A NEW TAKE ON TUSCANY

If you think the pulse of Tuscan wine is taken solely in Chianti, then think again. These days, the heartbeat of the region is probably best measured along Tuscany's Mediterranean coast, a tranquil cypress-studded area know as the Maremma.


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If you think the pulse of Tuscan wine is taken solely in Chianti, then think again. These days, the heartbeat of the region is probably best measured along Tuscany's Mediterranean coast, a tranquil cypress-studded area known as the Maremma where the local register is beginning to read like a veritable Who's Who of international wine, industry and fashion.

In the rather small Bolgheri district, the so-called golden oasis of the Maremma, members of the pioneer Antinori family remain busy cutting landmark deals, starting up new ventures and adding new twists to existing projects. Most important, however, the wines the family is making have almost all blossomed into perennial knockouts. The 1999 Guado al Tasso, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, is truly something special, while the 1999 Ornellaia, a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and a little Cabernet Franc, might be the best wine in all of Italy. And while not on the same level as those two reds, Guado al Tasso's 2001 Vermentino may be the best of its type anywhere.

Having conducted business separately for more than two decades, the brothers Antinori have recently gotten together to launch a joint project. With little fanfare, Lodovico Antinori (founder of Tenuta dell'Ornellaia) and brother Piero (creator of Guado al Tasso) have leased land in Bibbona on an estate named Campo di Sasso. Along with a nephew, the Antinoris have begun planting about 150 acres near Bolgheri with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The first vintage is expected to be 2005, available in 2007 in very small quantities. According to the Antinori home office in Florence, Lodovico spent years scouting the Campo di Sasso estate—owned by Umberto and Emanuela Mannoni—in anticipation of expanding Ornellaia.

Meanwhile, Angelo Gaja, one of the foremost producers in Piedmont, has also come to Bolgheri. His property is barely two minutes from both Ornellaia and Tenuta San Guido, the maker of heralded Sassicaia. And, as might be expected, Gaja has grand designs for making spectacular wines. The inaugural release of Gaja's Bolgheri collection is scheduled for this fall.

And there are others getting into the act as well.

American Vintners in Italy
Robert Mondavi and the Frescobaldi family, Mondavi's standing joint-venture partner in Tuscany, are now the proud owners of the Ornellaia estate, having purchased the prized property this past spring from Lodovico Antinori. "It's one of the world's very best properties," says Tim Mondavi. "To acquire it at this point in time is nothing less than a coup for us. Our goal is to maintain what exists. We foresee no major changes." Fans of the estate, and there are many, should be happy to hear that.

Sampling the Fruits of Tuscany…
and Not Just Grapes

Tuscany, anchored by the picturesque city of Florence (Firenze), is the prototype of a classic wine region that begs to be experienced firsthand. From Florence's winding cobblestone streets to the rolling coastal countryside known as the Maremma, the region offers travelers a varied and unique corner of the world with delights for all the senses. Should a tour of Tuscany find its way on to your itinerary, here are some hotel and restaurant recommendations to help make the trip memorable.

LODGING
Florence's Gallery Hotel Art is a boutique hotel situated a stone's throw from the famous Ponte Vecchio. The Gallery, unlike some trendy hotels, has a friendly, competent staff. Leather chairs, fine bedding and marble bathroom counters are just some of the room appointments. The lobby displays modern art. Gallery Hotel Art, Vicolo dell'Oro 5, 50123 Firenze;Tel. (39) 055-27263; fax (39) 055-268557; www.lungarnohotels.com. Rates start at 325 euros; breakfast included.

On the Mediterranean coast in Donoratico and at the opposite end of the style spectrum from the Gallery, is the Hotel Bambolo, a simple stucco lodge popular with bicyclists and beachgoers. There aren't many frills, but it's clean and the price is right. Hotel Residence Il Bambolo, Via del Bambolo 31, 57024 Donoratico (LI); Tel. (39) 0565-775206; www.hotelbambolo.com. Rates start at 73 euros; breakfast included.

DINING
Il Latini has a 600-bottle wine cellar with a selection reflecting supreme taste at excellent prices. Antinori's '98 Tignanello costs 65 euros, while Felsina's '98 Fontolloro is a mere 45. Various vintages of Sassicaia, Solengo and Gaja's Sperss are all reasonably priced. Ordering one of these wines will endear you to the friendly waiters and might just earn a guided tour of the cellar. As for the food, arrive hungry and expect traditional appetizers like chicken liver crostini and prosciutto, perfect pastas and grilled meats. Il Latini, Via dei Palchetti 6r, Firenze; Tel. (39) 055-210916; www.illatini.com. Closed Monday and throughout August.

Cibreo, a fine-dining institution for the past 20 years, features food with flair and wines to match. At lunch, the atmosphere is more relaxed and diners can choose from an array of unusual but spectacular appetizers, primi and main dishes. My favorites included a timbale-like tomato and basil creation, a melt-in-your-mouth ricotta-and-parmesan flan and an otherworldly carpaccio of tuna. Cibreo, Via de Macci 118r, Firenze; Tel. (39) 055-234-1100. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Beccofino is a chic wine bar and restaurant with an open kitchen, plenty of light wood and a terra cotta dinosaur hanging on one wall. It features first-rate contemporary cuisine and there are about 50 wines by the glass as well
as an extensive list featuring top-shelf choices like Gaja's '98 Sitò Rey Barbera (55 euros), Allegrini's '97 La Poja (70 euros) and Jermann's incredibly smooth '99 Were Dreams Chardonnay (55 euros). Beccofino, Piazza degli Scarlatti 1r (Lungarno Guicciardini), Firenze; Tel. (39) 055-290076.

La Pineta was recommended by Alessia Antinori, the winemaker at Guado al Tasso, who insisted the restaurant had the "best seafood in the world." And La Pineta, which looks like a sea shanty, is indeed excellent. Located right on the beach, La Pineta only has about 15 tables, so reservations are a must during the summer. With a view of the Mediterranean and a bottle of Guado al Tasso's Vermentino, a series of sea-based appetizers followed by perfectly grilled orata caught the day before made for a sensational meal. La Pineta (a.k.a. Zazzeri), Via dei Cavalleggeri Nord 27, 57020 Marina di Bibbona (LI); Tel. (39) 0586-600016.

La Galleria, in the industrial town of Poggibonsi, won't win any design awards, but it is a superb restaurant with a fabulous wine list. The bresaolo (air-dried salted beef) served atop braised radicchio and topped with melted gorgonzola was a sublime starter, while a pasta course featuring almost everything that swims was equally tasty. A finale of rare bistecca alla fiorentina, featuring the meat of Tuscany's prized Chianina cattle, washed down with the 1998 Ornellaia, sent me happily on my way. Ristorante La Galleria, Galleria Cav.
Vittorio Veneto 20, Poggibonsi (SI); Tel. (39) 0577-982356. Closed Sunday.

—M.S.

 


Laura Bianchi is taking charge of her family's winery in Monsanto

It's not exactly as if Californians are flooding in, but Mondavi's Napa neighbor, Delia Viader, founder of the highly regarded Viader Vineyards on Howell Mountain, is now also a neighbor in Italy. Last year she closed on the purchase of nearly 20 acres of land near both Ornellaia and Gaja's property. The land is home to Il Masseto, the namesake for Ornellaia's Merlot-based wine and once a small hunting lodge owned by the powerful Gherardesca family, relatives of both the Antinori brothers as well as Nicolò Incisa della Rochetta of Sassicaia.\

Viader's yet-to-be-named winery will produce a Merlot-based wine that she hopes will rival Masseto in quality. "This is an early retirement present to myself," she says. "We have just planted one-third of the property. A wine is still three or four years away. I feel like a small fish among several big ones, but sometimes a little fish can do big things. That's my goal."

And if all that development was not enough, the region's most recent news is that the Allegrini family, a highly respected producer in the Veneto, has entered into a 50-50 deal with New York-based wine importer Leonardo LoCascio to acquire more than 120 acres in Bolgheri for about $6.8 million. The estate, part of which includes vineyards previously managed by Ornellaia but no winery yet, will be called Le Sondraie. "I couldn't think of a better place to do this than Bolgheri," says LoCascio, the founder and president of Winebow. "In a very small area, you have a tremendous concentration of top producers."

Background on Bolgheri
Bolgheri, despite a reputation that has been growing to near mythic proportions, is a small area and one that did not offer world-class wines until the inception of Sassicaia in the 1960s. Divided into the Bolgheri DOC and the smaller 2,200-acre Bolgheri Superiore DOCG, the region stretches for about 10 miles from the town of Bibbona to Castagneto Carducci, a hilltop village named after the poet Giusè Carducci. Bolgheri can't expand any farther because hills to the east and the oddly named California coastline to the west confine it. The region's north-south borders are also fixed.

For this reason, the arrival of such names as Mondavi, Gaja, Viader and Allegrini is news. "In a lot of ways, [Bolgheri] is very similar to Napa Valley," says Alessia Antinori, Piero Antinori's 26-year-old daughter and a winemaker along with Andrea DiMaio at Guado al Tasso. "It's a defined area with no room to grow. It has a great microclimate, too. It's warm here, never cold. The air is fresh because of the sea. The vines love it."

Touring the Guado al Tasso estate with Antinori, I learn why Bolgheri does so well with Bordeaux grapes, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The key is dry, porous soil called galestro, a mix of clay and sand. That, and generally warm temperatures, sometimes as much as 8 degrees Celsius warmer than those in Chianti, which is about 50 miles inland. Of Guado al Tasso's 740 planted acres, about 60 percent of it is Cabernet Sauvignon and another 30 percent is dedicated to Merlot, with Vermentino, Syrah and Cabernet Franc accounting for the remainder. "Our wine is made in the vineyard," she says, echoing a common but often true refrain in the wine business.

New vineyard plantings at Angelo Gaja's Ca'Marcanda winery in Bolgheri

And what about the recent vintages? "1998 was fabulous and so was 1999," Antinori says. After tasting the wines, I would agree wholeheartedly. "2000 was also amazing and 2001 was a super vintage. We've been very lucky," she adds.

Luck helps, but in Vittorio Moretti's case, so do vision and established vines. The entrepreneur and industrialist purchased Petra estate and its existing vines—located south of Bolgheri near the town of Suvereto—in 1997 along with his daughter Francesca, Petra's winemaker. Moretti, who also owns Franciacorta-based sparkling wine producers Bellavista and Contadi Castaldi, immediately hired Swiss architect Mario Botta, the man behind the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to design the Petra winery. Based on models, it will be stunning when it's completed. Already stunning is Petra's 1998 Riserva, a seamless blend of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 40 percent Merlot. Petra's other wine, a 100 percent Sangiovese from Val di Cornia, also bears watching.

Moving Inland
Though no relation to Vittorio Moretti, another Moretti who merits attention is Antonio Moretti. Aside from being the founder of a department store chain and owner of Bonora and Carshoe, two handmade shoe brands popular worldwide, Antonio Moretti is in the early stages of bringing Tenuta Sette Ponti, located near Arezzo on the eastern edge of Chianti, to the forefront of Tuscan winemaking.

A Mixed Case of Top Tuscan Wines

With so many excellent Tuscan wines to choose from, putting together the perfect mixed case is no easy task. Therefore, some of the following selections are included based on the value they offer.

WHITE WINES
91 Antinori 2001 Guado al Tasso Vermentino (Bolgheri); $18. In only its second vintage in the U.S., this nutty, mineral-rich, immensely fruity wine from Piero Antinori's coastal estate is a great example of the heights that Vermentino can achieve. This version is full of lime, stone, citrus and marzipan, and is focused from beginning to end.

91 Terriccio 2000 Rondinaia (Toscana IGT); $18. Rondinaia means "swallow's refuge," and you're going to want to swallow lots of this unoaked wine as proof that great Chard does come from Italy and that it can be terrific without wood. Emphasizing fragrant apple and pear aromas, it has a wonderful natural texture and a smooth, stony finish.

RED WINES
96 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia 1999 Ornellaia (Bolgheri Superiore); $145. Spicy and full of cassis, tobacco and coffee aromas. Texture and mouthfeel are what this wine is all about; it is plush like velvet carpet. Deep flavors of plum, black currant and vanilla lead into an ultrasmooth finish that is as clean as a hospital emergency room. Expensive, but truly great.

95 Antinori 1999 Guado al Tasso (Bolgheri Superiore); $80. Fast becoming one of the world's top luxury cuvées, this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah is a complex amalgam of dry, classy fruit, herbal notes, smoked meat, black pepper and other spices. Its calling card is its perfect body weight. That and a graceful finish loaded with the essences of cola, coffee and chocolate.

95 Petra 1998 Riserva (Toscana IGT); $50. One whiff of this sophomore Cabernet-Merlot blend from the same owner as Bellavista and Contadi Castaldi in Franciacorta says it all: earth, currant, blackberry and coffee. The palate is equally sensational—a magic carpet ride of plum, unobtrusive oak and solid but forgiving tannins.

93 Terriccio 1998 Lupicaia (Toscana IGT); $90. This high-voltage Cabernet, with just a touch of Merlot, is layered with cassis, buttery oak and some toast. The mouthfeel is full but elegant, with mint and clove nuances poking through to impact the bold currant-laden palate. A smooth, well-oaked, persistent finish is the encore.

92 Sette Ponti 2000 Crognolo (Toscana IGT); $32. At 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot, this is a sculpted, perfumed second-vintage red with cranberry as well as cherry fruit and well-integrated oak. What makes this a winner, especially with food, is that the crystalline, racy fruit far outshadows the oak.

91 Monsanto 1999 Tinscvil (Toscana IGT); $35. At 75% Sangioveto and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, this beauty really pops both in the nose and in the mouth. It's quite international in style, meaning the Cabernet softens the Sangiovese, yielding a sweet and ripe product that has both character and proper balance.

91 Capezzana 1999 Carmignano; $21. Given the competition, this is an immensely affordable DOC wine that's rich, extracted and jammy, with nuances of crème de cassis, coffee, maple and chocolate. With a finish that coats every corner of your mouth, this Sangiovese (with 20% Cabernet) scores big.

89 I Giusti e Zanza 1999 Belcore (Toscana IGT); $24. This newcomer from near Pisa is three-fourths Sangiovese and the remainder Merlot, and the mix is delightful. Black-plum aromas are hardened by the background scents of tar and leather, while soft, smooth tannins allow for a chocolaty, soft mouthfeel that steals the show.

89 Belguardo 1999 Morellino di Scansano; $20. Mazzei, the family behind Fonterutoli in Chianti, is the maker of this 100% Sangiovese, which offers a piercing nose of earth, leather, red fruit and oak. Given time in the glass, the muscular palate loosens its stern grip, unveiling a nice underlay of plum, berries and oak.

88 Val delle Rose 1998 Morellino di Scansano Riserva; $19. Earth, leather and smoked meat aromas get this ripe, full-bodied Sangiovese going. The palate is fairly soft, like blackberry pie. And there's plenty of unmistakable milk chocolate, too. It's a tamed, rich, enjoyable red that's well suited for an autumn dinner.

 

Moretti's father, Alberto, a prominent architect, brought the 750-acre estate in the Arno Valley into the family in the 1950s. Vineyards have been on the property since the 1930s, but no serious commercial wines were previously made there and currently only about 150 acres are planted with Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The remainder of the property is home to horse stables, a pig sty, pheasants and wild boar.

Not one to settle for anything less than superb, Moretti hired Carlo Ferrini as his winemaker in 1997. Ferrini, one of Italy's premier consulting enologists, also works for Castello del Terriccio (in the Maremma), Castello di Brolio, Poliziano and others. He has helped Moretti create two very good wines. The first, Crognolo, is named after a type of bush that grows on the estate and is now in its second vintage. It's a blend of 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent Merlot. The second is called Oreno and is named after a local stream. It will see its first release this fall and is 50 percent Sangiovese, with the balance made up of equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Each is exemplary, the Crognolo arguably better with food and the Oreno more of a modern, international wine. Interestingly, both are fermented in open-top concrete vats. There are but a handful of stainless-steel tanks in the small winery. "Château Pétrus does it like that. Do you like Pétrus?" Moretti asks me. Sadly I don't have much of an answer to offer; I've tried Pétrus only a couple of times.

Having caught the wine bug, Moretti has also purchased more than 100 acres of land near Magliano in the northern Maremma. The property is called Le Fornaci and the plan is to make a single blended red wine called Poggio al Lupo (due out in two years). In addition, Moretti has acquired a significant parcel of vineyard land in Sicily where he will produce Nero d'Avola and a sweet passito, most likely under the Le Palme label.

"I have a passion to make super wines," says Moretti. "It's all about quality. My dream is to do this full-time…starting yesterday." Before excusing himself from lunch to attend a business dinner in Rome that night, Moretti explains that it was a bottle of Sassicaia that he drank 25 years ago while courting his wife that started him on this path. As he gets up, he laments that the dinner in Rome has nothing to do with wine and more to do with fashion.

New Blood in Old Tuscany
If people as busy as Antonio Moretti can create something brand new and vibrant in a world permeated with tradition, imagine what an infusion of new blood can do for a couple of traditional Tuscan producers with time on their side.

At Castello di Monsanto in Chianti, Laura Bianchi is now steering the winery created in 1962 by her father, Fabrizio. Tall, blonde and charming, Laura recently hired Andrea Giovannini, winemaker from 1998 to 2000 at Ornellaia, to take over winemaking responsibilities
at Monsanto. The goal, she says, is to elevate the winery's respected, traditional Sangiovese-based wines to new heights.

"Sangiovese is difficult," she says. "It's fragile and delicate, and it's subject to more vintage variation" than grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. For his part, Giovannini believes that his experience working with international-style wines at Ornellaia can only help him with Monsanto's best Chianti Classicos, led by Il Poggio.

"It's the terroir here that interests me," he says. "Take Il Poggio. This wine comes from one vineyard, but the southern side is rich and plummy, while the top is more tannic. I am interested in helping with replanting and getting the most out of these wines."

Getting Stefano Chioccioli to tell you what he's doing these days is difficult. It's not that Chioccioli isn't social. But like Carlo Ferrini, he's one of Italy's most sought-after vineyard and winemaking consultants, which means he's here, there and everywhere, working on various projects throughout Tuscany as well as one in Friuli.

One of Chioccioli's current projects is at Tenuta di Capezzana in Carmignano, where he is the lead consultant to the Contini Bonacossi family, owners of the famed estate since the 1920s.

Tucked deep into the hills to the west of Florence, Capezzana, which has roots dating back to the Medici era, is being transformed under the direction of Count Ugo Contini Bonacossi and his children. New equipment and modern winemaking techniques are now squarely in place, and the results are just now being revealed. For about $20, Capezzana's basic Carmignano offers one of the best deals currently from Italy. The 1999 vintage is a beautiful wine, full of chocolate and bold fruit. The texture is perfect, a Chioccioli trademark that can also be found in the wines he helps make at nearby Pratesi as well as at I Giusti e Zanza near Pisa. For something bigger and bolder, Capezzana's '99 Ghiaie dell Furba, a Cab-Merlot-Syrah blend, fits the bill.

Doubtless this isn't all that's new in Tuscany. In fact, an entire article by itself could be dedicated to what is happening near Scansano, in the southern Maremma south of Grosetto. For no more than $20 a bottle, there is a plethora of great Sangiovese under the Morellino di Scansano moniker. We'll try to get there next time…and hope that "next time" is in no time at all.

From Barbaresco to Brunello to Bolgheri

Piedmont's Angelo Gaja aims to make his mark on Tuscany's coast.

To judge by his latest winemaking ventures, Angelo Gaja has a propensity for the letter B. One of the top producers of Barbaresco, during the 1990s he expanded his ventures to include Tuscany, first by purchasing Pieve Santa Restituta in Brunello in 1994. Hot on the heels of that transaction, Gaja purchased 200 acres in Bolgheri named Ca'Marcanda.

"I'm born in Piemonte, but Tuscany is getting into my blood," says Gaja by way of explanation as we settle into chairs in a New York hotel suite. Ca'Marcanda is a new adventure for him—the first time he's built an estate and winery from the ground up—and he seems energized talking about it.

"I love Piemonte," he continues, "but Bolgheri is not less…it has a more extreme aspect, richer colors, special light." To exploit this special light, Gaja has planted Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, "because of Bolgheri's track record." But despite his choice of varieties, he insists he is not trying to make an international wine: "I'm trying to make wines from international varieties that reflect the character of Maremma." From the 2000 vintage, Gaja has made Promis, a blend of 55% Merlot, 35% Syrah and 10% Sangiovese (from Pieve Santa Restituta) and Magari, which blends 50% merlot with 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc. To Gaja, the Ca'Marcanda estate represents only the next challenge in a storied career. He's proved to the world that Italian grape varieties can produce world-class wines. He now wants to show the world that Italian soil can produce world-class wines from the same grape varieties used all over the globe.

—Joe Czerwinski

For ratings and reviews of Gaja's Ca'Marcanda wines from the 2000 vintage, due to be released this fall, please turn to the Buying Guide.

Michael Schachner is based in New York and writes about wine, food and travel. He visited Tuscany in April to research this article.

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