I recently spent a week in Bolgheri, a region of Tuscany that I have visited twice, but not in the kind of depth which six days and a dozen cellar visits can offer. The Consorzio di Tutela Bolgheri also organized a tasting of wines from producers I wasn't able to visit, allowing me an even more extensive sampling of the DOC's wines.
I visited Bolgheri for the first time in 2011. Six years on, the region has become more unified. Vintners have figured out what grape varieties are best-suited to its soils and climate; they've adjusted planting densities, viticulture and vinification practices, aging and blending.
Bolgheri, a hotbed of the "super Tuscan" movement, has made its name on Bordeaux varieties planted to the region's mix of clay, silt, limestone and sandy soils. Cabernet Sauvignon is still king, but its dominance has declined slightly since the 2010 survey of grape varieties planted. Merlot has also declined slightly. In warmer years, vintners have found that Merlot needs to be harvested before the grapes reach phenolic ripeness. Tenuta dell'Ornellaia's Masseto is an exception, made from 100 percent Merlot; the vineyard encompasses an outcropping of blue clay soils particularly well-suited to the variety.
Sangiovese, which amounted to just more than 2 percent of the region's vineyard acreage in 2010, has declined to 1.5 percent. Though there are pockets of stony soils suitable to Sangiovese, overall, Bolgheri is too fertile and too warm for this vigorous vine.
On my recent visit, several producers touted Cabernet Franc as a grape that excels, and its 3 percent increase in plantings amounts to a total of 344 acres in the Bolgheri DOC. Vermentino is the other grape that has grown its vineyard acreage and makes the dominant white wine of the area, either on its own or in blends.
Some of the resulting wines reflect these trends. Gaja's Ca' Marcanda Bolgheri DOC Camarcanda 2007 was 50 percent Merlot; its 2015 incarnation has no Merlot whatsoever, the blend comprising 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Cabernet Franc. Podere Sapaio's flagship Bolgheri Superiore Sapaio also had 10 percent Merlot in the blend until 2009, when it increased the proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot and eliminated Merlot altogether.
The wines are also reflecting a regional identity. The cooler vintages are more on the savory style, with a confluence of the herbaceous character of the Cabernets and essence of the local Mediterranean vegetation. Warmer years are more akin to Bordeaux in style, yet with underlying notes of wild herbs that make them distinctly Tuscan. Even hot vintages like 2015 show freshness and vivacity.
Spending a week in the region also gave me an opportunity to sample some of the local cuisine. The ever-popular La Pineta was closed for a few weeks, however, I enjoyed fresh seafood at the creative and modern-leaning Papaverie Mare in San Vincenzo and the more casual Il Doretto in Cecina. Meat eaters should take note of Osteria Magona on the Strada Bolgherese, where chef/owner Omar Barsacchi teams up with Panzano's butcher, Dario Cecchini, to offer a terrific selection of beef. And in the heart of the town of Bolgheri itself, stalwart Enoteca Tognoni serves local and hearty Tuscan fare with a selection of wines from all the producers in Bolgheri at very reasonable prices.
Time will tell, but based on my tastings, the 2017, 2016 and 2015 vintages may consolidate Bolgheri's reputation as a major force in Tuscany's arsenal.