From marshland to world-class superstar

The evolution of Bolgheri

What was once a malaria-ridden marsh on the Tuscan shore is now one of Italy’s most prestigious wine regions and home to some of the so-called Super Tuscans. Wines such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Massetto are now counted among Italy’s most prestigious wines.

Yet how did this uninviting, neglected area of the Maremma, where people died from poverty and malaria and prior to WWII produced nondescript red and white wines, peaches, apricots, almonds, potatoes and onions, become one of the most sought-after vineyard areas in Italy – the Tuscan equivalent of Napa? And how did it come to be predominantly planted with international varieties, primarily those from, Bordeaux rather than Tuscan king Sangiovese?

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Birth and growth of the Super Tuscans

It all began at Tenuta San Guido, home of Sassicaia, when Mario Inciso della Rocchetta married into the noble Tuscan Della Gherardesca family, who had been instrumental in this area’s development, buying land and building castles here in the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, they started to drain this very fertile land and the Tenuta San Guido building was actually a greenhouse, growing flowers such as tulips, which were sold to Holland. The estate became Mario Inciso’s hobby farm for horse breeding and viticulture. Piedmontese by birth, he was not enamoured with the local wines and in 1944 started to cultivate vines to produce wines for his own consumption. He experimented first with Sangiovese and Canaiolo in a vineyard at 400m in Castiglioncello di Bolgheri and then, away from prying eyes, he decided to plant cuttings of Bordeaux varieties. His wines were eventually released commercially in 1968 and called Sassicaia – named after the rocky area in which the vines were growing. The wine was a huge success and the vineyards moved down to around Tenuta San Guido itself.

 

Encouraged by his success, he was then followed by others, such as Piermario Meletti Cavallari from Bergamo in 1977, who founded Grattamacco and released the his first Rosso in 1982. Soon after, Ludovico Antinori (Mario Inceso’s nephew) also planted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which he thought would thrive in the Bolgheri climate and the sandy clay soils, on some other family land. Thus, Ornellaia was born, as was Massetto, the estate’s pure Merlot, planted on a plot with unique clay soils. Incidentally, Ornellaia’s winemaker from the late eighties to 1997 was Eger’s Tibor Gal. Michele Satta also got in on the act around this time. And so, the Super Tuscan phenomenon was born.

The disciplinare at the time only allowed for white and rosato, so comically, these wines, considered by many as the best Tuscan wines, hence the name, had to be labelled as lowly vino da tavola, or in the best case, Toscana IGT. It was only in 1994 that reds could also be labelled as Bolgheri DOC.

Naturally, with the success of these wines, the big guns from elsewhere in the country didn’t want to be left out, so Piero Antinori founded Guado al Tasso in 1990, Gaja arrived from Barbaresco, the Allegrini family from the Veneto and Balfi all arrived on the scene. Winemaking in the region exploded from around 250 hectares at the end of the nineties to around 1,200 hectares now, with around four million bottles being produced in the DOC by around 65 companies, 95% of which belong to the Consortium. Riccardo Binda, its General Manager, jokes that “almost nobody is from Bolgheri, maybe that’s why they all get on so well – they are all guests here”. Just like the grapes, which are now an integral part of the landscape.

Unique terroir

Bolgheri benefits from special climatic conditions and a patchwork of diverse soil types. It stretches along a band of maritime hills running parallel to the coast down through their foothills and across the plain to the dunes and marshes near the sea. This so-called ’Bolgheri amphitheatre’ is where marine breezes meet mountain breezes, tempering the hot summer sun and ensuring cool nights. Thus, the grapes retain acidity, and balance and finesse are maintained in these Mediterranean blends. The sunlight seems to have a special quality and is also reflected back by the sea. Grapes mature gradually in moderate conditions ensuring both phenolic and sugar ripeness, resulting in elegant, firm tannins.

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The region’s geological history has endowed it with huge soil diversity, even in a relatively small area. Alluvial soils, round pebbles deposited by ancient watercourses, are interspersed with windblown sand from Africa, limestone and clay, and even some volcanic rock from the Metalliferous Hills to the east. The oldest rocks in the denomination are those of the Bolgheri Hills, ancient flysch not found anywhere else in the area. Marine terraces form the undulations clearly visible as you look along the cypress-lined Strada Bolgherese that cuts through the centre of the region. Each area has a very different composition and so, in order to understand their soils and wines better, the denomination is now undertaking careful zonation with Attilio Scienza of Milan University. Each winery has plots on various types of soils, which they harvest and vinify separately and then blend. The highest quality vineyards are those at the bottoms of the slopes and on the plain, stretching along either side of Strada Bolgherese, which is where you’ll find most of the big names.

Styles of wine

The variations on Bordeaux blends – the Super Tuscans – are what most people associate with Bolgheri, with some also containing some Syrah or adding a Tuscan touch with a splash of Sangiovese, which has almost disappeared from the DOC. Interestingly monovarietal wines were only permitted later, so Massetto was, and still is, labelled as Toscana IGT, while Sassicaia now has its own DOC – the only estate in Italy to boast such. There is also a small percentage of rosato produced.

However, the region is increasingly creating great whites, primarily from Vermentino. Antinori’s Guado al Tasso, the largest Bolgheri estate, is a firm follower and is planting more of the variety, while Grattamacco makes one of the best Vermentino-based whites in Italy. Poggio al Tesoro’s Solosole is also a classic, pioneer of the trend to grow Vermentino in Bolgheri, and they now also produce a version partially fermented in amphora, PagusCamilla, which we saw bubbling away in the winery. Viognier is also gaining ground, with Michele Satta producing a lovely version with short skin contact.

Producers to visit

As well as trying to get through the hallowed gates of Ornellaia, Tenuta San Guido, Guado al Tasso and Tenuta Argentiera’s impressive premises with their fabulous view across the plain to the sea. it’s also worth paying a visit to Bolgheri pioneers Grattamacco and Michele Satta, who are located at higher altitudes than many of their counterparts. Another interesting port of call is Guado al Melo, the estate of scientist Attilio Scienza and his son Michele. Not only does Attilio boast one of the most impressive wine and Italian culture libraries I’ve ever seen – around 15,000 volumes – they also have a small museum, an experimental vineyard with over 70 varieties (including vines from the Caucasus, Spain and Portugal, which are being studied regarding future climate change) and some vitis silvestris climbing up the trees next to the vineyards.

Eating and sleeping

Having worked up an appetite wine tasting, serious meat eaters should head to Osteria La Magona for some Tuscan steak, while fish lovers might head to the coast and indulge themselves at I Ginepri or Tana del Pirata in Marina di Castagneto Carducci. Help is also at hand for vegetarians in meat-loving Tuscany as Podere Arduino has a great pop-up restaurant in summer next to Strada Bolgherese with delicious vegetarian treats and a picnic-like atmosphere. In Bolgheri itself, you can dine with wines selected from the shelves of Enoteca Tognoni’s restaurant. The picturesque town with its narrow streets makes a good base or, if you fancy getting away from it all, book one of the cottages on the estate of renowned photographer Oliviero Toscani, where you can relax among vineyards and paddocks with a great view of neighbouring Casale Marittimo.

 

Final thoughts

And remember, Bolgheri is a region still in its infancy compared to other classic regions; young vines are still not at their best, small producers can only compete with the big in terms of quality, and zonation will enable producers to match varieties and soils more effectively, so the only way is up.

Ten wines to try… and not just the classics

Tenuta Guado al Tasso Bolgheri Vermentino 2018

Zingy, bright citrus acidity and notes of green apple, the wine is textured and creamy on the palate with a lovely herbal, saline finish.

Grattamacco Bolgheri Vermentino 2017

A rich lush wine with a creamy texture and plenty of fresh, zesty lime and grapefruit acidity. Reveals its origins with notes of Mediterranean herbs and salt.

Michele Satta GiovinRe Toscana IGT 2017

A lovely oily textured skin-contact Viognier with rich notes of apricot, butter and spice. Some tannins and a beautiful caramel persistence on the finish.

Tenuta San Guido Le Difese Toscana IGT 2017

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese from the producers of Sassicaia. The Sangiovese contributes fresh acidity and fine tannins. Notes of plum, raspberry and sour cherry mingle with dried tomatoes and herbs and well-integrated oak. Drinking beautifully now.

Guado al Tasso Bolgheri Superiore 2016

Lauded as one of the best expressions of the last ten years. This classic Bordeaux blend is bursting with dark blackberry, cherry and chocolate. Its supple tannins make it structured yet ripe, rich and elegant wine, lingering long after you swallow.

Michele Satta Piastraia Bolgheri Superiore 2016

This Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese blend is a complex dark fruit salad mixed with notes of chocolate, smoky pepper and spice. The tannins are ripe and smooth, while a lifted herbal note endows this otherwise rich wine with great elegance.

Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore 2016

Juicy ripe cherry, plum and cassis with well-integrated oak, a fresh mineral note and a hint of liquorice. It boasts bright acidity, chalky tannins and long sweet and spicy finish.

Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore 2016 – This iconic Bordeaux blend with just a splash of Petit Verdot, offers intense dark black-berried fruit with notes of cedar and spice. Smooth, long and textured on the palate with firm tannins and racy acidity. A Bolgheri classic.

Guado al Melo Artis Bolgheri Superiore 2015

Classic Bordeaux blend not produced every year. Freshly crushed raspberries mingle with ripe cherry, cassis and plum. A structured wine with an attractive hint of green pepper.

Poggio al Tesoro Dedicato a Walter Bolgheri Superiore 2015

This 100% Cabernet Franc is bursting with rich dark fruit and notes of pepper and mint. Full-bodied with smooth tannins and juicy acidity that persists on the finish.

*First published in Hungarian in Vince magazine.