Tuscany has been producing wine for thousands of years, and although we can’t be certain if the region always produced great wine, the last few decades suggest it may have often been so.
The world was slow to notice Tuscany’s wines. After all, there have been a fair number of regrettable ones. But a signal moment in 1978 changed perceptions. That’s when a Tuscan wine called Sassicaia bested a group of great estates from Bordeaux and the rest of the world in a London tasting.
Previously, Tuscany was known as the home of the Sangiovese grape, bottled usually under the regional label of Chianti. Sassicaia was a new thing from Italy’s premier region: a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, two grapes more at home in France’s Bordeaux region.
The other surprise was that Sassicaia didn’t hail from a classic wine region of Tuscany, such as Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino. Instead, Sassicaia was grown in a spot called Bolgheri, south of Chianti along the Tyrrhenian Sea.
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These days no one is shocked when Sassicaia receives five-star ratings. There have been numerous other estates planted in Bolgheri, and it’s remarkable to think that a place with as ancient a winemaking tradition as Tuscany can still discover new spots for great vineyards.
While some Bolgheri vineyards extend all the way to the sea, the vineyards that supply Sassicaia wisely linger in the hills above. Excellent wine has been grown closer to the water, but my recent trip there convinced me that much of Bolgheri is the story of Goldilocks: it can be too warm or too cold. Climate conditions need to be just right to produce great wine.
Other grapes have proven themselves here, too: Ornellaia, one of the region’s top estates, grows all five of Bordeaux’s critical grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.) Ornellaia is one of the world’s great wines. The top Merlot vineyard is bottled as Masseto; it too is a benchmark wine, not only for Bolgheri but for all Italian wine. Le Macchiole is another lovely Merlot-based wine; Merlot and the other Bordeaux grapes seem to be ideally suited for particular spots nearer or farther from the ocean.
Sangiovese is not absent from Bolgheri, but prices are high for the region’s wines. Famous Bordeaux varieties are perceived as more valuable than the ubiquitous Sangiovese grape. Sangiovese also ripens easily here, although earlier than in the rest of Tuscany and often too quickly, well before the grape’s native green astringency has softened.
Move farther away from the ocean, and Sangiovese prospers: Ornellaia has a lovely and more affordable wine called Le Volte with both Cabernet and Sangiovese. If Bolgheri’s high prices scare you off, Le Volte is a reasonable wine to taste in order to discover the region’s powerful character.
While there are many excellent estates in Bolgheri, the Antinori name pops up a lot. Ludovico Antinori owns Ornellaia. His cousin is the owner of Sassicaia. Ludovico’s nephew is the famed Piero Antinori; he has estates throughout Tuscany, including Guado al Tasso, itself one of Bolgheri’s best.
Perhaps Italy’s most famed name in wine is Gaja. Angelo Gaja makes brilliant Piedmont wines, but aided by his able daughter Gaia Gaja, he also offers fantastic Bolgheri wines under the Ca’ Marcanda label. These are Cabernet-based wines with lush fruit and boney structure. Their first vintage is 2000; that wine may age gracefully for decades.
And that age worthiness explains the world’s focus on Bolgheri. Chianti is better than it has ever been, without question. Modernization in the wineries and vineyards has transformed a once rustic region into a source of wines with vibrancy and depth. But it’s a bit early to know if Chianti’s new and modern wines can be relied on to improve as they age.
While wines from Brunello di Montalcino do age well, Bolgheri is still too young to be able to point to multiple vintages and estates with decades of excellence. But its Bordeaux-sourced varieties and exciting vineyards make Bolgheri as likely a place for great age-worthy Italian wine as any other.
Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column for The Star’s Food section.