Tuscany’s Gold Coast
Now that the land rush is subsiding, the true worth of the region’s vineyards is being reflected in spectacular wines.
The Viale dei Cipressi offers an unforgettable journey to those who travel down its path. At approximately three miles in length—with 2,000 columnar trees on either side of the gently undulating avenue—it’s said to be the longest cypress-lined road in the world.
The road cuts a route across coastal Tuscany, from the shimmering Tyrrhenian Sea to hilly brush, slicing through some of the world’s most prized vineyards along the way. The strada provinciale starts at the octagonal San Guido chapel at the shore and finishes inland, at the gates of the medieval Castello di Bolgheri.
The Viale dei Cipressi represents a cultural, historical and environmental continuum by which the entire area is measured. But in spiritual terms, this glorious passageway leads to the Shangri-La of Italian wine.
Three-quarters up the Viale dei Cipressi on the right is the 42-acre vineyard of Sassicaia, named after the many stones (sassi in Italian) that pepper its gravelly clay soils. This vineyard lends its name to the wine that fulfills the enormity of Italy’s enological promise.
“We are all children of Sassicaia,” says vintner Michele Satta, whose eponymous estate produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sangiovese. “It is the inspiration for all Italian wine past, present and future.”
That inspiration drives the exciting work underway in coastal Tuscany. Previously known as the birthplace of super Tuscans—a passé catch-all name for iconic wines made outside obsolete Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) regulations—Tuscany’s coast now bustles with a new generation of pioneering vintners.
From concept wines without roots (like the nebulous super Tuscan category), the region’s vintners now pursue wines in tune with their geographic origins comparable to the greatest appellations of Tuscany: Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
The emphasis has clearly swung in favor of territory, territory, territory.
The 120-mile coastline that extends from the port city of Livorno to the postcard-perfect hilltop town of Capalbio is home to six wine regions, plus the island of Elba. Each possesses unique climatic and geologic conditions, grape varieties and individual wines.
Ribot, according to many, was the greatest racehorse of all time. Undefeated in 16 races throughout the mid 1950s, the British-bred, Italian-trained “horse of the century” was owned by Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, of the fabled Marchesi Incisa family.
Banking on more successes, Mario created Cabernet Sauvignon-based Sassicaia in 1968 (the first commercially released vintage) in what started as a playfully competitive nudge at Bordeaux.
Since then, Bolgheri has undergone radical change. Despite the continued success of Sassicaia, the region is practically a newborn.
In 1985, there were just six producers that—like Ribot—raced to success as individual brands. Only when producers embraced the concept of territory, united behind a single Bolgheri identity, did the region hit its winning stride.
Today, its roster counts such famous names as Piero Antinori, Lodovico Antinori, Angelo Gaja, Piermario Meletti Cavallari, Michele Satta, Cinzia Merli (Le Macchiole), Stefano Frascolla (Tua Rita), Claudia Tipa (Grattamacco) and the Frescobaldi-owned Ornellaia.
Lesser-known names worthy of attention include Giovanni Chiappini, Poggio al Tesore, Tenuta Argentiera, Aia Vecchia, Castello di Bolgheri, Campo alla Sughera, Donna Olimpia 1898 and Podere Sapaio.
“Bolgheri is an incredible team comprised of Italy’s winemaking elite,” says Federico Zileri Dal Verme of Castello di Bolgheri.
Zileri Dal Verme is president of the Consorzio di Tutela Bolgheri DOC, which represents 38 wineries that account for 89% of the 2,915-acre production area. Some 45% of the appellation is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, while 25% is Merlot and the rest is Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Sangiovese and white grapes.
“Thanks to the careful choices we made selecting the best grapes suited to our territory, Bolgheri embodies a truly Italian wine identity,” says Zileri Dal Verme. “It’s more than Italian, it’s Italianissimo.”
Modifications to DOC rules effective with the 2012 vintage established increased percentages of Vermentino and decreased the permitted amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Trebbiano in Bolgheri Bianco.
Bolgheri Rosso and Bolgheri Rosso Superiore can now be 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc, or blends as the winemaker sees fit. They can also include up to 50% of Sangiovese or Syrah. Bolgheri Sassicaia, established in 1994, remains unchanged, at 80% Cabernet Sauvignon.
The area is home to milestone Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) wines like Masseto, Paleo and Redigaffi that reflect their Bolgheri identity, even if producers decline to use the appellation on the label.
That standouts are somewhat camouflaged creates confusion for many consumers, especially those with a shaky grasp of where Bolgheri is and what it represents.
“It is our job to create a Bolgheri brand that rises above everything else,” says Zileri Dal Verme.
Vintners in Bolgheri no longer want to be seen as making super Tuscans, and don’t care to be viewed as producers of Bordeaux-inspired wines, even though so many of the region’s grapes are French.
“Wine grapes are natural-born travelers, and these varieties found a home in Bolgheri,” says Satta. “But wine is not made from grape varieties alone. It is made by man and territory. Add those factors together, and you get the magic we have here.”
No one believes this more than Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta (Mario’s son), proprietor of Tenuta San Guido and its legendary Sassicaia.
“I remember back to a time when only peaches and strawberries were farmed here,” he says. “But the quality was so good, you could tell this land was destined for great agriculture.”
A unique geography distinguishes Bolgheri. Instead of sunlight, natives speak of luminosity.
Thanks to the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea, daylight reflects off the water in the same way that a white umbrella diffuses light in studio photography. Because the elevation rises so gradually—from sea level to a gentle 300 meters—that glowing luminosity washes over the entire region.
The coast sees hot summer days and cool nights, and that drop in temperature helps maintain aromatic freshness in the wines. There is also an herbal, Mediterranean quality to the wines that recalls the wild shrubs, or macchia, that blanket the surrounding hills.
This small appellation in the province of Pisa, north of Bolgheri, includes only a dozen or so producers. They make reds from Sangiovese and some international grapes and whites from Trebbiano, Malvasia and Vermentino.
Notable producers are Ferrari Iris & Figli and Marchesi Ginori Lisci.
Val di Cornia
Located south of Bolgheri in upper Maremma, Val di Cornia is a relatively obscure appellation that makes white, rosato (rosé) and red wines from the same varieties as its neighbors. The Suvereto subzone is showing interesting results.
Monteregio di Massa Marittima
Just north of Grosseto in the northern Maremma, Monteregio di Massa Marittima is one of the most exciting grape-growing regions in Italy. Large vineyard parcels, rolling hills and unspoiled landscapes have attracted a swarm of outside investors.
Rocca di Frassinello, a joint venture between Paolo Panerai and the Lafite branch of the Rothschild family, boasts a landmark winery designed by architect Renzo Piano with a red tower that peers over the vineyards. The enormous cellar room is shaped like an amphitheater.
Tenuta Rocca di Montemassi, recently opened by the Zonin family, employs University of Bordeaux professor Denis Dubourdieu as a consultant. Frassinello and Montemassi are making successful blended and monovarietal red wines.
Particularly impressive is the work of biodynamic winemaker Lorenzo Zonin. At his Podere San Cristoforo, the focus is on Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Syrah.
Morellino di Scansano
Another exciting region is the Scansano area south of Grosseto. Although Morellino di Scansano (comprised of at least 85% Sangiovese) enjoys vibrant international success, many winemakers are coming here because it has proven ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Alicante and other similarly robust varieties.
Once malaria-ridden and swampy, much of the southern Maremma has been drained and reclaimed as fertile farmland. The region remains relatively unexplored by tourists, and its residents boast a fiercely independent spirit. Rolling hills open onto coastal panoramas and hilltop towns that—like the charming hamlet of Scansano—haven’t changed since the Middle Ages.
One breakthrough name is Terenzi, a maker of fine Morellino and a promising Sangiovese-Syrah blend called Bramaluce. Jacopo Biondi Santi farms the beautiful Castello di Montepò property, framed by fortified ramparts. Other favorites are Moris Farms, Fattoria di Magliano and the always-innovative Fattoria Le Pupille.
Vintners from other areas have also invested here. At least three are from Chianti Classico: Rocca delle Macìe’s Tenuta Campomaccione, Mazzei’s 170-acre Tenuta Belguardo and Cecchi’s Val delle Rose, which was purchased in 1996.
Soave native Francesco Bolla now runs Poggio Verrano, and Valpolicella’s Tommasi family has invested in Poggio al Tufo, near Saturnia.
This tiny seaside resort town sits on the Tuscany-Lazio border. It boasts a handful of wineries, including Monteverro, a new project that’s showing spectacular results with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot.
Top Tuscan Discoveries
Coastal Tuscany is home to two of the great “aia” wines of Italy (Sassicaia and Ornellaia), which represent the pinnacle of quality. These wines have become household names worldwide. Here are 10 other great wines from coastal Tuscany that aren’t as famous (yet)—but definitely deserve your attention.
100 Giovanni Chiappini 2009 Guado de’ Gemoli (Bolgheri Superiore). The Shepherd Company. Cellar Selection.
abv: 15% Price: $65
95 Monteverro 2009 Toscana. Opici Wines. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.5% Price: $175
95 Rocca di Frassinello 2010 Baffonero (Maremma Toscana). Vias Imports. Cellar Selection.
abv: 13.5% Price: $120
94 Podere Sapaio 2009 Sapaio (Bolgheri Superiore). Lyra Wine.
abv: 14.5% Price: $80
94 Tenuta Argentiera 2009 Argentiera (Bolgheri Superiore). David Vincent Selection. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.5% Price: $60
94 Terre del Marchesato 2009 Marchesale Syrah (Toscana). Small Vineyards LLC.
abv: 14% Price: $80
93 Podere San Cristoforo 2010 Petit Verdot (Maremma Toscana). Planet Wine US & Peter Warren Selections. Cellar Selection.
abv: 13.5% Price: $39
93 Tenuta dei Pianali 2008 Coronato (Bolgheri). Wilson Daniels Ltd. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14% Price: $40
91 Michele Satta 2010 Giovin Re Viognier (Toscana). Banville & Jones Wine Merchants.
abv: 14% Price: $50
90 Terenzi 2009 Riserva (Morellino di Scansano). Vintners Estate Direct Importing.
abv: 14.5% Price: NA
Top Value Wines
The common misconception is that coastal Tuscany is for deep-pocketed collectors only. True, Italy’s highest concentration of top-shelf bottles may be found in Bolgheri. But the coast is also home to value options, sometimes from the same estate. Tenuta San Guido has Sassicaia ($230) and Le Difese ($30); Marchesi Antinori has Guado al Tasso ($100) and Il Bruciato ($30).
93 Le Macchiole 2010 Bolgheri. Domaine Select Wine Estates. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14% Price: $30
92 Castello di Bolgheri 2010 Varvàra (Bolgheri). Total Beverage Solution. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14% Price: $29
91 Poggio al Tesoro 2010 Mediterra (Toscana). Winebow. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14% Price: $25
91 Rocca di Montemassi 2010 Sassabruna (Monteregio di Massa Marittima). Zonin USA. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14% Price: $25
90 Aia Vecchia 2010 Lagone (Toscana). Dalla Terra Winery Direct. Best Buy.
abv: 14.5% Price: $15
90 Poggio Verrano 2009 Poggio Verrano 3 (Toscana). Aveniù Brands, Inc. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14% Price: $20
90 Suberli 2010 Morellino di Scansano. Michael Skurnik Wines. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13.5% Price: $17
88 Carpineto 2011 Valcolomba Vermentino (Maremma Toscana). Opici Wines. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12.5% Price: $15
88 Giorgio Meletti Cavallari 2011 Bianco (Bolgheri). Specialty Wine Co.
abv: 13.5% Price: $14
88 Sassotondo 2011 Tuforosso (Maremma). Villa Italia. Best Buy.
abv: 14% Price: $12
White and Rosato Wines
Although coastal Tuscany is best known for its red wines, the whites are steadily improving. With some of Italy’s most pristine beaches, best fishing and delicious seafood, whites fit naturally into the landscape.
Vermentino is the most widely planted grape in these parts, but international varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay are also grown.
Vermentino makes crisp, dry wines with hints of citrus and dried hay that pair perfectly with fried calamari, raw seafood, steamed mussels or risotto alla pescatora. Small percentages of Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier are sometimes added for their expressive aromatics.
Pure expressions of Viognier are the latest thing, and these trendy wines often are given a little oak aging for extra richness.
If white wine is a relatively new phenomenon, rosato (rosé) is one of the region’s oldest. The first commercially successful wine to emerge from coastal Tuscany was arguably Antinori’s Rosé di Bolgheri, which enjoyed popularity during the 1970s. Today, rosatos are made from a wide range of grape varieties spanning from Sangiovese to Syrah.
Top Five Attractions in Maremma
Once a little-explored corner of Tuscany, Maremma is now attracting droves of locals and tourists alike. This rural haven is roughly the size of Rhode Island, and straddles the coast of Tuscany from Pisa to south of the boarder of Lazio. In addition to spotting some local horsemen called i Butteri—famously recognized as the American cowboy’s European counterpart—visitors of Maremma will dip their toes in everything from sandy beaches in Capalbio to the hot springs of Saturnia. Here are the top five attractions in this must-visit town.
1. Capalbio: A postcard-perfect hilltop town, Capalbio boasts pristine sandy beaches and stellar restaurants. A traditional vacation destination for Rome’s left-wing intelligentsia, be sure to book a table at the one part art gallery, two parts local hipster eatery, Il Frantoio (www.frantoiocapalbio.com) early.
2. Saturnia: In ancient mythology, it’s said that the god Saturn was so enraged by the violent tempers of humans that he launched a lightening bolt to the earth in a fit of fury. That strike supposedly resulted in the thermal hot springs of Saturnia, where visitors soak in 98.6°F mineral water that flows from the earth’s crust at 160 gallons per minute.
3. Sovana: The medieval town of Sovana will unleash your inner archeologist. Pack a picnic and stroll through the must-see Etruscan tombs and ruins (the Etruscans were the indigenous population of central Italy who gave their name to the greater region known as Tuscany), which date back to the 3rd century B.C.
4. Pitigliano: Entirely carved out of soft Tufa stone, Pitigliano is one of the most picturesque towns in Tuscany. In fact, it’s one of the most photographed. The city center is known as a “little Jerusalem” because this area of Maremma was once home to one of Italy’s oldest Jewish communities.
5. Parco dell’Uccellina: One of the most intact nature preserves in southern Europe, this national park offers stunning seascapes and endless kilometers of hiking trails. The best way to visit is by horseback. Sign up for a guided tour with Alberese.