An inside look at one of Italy’s most influential wine producing regions along the Tuscan coast.

June 15 2011 issue

PAGES (56) June 15 2011

APPELLATION Bolgheri, Tuscany, Italy Kevin Lynch

The grapes may be French, but the terroir is decidedly Italian.

To get to Bolgheri, you take the Via Aurelia, the same route the Roman legions marched from Rome to Genoa and beyond. This road parallels a long section of Tuscan coastline where Italians have been vacationing for years, seeking relief from inland heat that can wilt the modesty of even the most dedicated churchgoers. To complete the journey, you trace the Via San Guido, also known as the Viale dei Cipressi, an undulating, 2.7-mile stretch of two-lane pavement, flanked the entire way by more than 2,000 cypress trees planted in 1911. Beyond being the subject of countless tourist snapshots, this storied ribbon of pavement with its corridor of trees acts as a metaphorical tunnel to Bolgheri. When you come out on the other side, you arrive in an archetypal Italian village with all the rustic charm we demand of old Tuscan towns, a community where there seems to be at least one wine shop for every five residents. You also arrive in a place where legend and fact intermingle so seamlessly that it becomes difficult to separate the two.

On either side of the cypress passageway are the 2,375 acres of flat, marine-influenced vineyard land making up the Bolgheri Denominazione di Origine Controllata. Contained within is the monopole of the Sassicaia DOC, which was recognized in 1984 along with the wider designation. The jagged eastern edge of the Bolgheri appellation is formed by the Colline Metallifere, the “metal-bearing hills” that drew the Etruscans around the 8th century B.C. More broadly, the region lies in central Maremma, a generally less bucolic portion of Tuscany that runs along the southern coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea and includes a large portion of the province of Livorno.

Much of the Bolgheri DOC was once the fiefdom of the powerful, Pisa-based Gherardesca family, who built the first castle and planted the first vineyards in the area during the 10th century A.D. For centuries thereafter, Bolgheri was better known for its deadly, malarial swamps and its many bandit hideouts. The local butteri, or cowboys, outrode their American counterparts when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show passed through in 1890. The region’s modern viticultural history did not begin until Clarice della Gherardesca, heiress to the estate now called Tenuta San Guido, married the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta in 1930.

How Bolgheri emerged as one of the world’s premier sites for Cabernet Sauvignon is the stuff of legend. In 1944, Incisa della Rocchetta opted to plant Cabernet vines at Tenuta San Guido instead of the more Tuscan Sangiovese. Popular belief holds that the clippings were brought surreptitiously from the vineyards of Château Lafite-Rothschild, but the truth is much more prosaic. “Many people speculate that the vines came from Lafite or Latour in Bordeaux,” said Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta, Mario’s son, in an August 2010 interview for Decanter magazine, “but in 1944, there was little time or opportunity to visit France. The vines were actually from the Salviati Estate in Migliarino, near Pisa.” This vineyard was the source of the Sassicaia blend, which was consumed only on the estate until it was first commercialized in 1968.

The elder Incisa della Rocchetta may have noted some topographical resemblance between the Tuscan coast and Bordeaux, but that’s where the likeness ends. “It’s nowadays widely recognized,” explains Cinzia Merli, owner of Le Macchiole, “that the Bolgheri area is one of the best places to grow all the Bordeaux grapes, but the use of the same varieties is the only real great similarity between the two areas. On the contrary, there is no similarity at all for the soil composition and the microclimate, which are evidently deeply different.”

The soils of Bordeaux are famously sandy and gravelly, and its climate is notoriously capricious. Bordeaux is cooler (the average August temperature is 79ºF, compared to 84ºF in Bolgheri) and has much higher relative humidity. While the soils of Bolgheri certainly resemble those of Graves, they are actually the rocky, schistous Tuscan galestro. Additionally, most vineyards in the Bolgheri DOC are situated so they can utilize the sea as a great reflective surface.

Leonardo Raspini, the agronomist and general manager at Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, further fleshes out the reality of the Bolgheri legend: “In 1927, there were only around 15 hectares [37 acres] of grapes planted here. Most everything was dead because of the phylloxera. After the phylloxera destruction, they decided to change the farming from orchards, like peach and apricot, because the weather here is very strong, dense, and deep. It is weather that is capable [of giving] beautiful structure to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. For Sangiovese, we need less vigor in the weather because Sangiovese berries can become too big. This area was never famous in the past for its Sangiovese.”

In fact, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot have played as significant a role along this breezy stretch of coast as Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Ciliegiolo beyond the Colline Metallifere. “It is true that Bolgheri is a bit of an oddity within Tuscany,” says Axel Heinz, enologist at Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, “but this area is entirely different. If you look at Bolgheri DOC, there is, quite naturally, a modern aspect to it, because viticulture started here some 30 years ago. We try to make a wine that we think reflects the character of this area, which means the wines have a certain generosity because they’ve been born under the sun. We don’t want to hide that.”

The local winemakers share this uniquely Bolgherian confidence in balancing the old and the new, producing wines that express the opulence and richness of their fruit. Many have gone on to achieve international reputations, including Michele Satta, maker of Piastraia; Luca d’Attoma, who crafts the wines of Le Macchiole; and Olivier Paul-Morandini, the Belgian owner of Volpaiole, located in the Maremman hills just across the DOC boundary. But it was the now-retired enologist Giacomo Tachis who, along with the Incisa della Rocchetta and Antinori families, put Bolgheri on the global wine map.

For today’s sommeliers, the distinctiveness of such highly sought-after wines as the “aias” has little to do with clever marketing tags like “super-Tuscan.” Bolgheri’s wines resonate with consumers for the same reason as those of Bordeaux or Burgundy: they are among the best on the planet in transmitting their place of origin.