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New Impressions of Bolgheri

Six years after my first visit to the region, Tuscany's Bolgheri shows significant progress
Photo by: Bruce Sanderson
Ornellaia's vineyards in Bellaria benefit from breezes coming off the sea, less than four miles away.

Posted: Nov 13, 2017 2:50pm ET

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.

Louis Robichaux
Highland Village, Texas —  November 16, 2017 3:02pm ET
My wife and I toured Ornellaia a couple of years ago and it was an amazing treat. The region is gorgeous, and the vintners are very proud of the region's heritage. It's definitely on the recommended list if you're touring Tuscany.
Cynthia L Schoeneck
San Diego —  March 25, 2018 3:28pm ET
Bruce, we also love wines from Bolgheri and the adjacent areas.

In your recent feature on 'Tuscany's Napa' in the April 30, 2018 issue of WS, you mention that about 1,000 cases of Sassicaia are produced each year. I thought the annual production of Sassicaia was well over 10,000 cases per year. Here's the reference from the article:

Grazie mille for all you do! Cindy and Jim Schoeneck

"It is wine, however, that became della Rocchetta's primary legacy. The 1985 and 1988 vintages of Sassicaia have become legendary. Today, the vineyards devoted to Sassicaia total 185 acres, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (85 percent) and Cabernet Franc (15 percent). The newly fermented wine ages 24 months in barrique; average production is 1,000 cases."

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