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Bolgheri, the unexpected wine of Tuscany

Once known only as Super Tuscans, the wines of Bolgheri are shedding their old label and becoming recognized more for their terroir than their once-revolutionary origins.


Changes were fermenting in the wine world from the 1960s-1980s, a scattering of movements with heavy adjectives attached to them, like the Judgment of Paris in 1976 or the Barolo Wars in the 1980s. Underlying them all was a shift in culture that signaled a refreshing take on the age-old traditions of wine, including Bolgheri wine. One such change was the Super Tuscan revolution in Bolgheri in the late 1960s to 1970s. It’s impossible to talk about Bolgheri’s rise to fame and cult status without talking about Sassicaia, the wine that started it all. According to the Bolgheri DOC Consorzio, aristocrat Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted the first Cabernet vineyard in 1944 in Castiglioncello di Bolgheri. He and his family drank the wine as their personal vino da tavola for years, and it only went on the market as the first Bolgheri wine, sold by Tenuta San Guido as Sassicaia, in 1968. A critic dubbed it a Super Tuscan—yet another punchy name—and this nickname stuck. But now, Bolgheri as a region and wine is beginning to emerge on its own to replace its old, unofficial label.

A new wine zone in an ancient country

The Bolgheri region is a wine zone in the Maremma that runs parallel to the Tuscan coast in the province of Livorno, named after the town of Bolgheri. It is different than other Italian wine regions, because it is surprisingly new for such an old country. Maremma was swampland in living memory, and only completely drained in the 1930s. What a surprise it was that the fertile, alluvial soils would be so conducive to grapevine cultivation—and not just any, but French varieties. In addition, unlike many other prestigious vineyard territories throughout Italy (like hilly Barolo and Barbaresco in Piedmont, the terraced rises of Valdobbiadene in Veneto, or the zones of Chianti Classico and Montalcino in Tuscany), Bolgheri is comparatively flat and low in altitude. Its new vineyards make this zone incredibly interesting for the future, because vineyards tend to improve with age. This area, which already makes fantastic wines—in fact, you will be hard-pressed to find sub-par quality here—seems like it will only get better. Massimo Piccin, owner of Sapaio Estate Massimo Piccin, owner of Sapaio Estate - © Courtesy of Sapaio Winery

Case in point: a described cult wine of this small region, Podere Sapaio, has vineyards that owner Massimo Piccin planted only in 2000, one year after he purchased the estate in 1999. The estate produces just two wines: Sapaio, a Bolgheri DOC Superiore made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot; and Volpolo, a Bolgheri DOC made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Their first vintage in 2004, from vineyards just five years old, was already described as “excellent, a prelude of things to come.” Bottles of Sapaio 2004 and Volpolo 2005 Bottles of Sapaio 2004 and Volpolo 2005 - © Courtesy of Sapaio Winery

Though relatively new on the Bolgheri wine scene, Massimo and his consulting enologist Carlo Ferrini quickly cultivated a devoted following with their wines, which, in true Bolgheri fashion, show a great ability to age for a decade or more.

What are French grapes doing in Italy?

The Bordeaux trio goes into the majority of Bolgheri wines: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Blends may also include Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Sangiovese. Some recent developments include mono-variety Bolgheri wines as well as white wines made from Vermentino, sometimes with Sauvignon Blanc or Voignier. The superstar of Bolgheri wines is Bolgheri Superiore DOC; the other two denominations are Bolgheri DOC and Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC (the first and only Italian wine certification named after a single estate). Find the production regulations on the Consorzio’s website. French varieties were not simply a flight of fancy, but had been planted in the area surrounding Maremma since the 1700s; and Napoleon’s exile to the nearby island of Elba in the early 19th century further encouraged the planting of French cuttings. To anyone who knows an Italian or Frenchman, you might find it ironic how French varieties have found such great soil in Italy. Italy’s PM Matteo Renzi was speaking for many of his fellow countrymen when he opined that Italian wine is “better than French.” Yes, the countries are next door, but the two nationalities like to be as distinguished from each other as possible. Yet undeniably, these varieties have thrived in Bolgheri. The vineyard in Bibbona, property of Sapaio The vineyard in Bibbona, property of Sapaio - © Courtesy of Sapaio Winery

Made for terroir

Bolgheri wines are famous for expressing terroir. While many other Italian wines are named after native grapes or can only be made with strict amounts of native varieties, Bolgheri wines remove themselves from these defining characteristics to instead reflect the land they come from. The sea is one of the place’s defining characteristics. The land basks in ample light from the sun and its brilliant reflections off the ocean, enjoys fabulous coastal weather, and is kissed by a sea breeze that ventilates the vines and mitigates the temperatures. Vineyards are wedged in between wooded hillsides and ancient olive groves, and soils are alluvial and rich in minerals, sand, limestone, clay, pebbles, and volcanic rock in the east. This sunshine and maritime influence can be found in the intense, red wines.

Visiting Bolgheri

The town of Bolgheri is a relatively quick visit, not to be missed if in the area for a tasting. It is a charming medieval village with a red brick castle that has been owned by the noble Gherardesca family since the 1200s. The first thing that will strike you is the famous Viale dei Cipressi, or Cypress Avenue, a straight road about 5 km long lined with tall, majestic cypresses that leads straight to the Castle of Bolgheri. The famous 19th century Italian poet Giosuè Carducci wrote about the suggestive avenue in his poem “Davanti a San Guido” (In front of San Guido). Beyond its ancient town walls is an angle of Tuscany that feels like a step back in time, a small oasis of Tuscan allure and aristocratic appeal. The town is dotted with shops and restaurants, neat and well-tended, and is entirely pedestrian. You might want to stop by the Enoteca Tognoni for a bottle or glass of wine to taste. Find more ideas for fairytale towns in Tuscany to visit here.