Sassicaia to Brunello – a journey through central Tuscany


A very warm week in Tuscany in July with our Italian Buyer, David Berry-Green, recently, was both informative and enlightening.

A swift drive in David’s Alfa Romeo Brera down the motorway from Pisa Airport on Monday, took us straight to the excellent Tenuta di Valgiano in the Colline Lucchesi. Valgiano are considered the best producers in the region and their wines showed very well with a delicious lunch that included local prosciutto and melon and fresh borlotti beans (very Tuscan) served al fresco.

It would have been tempting to have a snooze in the shade of their fig tree, but the main purpose of my visit beckoned, a trip to Italy’s most successful “new” wine region, Bolgheri, famous for the Cabernet Sauvignon based Sassicaia and Ornellaia amongst others, so it was back in the Brera for a whizz down the coast.

Dinner was with a real character, Marco Giambastiani, who is part of a team that makes a Bolgheri type wine from just outside the region, called Orma. Sadly the wines were served too hot in the restaurant to judge them properly, but they seemed quite impressive with an excellent dish of Pappardele with wild boar, followed by medium-rare Fiorentina.

The next morning we started with the wines of our kind host for our two days in Bolgheri, Giorgio Meletti Cavallari. From there it was back up north to Caiarossa, an estate that we were introduced to by Alexander Van Beek of Bordeaux’s Ch. Du Tertre and Ch. Giscours in Bordeaux. Now under the stewardship of Dominique Genot, the wines are improving immensely and with a new set of vineyards set to double the property’s vineyard size, there’s great promise here.

After a lovely lunch of cured meats, and tortelloni with butter and sage, prepared by Dominique’s charming wife, Solene, we headed back to Bolgheri to one of the area’s most famous estates, Antinori’s Guado al Tasso. Here we met the charismatic, Stefano Leone. He gave us an excellent insight into the Antinori empire and to Bolgheri in particular.

Guado al Tasso has traditionally been a blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, until the 2007 vintage where the Syrah has now been replaced with Cabernet Franc and a little Petit Verdot, a huge improvement in my opinion which makes the wine much more elegant.

That evening we had an excellent dinner with Giorgio, his girlfriend and his father, Piermario, of very crisp fried vegetables, followed by rabbit. Piermario is a real character and a lovely man who ran Grattamacco, one of Bolgheri’s most famous estates, before selling up and using some of the funds to buy himself some prime vineyard land on the island of Elba. On Elba he makes charming easy drinking quasi varietal wines from Vermentino, Grenache and Aleatico that matched the local food perfectly.

The morning brought a real treat, an appointment at the estate that started it all, with the man who has done more for the reputation of Bolgheri than anyone else, Marchese Niccolo Incisa della Rocchetta at Sassicaia. The wines are beautifully easy to drink, unusually a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, this blend gives lean and elegant wines, without the fatness that Merlot lends to the blend. The wines seem better than ever now and ooze class, mainly due to the excellent vineyards that the estate owns.

Nicolo was very charming and showed us the entire Sassicaia range and the wine from his joint venture with Santadi in Sardinia, Barrua, a completely different style, but a lovely wine.

We then pointed the Brera towards Montalcino for our final two days. I was really looking forward to this, because, as much as I like the Bolgheri wines, it’s the indigenous Italian grape varieties such as Sangiovese that really excite my taste buds.

Dinner in Montalcino was excellent, a full four courses of local dishes, washed down with Massa Vecchia Bianco, a cloudy and deep golden, dry Vermentino made in an oxidative style which was delicious, but virtually unsellable, a real “wine-spotters’” wine!

In the morning it was off to one of Montalcino’s most famous estates, Poggio di Sotto, run by the charming Piero Palmucci. Piero “retired” here after a career in international shipping.

Over the last 20 years, Poggio di Sotto has built up a reputation as being one of the very best “traditional” producers in the region. His 2007 and 2006 Rossi di Montalcinio were delightful, but the 2005 Brunello was superb, rich, dark fruit, enfolded in a gentle, silky structure.

Thence to La Serena, where the young, talented and very Tuscan, Andrea Mantengoli crafts some excellent Brunello from the vineyards on the family estate. Andrea is quite a character standing very close and raising his voice when he wants to make a point, in his broad Tuscan accent (Tuscans don’t say Coca-Cola, they say Hoha-Hola!).

After a delicious lunch prepared by Andrea’s charming wife, Elisabetta, washed down with the 2008 Rosso and the 2001 Riserva Gemini, it was off to another of our recent Montalcino partners, Fonterenza.

A small estate owned by the Padovani family, originally from Milan, run by the family’s young twins, Margherita and Francesca, this is a property with enormous promise.

Francesca then joined us for a visit to the iconic Cerbaiona winery, as she had never been there. Founded by the now elderly Diego Molinari, this has built up a reputation as one of the great Montalcino estates.

Diego is another who “retired” into winemaking, having originally been an Alitalia pilot, he now doesn’t travel and even has trouble getting down to the cellar. The omni-present lit Marlboro probably doesn’t help his mobility!

Francesca, Diego, his lovely and lively wife, Nora and the delightful Stella di Campalto joined us for dinner in Castelnuovo dell’Abata, which was marred slightly by Diego getting a parking ticket from the Polizia Municipale. I’ve never seen a restaurant empty as quickly as this one did when the word that the Polizia Locale where on the prowl went round!

Our final stop in Montalcino was at the San Giuseppe winery of Stella di Campalto. For a property that has only produced two vintages of Brunello so far, Stella has built up quite a fan-base and following. With a taste of her wines, it’s easy to see why. The wines have a depth, clarity and etheral purity rarely seen in wines from the region, that really set them apart from the crowd.

As we headed back towards Galileo Galilei airport, there was one final winery stop at the San Cristoforo (no relation!) winery of Lorenzo Zonin.

Lorenzo treated us to a lunch at his favourite harbour-side restaurant where we enjoyed pesce crudo (including amazing raw fresh scampi) and grilled Occhione (an excellent local deepwater fish) with his fresh wines, a white (almost blush through contact with the grape skins) Vermentino called Luminoso and his fresh 100% Sangiovese, light red called Amaranto, very drinkable and the perfect end to a fascinating week.