Coastal Tuscany: Innovators, Broken Rules, and World-Class Wines
“Rome,” she said. “And a wine trip.” Elizabeth had me with Rome. The wine trip put my enthusiasm into overdrive.
We had friends in Rome, recent American expats, and we would go to visit them. While there, the four of us would venture out to explore the wonderful wines of Italy. This would not be day trips, as the surrounding wine region, Lazio, did not offer the depth of excellent wines we were looking for. But go a bit further out, 3 hours in any direction, and you can find wine paradise. My task was to put together a multi-night wine tour plan that would explore the best that Italy had to offer.
South of Rome lies Campania, with a winemaking history going back over 3,000 years. It was the home of Falernum, the most lauded wine in ancient Rome, made from the Aglianico grape. The region continues to make wine from Aglianico – brooding reds worth knowing. Basing out of Salerno would add a lovely Mediterranean vibe.
North of Rome lies Montalcino, famous for their Brunello di Montalcino wines and always a worthy trip. Recent vintages (they must age for 4-5 years before release) have been excellent. And the Tuscan countryside is always alluring. But Elizabeth and I had been there a couple of years prior and were thinking we’d like to go someplace new.
To the northwest, up the Tuscan coast, lies the tiny wine region of Bolgheri. Bolgheri is one of Italy’s three “killer B’s”, along with Barolo and Brunello (di Montalcino), so known because of the world-class wines produced in these three regions. But Bolgheri is different, an outlier. It’s not like the historic wine areas like Barolo, Brunello, or Chianti Classico, where the winemaking tradition dates back at least to the 1300s, when the League of Chianti adopted a black rooster as its symbol, now affixed to the neck of each bottle. Until more recently, it was not an area known for its wine at all. Bolgheri’s world-class wines, and its compelling story, decided our destination.
The famous “Cypress Avenue” leading into Bolgheri
Bolgheri, like any place in Italy, has its history. There’s evidence in the surrounding hills that ancient Etruscans were growing grape vines here well before the birth of Rome. Winemaking developed into modern times only to be wiped out in the late 1900s by phylloxera (a pest that, for a time, wiped out almost all winemaking outside the U.S.— its source). As production resumed in the 20th century, there was an influx of farmers seeking available cropland but, along with the surviving estates, most wine production was rudimentary and meant for immediate consumption: “table wine.”
And then a marriage changed everything. (Don’t they always?) The Marchese Mario Incisa Della Rocchetta married into one of the existing wine estates. He had experienced French wine while at university and decided he would try to make a similar wine at the family estate in Bolgheri, planting Cabernet Sauvignon beginning in 1942. The wine was not good, and the Marchese’s attempts were disparaged. While not clear at the time, the wine was indeed like French wines in that they were not ready to drink immediately. They would require age. Barrels languished in the cellar, only to be shared at home and with friends. According to legend, as the wine aged into the 1960s, the comments changed from “What were you thinking?” to “This is extraordinary!” The rest, as they say, is history. The first official Sassicaia was introduced in 1972, and by 1978 in a blind tasting hosted by “Decanter,” Sassicaia won out over other Cabernets from around the world. And it was in the 1985 vintage that Robert Parker, for the first time, awarded 100 points to an Italian wine.
This sparked a revolution of innovation in Bolgheri and the lands surrounding it. Other estates pursued similar strategies, planting leading Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and others and often blending them with one of Italy’s most iconic grapes, Sangiovese. Farmers raising animals and growing food crops and grapes for table wine looked at those vineyards and asked, “What if?” Newcomers flocked to the area to buy cheap land and create their own stake. There was no official classification for these wines, so they were simply called “Super Tuscans.”
Our trip north would take us through the outer folds of this dynamic wine region and into the heart of Bolgheri itself.
The winery at Fattoria Le Pupille
Our first stop along the way, a little more than midway between Rome and Bolgheri, was Fattoria Le Pupille. Elisabetta Geppetti inherited management of the family farm outside Grosseto in the 1980s. Aside from the crops and animals, the farm had vines and made a simple Sangiovese that was low alcohol, and she said it was considered more “food” than wine. But she saw what was going on further north in Bolgheri and had a vision that this land too could make great wine. There is no simple way to convey how remarkable her achievements, a woman among farmers, with a vision for great wine that would not be denied.
Fattoria Le Pupille is one of “Walter on Wine’s” “benchmark” wineries. I call them benchmark because whenever you see the name, you are sure to get a good bottle of wine. They are consistent, quality producers in a range of price points. Fattoria Le Pupille has been called “one of the best-run estates of Tuscany.” We couldn’t agree more.
The tasting room at Fattoria Le Pupille
Highlights of our tasting at the winery included the flagship Saffredi, a classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, with vintages from 2015 to current rated 96 points or above by Robert Parker. This is a “full throttle” wine that is also balanced and complex, giving away nothing to its Super Tuscan neighbors to the north in Bolgheri. Collectors worldwide seek it out.
Sangiovese is found everywhere (almost) in Italy. Top winemakers often want to show what they can do with the grape on its own, expressing the land on which it’s grown. This is Pupille’s effort, mostly rated in the mid-90s by experts and just a wonderful and easy wine to drink, especially with food. Superb at $40-ish a bottle.
The name of this wine indicates that it is an official DOCG appellation wine. All officiality aside, this beautiful and affordable (approx. $25) wine is made from 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and aged in oak casks for 15 months. It delivers beautiful wild cherry and dark berry notes along with some spice, and if you’re spending anywhere around this price for a house wine or just want an affordable wine that pairs beautifully with food, I suggest you give this a try. (Note: This is also made in a non-riserva, red label; we prefer the green label Riserva.)
For about $20 a bottle, this popular white wine is one we find versatile and easy to pair with most any white meat, fish, or vegetable dish. It is Sauvignon Blanc-based, but includes a blend of Petit Manseng, Traminer, and Semillon that gives it a midweight texture, with aromas of orchard fruit and mango and good citrus and mineral background on the palate. A great all-around casual white wine.
Our next stop up the coast was another “farm to world-class” winery, Tua Rita. Beginning in 1984, Rita and Virgillio Tua took their not-quite-5 acres of vines outside of Suvereto and decided to make the best wines they could. Again, this was not known to be a quality wine production zone, sitting well south of Bolgheri in a broad and undistinguished wine area called the Maremma. Unbound by tradition, they observed the land and experimented. The land and the vines rewarded their efforts spectacularly, and today they make a wide range of wines, with many at the top of collectors’ lists. It is a pleasure to taste wines with them, and you may even meet Rita.
The gardens outside the main house at Tua Rita
Merlot? Absolutely. You’ll pay around $300 for this widely lauded, highly expert-rated wine, often scored in the high 90s. Go up the coast and you’ll find wine like this from large estates owned by people with titles and maybe a bit of a well-earned attitude. Not here. It’s like visiting with family in their home. But oh! The wine. Critics rave.
Did you prefer a Bordeaux blend? Tua Rita matches what’s made up the coast, a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Again, critical reviews are consistently in the upper 90s for this wine that sells for less than $100. Sit back and enjoy the wine tasting – there’s more to come.
A Syrah? On the Tuscan coast? There’s no Syrah in the official Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) regulations. But Virgillio wanted to make the wine because he fell in love with the grape and finally found a plot of rocky, schistous clay soil where he thought Syrah would thrive. The critics say he was right – scores are in the high 90s – prepare to pay $250+ per bottle.
The aging cellar at Tua Rita
We waved a fond farewell to Tua Rita and continued on up the coast of Tuscany.
Rocca di Frassinello
The winery of Rocca di Frassinello sits atop a hill
Rocca (“Fortress”) di Frassinello is in its development the opposite of Fattoria Le Pupille and Tua Rita: a joint venture of two large wine houses with deep provenance to develop a major production capability in this promising up-and-coming wine region. Castellare di Castellina brings the deep history of Chianti Classico to the making of Italian varietal wines here, primarily Sangiovese. And Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), probably the leading French wine brand in the world, brings expertise with the grapes of Bordeaux. The winery, a modern and architecturally stunning interpretation of a medieval fortress, sits commandingly atop the hillside vineyards. The first vintage produced was in 2004.
Stainless steel fermentation tanks below the top deck of the winery
What drew me here, aside from the promise of such an illustrious joint venture, was their 2013 Rocca di Frassinello Maremma Toscana Rocca di Frassinello
. This was a blend of 60% Sangiovese and 20% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It had heft and density, yet was seamlessly pulled together, scoring Robert Parker 95. All for about $30.
Rocca di Frassinello makes several other wines, like Baffonero, made from 100% Merlot (and meant to compete with its 100% Merlot neighbors to the north, most notably Tenuta dell Ornellaia’s Masseto
, which sells for close to $1,000 per bottle).
The aging cellar at Rocca di Frassinello
The hospitality is warm, and overall the wines are quite good, but stopping here is a bet on the future, that these two major owners will figure out how to make not just very good wines, but great wines, year in and year out. It’s also a chance to see a world-class modern winery and visit the museum – housed inside the winery – of Etruscan artifacts unearthed during the building of the new winery.
Bolgheri, the Medieval Town
Bolgheri is best known in the wine world for its iconic wines made from the Noble Grapes of Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, sometimes blended with Sangiovese. The names reflect the estates that were first to cultivate these grapes: Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia), Marchese Antinori (Guado al Tasso), and Ornellaia (owned by the Frescobaldi family, winemakers for 700 years). To connoisseurs around the world, these wines need no introduction. The estates are not open for tastings. But there is a great option to sample these wines.
The famous “Cypress Avenue” leading into Bolgheri
The medieval town of Bolgheri, so named because of a camp of Bulgarians who allied with the Lombards, who invaded Italy in 568-569
Bolgheri is both an official wine region of Italy – driven by the success of these Super Tuscan wines – and a medieval walled town worth a visit on its own. You can wander the narrow streets and find charming shops and pleasant eateries, but sooner or later – likely sooner, if you are on a wine trip – you will end up at Enoteca Tagnoni. Here, you can find an exceptional assortment of wine – including the precious Super Tuscans named above, sold by the glass – good food, and lively conversation about all things wine.
The entrance to Enoteca Tagnoni on Strada Lauretta in Bolgheri
Super Tuscans available by the glass at Enoteca Tognoni
Our party of four settled in for a fun evening of food and wine. Over time, we struck up a conversation with three gentlemen at the table beside us. A representative of several Bolgheri wine producers was reviewing recent releases with a couple of buyers for a multi-location retailer in Austria. They asked us to join them in sampling the wines and give our opinions. A knockout Bolgheri deal was the Aia Vecchia Bolgheri Superiore Sor Ugo, a classic Bordeaux blend that retails for about $35. It was big and extracted, not overly complex, but at that price a real value.
The Aia Vecchia Bolgheri Superiore Sor Ugo
Another way to get a taste of the greatest estates is to sample their “junior” offerings, usually called “Rosso.” Only the best grapes at harvest from the established vineyards go into making the flagship wines. Newer vineyards take years to fully develop, and the grapes from them are used to produce Rosso versions of the great wines until they are fully developed and fit for the flagship wines. These can be had for a fraction of the cost. A great example is the Antinori Guado al Tasso Il Bruciato. The 2020 is rated RP93, and we purchased it by the case for $26.99. The Guidalberto Tenuta San Guido and the Le Serre Nuovedell’ Ornellaia both sell for a bit more, and all carry expert ratings of 92 or above in recent years.
But we had two more wineries to visit, both making stellar Bolgheri DOC wines.
Argentiera is the closest winery to the coast and also the one with the highest altitude, lying 250 – 650 feet above sea level. The views are spectacular. Cool breezes off the Tyrrhenian sea work their magic on the vines. The name “Argentato,” “silvered” or “silver plated” in English, attests to the silver mines that once dotted this high lying area.
The vineyards of Argentiera looking out to the Tyrrhenian sea
The Argentiera winery looks commandingly over the Tuscan coast
Argentiera welcomes tastings by appointment, and for those seeking out the best Bolgheri has to offer, its Tenuta Argentiera Bolgheri Superiore is not to be missed. The quality of this classic Bordeaux blend has been advancing steadily, with expert scores in recent years solidly in the mid to upper 90s. The price in the U.S. is about $100.
Tenuta Argentiera’s Bolgheri Superiore
Argentiera also offers a Rosso version of its Superiore, the Villa Donoratico, as well as a couple of other wines you’re sure to enjoy if you take the tasting.
Below deck at Argentiera stainless fermentation tanks keep fermentation wine at exactly the right temperature
The Podere Grattamacco, in the hills of the Bolgheri DOC
Podere Grattamacco Grattamacco also sits up on a hill, with vineyard elevations between 100 to 200 meters above sea level. This provides a cooler climate, with greater changes in daytime to nighttime temperatures promoting longer and more even maturation of the grapes. Grattamacco accentuates the resulting elegance of the wines by using Sangiovese in its Bolgheri Superiore Grattamacco blend; it’s still mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot and Sangiovese. The results are stellar. The Bolgheri Superiore had consistently been rated 95 or higher for more than five years.
The Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore
The tasting room and views from Grattamacco
Our trip to Grattamacco was particularly exciting, as our GPS, which had been otherwise flawless throughout the trip, indicated we should turn left onto a gravel lane. The view, on a flat and through the vineyards, was enticing. And then we began to climb. It became clear, if not by the steep ascent, then by the alarmed tractor driver waving us off, that this was a service road among the vineyards not meant for passenger traffic. Our GPS egged us on, and our driver was concerned to keep up our momentum so as not to get stuck and have a LONG way to back down. So we bumped and ground the Mercedes wagon up the hill until we emerged at the top, near to the winery itself. So if you do make the trek to Grattamacco, follow the signs and not the GPS.
The GPS recommended this left turn to get to Grattamacco; do not do it
And with that, Elizabeth said, “Excellent wine trip!” and we headed back down the sunny Tuscan coast to our hotel in Rome.
Where To Stay and Eat
The greater Maremma wine region, of which Bolgheri is a part, was for a long time purely a farming and fishing area. As a result, it’s still not highly developed as a tourist destination. It’s certainly not a luxury tourist destination. You come for the wine, but also knowing you’ll always find good food in Italy. Restaurants are plentiful, including the Osteria Enoteca San Guido, located on the grounds of the famous wine estate.
The Agriturismo Sant’ Uberto
We stayed at the small Agriturismo Sant’Uberto (https://www.santuberto.com), similar to what we in the U.S. would call a bed and breakfast. This is a charming working farm nestled among some of the most famous vineyards in Italy. The hosts are warm and friendly and provided a breakfast that made it easy to get up each morning. We dined in with them one evening, having great fun with the language difference but coming together easily over the good food and wine.