In May of 1985 I attended a party at Palazzo Antinori in Florence, to celebrate the family’s 600th anniversary in the wine business. I was seated next to Lodovico Antinori, who told me about his recent development of property in Bolgheri, where
he planned on creating a premium wine estate named Ornellaia. It was not a huge surprise, given that his uncle had made a spectacular success making Bordeaux style wines at his Sassicaia estate in Bolgheri a decade earlier. The only real surprise was that Tuscany’s Mediterranean coast had never been known for premium wine, and had therefore been ignored as an area worth developing.
In the years since, dozens of wineries have sprung up, and the saga of Ornellaia was a subject of Jonathan Nossiter’s 2003 film Mondovino, documenting the succession of owners from Antinori to Mondavi to Frescobaldi. Vineyards and wineries now spread south from Bolgheri into the Maremma region. Yet until last year, I had never visited this area of the Tuscan coast. It’s a relatively narrow strip of land extending from the foothills to the Tyrrhenian Sea. A few miles south, the terrain becomes hilly. Fortunes have been invested here to create world-class wines, yet there is a uniformity of approach that does surprise me. Following Sassicaia’s lead, the area has been planted largely to French varieties, specifically Bordeaux varieties, yet as a warm, coastal region, it would seem to be an area that would be an ideal place to grow Sicilian grapes.
On a press trip organized by Marina Thompson, we visited several wine estates in Bolgheri and
Maremma. Approached through a corridor of Italian cypress that stretches for miles, you’ll want to visit the tiny, charming hamlet of Bolgheri, where you’ll find a couple of restaurants and a wine shop.
Campo alla Sughera (cork tree in Italian) in Bolgheri is typical of the new wineries in the area. The 50-acre estate is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Though the quality varies, the potential is evident in the top-of-the-line Arnione, a Bolgheri Superiori red composed of the four Bordeaux varieties. It’s made in a ripe, international style that might be another forgettable fruit bomb, if not for its wonderful restraint coupled with vibrancy, like a thoroughbred kept in check (a credit to the winemaker’s talent). The whites are also quite pleasant on a warm summer’s day. The estate is open for guided tours and tasting (email firstname.lastname@example.org). These wines are not inexpensive by Italian standards, ranging in price from 14 to 30 Euros in Italian retail shops, but they’re almost half price at the winery.
Driving 12 miles south into the Maremma region, stop at the medieval hilltop town of Suvereto for a stroll through history, with commanding views of the surrounding valleys, eastern mountains, and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Perched on a forested 300-foot high hill, the town is built of rock and brick, with narrow alleys, steep, worn
staircases, and well-preserved ancient buildings, the oldest dating back to the 8th century. The local forests of cork oaks (Sughera in Italian and Suvero in the local dialect) gave the town its name. If you continue down the backside of the hill, you’ll come to Gualdo del Re, one of a dozen agriturismos in the Val di Cornia DOC, where you can stay on the winery property in a luxurious one or two bedroom apartment with a private pool. Various packages include breakfast and a wine tasting dinner in their restaurant, as well as a tour and tasting in the wine cellar and a guided walk among the vineyards.
The winemaker is Barbara Tamburini, who consults with 24 wineries in Italy, as well as one in California. The style of her red wines is “international,” by which I mean that the grapes are picked very ripe, the wines achieve at least 14% alcohol, and they’re aged in mostly new French oak. They’re plush, fruity wines with mass appeal. Tamburini is known as a Merlot specialist, and yet I far prefer her Cabernet Sauvignon, labeled as Federico Primo. What it may lack in nuance, it makes up for in intensity and complexity, with jammy blackberry fruit, chocolate and spice notes. The Gualdo del Re Sangiovese is also richer and more powerful than you might expect from a Tuscan Sangiovese. Most of the wines are 100% varietal. The exceptions are three wines sold under the Eliseo label. Eliseo Rosso, is an elegant blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Canaiolo Nero. Eliseo Bianco is a blend of three Tuscan varieties (Trebbiano, Malvasia and Clairette), which delivers a pleasing dry white for everyday drinking. Eliseo Rosato is a fragrant and well-structured dry rosé made from a 50/50 blend of Sangiovese and Merlot. The other whites are not to be dismissed, including Valentina, a 100% Vermentino, which shows excellent intensity of floral, citrus and mineral character with silky texture and crisp acidity — just the ticket on a hot summer’s day by the pool. Strale is 100% Pinot Bianco which, though barrel fermented, shows little barrel character. Lastly, Amansio is 100% Aleatico made in the Passito style for a sweet dessert wine with hints of raspberry and golden raisin character mixed with subtle floral notes.
A couple miles south of Gualdo del Re, you’ll come upon Petra, one of the world’s most magnificent wineries. The amount of money being poured into the area is nowhere more apparent than at Petra, set up against the base of wooded hills. Petra looks very similar to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, which should come as no surprise as it was designed by the same Swiss architect: Mario Botta. The exterior is stunning in both its modernity and its evocation of ancient ceremonial sites, anchored by a stone cylinder cut at the angle of the hill, with a long narrow stairway rising through the middle like a stairway to a sacrificial alter. The interior of the winery extends 500 feet deep into the hill. The sequence of winemaking operations is gravity fed from one level to the next. The pillars of the barrel room resemble gigantic wooden screws of ancient wine presses. No detail has been overlooked, as evidenced by the something as simple as the lighting, which is artistic and reverential of the intersection of man and nature, and the role wine has always played in civilization.
Completed in 2003, the project is a joint venture between Vittorio Moretti and his daughter Francesca. Moretti, whose company specializes in winery design, owns two Franciacorta wineries (Bellavista and Contaldi Castaldi), both producing sparkling wine, as well as the Relais & Chateaux L’Albereta in Franciacorta, the hotel renowned for its restaurant headed by chef Gualtiero Marchesi. Francesca worked for several years at Bellavista in production and vineyard management, before pursuing a degree in oenology at the university of Milan. She has been in charge of the entire Petra project since 1997, and the early results are spectacular.
210 acres of the 740 acre property are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot,Syrah and Sangiovese, each planted in specific soils, which vary widely across the property. A further 25 acres are planted to olive trees for the production of premium extra virgin oil.
Though I’ve railed against the “international style” as being too alcoholic (I can’t drink as much), too oaky (it should never be obvious), and too powerful (they lack nuance), occasionally someone gets it right. Petra’s Quercegobbe, named for its vineyard, is 100% Merlot. It is undeniably international in style, yet the 2005 vintage I tasted is one of the best Merlots of my experience, in more than 35 years of tasting. Showing exquisite balance, it’s a vibrant wine with soft tannins, yet firm structure, and enormous length. From the nose through the finish it offers complex layers of black fruits, dried fruits, nuts, green olives, and background notes of rosemary, cinnamon and toast. For about 18 Euros at the winery, it’s a very good value.
More expensive is the eponymous Petra, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that runs 30 Euros at the winery. The 2004 is a blend of 30% Merlot to 70% Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also an intense, concentrated wine with ripe fruit and layers of spice. In many ways it’s more integrated than the Quercagobbe, but it’s less complex, though that’s splitting hairs. The advantage, if you can afford it, is that at 13.5% alcohol, you could drink more Petra.
At a mere 7.5 Euros (about $10) at the winery, the bargain of the group must be the elegant and concentrated Ebo. The 2005 vintage is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Sangiovese, and 20% Merlot. As 80% of the wine is aged in old neutral oak, the complex character derives from the fruit, which presents flavors of cherry and raspberry with subtle undercurrents of earth, nuts and coconuts. It’s a beautifully structured wine with soft tannins and a complex finish.
Zingari (gypsy in Italian) is Petra’s entry-level wine at just under 5 Euros at the winery. A blend of Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Sangiovese, it sees no oak and presents a fresh fruit profile of plum, raspberry and pomegranate.
Petra is a devoted to red wines with one exception. Some old, gnarled vines of Trebbiano, Clarette, Malvasia and Vermentino were rediscovered on the property, from which is made a very small quantity of passito, which they call Petra Angelo di San Lorenzo. One of the joys of the epicurean traveler is the discovery of such local delicacies that you won’t find available anywhere else.
Vittorio Moretti’s interest in wine tourism, and the success of L’Albereta inspired him to partner with the Alain Ducasse group to build L’Andana resort, 25 miles south of Suvereto near the coastal town of Castiglione della Pescaia. The 33-rooms are divided between two buildings (one of which was the residence of Leopoldo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany in the 19th century). The hotel is set on carefully landscaped grounds overlooking the vineyards and olive groves of Tenuta La Badiola.
You can sample the estate’s four wines at the adjacent Trattoria Toscana, a 2-minute walk down a garden path. The Chef is Christopher Martin, who previously worked in Ducasse’s restaurant in Monaco. He also gives cooking classes at the restaurant, but check ahead for dates. The food is a modern interpretation of rustic Tuscan dishes using seasonally available local ingredients, which is easy as the estate raises some of its own, is surrounded by farms, and is only a couple of miles from a commercial fishing village.
The wines include three marketed under the Acquagiusta label, including a red blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, an Alicante rosato, and a Vermentino. My favorite, however, is the Viognier marketed under the Acuadoro label. Unlike California Viogniers, which require very ripe grapes (and thus high alcohol) to achieve tropical fruit flavors, this Italian version explodes with citrus and tropical fruit (pineapple and guava) at just 13% alcohol. The estate also produces an extra virgin olive oil.
While I preferred to simply stroll around the property enjoying the tranquility of a well-tended country estate, there is a tennis court, pool, a 9-hole pitch-and-putt golf course, and mountain bikes available for the actively minded, as well as a spa for those who like to be pampered.
I’ve stayed in luxury hotels and resorts around the world, and this rates a place on my top-five-list of places to stay. It does, however, come at a steep price, with rooms ranging between $600 and $1,500 a night.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a winery that is a bit harder to find, though well worth the visit. Castello Colle Massari is just 36 miles from L’Andana, but it will take you an hour to get there on winding mountain roads (and if you’re really into a full day trip, another 45 minutes will land you in Montalcino!).
East of Grosseto, at a thousand feet on the flanks of Mount Amiata, Colle Massari is a modern winery with a beautiful tasting room and wines bearing the Monteccucco DOC of the upper Maremma. The winery was purchased in 1999 by the brother and sister team of Maria Iris and Claudio Tipa. The hilly, 860 acre estate is comprised of 440 acres of forest, 250 acres of mixed crops, 180 acres of vines and 50 acres of olive trees. 80% of the red grapes are planted to Sangiovese, with the remainder being divided among Ciliegiolo, Montepulciano, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The white wine vineyards are comprised of 85% Vermentino, and 15% Greco Bianco.
The winery produces a Sangiovese Riserva that I found too alcoholic for my tastes, as it weighs in at 14.5%. However, I was favorably impressed by the eponymous Colle Massari Montecucco Rosso Riserva, a blend of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Ciliegiolo, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, that offers flavors of dried fruit, tobacco leaf and sweet spices. The regular bottling of Montecucco Rosso is called Rigoletto, and sports a different blend than theriserva, as it’s composed of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Ciliegiolo, and 15% Montepulciano. The flavor profile of Rigoletto is also different, as it leans more toward fresh black plum and blackberry. It would be fun to serve Rigoletto at a meal with its rosé counterpart, called Grottolo, a slightly off-dry version of the same blend that calls to mind cherries and pomegranates.
Colle Massari offers two Vermentinos, both identical blends of 85% Vermentino and 15% Greco Bianco: Irisse, fermented in large oak vats and aged a year and a half before release; and Melacce, fermented in stainless steel and released before the next harvest. They were both floral, with white peach and citrus flavors. The Irisse is a touch rounder; the Melacce shows more minerality, but you can’t go wrong with either choice.
While at Colle Massari you may want to take advantage of tasting Grattamacco, the owners’ other winery located in Bolgheri. Grattamacco was founded in 1977, leased by Maria Iris and Claudio Tipa in 2002, and purchased in 2007. It’s another hillside estate, eight hundred feet above most of the other wineries in the Bolgheri area, with 30 acres planted to vines. We didn’t taste through the whole line, but I found the Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore to be a wine of firm structure, fine balance and excellent ageing potential.
This is an area well worth the epicurean traveler’s visit. Though the emergence of the Tuscan coast as a wine region has boosted tourism over the past two decades, it’s still deserted in comparison to Florence or Siena. Bolgheri is a two-hour drive from Siena. L’Andana is two and a half hours from Rome’s Fiumicino airport.
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