Bolgheri: looking beyond the Super-Tuscans

Adam Lechmere takes a seat at the table for Bolgheri's first 'anteprima' weekend and discovers a wine region still in search of its identity. With a mood of experimentation and collaboration in the air, what could be next from the birthplace of the Super-Tuscan?

Words by Adam Lechmere

Bolgheri DiVino
The kilometre-long table that acts as the centrepiece for Bolgheri DiVino, a celebration of this Tuscan region's superlative wines 

The Saturday night of Bolgheri DiVino was balmy and windless, a perfect late-summer Tuscan evening for an al-fresco dinner. A kilometre-long stretch of the Viale dei Cipressi was closed to traffic, the famous old cypresses lit up in blue, purple and gold. A table of almost impossible length was laid with an infinite starched white cloth and decorated with standing chandeliers and six-foot floral displays. A 400-strong army of waiters and sommeliers served the 1,000 guests. It was extravagant, slightly preposterous, relaxed and very enjoyable. As a statement of intent, it was unambiguous.

‘Our direction is clear,’ Albiera Antinori, one of the triumvirate leading the Bolgheri and Sassicaia DOC told me. ‘We all have a good sense of where the appellation should go. And there is coherence; no one’s been here very long so there’s no need for anyone to try and show they’re better than their neighbour.’

When you consider that Bolgheri is the birthplace of the Super-Tuscan – of Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Masseto, some of the most sought-after wines in the world – it might seem odd to describe it as a region in the process of self-discovery. But this fascinating corner of Tuscany produces a great variety of blends and styles. Those legendary cuvées are just the pinnacle of an appellation that is still finding its feet.

The brains behind Bolgheri DiVino. From left: Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole, Albiera Antinori of Tenuta Guado al Tasso and Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta of Tenuta San Guido

Bolgheri: the newcomer

Bolgheri was never meant to be a great wine region. It abuts that low-lying part of south-eastern Tuscany called the Maremma, whose name translates as ‘marshy coastal area’. Before it was drained in the 1930s it was known as a malaria hotspot, its wines regarded as nondescript. But draining revealed mineral-rich gravel and clay-based soils – similar in many ways to Bordeaux (which itself had been drained by the Dutch some 300 years before). In the 1970s, came Sassicaia, followed swiftly by Grattamacco (1982) and Ornellaia (1985); Bolgheri started to be noticed as an anomaly, a little-regarded stretch of coastline and hillside capable of producing elegant and long-lived Cabernet Sauvignon- and Merlot-based wines.

And it still wants to be noticed. It’s just inaugurated Bolgheri DiVino, an anteprima (preview) that took place in September and culminated in a dinner at that kilometre-long table (the first dinner was held in 2019 and was such a success that they decided to expand it into a weekend-long event).

There are centuries-old families and ancient estates in Bolgheri – but in wine terms it’s a mere newcomer

It’s the brainchild of the Bolgheri and Sassicaia DOC, led by Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta of Tenuta San Guido, Antinori of Guado al Tasso and Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole. Sixty-five estates across the region showed their wines in tastings at venues that ranged from the hilltop fastness of Castello della Gherardesca in Castagneto Carducci to the striking new winery building at Ornellaia. The idea, Antinori said, is to ‘synthesise the cohesion and unity of intent’ of the producers.

There are quite a few centuries-old families and ancient estates in Bolgheri – but in wine terms it’s a mere newcomer (the average age of vineyard is 15 years). Over a long day of tasting, what was remarkable was the wide variation in style, and blend, and vinification method of the wines. While Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends dominate, there are many and varied combinations of the Bordeaux grapes with or without the addition of Syrah or Sangiovese.

Bolgheri DiVino III
Bolgheri DiVino II
Bolgheri DiVino is a showcase of a region that has centuries of history but is still young from a winemaking point of view

Bolgheri’s experimental phase

‘We’re still trying to establish a regional style,’ says Keaton Crow, winemaker at the newcomer I Greppi, owned by Irish geologist Neil McMahon since 2017, which makes two red wines, one based on Merlot and the other on Cabernet Sauvignon. He points to the continuing anomaly of Bolgheri, an old-world region producing wines that are often noticeably new world in style – wines with the splendid opulence of Ornellaia, for example.

A true Bolgheri expression is ‘still be defined,’ reckons Davy Zyw, Italy buyer at Berry Bros & Rudd. He refers to the ‘second tier’ – the majority of wineries that are of top quality but don’t command the international cachet or prices of the Super-Tuscans – as the most exciting, on the basis that the wines are in flux and ‘there’s definitely room to progress.’ Some wines showed overenthusiastic use of oak and rather more extraction than you’d expect (‘There can be a level of rusticity that isn’t great,’ Zyw concedes). It was those raised in second- and third-use oak that came across as modern, fresh and restrained (there’s nothing new in that – every winemaker from Priorat to Patagonia is pulling back from oak).

What’s also notable is how much experimentation there is – take a winery like I Greppi, run on fiercely scientific lines and working with UC Davis to further its commitment ‘to advancing the quality and understanding of wine produced in Bolgheri.’

‘We’re a young region,’ Albiera Antinori says. ‘We’ve got producers of many different backgrounds – local, foreign, big and small, young and old. You can feel the terroir in the wines, but everyone is finding their own interpretation and expression of the land. It’s an experimental appellation.’

I Greppi vineyard in Bolgheri
The I Greppi estate, a Bolgheri vineyard 'run on fiercely scientific lines'

The rise of Cabernet Franc

It’s likely that in five years’ time, the wines at DiVino Bolgheri will show more coherence of style, their rough edges polished. Bolgheri is already one of Italy’s most expensive vineyard areas and that will only increase. ‘There will be pressure to conform to a style,’ Crow suggests – whether that style will tend to the opulence of Ornellaia (Merlot) or the restraint of Sassicaia (Cabernet Sauvignon) is open to question. Already, at Masseto, winemaker Axel Heinz told me he is using Cabernet Franc to ‘mitigate the opulence of the Merlot and add a little tightness’ to the finish. The 2019 has a small amount and the 2020 5% Cabernet Franc, from the hectare or so of the grape that’s planted alongside the estate’s 11ha of Merlot.

Heinz, who has been at Ornellaia and Masseto since 2005, has always said that working with Masseto’s 11ha of sloping blue-clay vineyard on the eastern edge of Bolgheri has been a process of discovery. He’s working on a massal selection of Cabernet Sauvignon, he says (there’s one vineyard due for replanting), but with no concrete plans for how it might be used.

Cabernet Franc could be a real calling-card for the region

Bolgheri will continue to develop and finesse the Bordeaux varieties – at present they make up more than 80% of Bolgheri’s 1,370ha, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot covering half that area. But the eminence of these stalwarts is being challenged by Cabernet Franc, which is loved for its freshness and texture. ‘It does a fantastic job of expressing terroir,’ says Crow, noting how differently it behaves on sandy and clay soils. He namechecks two 100% Cabernet Francs: the Paleo of Le Macchiole on sandy soil and Poggio al Tesoro’s Dedicato a Walter, with more clay. ‘The first is a lighter style with delicate perfume, the second more dark fruit with depth and concentration.’ Zyw is another cheerleader for Cabernet Franc. ‘It could be a real calling-card for the region.’

poggio al tesoro vineyard in bolgheri
Poggio al Tesoro, one of the region's estates now producing a 100% Cabernet Franc

A region looking to the stars

Thunderstorms were forecast for the night of the great dinner in the Viale dei Cipressi, but in the event they happened inland; guests ate, drank and gossiped under a velvety, star-bright sky. To say the mood was upbeat wouldn’t be doing it justice. Albiera Antinori isn’t surprised. ‘This is a region that gives wonderful wines. Everybody’s in a good mood. It’s not difficult to make it work.’

Dinner table at Bolgheri DiVino event