Bolgheri: Reports of its Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Doug Frost, Master of Wine, Master Sommelier

October 19, 2020

An ancient winescape, Italy surprises us when something new is discovered in its midst. Bolgheri was once such a debutante but some wine observers see an aging ingenue. Indeed, since its rise in the 1980s and 1990s, the region has regularly been dismissed as “old hat”, “no longer exciting” because, as The World of Fine Wine intoned in 2009, “consumers are apparently turning their backs on these once trailblazing wines.” Hmm. That doesn't quite square with the continued exalted valuations of Bolgheri’s benchmark properties, names like Sassicaia, Masseto or Ornellaia. 

But the Maremma, of which Bolgheri is but a part, has historically received short shrift. Its name is enshrined mostly in breeding circles - there is a horse, a pig and a dog each eponymously carrying the regional title. Rather than vineyards, Maremma was a malarial swamp giving rise to massive grazing areas for livestock both domesticated and wild, until Ferdinando I de' Medici, son of the great Cosimo I de Medici, drained those swamps and built a few roads. Maremma means “swamp”, but they neglected to change the name.

In the centuries since, its rural purposes still didn't include grapes until, perhaps surprisingly, just three men changed that. In the late 1940s the Marchese Incisa della Rocchetta planted some Cabernet Franc and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon around his remote coastal estate Tenuta San Guido; it was a hobby and a source for household consumption. But he had a nephew with a remarkable lineage and a keen imagination – Piero Antinori, whose family can date their winegrowing to 1385, and he and his winemaker Giacomo Tachis helped Rocchetta to coax something more sculpted from the estate’s vineyards. Clever boys that they were, their 1972 Sassicaia (or “stony field”) was submitted to a 1978 Decanter Magazine tasting where it bested a field of top Bordelais wines.

Sassicaia’s great victory in that tasting set heads spinning, tongues wagging, pens scratching and glasses swirling. That Italian wine law required two more decades before it gave Bolgheri its own DOC shouldn't be any great surprise – European wine law is slow to accommodate change. But compare Italy’s protracted process in which the DOC arrived in 1983 (but only for bianchi and rosati) and no DOCG was ever granted (Sassicaia gained its own DOC decades later in 2013) with bureaucratically stunted Spain, essentially discovering Priorat in the late 1980s and early 1990s and catapulted it to top DOCa ranking by 2000 (or 2009 depending upon which bureaucrat signed which paper. It’s Spain after all).

Antinori is quick to spread the credit – it’s important to know that his father Niccolò had added Bordeaux varieties to his Chianti in the 1920s. And a family estate from the early 20th century, Tignanello, was at least contemporaneous – their 1971 eschewed the requisite white grapes and thus lost its right to call itself Chianti. The 1975 saw Cabernet Sauvignon added to Sangiovese so the die was dramatically tossed across the table; the wine would henceforth be a mere Vino da Tavola, instead of a labeled Chianti. The dismissive label didn't hamper sales; powerful critic Luigi Veronelli dubbed the category “Vino da Favola” (wine of fables). Even today, with Italian wine law finally yielding to reality in 1991, Tignanello is IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). Like Groucho Marx, the wine wouldn't belong to any club that would have it as a member.

Thus were born the “Super Tuscans”, a title that no one today will admit. Once a badge of courage and creativity, today the term no longer has anything to teach us – Chianti gave up demanding the inclusion of white grapes and now allows 100% Sangiovese wines. These changes shouldn't have taken so long – Brunello di Montalcino is one of the country’s greatest wines and it has been 100% Sangiovese (or Brunello) for a century and a half.

Yet for a time, the Super-Tuscan movement aided wine producers within and around Chianti, loosening those governmental fetters, or designing more diverse handcuffs. Nowadays, Super Tuscans can achieve IGT, DOC or DOCG status. Sassicaia has its own sub-appellation, Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC, and since 1994, Bolgheri’s reds have been granted DOC status.

Bolgheri sits at the aperture of this origin snapshot. Tenuta San Guido estate has 180 acres planted to vines spread among 8 separate parcels: 85% is Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. It’s aged for two years in French oak, 40% new. They also produce Guidalberto; it began as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese, and now is built from only the two Bordeaux grapes (60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot aged in French and American oak for 15 months). Le Difese combines 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with 30% Sangiovese with one year in used oak. They deserve their fame and their pricing.

From 1978, rightfully, Sassicaia gained more than a few new winemaking neighbors. Rocchetta’s nephew (and Piero’s brother), Lodovico Antinori, owned a neighboring estate that soon harbored Ornellaia. With clay, stones and pebbles chock-a-block on an estate hillside, he planted Merlot. This became Masseto, arguably Italy’s most valuable wine.

Standing in Bolgheri

As close as is the bustle of Firenze, the medieval atmosphere of Siena, the old port smells of Livorno, Bolgheri seems far, far away. It is no less gorgeous than the most photographic Tuscan vistas but here the vineyards swoop down to the Tyrrhenian Sea like the piping, distracted gulls. The smells of pine, of the sea and of dusty, even sandy, vineyards mix together in a briny stew that gives the wines of this area nerve and zest. The term “maquis” is sometimes used to describe the surrounding scrub, shrubs and stunted trees, perhaps evoking French garrigue, and giving its name to the French resistance fighters plotting German accidents in the Mediterranean bush.

Though we are close by the world’s most important Sangiovese vineyards, this is not Sangiovese territory - here, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Syrah prevail. The wines can be firm and long- lived; give them time, if you can. Often the supple Italianate style of Tuscan reds is replaced by an iron resolve and stance that requires equal fortitude to master a whole bottle. Sometimes that is stirring. Sometimes it’s just freaking intimidating.

On the horizon, you can spot Elba Island, still a prison (just ask Napoleon), though there is now a worthy project to train inmates in the intricacies of grape growing. The winds off the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian Seas are salty and insistent; there is less room for error here than many of Bolgheri’s wineries seem to admit. I’ve drunk, actually, more wincingly tasted piercingly tannic wines here; no amount of cellaring will soften them. But that’s what makes the great estates so damned great. Their wines are powerful, compact, hard, okay, they’re most often hard and in need of cellaring, but they can have balance. It all comes down to climate – if you are too close to the sea, you will rarely ripen those vicious, vindictive tannins. Find a sheltered spot where the sun can radiate, or where the ocean winds can’t quite penetrate, and you could create a wine unlike any other. And some do.

Ornellaia e Masseto

Just three miles from the sea, with the Apennine Mountains beckoning to the distant east, the elevations may not seem significant in Bolgheri but that bit of altitude is crucial. Ornellaia is labeled as a Bolgheri Superiore but only because it is aged for two years before release. That’s not why you’re drinking Ornellaia, if you’re lucky enough to have some. In 1981, it was planted to 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Franc. As plantings continued proportions changed; in 2003, Petit Verdot was added and, since then, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominate the blend of the four. 

Axel Heinz is winemaker at Ornellaia as well as Masseto, where 100% Merlot reaches Petrus like intensity and prices. Both vineyards benefit from proximity to the sea, but Masseto is particularly situated to smooth out the climatic extremes, leading to a tension between opulence and freshness. The 17-acre vineyard, starting at an elevation of 400 feet is of three pieces:

At the top of the hill is the Masseto Alto; it has shallower soils that are both sandy and quite rocky. This portion is usually picked first and Heinz describes it as “more linear and dense and less opulent”. In the middle is the Masseto Centrale, it has the highest percentage of blue Pliocene clay. “It is the sole and spine”, Heinz says, “with great concentration and power, and an imposing tannic structure.” At the bottom is the Masseto Junior; it’s 10 years younger and he calls the wines “lighter and by themselves featureless.” But they act to smooth out the tannins of the other blocks and “they contribute substantially to the delicacy of the fabric.” There can be two or three weeks between harvest for each of these blocks and each is aged separately before the blends are created.

Other wines of the estate are quite attractive: Massetino is less expensive than Masseto but might be harder to find (it has a touch of Cabernet Franc in it too). From Ornellaia, Le Serre Nuove dell'Ornellaia, usually has more Merlot than its big brother, and less new oak; the same can be said of Le Volte dell'Ornellaia. Poggio alla Gazze dell'Ornellaia is mostly Sauvignon Blanc; it can be sexy and expressive. And if you visit the estate, try Ornus dell'Ornellaia, a late-harvest, barrel-fermented Petit Manseng.

Frescobaldi bought Ornellaia and Masseto in 2005 and the wines are as great as ever. In 2015, Ornellaia Bianco was released (100% Sauvignon Blanc), and in 2017, they added 9% Viognier. It’s barrel-fermented, 30% new, with 12 months on the lees, periodically stirred.

The artist labels of Ornellaia are often showy and beautiful - this is the L'Incanto label designed by Swiss performance artist John Armleder created for the 2012 Ornellaia.

Tenuta Guado al Tasso

Piero Antinori has his own vast estate in Bolgheri producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, though the Syrah only lasted from 1990 until 2006. In 2007, it was replaced with Cabernet Franc. There are nearly 2500 acres from the Tyrrhenian sea to the hills and, beyond its 790 acres of vineyards, there are plantings of sunflowers, corn, wheat and olives. The vineyards are just sheltered enough where the rocky and slightly calcareous soils rise to nearly 200 feet.

The first vintage of Guado al Tasso was 1990 and the winemaking reflected the thinking of that time: thirty-day macerations were considered necessary for serious wine. Powerful but elegant, the estate also produces a small amount of a Cabernet Franc called Matarocchio. Taste it if you can. Cont’Ugo is 100% Merlot and quite delicious. Il Bruciato (in 2019, all four major Bordeaux varieties plus Syrah) is far easier to find and extremely affordable, and, well, also nowhere near as exciting. But still.

The vineyards of the vast Antinori-owned Guado al Tasso estate are just sheltered enough to enjoy the benefits of the nearby sea without struggling to ripen either white or red grapes.

Tua Rita

Not precisely within Bolgheri but just to its south, outside of the town of Suvereto (and a part of the Suvereto DOCG) is another property, Tua Rita, that includes a 100% Merlot wine, Redigaffi, in its portfolio. Perhaps unusually, Rita Tua and husband Virgilio Bisti built the estate not as an opulent showpiece but as a summer home. The Tua Rita estate sits at about 300 feet and enjoys enough protection from the sea that, from its beginnings in 1994, has gathered as many as accolades as these other estates. 

Though the property started with less than twenty acres, under son-in-law Stefano Frascolla they have expanded to nearly 75 acres of grapes and offer other, lesser-priced wines with plenty of verve: Giusti di Notri (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc), Keir (amphora raised Syrah), Perlato del Bosco (100% Sangiovese), Rosso dei Notri (50% Sangiovese and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot), Perlato del Bosco Bianco (Trebbiano, Ansonica and Vermentino) and a sexy dessert wine Sese, a Zibbibo (Moscato) from far off Pantelleria Island.

Le Macchiole

Founded in 1983 by Eugenio Campolmi and Cinzia Merli, Le Macchiole’s first release of Paleo Rosso was their big success in 1989. Initially a Bordeaux blend, it has since morphed into 100% Cabernet Franc. Again, Merlot has something special to say in the favored spots: their Messorio bottling began as 100% Merlot and remains so today. It may not be as heralded as Masseto but it is also rather more affordable. Scrio is their Syrah, and they have a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay blend called Paleo Blanc as well as a moderately priced red called Le Macchiole (Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah).

Ca’ Marcanda

The name alone tells the story – “the haggling house” - but then Angelo Gaja doesn't need much marketing to find customers for his remarkable wines. He happily relates that it took so many visits to haggle out his 1996 purchase of this historic 250-acre estate (a dozen and a half, at least, but who’s counting). The modern estate is rather sly in its coy, almost hidden exterior; inside it is expansive, practical, smart and even comfortable. Gaja will complain that the authorities slowed architect Giovanni Bo’s design and construction too but maybe this merely adds to the tale. 

As expensive as Gaja’s Piemontese wines area, I find Ca’ Marcanda nearly underpriced and quite capable of long beneficial aging. Promis (Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese), Magari (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot), and Ca’Marcanda (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc) are all exceedingly cellar worthy wines.

The strikingly humble facade of Ca' Marcanda hides an ingeniously designed winemaking facility.

Tenuta di Biserno

Again, we are in the Alto Maremma and not exactly in Bolgheri. But being next door in Bibbona (it borders Bolgheri on its southern side) it unquestionably reflects the familial legacy of the area (Lodovico Antinori again and now alongside his brother Piero) as well as precarious proximity to the sea, so too it focused upon non-indigenous grapes. Insoglio del Cinghiale has 35% Syrah in its Bordeaux variety blend, while Il Pino di Biserno and Biserno are each comprised only of Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot); Lodovico is Cabernet Franc and Merlot. While not precisely in Bolgheri, the soils here share the DOC’s name, “Bolgheri Conglomerate” (or scheletro) - a mix of mineral-rich alluvial soil, limestone, a bit of clay and pebbles providing drainage.

The estate benchmark, Tenuta di Biserno Biserno prospers because it is well-sheltered at up to 300 feet elevation, with north-west facing slopes. Swedish-born, French trained Helena Lindberg has been the winemaker virtually since the beginning in the early 2000s. She makes wine in New Zealand in the off-season.

Guado al Melo Atis

There may be evidence of wine growing here for two centuries, but it must have been fairly low-key. Still wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were sold to winemakers in Pisa in the early 20th century and won some acclaim. By the 1990s that was forgotten until the Trentino-based Scienza family, long time winemakers, purchased the property to restore it to prominence. They make a number of well-priced reds, mostly based upon Cabernet Sauvignon, with small portions of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Atis is their most fascinating wine.

The family patriarch created a Biblioteca del Vino with nearly 15,000 volumes, covering wine technology, history, geography, sensory analysis, and containing many ancient texts.

Michele Satta

From college in Milan and then Pisa to an internship in the Alto Maremma in 1974, Michele Satta has to be included in these histories. He purchased fruit for his first vintage in 1983; 1991 saw the planting of his vineyards and the project remains a family affair to this day. Giacomo Satta grows and blends Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Teroldego, Vermentino, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Piastraia (Sangiovese and Syrah) is a fine value; I Castagni is their top blend, comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Teroldego.

Others to consider:

Grattamacco - Piermario Meletti Cavallari started out in 1977 and his Bordeaux variety reds play merrily with Sangiovese. The estate is now owned by Colle Masari.

Podere Sapaio “Sapaio” – mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Founded in 1999 by Massimo Piccin with nearly 100 acres and closer to Bibbona than Bolgheri.

Batzella Agricola “Tâm” – another very good value, comprised of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.