I spent the first part of my visit to Tuscany in Bolgheri. Driving into the region from the north, bypassing Livorno, it feels like the coast. At times you are only a mile or so from the Tyrrhenian Sea and from the village of Bolgheri, you can see the shimmering blue expanse.
The appellation itself is small, with roughly 2,500 acres planted to vines. Most of those plantings have occurred in the past 10 to 15 years. Geographically, the Bolgheri denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) is confined by hills rising to about 1,300 feet to the east and the coast to the west. It achieved appellation status in 1994.
Its climate is warmer and more maritime than central Tuscany and the soils are diverse, a mix of mostly clays, with limestone and sand. All different soil types can sometimes be found within a vineyard.
Bolgheri feels like a New World region, despite its roots in Tuscany. In fact, at times, driving along the Strada Bolgherese, the main north-south thoroughfare bisecting the DOC, It felt like Napa Valley, with vineyards stretching along both sides of the road.
There is very little Sangiovese planted, because it is too warm, too fertile and too low in altitude. Rather, it is home to Bordeaux grape varieties, with about 80 percent of the appellation devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon (43 percent), Merlot (23 percent), Cabernet Franc (8 percent) and Petit Verdot (7 percent).
It may be that Bolgheri's initial success came at least partly because of its use of such "international" varietals, perhaps despite the fact that those early wines were made with little experience, and spotty success. Ironically, the current trend of deprecating those international varieties in Italy, in favor of indigenous grapes, may sap that success, even though the wines have never been better.
But in the end, the vintners will work for long-term quality, not short-term popularity, and most in Bolgheri believe that the Bordeaux grapes show the most promise. "There is enough water supply for the Bordeaux varieties in a Mediterranean climate," explained Leonardo Raspini, the general manager of Ornellaia. This, and the long, slow ripening in the late afternoon when the sea breeze is cool and fresh are the keys to quality.
It also feels like a New World region because there is still a lot of experimentation and searching for a stylistic expression. Certainly the success of Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia prompted investment in Bolgheri, however, with the exception of Sassicaia, the character of the wines are more influenced by the grape varieties and the individual vintages than any expression of terroir.
Even Ornellaia, whose origins in the region date from 1981, is still experimenting. It's newest vineyard, Bellaria, was planted in 1992, 1993 and 2002. In all its parcels comprising 235 acres, vine density ranges from 1,200 plants per acre to 4,860 per acre. Several clones are used, both from Bordeaux and Italy, with a combination of 12 different rootstocks.
It was this kind of freedom to experiment that attracted Piedmont's Angelo Gaja to Bolgheri. He looked for vineyards with white clay and, after lengthy negotiations, purchased an estate now called Ca' Marcanda, in 1996.
The wines of Ca' Marcanda, Promis, Magari and Camarcanda itself, correspond to the different soil types in the 40 different parcels of vineyards. Camarcanda comes entirely from the white clay soils, which provide structure; Magari is sourced from parcels containing both white and brown clay; Promis is from a combination of brown clay and limestone soils.
Poggio al Tesoro's history is even more recent. It was founded in 2001 by the Allegrini family and Leonardo Locascio of the American importer Winebow. Part of the property was already planted in 1994, but the majority of its 125 acres dates from 2003.
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are the workhorse varieties there, but the Dedicato a Walter is 100 percent Cabernet Franc and the estate also has an experimental vineyard planted to Viognier and Touriga Nacional. This plot is outside the Bolgheri DOC in the neighboring commune of Bibbona.
Tasting the wines of Poggio al Tesoro, there was a leap in quality after the 2005 vintage, with the 2006, 2007 and 2008 Sondraia and Dedicato a Walter showing fine potential.
In fact, the 2008 vintage looks to be excellent in the region. Poggio al Tesoro's Sondraia '08 showed outstanding quality, while the Dedicato a Walter '08 was potentially classic (95 to 100 points). Antinori's Guado al Tasso from '08 also flirted with classic potential. In each case, I gave an edge to the 2008s over their 2007 counterparts.
Tenuta San Guido's well-manicured vineyards on the western side of the appellation were planted in 1965.
At Ornellaia, the three estate reds were excellent. Le Serre Nuove 2008 offered ripe blackberry, black cherry and plum flavors on a round profile, with well-integrated tannins and balance between its fruit and structure (90 points, non-blind).
The Ornellaia was dense and dark, showing black currant and blueberry fruit. Though less forthcoming than the Le Serre Nuove, its breed was evident and the finish long and full of dusty tannins (94 points, non-blind). Masseto exhibited gorgeous aromas of blackberry, plum and chocolate matched to an opoulent texture supported by firm tannins. Its power was on the back end, with a lingering spicy aftertaste (97 points, non-blind).
Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia 2008 was a more refined, elegant wine, to me the Lafite to Ornellaia's Mouton-Rothschild. Spicy in aroma and initially broad on the palate, with rich plum flavors, it seemed to be still finding its shape. It finished with purity, fruit and floral notes (96 points, non-blind).
Marchesi Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta showed me the original Sassicaia vineyard high in the hills on the eastern flank of the appellation. Planted in 1948 and replanted in the mid-1960s, it is one of the few vineyards on the eastern side of the appellation today. Driving east, away from the coastal plain up into the forested mountains, led basically away from any evidence of development, and even civilization.
I couldn't imagine how anyone could envision a vineyard there, let alone would choose to plant in such a remote location, but clearly the dream that became Sassicaia has inspired an energetic group of vintners from all over Italy and beyond. There's no doubt the region is capable of producing excellent wines. Whether they will emerge one day with the consistency and style of Sassicaia remains to be seen.