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 and readers.
Janet and I 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 kings. 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.
Links to featured wineries:
- NEW in 2020: Podere Sapaio – two great Cabernet-based blends
- Michele Satta – alternative Bolgheri
- Le Macchiole – a local made good
- Ca’ Marcanda – Gaja in Bolgheri
- Campo alla Sughera – alabaster, building materials and wine
- Poggio al Tesoro – northern know-how
- Batzella – small is beautiful
- Castello di Bolgheri – new entrant with history
- Giovanni Chiappini – normality in Bolgheri
- Ornellaia and Masseto – in the big league
- Sassicaia – where the quality revolution started
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, a 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 from 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 no longer 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 (tasted July 2009) 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!
Most of the wineries in Bolgheri are the creations of people who have arrived here with a business success behind them, either in wine or in other fields. Le Macchiole is, by contrast, a story of a local made good. Unlike the Incisa della Rochetta’s at Sassicaia or the della Gheradesca’s at the Castello di Bolgheri (whose names give away their aristocratic backgrounds), Eugenio Campolmi’s family is much more humble. Their entry into the trade was to make wine for their restaurant/pizzeria which is still in business on the old trunk route, the Aurelia, between Bolgheri and Donoratico. The quality wine initiative here started in 1983 (well before the gold rush) with just four hectares which through gradual acquisition have become 22 hectares. Remarkably, this was achieved by Eugenio between the ages of just 20 and 40. This size makes le Macchiole one of the big players following in Sassicaia’s wake. That is a long way to have travelled from providing your own wine for a local restaurant. The consultant enologist here is Luca d’Attoma, while Cinzia Merli heads up the firm since her husband Eugenio’s death.
When you see the standard of the work at today’s Le Macchiole, it is quite clear how this rise has been achieved. There is a rigorous approach to everything that they do. This shows itself in championing single varieties in their very top wines, in planting density and viticulture, harvest and winemaking. When we visited with a group in May 2013, they had just completed the replanting of one of the Cabernet Franc vineyards at 10,000 plants per hectare, common in Bordeaux, unusual in Italy.
At harvest, the most important word is ‘selection’. The earliest cut takes place in the vineyard and this is followed by the first sorting table. After the bunches are destemmed using a machine with plastic ‘teeth’ to leave whole, intact, berries, a third selection is carried out as the individual berries pass along on a second vibrating table. Eagle-eyed humans pick out anything less than perfect. The simplest wines are then fermented in stainless steel, the Cabernet Franc in new non-vitrified cement fermenters and the Merlot in wood vessels. Each to their own! Needless to say the ageing in oak is similarly carefully thought through.
And what of wines (May 2013) themselves?
We tasted three of the five in the range:
Paleo Bianco 2011 – being a 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Chardonnay, retails at €22. The idea here was to move from the standard Vermentino of the Tuscan coast (whose main positive characteristic is freshness) to a white that can be aged. In recent hot summers, the grapes have been picked ever earlier, now in the middle of August. Ferragosto, the feast of the Assumption on the 15 August, used to be the day you could guarantee all Italians would still be on the beach; now it marks the beginning of the grape harvest, especially in hot, dry Bolgheri. After crio-maceration, the grapes are pressed and the must allowed to clarify at a low temperature in stainless steel vats. The must is then inoculated with selected yeasts and fermented and aged in 300-500 litre tonneaux.
In the glass the wine starts with clean green fruit on the nose with the oak being very subtle, emerging after 10 minutes in the glass. After 30 minutes the fruit character has changed into a layered exotic fruit register. The mouthfeel is rich, with the Vermentino adding lemon fruit and freshness which can be difficult with Sauvignon in this climate. Overall a very accomplished wine, said to age for 7-8 years.
Bolgheri Rosso DOC 2011 – the only red blend Le Macchiole make and a very important wine for the company. It makes up two-thirds of their total production. It is also important for the consumer as it is affordable by Bolgheri standards at €15. The idea is to make a relatively large volume high-quality red which will act as a business card for the brand. And in this, it entirely succeeds. The blend is a very modern Bolgheri combination of Merlot at 50%, Cabernet Franc (30%) and Syrah (20%). Just about everyone is growing the first, the second is their speciality and the third is increasingly seen. After separate vinification, the blend spends 6-8 months in 2nd and 3rd use barriques. The result is a wine of some power and a great deal of sophistication, rich, ripe berry fruit; medium-high very fine tannins; high acidity for real freshness and a medium-plus fruity finish. Our example had only been in its bottle for two months so no doubt it will improve.
Of the three top wines, all single grape variety, we tasted Paleo 2009 which since 2001 has been 100% Cabernet Franc. Perhaps the most surprising fact about it is the yield at just 700g per plant with the must staying on the skins for 20 days. The oaking is 14 months in French barriques, 75% new. There is a big jump up in intensity here (as there should be for a wine that costs €58). The wine is prized by the estate for its elegance; those who drink Cabernet Franc from cooler climates will be impressed by the depth of flavour and the structure. There is a real concentration on the nose: tomato skin, fine balsamic notes, smoke, eucalyptus, developed fruit, and a tiny chocolate note; balanced, intense and, yes, elegant. The much more exclusive Scrio (Syrah) and Messorio (Merlot) will have to wait for another day
I have never eaten at the Le Macchiole restaurant though I am sure that can be rectified. However, one has to be grateful that Eugenio Campolmi had the vision to start to create great wine in his own backyard.
I eventually caught up with Messorio and Scrio at Lea & Sandeman‘s portfolio tasting in London in March 2013:
The new vintage of Bolgheri Rosso 2013 was drinking nicely: attractive mid ruby in colour, fresh red berry and vinous fruit, medium weight, refined fruit character, quite firm tannins. The fruit – acidity balance is very convincing, with good length.
Paleo, Rosso IGT Toscana, 2011
Inviting deep blackberry, mulberry and plum fruit on nose with complex oak related notes; lovely ripe fruit attack on the palate, fine acidity, firm but moderate tannins, drying at the moment; very fine fruit and refreshing finish
Scrio, Rosso IGT Toscana, 2011
Syrah is the variety of the moment in Tuscany. This shows more obvious warm ripe fruit, nice savoury notes, but for my palate is lacks the complexity of Messorio.
Messorio, Rosso IGT Toscana 2011
This 100% Merlot shows a classy refined nose of fine red berry fruit with a hint of some pleasant acetic notes, complex ripe palate and a real wow factor here, firm fine tannins, so youthful after nearly 4 years; this will be a star wine after a few years in the bottle.
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 single-handedly 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 underground, 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 in 2009 and Michele in 2010.
Promis, 2004: good bouquet, dark fruit and oak evident, bit lightweight in the mouth, still a bit tannic, can just taste the Sangiovese (earlier tasting of July 07); 2008: bright red fruit nose with some spicy notes, very drinkable, medium weight, good persistence (Aug 10)
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. (July 09); 2007: lovely sweet fruit, tobacco notes, very good (Aug 10)
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. (July 09) 2006: deeper fruit, finer nose, much denser than Magari (Aug 10)
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 ‘field of the cork tree’ (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. The barricaia which you see below is a homage to the translucent nature of alabaster.
But however beautiful the building, what matters in the end is the wine and that doesn’t disappoint. Wines tasted in July 2009: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.
Update summer 2012
We visited the property again in the baking heat of August 2012. The vines looked in excellent condition due the fact that here they can (and do) irrigate the vines as necessary. This is new-world Tuscany after all, not Montalcino or Chianti Classico. The winery gleamed as it was being prepared for the new harvest: double-height fermenting vessels mean that temperature can be controlled and gravity used to move the wines from the fermentation to the maturation phase.
Wines tasted in August 2012
Arioso, IGT Toscana Bianco, 2011 – now only Sauvignon Blanc but the key point is that they prevent malolactic fermentation taking place to keep the freshness in this wine. White flowers, grass, lemon on nose and palate, the palate does not perhaps have the weight to support the full flavour, but a good, sharp refreshing finish.
Achenio Bolgheri Bianco 2011 – a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino and Chardonnay, the French varieties fermented in low toast barriques (60% new, 40% second year) and then blended with later picked, un-oaked, Vermentino. Fine oak notes, melon and ripe apple fruit, excellent fruit on the palate, good freshness. A substantial wine with some ageing potential.
Adèo Bolgheri Rosso 2009 – this now in effect the third red wine of the estate, a Cabernet-Merlot blend, the precise proportions each year being open to change. The wine is aged in second and third year barriques. The 2009 boasts assertive fresh, black berried fruit on the nose with some toastiness. Very good.
Arnione DOC Bolgheri Rosso Superiore 2009 – a multi-blend Super Tuscan with the two Cabernets (40% Sauvignon, 20% Franc), 20% Merlot and 20% Petit Verdot, from very low yielding plants (700g per plant). After the standard high quality red wine making, this was aged for 18 months in barriques, 90% of them new. Bold tobacco and chocolate on the nose, a big jump up in quality here with a dense palate of blackberry and blackcurrant fruit and those rich chocolate notes, fine moderate tannins, good acidity and good to very good length. Powerful and impressive for its €36.
Campo alla Sughera IGT Toscana Rosso 2007 – the second vintage of the top wine which bears the name and the reputation of the winery. It is made from the newly fashionable Petit Verdot which of course ripens here in a way that it doesn’t always in its native Bordeaux. The PV is accompanied by a ‘small quantity’ of Merlot. Enormous care is lavished on this wine: strict selection of the best bunches and grapes, three to four days of pre-fermentation cool maceration at 7° C, 15 days maceration on the skins, wood-aged for two years in top quality barrels (90% new) from oak which has been air-dried for three years … and then aged in bottles for two years before release. Deep, nearly impenetrable ruby in colour, very spicy with dense black fruit, high acidity which will enable it to age, excellent balance (the 14.5% alcohol by volume is easily match by the fruit) and very good persistence. Very impressive with plenty of substance to age gracefully, but only time will tell how this develops in the bottle.
It was good to see that Campo alla Sughera is continuing to set high standards and that the plans for the new top wine have now come to fruition. With many thanks to Rita and to Michele for this visit. Campo alla Sughera is a featured winery on Tuscan Harvest Watch.
Page updated August 2012
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.
The success of the relatively small winery Batzella proves that there is life after a career in international finance! Since 1999 Khanh Nguyen (orginally from Vietnam) and Franco Batzella have turned to making a success of their eight hectares on the flat plain of Bolgheri, just inland behind the town of Donoratico. The vines were planted in 2000 – 55,000 of them which now produce the same number of bottles. The scores their wines have gained across the world since their first vintage in 2003 is testament to their hard work, skill and knowledge.
Our visit in early August 2011 was somewhat impromptu and we happily tagged on to a group of Russian visitors who were buying magnums and double magnums as if there was no tomorrow. The rest of the staff were on holiday so the owners had to turn their hand to labelling and packaging the bottles the Russians wanted – such is the life of the small winery owner. All was done with impeccable good spirit and warm hospitality.
We tasted a white, a rosé and three reds (August 2010).
Mezzodì, Bolgheri Bianco DOC, 2010 – 70% Viognier 30% Sauvignon Blanc, a third of which is fermented in barriques with following malolactic fermentation: well balanced and moderately aromatic. Adding to the Sauvignon Blanc to the Viognier is an interesting move, giving a bit of a lift to the Viognier which can be overly fat on its own in this hot climate.
Pinksy, Bolgheri Rosato DOC 2010 – 60% Syrah, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24 hours of cold maceration, saignée method, attractive salmon pink and a good medium weight fruit palate with strawberry and other red fruit. Nineteenth century Giosuè Carducci, local poet, gets quoted here: ‘The sun peeks low through the pergola and reflects rosily in my glass: a scintillating, trembling halo’.
Peàn, Bolgheri Rosso DOC 2008 – 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Cabernet Franc 30%, fermented separately, aged in barriques for 14 months: very forward fruity nose, fine black and red fruit, well controlled wood.
Tâm, Bolgheri Rosso DOC 2007 – slightly different blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cabernet Franc and slightly lower yield at 50 quintals per hectare. The name means ‘passion’ in Vietnamese. Fermentation takes just five days but then the wine is matured for two years in French barriques, 30% of which are new. A velvety, excellent Bordeaux blend, very good value at €25, luxurious combination of substantial fruit and subtle oak notes.
Bliss 2007 IGT Toscana Syrah – similar in style with good fruit and balanced tannins. Despite the current fashion for Syrah, I didn’t find this as convincing as the Bordeaux blends – for me the weightiness of the Bolgheri style doesn’t really do much favours to Syrah and it can struggle for complexity.
Among the giants of Bolgheri, it is great to discover a small but committed and skilful grower and wine-making team. Excellent wines at great prices.
The Castello di Bolgheri is an unusual beast: an ancient property which has recently taken up wine making within a modern DOC. The ‘castle’, actually a very fine old building with a cellar in the middle of the village, has been in the della Gheradesca family for the best part of a millennium, though this palazzo dates from 1697. The family is related to the Inchisa family of Sassicaia fame, just down the road, and indeed used to sell grapes to both the San Guido estate and Ornellaia for their lesser wines.
However venerable the family, the move into fine wine is relatively recent, even by the standards of Bolgheri which, from a fine wine point of view, is all a post-war phenomenon. The vineyards were replanted in 1995-97 with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Petit Verdot. They have advantages and disadvantages here. The big advantage is that they owned the land around the village and next to the avenue of cypresses made famous by Carducci’s poem long before it became impossibly scarce. The disadvantage is that they make the wine in their own historic cellar and therefore are constrained by the relatively modest space available and by rigid conservation law which means they have to live with medieval steps and slopes between the two levels of the cellar. Unusually in Bolgheri where the likes of Ornellaia and Gaja have built magnificent custom-build wineries, at the Castello ‘cantina’ does mean ‘cellar’, the floor below the property. They do now have permission to replace some older cement fermentation vessels with a refrigeration unit.
As a contemporary venture, the wine making is rigorously up-to-date. The grapes are initially cooled to 16° and held for 24-48 hours. After crushing, the wine ferments out after 10 days with daily pumping over and then held on the skins for quite a long period of 3-4 weeks. The malolactic fermentation takes place in the tanks before the wine is transferred to a range of barriques, some of which are one year old. The wines are finished off by fining with powered egg white and a light filtration.
Vavára 2008 – 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Syrah and 10% Petit Verdot, aged for 16 months in older barrels. A fine, complex nose, slightly woody but with good black and red fruit, good depth of fruit on the palate and moderate length. At €16 this is an excellent quality for the good price – nothing in Bolgheri is cheap.
Castello di Bolgheri 2006 – a more typical Bordeaux blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, with 25% new barriques for the top wine. In the glass, more fruit expression, liquorice and smoke, mint, a richer palate and very long. €32. We also had the chance to taste a bottle of the 2007 which had been open for three days and was slightly oxidized: it is not as smooth as the wine from the better year 2006 but nonetheless full of fruit.
With many thanks to Stephanie and all at the Castello – let’s hope that the fine winemaking phase will be at least as long as the family’s history!
Giovanni Chiappini – normality in Bolgheri
In the dry heat of August 2012 we tasted:
Le Grottine, Bolgheri Vermentino DOC, 2010 – 100% Vermentino which has been fermented and matured in stainless steel and comes in at 13% alcohol. It has a slightly sweet tasting (ie very ripe fruit) lemon-and-leafy palate and some structure. The wines here are all named after the small farms and pieces of land which Chiappini bought and so do speak of the origin of the fruit.
Ferruggini, Bolgheri Rosso DOC, 2010 – 70% Sangiovese, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, again no oak, and a bold attempt at Sangiovese here in Bolgheri (cf. Michele Satta). The blackcurrant of the Cabernet shows quite markedly on the nose but is less dominant on the palate with simple, drinkable, black cherry fruit to the fore. Quite a dry finish.
Guado de’ Gemoli, Bolgheri Rosso Superiore DOC, 2007 – more of a Bolgheri price at €31 this top wine is Cabernet Sauvignon (80%) and Merlot (20%), which spends 15 months in barriques, half and half first year and second year of use, and then two to three years in bottles before being released. A warm nose of blackcurrant fruit with well integrated oak, super rich on the palate, strong but ripe tannins on the finish, very good.
With thanks to the Chiappini family – it is great to find a real family business on the millionaires’ road! The next project is to replace the cellar with its outdoor temperature-controlled fermentation vessels with a new winery.
Ornellaia – in the big league
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!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 elsewhere, 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 (tasted July 2009).
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 the 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 greenhouses’ (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.
May 2014: Masseto among the giants: my comparison with Pingus and Henschke is on a separate page here
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). For a great evening when I was able to compare a rare, older vintage of Sassicaia with a Bordeaux second growth, see Two titans.
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 integrated, 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 have been drawn up recently and are flexible enough. They are not trying to 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.
Next: next door in Val di Cornia