement for only 80% Sangiovese in Chianti Classico if the rest can be Cabernet or Merlot. By contrast, in line with reality, Bolgheri Rosso ‘must’ be between 10 and 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and up to 70% of either/or Merlot or Sangiovese. Sensible enough, unless you have a Cabernet Franc in the mix or Syrah. And if that is not a broad enough church for you (eg Michele Satta), there is always IGT Maremma Toscana to fall back on. Sassicaia has the honour of the only single wine DOC in Italy, unimaginatively called Bolgheri Sassicaia. I am not sure what this really adds to a name which can speak for itself.