Bolgheri: wines born under the sun
Author: Issariya Morgan
In the 1970s and ’80s, a small group of winemakers on the Tuscan coast dared to defy regional regulations, choosing instead to work with the Bordeaux grape varieties. Today, their wines are among Italy’s finest. We speak to two of Bolgheri’s winemakers – Grattamacco’s Luca Marrone and Ornellaia’s Axel Heinz – exploring how their stories fit within the wider story of the Super Tuscans.
Just off the Mediterranean coast lies the Maremma region of Tuscany, all rolling hills, rugged cliffs and sparkling blue sea. Blessed with warmth, sunlight and coastal breezes, this is the home of Bolgheri – one of Italy’s youngest appellations, with a reputation built on the shoulders of the iconic Super Tuscans.
Their fame may give the impression of a region steeped in winemaking pedigree, but Bolgheri’s official history only dates back to the late 1960s. Grattamacco was established in 1977, soon followed by Ornellaia in 1981.
The region rose to prominence by boldly eschewing Tuscany’s regulations: instead of working with local grape varieties, the Super Tuscans embraced the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Today, these wines are among Italy’s finest. The success of the region has been completely dependent on a small number of winemakers daring to go against the grain. Almost half a century on, how do the stories of Bolgheri’s winemakers fit within the broader narrative of the region?
A pursuit of passion
Originally from Abruzzo, Luca Marrone has been Grattamacco’s winemaker since 2003, and he’s now one of the region’s finest winemakers. His time at Grattamacco has taught him plenty, but his formative wine education came at a younger age, under the guidance of his grandfather.
“I come from a farming background,” begins Luca, casting his mind back. “I inherited this passion from my grandfather. He used to make wines – not wines to be bottled, but wines that he liked to drink himself. He was a very good drinker,” he chuckles.
Luca’s grandfather would sell his wines to friends, and the local osterias played a crucial role in supporting this small venture – much as they do today. “I remember what I learned from my grandfather very well. It was really in the cellars that I learned my lessons. It was all very artisanal, not very technological. But those were the experiences that introduced me to the passion of wine.”
In the early years, Luca considered wine more of a hobby, so he left school to initially pursue a degree in law. But after a gap year and a brief stint in the army, he decided to turn the hobby into a career. What followed was a degree in Enology and Viticulture from the University of Pisa, and that was when the passion truly came to life.
“I was completely captivated by all the history and traditions of Tuscany,” says Luca. “While I was studying, when I went out with my mates in the evening to the bodegas, among the best wines that I liked to drink was Grattamacco. I really loved the style, way before I got the job in the winery.”
It was fortuitous, then, that he landed at one of his favourite producers fresh out of university.“I’m really happy with the decisions I took,” he smiles. “20 years, I’ve been part of this great family, and for those 20 years, I’ve been happy.”
From Bordeaux to Bolgheri
Ornellaia’s winemaker Axel Heinz cuts an altogether different figure. The son of a French mother and a German father, Axel grew up in Munich. He received his wine education in his mother’s home city of Bordeaux, having been exposed to its world-famous wines during summer holidays as a child. Today, he recounts it all in the smooth drawl of an English gentleman, befitting his international upbringing.
“Despite the fact that my mother’s from Bordeaux, my family are only occasional wine drinkers,” he admits.
“Every time I told someone I was from Bordeaux, I would be asked about its wines – which I knew nothing about. So, on one of my summer holidays, instead of going to the beach I went to a wine shop. I got together a selection that would give me a broad overview. And that was what sparked everything and made me fall in love with wine.”
The discovery of this new passion came just as Axel was considering what to do when he left school – and the wine trade became an increasingly attractive prospect.
“It was much to my surprise, I must say, that I learned it wasn’t necessary to be born into a centuries-old winemaking family to work in this business. Instead, you could study – which gave me the perfect excuse to move to France and enjoy life in Bordeaux beyond the summer holidays.”
Axel settled into his studies in Bordeaux, and a few years later, an offer came from Ornellaia. Having developed a love for Italian wine while living in Munich, he saw it as an exciting opportunity, although he admits that he didn’t think it would last for very long. That was in 2005.
“It sounded like it would be a very interesting little chapter in my life, and then perhaps I’d go back to Bordeaux or do something different. It’s now coming up to 18 years,” he says, acknowledging the irony.
The Mediterranean character
The story of Bolgheri is one of wines with strong identities, inevitably drawing comparisons with Bordeaux. But despite their similarities, Axel stresses that Bolgheri has a distinctly Mediterranean climate, therefore its wines will always have a sense of warmth. The challenge is balancing their natural richness and generosity with finesse, elegance and complexity – but Bolgheri’s climate is well suited for the task.
“Although Bolgheri has warm temperatures, plenty of sunlight, dry summers, it also has these elements that eliminate the extremes,” explains Axel. “It never gets as scorchingly hot as it would in Central Tuscany. The soils are deep and colder with a lot of water retention that helps you get through the dry summer months. All of these elements combined make for a climate which is a little bit warmer than Bordeaux, but has a sort of evenness that is very beneficial to the Bordeaux grape varieties.”
Axel believes this why the Bordeaux varieties have been particularly successful on the coast, in contrast to the more continental inland climate of Tuscany where Sangiovese rules supreme.
Luca also highlights the benefits of a coastal Mediterranean climate: dry conditions with excellent air flow make it easy to employ organic practices. “In these conditions, I believe you have a duty to be organic.”
The producers of Bolgheri have achieved great commercial success, their names synonymous with iconic wines. But is there still a “Super Tuscan mentality” that unites them, or has each winery developed its own style that sets it apart?
Luca considers the question for a moment. “Both,” he says. “Grattamacco was born as a Super Tuscan, a vino da tavola, and was among the first to join this new venture of fantastic wines. Today, I would say we lean on the side of the old school, in the sense of maintaining traditions.”
His ultimate goal is to capture a sense of elegance and freshness in his wines, bringing together organic viticulture and Grattamacco’s unique terroir.
At Ornellaia, it’s about expressing the Mediterranean character.
“Why would you want to be a copy of Bordeaux?” says Axel. “Much of our approach has been about trying not to hide the fact that our wines are born under the sun. I’d describe our philosophy as finding a balance between a typically Italian generosity and extrovert character, combined with real depth and finesse.”
This quest for finesse, freshness and elegance appears to unite the two winemakers. But it looks set to become more challenging in the years ahead, as climates across the world grow increasingly warmer.
For now, Bolgheri is a region commanding world-wide attention on the fine wine stage, sitting comfortably between the great wines of Bordeaux and the sun-kissed Mediterranean coast.