By Marco Giovanetti
“I cipressi che a Bolgheri alti e schietti / Van da San Guido in duplice filar…”
This is the first verse of the poem Davanti a San Guido, written by the poet Giosuè Carducci in 1874, because the first thing he noticed on the road to Bolgheri were these two endless lines of cypress. They are still there, and you feel you are entering into a place out of time, where amazing things can happen. So today I want to tell you about the vineyards around Bolgheri, where are born some of the most famous wines in the world.
Tuscany’s enchanting area of Bolgheri is situated south of Livorno on the Ligurian coast in Central Italy. Its winemaking zone is made up of sloping coastal vineyards found at the foot of the hills between the town of Bolgheri, after which this DOC is named and the southern part of Castagneto. Located in close proximity to the Tyrrhenian Sea, it has been described as ‘the golden oasis of the Maremma’.
In the 1960s the Tuscan wine industry was in need of a ‘shake-up’ and it was Bolgheri that became one of the avant-garde areas to help bring this region back to life. . 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. One of the ways this area proved its worth was by introducing a new trend of non-DOC wines, an innovative style of wine named the ‘Super Tuscan’. In this ‘revolution‘, its hero wine was Sassicaia (a Bordeaux-style red created from French vines whose cuttings originally came from the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild estate in Bordeaux), that rocked the world and became the wine of legends. Not only did it bring Bolgheri into the limelight, but Tuscany too. Sassicaia was also the first ever and only Italian wine to be honored with its own single estate classification, thus in 1994, Bolgheri and Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC were born.
The founding father of Sassicaia and Bolgheri was at Tuscan aristocrat, Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, who bred racing horses and had estates on the Tuscan coast. At one point, he 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, 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 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 not 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.
The main focus of Bolgheri DOC is the importance of terroir and it is for this reason that the Bolgheri Rosso and Bolgheri Superiore wines are labeled without the mention of grapes, as terroir is considered more significant than grape varieties. It is also why Bolgheri wines are reputed for their true expressions of terroir.
Nevertheless, the varieties that put this area on the wine map are Bordeaux trio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot which are the main ingredients in the superiore wine. Syrah can also be added, alongside the traditional tuscan red grape Sangiovese, which can make up to 50%, as well as a maximum 30% of Petit Verdot. The rosso is required to age for at least ten months, whilst the superiore must mature for twenty four months before release.
I hope this article sparks your interest on the wines of this most beautiful region. Although they are not cheap, they provide extreme satisfaction and are textbook wines for the Italian wine classics.
As in my other articles, many thanks to the good generosity of my sponsors for this week’s article. Jacques Bélec from Mark Anthony Brands ( Argentiera and Le Serre Nuove) and Sophie Maury from Élixirs Vins et spiritueux for the sample of Greppicaia.Special wines of the week:
Classy and refinded nose that reminds me of ripe cassis and black cherry with black plums. Mineral and anis scented the wine displays additional notes of graphite, dark chocolate and cigar box notes. The bouquet develops like a crescendo of aromas jumping out of the glass. Modern Bordeaux style with a unique tuscan character, this wine in the mouth,can be described with three words: rich, luscious and elegant with a vibrant acidity. Flavors remind me of cassis with a point of bell pepper. Coffee with hints of dark come through. The wine tannins are rugged to silky A very chic and long finale that reminds me of vanilla, black fruits and toasty oak. To keep for the next 10 years. 97100.
Food Match: Herbed roasted Rack of Lamb with fingerling potatoes.
On the nose, very ripe cassis, blackberries and dark cherries notes. In addition, bittersweet chocolate notes with rose pepper, mineral cardamom notes and spearmint. In the mouth, full body and muscular with hefty tannis. Flavors remind me of black fruit paste, balsamic notes and toasty oak. Savoury finale with a long aftertaste. Needs time in the cellar. To keep 10-20 years. 95100.
Food Match: Grilled filet mignon and Gratin Dauphinois.
On the nose, toasty o.ak with roasted red fruits, herbs and tobacco. In the mouth, full body and elegeant with rugged tannis and a good acidity. In the mouth, flavors again remind me of red fruits with a hint of vegetal notes. Very long wine with a promising life ahead. To keep 8-10 years. 93100.
Food Match: Roasted loin of wild boar with apples.