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Bolgheri Bloom

More vintners look to the Tuscan coast to make top wine

James Suckling
Posted: November 5, 2001

 
Angelo Gaja and his wife, Lucia, on their new property in Bolgheri.
 
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It's a hot summer morning in Bolgheri, the untamed region on Tuscany's western coast about an hour's drive south of Pisa. Part of central Italy's most beautiful nature reserve, Bolgheri is rich with marshes, meadows and mountains, all filled with wildlife. It is also one of the country's most promising wine-producing regions, and Angelo Gaja, Piedmont's most famous vintner, is waving his arms in excitement as he describes the quality of the soil of his new vineyard here.

"Everything is so much easier here," says Gaja with a wicked smile, as the sun beats down on his back. His wife, Lucia, stands by his side; they're a good five-hour drive south of their normal stomping grounds in Barbaresco. Gaja bought this 200-acre estate in 1996 and plans to make a premium Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend. "You have sun. You plant your vines and everything grows. It's not like that in Piedmont."

Gaja makes it all sound simple, and it's not that far from the truth. Bolgheri, which currently encompasses about 2,000 acres of vineyards, has a natural advantage over other key wine-producing regions of Tuscany: Wine producers pick earlier here, due to the warmer summers and milder winters, and therefore have less risk of rain diluting the quality of their vintage. This was the case in 1998. While most of Tuscany made only good quality wines because of rain during the harvest, Bolgheri made outstanding ones since nearly all its grapes were picked before the rain arrived.

"Since 1997, we seem to harvest a little bit earlier each year," says Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta, owner of Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri, the birthplace of Sassicaia, Tuscany's most famous red. Incisa is also the president of the growers' association in Bolgheri. He says that the region usually picks from one week to 10 days before Chianti Classico. "We also use mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, which is less sensitive to rain than Sangiovese."

The Cabernets and Merlots are of exceptional quality here, particularly in top years such as 1997, 1998 and 1999. They resemble New World wines such as California's with their up-front, opulent fruit, but they have an underlying fresh and natural acidity that keeps them thoroughly Old World. Bolgheri reds usually have a natural alcohol level of 13 percent to 14 percent while maintaining a pH of 3.4–3.6, a strong acidity for that level of alcohol. This high acidity is an advantage with varieties like Cabernet and Merlot since it keeps them fresh; however, it works against Sangiovese, which already has a high acid level, and when grown in Bolgheri, can make reds that are lean and mean. This may explain why the Sangiovese-based wines from the region are usually less successful.

Incisa's late father, Mario, began making red wine in Bolgheri in the late 1950s. The aristocrat was a great fan of the fine reds of Bordeaux, and he dreamed of making a similar wine in the land around his horse farm. By the 1970s, Sassicaia had become an international success with the help of Incisa's cousin Piero Antinori, whose former winemaker Giacomo Tachis fine-tuned the wines. Tachis still makes Sassicaia.

In the late 1970s, a few small producers, such as Grattamacco, began aiming at high quality wines. But it wasn't until the 1980s that Incisa faced serious competition. That's when his cousin Lodovico Antinori, the brother of Piero, created Tenuta dell'Ornellaia. Today, Antinori's pure Merlot Masseto and Cabernet-blend Ornellaia rival Sassicaia as Tuscany's top reds. California's Mondavi family bought an interest in Ornellaia in 2000. Ornellaia also makes an excellent fresh and minerally Sauvignon Blanc, Poggio alle Gazze, which is a dead-ringer for a top-class Sancerre but with a hint of tropical fruit character.

Piero Antinori had made a cheap and cheerful rosé in Bolgheri for decades, but in the early 1990s he, too, began producing a serious red wine, Guado al Tasso. Not until 1994 did Bolgheri finally receive an official DOC for red wine.

Since then, more and more people have been investing in the region in hopes of making world-class wines like Sassicaia and Ornellaia. Besides Gaja, the outsiders include the Folonaris, who used to own Chianti's Ruffino; California's Delia Viader; and Piedmont's Gianni Gagliardo. Prices for vineyard land have risen from about $27,500 an acre for unplanted land to about $65,500. "There would be even more people buying vineyard land here but it's very hard to find," says Incisa. Today, there are close to two dozen people who are either making wines or in the process of establishing vineyards.

Gaja has already planted about 150 acres of vineyards, half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Merlot. "Why try something else?" he says. "These varieties have already been proven to make great wines." Gaja produced a 1999 red at his estate, but he says he is not happy with the quality and doesn't plan to release it to the market. So, the first vintage available will be the 2000.

The Gajas' Bolgheri winery, Ca' Marcanda, is a monument to new-wave winemaking in Tuscany. Built of local stones, poured concrete and metal, its angular design is breathtaking against the backdrop of the wild landscape of the Tuscan coastline. Nothing has been spared in building an ultramodern winery—from the latest in temperature-controlled vats to under-floor air conditioning and humidification for the barrel-aging room. The winery looks big enough to house the production of three or four vintages from its vineyards. Gaja insists the extra space is essential to make his wines in a calm and efficient way. "I want everything done on one level," he says. "Small old buildings in Italy may look nice for wineries, but they are not very practical. I wanted space in my new winery."

The vintner will not divulge how much he has spent on his project, but between $6 million and $8 million is a good estimate. Gaja plans to name his wine Magari, which loosely translated from Italian means "if only." Considering the wine pedigrees of both Bolgheri and Gaja, it seems strange to use the subjunctive for the name of his wine—it's sure to be a success.


For the complete article, please see the Nov. 15, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 185. (
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