In Tuscany's small, coastal wine appellation of Bolgheri, Michele Satta is the local contrarian.
Back in the early 1980s, Satta, who had come to Bolgheri as an agricultural intern, became one of the first winemakers on the scene. He followed the wine success of land-owning nobles Mario Incisa della Rocchetta of Tenuta San Guido and his nephew Piero Antinori, who were bringing Sassicaia and the region to the world's attention. (For more about Bolgheri and its notable producers, read Wine Spectator's April 30, 2018, issue.)
Each of them planted the Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot in the sand and clay soils a couple of miles from the Tyrrhenian sea.
But what has distinguished Satta all along is his heresy of believing in Bolgheri Sangiovese.
Most Bolgheri estate owners and winemakers agree that Sangiovese, Tuscany's great red variety, simply doesn't work in Bolgheri terroirs. The results are too ordinary.
Satta says most Bolgheri producers haven't figured out how to grow the grape.
"In the big estates, no one planted differently from Bordeaux," says Satta, 62, in his modern winery built into a hillside below the village of Castagneto Carducci. "My job became expressing a sense of the Mediterranean in Bolgheri."
Depending on which of Bolgheri's more than 50 producers you talk to, Satta is either a troublemaker, a visionary or a winemaker who has found the right spots and methods to cultivate interesting Sangiovese.
In Bolgheri today, the variety represents less than 1.5 percent of vineyard plantings. Yet Sangiovese is allowed to make up to 50 percent of the Bolgheri DOC and Bolgheri Superiore DOC blends, thanks in part to persistent advocacy by Satta.
"They wanted to completely put out Sangiovese," recalls Satta, a jovial and compact farmer, with piercing blue eyes and plentiful white stubble. "But I said we have to keep it at 50 percent. It is too important for Tuscany."
Today, two of Satta's Bolgheri red blends contain a good dose of Sangiovese, and a third has a big helping of his other favored variety, Syrah, which thrives in Mediterranean climes and which he also bottles solo.
His results have been surprisingly good. Scores for his 100 percent Sangiovese bottling called Cavaliere, which carries the Toscana IGT designation, have ranged from a so-so 78 points in the 1994 vintage to an outstanding 94 points in 2004, with the current-release 2015 not far behind.
Initially, Satta did not come to Bolgheri to make wine. He hailed from Northern Italy's lake district, studied agronomy and landed work on a farm here in 1974.
"When I came, no one was bottling a wine as Bolgheri," says Satta. "You had Sassicaia, but nobody locally knew about it. Every family had their own production, and nobody bought wine from anybody else."
In 1983, eager to build his own business, Satta stumbled into winemaking when he found vineyards and a small family cellar available for little rent. He began buying his own farmland and planted vineyards in the early 1990s, when he also worked as a vineyard consultant at Lodovico Antinori's Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, producer of the Cabernet-based Ornellaia and the famed Merlot Masseto, now spun off into its own winery.
Satta planted an eclectic mix of grapes that included Bolgheri's preferred Bordeaux red varieties along with Sangiovese, Syrah and Northern Italy's Teroldego. The latter, he said, he received as a gift from a former agronomy professor when he was low on cash, and it stuck with him.
But much of Satta's work focused on Sangiovese. He was inspired by the complexity of Sangiovese from other parts of Tuscany and strove to make it work in Bolgheri.
"I tasted Montevertine's La Pergola Torte, and I dreamed of making that kind of wine," he says. "Sangiovese is a wine that helps you taste the flavors of food. It is not possible to drink Masseto with a dish like lasagna!"
For his vineyards, Satta sought vine cuttings and clones from across a range of Tuscan and Umbrian terroirs. He has also bucked the modern winegrowing convention that higher-density plantings lead to higher-quality grapes. Satta has gone the other direction, planting fewer and fewer vines per acre.
"Bolgheri is a high-energy area, and Sangiovese needs room to grow for the plant to express itself," he says.
Nearly three years ago, with annual production of about 12,500 cases from 57 acres of vineyards, Satta handed off winemaking responsibilities to his son Giacomo, now 26. A younger, bearded version of his father, he shows the same penchant for exuberant experimentation.
He has converted the estate to biodynamic farming, is trying vinifications in cement tanks and clay amphorae, and this fall plans to release a 2015 Bolgheri red blend that is equal parts Sangiovese and Syrah.
"It's important for me to say I can make a Bolgheri wine without Bordeaux varieties," says Giacomo. "I like the wines my father made, but I think we can improve. … I am never happy."