Luminous and energizing. These impressions stay with me long after I have left Bolgheri behind. I picture the sun sparkling off the Tyrrhenian Sea. Even when you can’t see the water, you sense it is just around the corner as its reflected light floods the landscape. The breezes are salty, and the earth is a meeting of sand and stone. Above ground, regal maritime pines, upright cypresses and Mediterranean scrub fill in the spaces between vineyards.
On Tuscany’s west coast, approximately 50 kms south of the port city of Livorno, the wine region of Bolgheri stretches just 13 km in length and 7 km wide. Vineyards DON’T cling to dramatically steep hillsides. Instead, most sit in orderly rows on flatlands or gently sloping plateaus between 10 to 200 metres above sea level. Some reach as high as 380 metres as they approach the forested hills inland.
“Bolgheri is one of Italy’s youngest denominations and without native grapes,” describes Massimo Basile, Sales & Marketing Director at Tenuta Argentiera. “But a unique style of wine was born here.” He is referring to the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot dominated blends which may be supplemented by Syrah, Petit Verdot and occasionally even Sangiovese. Yet it wasn’t until 1994 that the Bolgheri denomination recognized reds that were long produced.
While a flurry of plantings followed, today vineyards total a modest 1350 hectares divided between less than 70 estates. Among these are some of Italy’s, nay, the world’s most iconic wines. I’d argue that Ornellaia and Sassicaia are far more famous than the region itself. Indeed, Bolgheri also encompasses many small, relatively unknown properties.
“We don’t need to grow in size; we need to focus our attention on quality,” says Albiera Antinori from Guado al Tasso, the region’s largest estate with 320 hectares of vineyards. She is also the president of what is surely Italy’s mightiest consorzio. Her vice-presidents are Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta of Tenuta San Guido (think Sassicaia) and Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole (Messorio and Scrio fame). Really, the Bolgheri denomination needs them more than they need the denomination as a rising tide lifts all boats.
After a long absence, I returned to Bolgheri last September curious to get an updated panorama of the region. It was baptism by fire as I tried over 50 Bolgheri Superiore DOC from the 2019 vintage. Given ageing regulations of two years (minimum 12 months in wood) this was a true anteprima or preview of wines as they weren’t permitted for release until January of this year. Some were cask samples – yet to be bottled.
In general, the wines showed a cohesiveness in style – full bodied, oak-aged reds, Mediterranean in character with a maritime twang. Yet they varied according to which grape variety dominated and what blending partners were chosen. Furthermore, as of 2011, the denomination allows monovarietal wines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc so examples of these were rooted in a specific direction.
Cabernet Franc is being embraced with particular enthusiasm. Elena Pozzolini winemaker at up-and-coming Tenuta Sette Cieli admits that it can be difficult though. “Too cold and it is green; too hot and it loses aromas.” Nevertheless, she is among those making convincing examples of Cabernet Franc in purezza.
Diversity was perhaps more apparent in quality. There is a still a noticeable divide between top and bottom. While the best are stunning, the other end of the spectrum included a couple of downright unclean wines. Thankfully most sit – sometimes attractively, sometimes slightly awkwardly – in the middle. In some cases, I questioned if a producer fell into the trap of trying to make a more ‘important’ wine by smothering it in wood. Ageing in oak – particularly barriques – is part of the identity of Bolgheri Superiore, however, certain estates have mastered this better than others.
Overall, the famous names, were excellent. Despite being just a baby, Ornellaia was full of purpose and promise moving confidently with exquisite texture right through to the long, salty finish. Guado al Tasso was equally restrained in aromas but offered a level of energy and finesse on the palate that made me want to swallow rather than spit. Both wines from Grattamacco stood out. The original bottling was vigorous and chewy yet with beautiful fragrant nuance while the ‘Alberello’, which hails from a two-hectare vineyard planted to bush vines, was characterful and pure with succulent acidity.
Conspicuously absent was Tenuta San Guido’s ‘Sassicaia’, which as of 2013 boasts its own autonomous denomination of Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC. As the final blending for 2019 had not yet been made, the estate treated us to a sip of the 2008 vintage (from
magnum no less) at the end of the tasting. It was in a lovely drinking window – a seductive interplay of earthy savouriness and dark fruit intensity with its firm grip just starting to yield. It was a provocative suggestion of how these wines might evolve.
Along with the above, there were some fantastic new (to me) discoveries. Tenuta Meraviglia is owned by Argentine tycoon Alejandro Bulgheroni with powerhouse consultants Alberto Antonini and Pedro Parra lending a hand. The 100% Cabernet Franc, ‘Maestro di Cava’ is well-proportioned with dense ripe tannins and brilliantly captures the region’s sea breeze and Mediterranean scrub. Batzella’s ‘Tam’ label is Cabernet Sauvignon-led with a healthy (30%) dollop of Cabernet Franc. Structured, classy and well put together, it offers a fascinating fusion of graphite and florals. With a similar blend, I Luoghi’s‘Campo al Fico’ is skillfully understated while replete with black currant and mint on a steely, juicy mid-weight frame. These are all worth seeking out!
After making it through these, I raced around to various properties where estates were showing a selection of their range. I focused on the Bolgheri Rosso bottlings. A downtempo offering compared to the Bolgheri Superiore, this designation requires only one year of ageing and the wine doesn’t have to see any oak (though most do). See below for a handful of recommendations.
The marathon tasting day culminated with an al fresco dinner – for almost 1000 people. Let me just say that Albiera, Priscilla and Cinzia know how to throw a party. The table stretched over 1 km on the 5-km cypress-lined Viale dei Cipressi which leads from Tenuta San Guido to the village of Bolgheri. Folks arrived in their finest and sat down to a perfectly executed 4-course meal with masked sommeliers pouring freely from a list of 124 wines. I admit I asked for a healthy glass of the 2018 Sassicaia…
Le Macchiole Bolgheri Rosso DOC 2019 $55
Among the region’s top estates, Le Macchiole was one of the first to craft a 100% Cabernet Franc starting with the 2001 vintage of Paleo. (Interestingly, it is still labeled as an IGT.) As for the Bolgheri Rosso, it’s a blend of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon aged in a combination of used barriques and concrete. The 2019 exhibits black currant, toast and fresh minty green nuances. It is mid-weight and smooth in texture with charmingly nervous energy.
Tenuta Sette Ponti Passi di Orma 2019 $55
A Merlot based wine with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc playing supporting roles. Aromas are restrained but well-defined suggesting tobacco and cocoa laced cherries. A lifting herbal hint graces the palate which is succulent and velvety. A pleasure to drink.
Fabio Motta Pievi Bolgheri Rosso 2019 $36
Here a bit of Sangiovese is added to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Fabio tells me that Sangiovese likes areas with red, iron-rich sandy soil. There is little evidence of wood as wild black cherry, currants and fragrant sweet herbs permeate the nose and palate. Juicy and tangy with textured tannins sticking to the palate.
Poggio al Tesoro Il Seggio 2019 $55
Owned by Veneto’s prominent Allegrini family. Il Seggio is Merlot-led with both Cabernets and a dash of Petit Verdot. The deep purple hue is matched by equally youthful scents of ripe, sun warmed summer berries suffused with nutmeg and chocolate. Full but not heavy with plush soft tannins, this is suave and appealing.
Marzichi Lenzi Le Crocine 57022 Bolgheri DOC 2018 $62
A wonderful find at that dinner party for 1000 people, this is the reason you let the sommelier fill your glass. Very Cabernet Sauvignon in its intensity and structure with that lush core Merlot so happily provides. It is packed with dark forest berries, nuanced by woodsy undergrowth and securely framed with finessed tannins.
Tenuta Sette Cieli Yantra IGT Toscana 2019 $35
To be completely upfront, Sette Cieli sits mostly outside the Bolgheri DOC as administratively the property is in the province of Pisa, not Livorno. But the vineyards, which reach 380 metres, look towards Sassicaia. A Cab/Merlot blend in used barriques, Yantra spends a long time in bottle before release. It was still wound up and tight when I tried it last September, but the purity of blackberry and black plum was unmistakable. Steely with a compelling edginess and firm dry tannins. This is an estate to watch.