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