Wine tourism is a great way to engage with a local culture. You are immersed in the geography of a region, get a real sense of the climatic conditions, meet the people who work in vineyard and winery, discover new and old wines … and eat the local cuisine often in abundant quantities. With a congenial group in a beautiful place, it makes for a deep cross-section of a real place.
This May’s Tuscan coast tour met all these conditions. This is a part of Italy Janet and I have got to know well over the last eight years. It is not a traditional classic wine area, unlike Montalcino which we visited from our one day inland. It is by turns famous and obscure. Bolgheri’s Sassicaia in many ways kick-started the Italian quality wine revolution of the last three decades of the twentieth century. But the new DOCs of Val di Cornia and Monteregio di Massa Marittima have barely made a dent on the consciousness of the wider wine world. While excellent wines are being made here, they are still under appreciated and often very good value.
Without the full fanfare of an awards’ ceremony, here are the categories for the ‘best of …’:
This is my selection of five top moments in our week – but I hope that others will join in and state their choices …
Now this is already really difficult! How do you choose between the modern, architectural splendour of Petra near Suvereto and the experience of tasting a private production of the dessert wine Aleatico from the barrel which in turn is on top of the standard cement fermentation vessel … which the whole group has reached by climbing up a steep aluminium set of steps (while wondering if you going to be able to face coming down the ladder)? Or how do you decide between the tiny organically-run Massa Vecchia and the restored historic cellar of the Castello di Bolgheri? But on this occasion I am going to go for Le Macchiole, one of the bigger producers in Bolgheri and the only one founded by an ordinary local family. This is the story of how to turn a restaurant and pizza business into a world-respected winery by a mixture of rigorous commitment, some inspired choices of grape variety long before Bolgheri was famous and sheer hard work. Full marks for the tour go to Veronica Veltro.
2. Best meal of the week
If the category had been the ‘biggest meal of the week’ there would have been no contest. Il Lecchio, in Cura Nuova, between our base in Massa Marittima and the coast, would have won by a several plates of antipasti and mixed grills. The portions are bountiful, the quality is excellent, but if there are ten of you, order for five and you will have a perfect meal. For the category of ‘best meal’ very honourable mentions have to go to Osteria Grassini for its remarkable wild boar and olive dish, to the Vecchio Borgo for its outsized T-bone steaks cooked in the middle of the restaurant, to Le Mura for its fine fish and to La Tana del Brillo Parlante for its really local high quality cuisine (all Massa Marittima). Some may want to vote for Suvereto’s inventive fish restaurant, dai Caccini, or to the Enoteca Tognoni in Bolgheri for its informal food and great wines. But I am going to plump for the informal buffet on a wooden table put on by Podere 414 in the middle of the winery. No chairs, no fancy presentation, just great local food shared by us with owners Simone and Mara Castelli and Lucia … washed down by their excellent rosé and superb Morellino red. The quintessential wine tour experience.
We are again seriously spoiled for choice! We had a good line up at Moris Farms which was the perfect introduction to the whites, the new rosés and the tiers of reds of the Tuscan coast. They make good local white blends, plump white Vermentino, emerging Sangiovese-based rosé and local and international reds. Their top wine Avvoltore (mostly Sangiovese but with some Cabernet and Syrah) is a structured, ageable red wine of real intensity and character. And they have an innovative sweet wine too … But then Tua Rita in Suvereto has one of the grandest line ups of the coast and we got to taste the pricy top red, Redifaffi, 100% Merlot, from the barrel – hugely concentrated, already drinkable if only half way through its time in oak.
By contrast, I love the demandingly tannic Brunello of Il Poggione and of Gianni Brunelli but it needs five to ten years to reach its potential. (‘Good but undrinkable’ was the tag that others used of these wines!) The hand crafted, completely individual wines of Massa Vecchia continue to shine. At Petra the wines are now as compelling as the architecture. In Bolgheri, we have to choose from the elegant, almost French style of the Castello di Bolgheri and the pure, warm climate expression of Le Macchiole. You can see the problem!
That leaves two final contenders. It is a remarkable achievement that La Cura in Cura Nuova makes this final short list. It is a small winery which has grown up alongside the dual business of mixed vegetable farming (with a farm shop on the roadside) and electricity production from photovoltaic cells which apparently is the real bread winner. It was catapulted to fame in Italy by winning the prize for the ‘best Merlot in Italy’ competition in 2010. Since then it has gone on doing what it does so well while adding a second top wine to its portfolio. The wines are inventive, uniformly well made, the mid priced ones are outstanding value and the top wines are genuinely prize winners. And all this from a 15 hectare estate with a building which remains low key and functional. On this occasion I really enjoyed the fermented in oak white Trinus made from Chardonnay, Vermentino and Malvasia bianca, while the sheer quality of Brecce Rosse (80% Sangiovese, plus Cabernet and Merlot, barrique aged) belies its sub €15 price. La Cura also has an inventive sweet wine made from the dried grapes which would usually be lost to green harvesting … and a further sweet wine and final surprise, not in commercial production. This is called ‘1/5th’ because it is a passito which is then kept in sealed barrels for 10 years until it is just 20% of its original volume – walnut brown, intensely sweet, as thick as oil, to be treated like PX. Congratulations to Enrico Corsi on the range and excellence of his wines.
A great line up which made for a great tasting.
I suspect that our group would come up with a whole range of experiences here. The sunshine finally coming out in a convincing sort of way on Thursday afternoon after a dull but mostly dry week would probably make most people’s short list. Visiting the magnificent walled town of Magliano-in-Toscana or Massa Marittima’s fine asymmetric piazza could well figure. Several of us visited islands in the Tuscan archipelago on Saturday. I am going to nominate our trip to Elba with its panoramic views of mountains and perfect bays, alternating woodland and agriculture, and (as the driver) its spectacular, narrow, roads. Oh, yes, and the sublime seafood and hospitality of the Tenuta delle Ripalte. Yes, there was some wine involved. Their unusual rosé made from Aleatico is a splendid accompaniment to al fresco eating.
Naturally this is the most difficult decision of all. The wineries we visited were of course carefully chosen to show the quality and range of the wines of the Tuscan coast. But I think we all returned with a very high view of the general standard of wine making. In addition there is also now real variety to be experienced here: simple and oaked whites; increasing numbers of quality rosés made in a food-friendly style; traditional Aleatico sweet wines and innovative late harvest/ semi-dried/ and even botrytised stickies; and of course the great reds we have come to expect, whether from Sangiovese or Super Tuscans.
I think I will have to invent a rule that any short list of three must contain wines made principally from more than one grape variety. So no choosing three Vermentinos or Sangioveses! Otherwise I could end up with an exclusively Sangiovese short list with no credit given to the Super Tuscans and the other categories. Any wine from Tuscany can make the list as long as it was drunk or tasted on the trip. If the rules had stated three wines of different colours Moris Farms’ Mandriolo rosé would have made the list.
But first a final digression. On the evening of our arrival we gathered in the centre of Massa Marittima which was just about to launch into the archery competition known as the Balestro. We admired the costumes and repaired to the Osteria Grassini where we noted that Tignanello 2007 was on offer in the restaurant at just over €60, less than the retail price in the UK. What better place to start on a wine trip? This is a top vintage of one of Tuscany’s greatest wines, admittedly from inland Chiantishire. 80% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon gives rich, intense, sour cherry fruit. The Cabernet provides strength and richness but does not drown the herbal, even animal, character of the Sangiovese. Fine tannic structure, lively acidity, brilliant. Drink now or age for 10, 20 or more years. But enough throat-clearing … in reverse order of course:
3. Bolgheri is noted for its Cabernet(s), Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah. But of course there has to be one rebel who will insist on growing Sangiovese on the hot coast … Michele Satta’s Cavaliere 2005 goes against the grain but nonetheless was completely convincing subject to one caveat. We had two bottles in Bolgheri’s Enoteca Tognoni over lunch, the first of which showed marked leather and compost tertiary notes, the second of which was still young and full of grippy fruit. Perhaps the first was basically prematurely aged, more like a 10 year old, the second was as it should have been … but both were excellent.
2. For me the most impressive white of the week was the Vermentino of a very new, small estate just outside Suvereto. I don’t think they have got around to having a website yet but the wine is already on top form. La Fralucca, Filemone, Val di Cornia Vermentino, 2011 was intensely fresh and mineral, more of a sensation than a taste. We did not visit here, but I would love to know how this is made. Remarkable and in a lighter style than most coastal whites.
1. This is where it gets completely impossible … I have already sung the praises of Le Pupille’s Poggio Valente and in any listing of the wines of the Tuscan coast, Massa Vecchia’s top, single vineyard Sangiovese, La Querciola, should be present. Of the Super Tuscans Le Macchiole’s Cabernet Franc, Paleo 2009, was superb with its impressive intense fruit, tomato skin and fine balsamic nose, plus eucalyptus and chocolate layers. For a big wine is remarkably elegant. But in the end it has to be a certain grape variety associated with Tuscany … and this example is not even from the coast, but qualifies according to these rules.
At the end of the normal tasting at Gianni Brunelli, his widow Laura asked if we would liked to taste either AmorCostante, her no doubt very good Super Tuscan, or a Brunello riserva from a top vintage and nearly a decade old. Now this ranks as a similar sort of question to that put doing the rounds of a winery: would you like to taste the wine? It is great to visit places in Montalcino but, on the whole, the current releases of the top wines are just not ready to drink; it’s all about potential. But Laura’s generosity showed some of what you can expect from a bottle which is beginning to drink. Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG 2004 is definitely brick red in colour, having spent some time in traditional neutral oak barrels and a lot of time in the bottle. A lifted, creamy almost vanilla nose (not from new oak) is followed by vegetal, earthy themes and a hint of varnish and then sweet, ripe fruit, red and black, and finally the custard theme returns. Needless to say the wine has a powerful if fine tannic structure, which contributes to its layers of interest. It showed beyond all doubt the ability of the best Sangiovese to develop in the bottle and to demonstrate that complexity when set free in the glass. And the house martins had nested just outside of the tasting room door …
I have no doubt that this will be a controversial choice as in general our group preferred the softer Sangioveses of the coast (eg Petra’s Alto) or the ripe fruit and balanced tannins/acidity of the Super Tuscans … Let the debate begin!