A Band Apart: Exploring Bolgheri, the Tuscan Village With an Aristocratic Wine Heritage
“Until the mid-20th century, The Maremma—the southwest coast of Tuscany—was best known as a malarial swamp and a hideout for cowboy bandits. Not exactly a catchy advertisement for the chamber of commerce. Inhabitants lived and farmed on higher ground to avoid the deadly disease. Most everyone else passed through on the ancient Via Aurelia from Rome to Provence—a road that still divides the region between the Tyrrhenian seaside and the Colline Metallifere, the iron-laced ‘metal-bearing hills.’
“Although vines were grown as early as the Etruscan era, modern drainage efforts did not begin until the first half of the 18th century. In the little village of Bolgheri, on the northern edge of the Maremma, the ruling counts of the della Gherardesca family were able to grow both Italian and French grape varieties for local use. Finally, in the 1930s, Mussolini’s government hauled in tons of sand to fill in the swampland and make the terrain more arable.
“Two weddings then changed the course of wine history, turning Bolgheri into what it remains today: a nexus of Italy’s most powerful wine dynasties. In 1930, Clarice della Gherardesca married Mario Incisa della Rocchetta; two years later, her sister Carlotta wed Niccolò Antinori. For their dowries, they divided a huge family property just south of Bolgheri. Antinori, representing the 24th generation of the Florentine marchesi, planted 50 acres of vines stretching toward the coast, initially producing rustic, dry whites based on Vermentino and light rosés from Sangiovese. Incisa, a Piedmontese nobleman who owned fast horses and cars and loved French wine, decided to plant Cabernet Sauvignon on the rocky slopes around his hillside estate. Using French winemaking techniques and small barriques, he produced the first bottling of Sassicaia (meaning ‘stony ground’) in 1964.
“It took both families to develop the first Italian cult wine. Antinori lent his expertise and his legendary winemaker, Giacomo Tachis, to Incisa to commercialize Sassicaia; 1968 was the first vintage released to the market. Since Bordeaux varieties could not be classified under existing denominational regulations, the wine had to be bottled as Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) Toscana—hence, the birth of the ‘Super Tuscan.’ Seeing its immediate success, Antinori’s sons entered the picture, Lodovico founding Ornellaia in 1984 and Piero renaming the existing Antinori estate as Guado al Tasso in 1990. A consorzio was formed to govern the Bolgheri Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in 1995, with special recognition given to the region’s pioneering Sassicaia plantings: Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC remains the world’s only non-contiguous monopole.
Meanwhile, della Gherardesca heirs continued to grow vines near the village. An iconic, five-kilometer-long row of cypress trees (the Viale dei Cipressi) was planted on the main road leading straight to the archway of the Bolgheri castle, which was finished in 1895. A cousin of Clarice and Carlotta della Gherardesca, Alessandra, married into yet another noble Italian family, the counts Zileri dal Verme; today, Federico Zileri runs Castello di Bolgheri (one of the few companies permitted to include the name of a DOC on its wines) as the 30th generation of the della Gherardesca family. Zileri gained experience as the winemaker for Tenuta Argentiera, on the southern end of the DOC, and he succeeded Niccolò Incisa della Rocchetta (son of Mario) as President of the Consorzio per la Tutela dei Vini Bolgheri DOC in 2013.
“Interestingly, according to Stéphanie Heinz, a Bordeaux native who is now the administrator of Castello di Bolgheri, ‘Incisa loved Bordeaux, but tasted Napa Cabernet at the suggestion of Philippe de Rothschild,’ his friend and owner of Château Mouton-Rothschild. That’s why Cabernet Sauvignon dominated his plantings. But Bolgheri’s climate is actually more like that of the Barossa Valley; its application for DOC status cited an annual 1,747 growing degree days on the Winkler scale, well above both Napa and Bordeaux (1,370 each). Says winemaker Marco Ferrarese of Guado al Tasso, ‘It’s a wonderful place to have rich grapes with soft tannins. These hills close the land to the sea—near the hills, the soil is better for big red grapes; near the coast, there is more of a clay-sand component, good for Vermentino and lighter rosés.’ The stony composition of the soil varies so much, he explains, that he often cultivates and vinifies one row of vines differently from the adjacent row.
“The Bolgheri consorzio, which currently comprises about 40 producers, has restricted plantings to the existing 3,000 acres. Angelo Gaja’s Piedmont-based empire got into the game by purchasing its 250-acre Ca’Marcanda estate in 1996. Two years earlier, Milanese fashion mogul Erika Ratti had taken a different approach, buying a 180-acre parcel just outside the DOC boundary. To reach the property, which she called Sette Cieli (‘seven skies’), you leave the main road near Guado al Tasso and follow tortuous dirt tracks about 1,300 feet up into the hills. There’s nothing but dust and scrub oak until you finally emerge in a clearing with a spectacular view of the coast, overlooking Sassicaia and Ornellaia. Viticulturist Giuliano Tarchi helped develop the terraced vineyards; after Erika Ratti’s death in 2012, her son Ambrogio carried on her vision by appointing Elena Pozzolini as winemaker. With experience in Australia, South America, California and Oregon, as well as a stint at Ornellaia, Pozzolini brings a missionary zeal to her work. At this altitude, she notes, the harvest is usually 10 to 15 days later than Bolgheri’s: ‘We’re close to the ocean, but not too close. Good breezes, good acidity—for me it’s important that there’s a balance.’ Minerality comes from ‘the presence of the sea, the rocks and quartz.’ After introducing organic viticulture in 2013, Pozzolini says, ‘this is the first year I started to feel the effect.’ In addition to the typical Bordeaux varieties, she tends a block of Malbec and an experimental plot of Sangiovese, as well as a ‘white project’ involving Vermentino and a bit of Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc.
“Bolgheri may be an exclusive club, but there’s still room for outsiders to make an impact.”