A discussion about the Bolgheri DOC in the context of human activity on these soils is very new history. Evidence on the surrounding hillsides dates to 12th century BC. That the Etruscans were making wine here before the Greeks colonised the Italian mainland makes it one of the first areas in Europe to see the cultivation of the vine.
In 1983, the success of Sassicaia encouraged a number of other producers, among them Michele Satta, to create the Bolgheri DOC. At the outset the DOC protected only white and rosé wines, neither of which were seen as especially noteworthy, with red wines, now known as Super Tuscans, falling under the basic Vino da Tavola appellation. It took until 1994 for red wines to be protected under the disciplinare, which allowed for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In 2011 the disciplinare was updated to permit wines from a single varietal of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc.
The Bolgheri DOC occupies a 13km x 7km strip of land in the northern Maremma, between the coast and the inland hills. Most of the vines are on what was uncultivated, malaria-ridden swampland which was only drained in the first half of the 20th century.
The conditions are perfect for the cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other French varietals, which traditionally grow in the (cooler and more humid) maritime climate of Bordeaux. The sea moderates the surrounding temperature, reducing vine stress and, as Michele Satta puts it, “a more fluid functioning of the secondary metabolism”. Over the course of the growing season, the amount and intensity of sunlight is ideal for the vines’ photosynthesis. This is in part due to the region’s latitude, but also because the sun reflects off the sea: the gentle slope of the land on which the vineyards are planted provides the perfect angle for the plants to capture it. Rain falls most during the vegetative stages, helping the vine to grow, and more sparsely during the period of maturation, prompting it to dedicate its energies to ripening its fruit rather than growing its canopy.
The soils are diverse (Prof. Attilio Scienza identifies 27 units) and include pebbly, gravelly alluvial soils born on rivers from the Colline Metallifere behind; marine soils of clay, limestone and sand from where the area had previously been covered by the sea; and some volcanic soils. The soils are deep, with water-retaining properties which allow the plants’ roots to access water even in periods of drought. Although the growing area is warmer than the inland hills, it is still 1℃ cooler than the neighbouring coastline, by virtue of sea breezes which are channeled through the Tuscan archipelago. This gives the wines elegance and freshness. Winds consistently aerate the vines, reducing humidity and helping to prevent fungal disease.
The red wines of Bolgheri DOC
The typical blend is of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Smaller additions of Petit Verdot, Syrah, Sangiovese and, on occasion, other varietals (Michele Satta, for example, includes 10% Teroldego in his Bolgheri DOC). Increasingly, some winemakers are making single varietal wines of intensity and ageing potential.
The aromas of the reds of Bolgheri DOC are of black fruits, balsamic notes and Mediterranean maquis. Structurally the wines are round and supple, dry with detectable fruit sweetness, and fresh acidity. The tannins are velvety and dense and the finish is long and satisfying.
In the Bolgheri DOC yields are limited to 90 tonnes per hectare with a minimum ageing of one year. Merlot and Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc may be present in any proportion. Syrah and Sangiovese are capped to 50% of the blend; other varieties can represent no more than 30%.
For the Bolgheri DOC Superiore, yields are 80 tonnes per hectare and ageing is a minimum two years, of which one in oak barrels. The composition is the same as for the Bolgheri DOC.
The white and rosé wines of Bolgheri
Although the appellation is now famed for its red wines, traditional production was for whites and rosés: indeed, the initial 1983 disciplinare only allowed for these. The whites tend to be Vermentino-dominated (see Michele Satta’s Costa di Giulia, for example) with Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier as the blending partners. There is very little oak ageing in the Bolgheri DOC: Vermentino is a semi-aromatic varietal and the focus is on ensuring refreshing acidity to balance the richer fruit flavours it presents.
The region’s rosés follow the same methodology.