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Published:  23 July, 2008

By Nicolas Belfrage MW & Franco Ziliani

What does the denomination Bolgheri mean today, apart from the media success of blockbuster oenological phenomena like Sassicaia, Masseto and Ornellaia? What is Bolgheri's state of health, seven years from the supposed vintage-of-the-century, 1997? Some answers to these questions came from a recent tasting, attended by 30 Italian and foreign journalists, of the wines of the Costa degli Etruschi, the name given by marketers to the coastal strip of the provinces of Pisa and Livorno, including both well-known denominations like Bolgheri and lesser, identity-seeking ones like Elba, Montescudaio and Val di Cornia. It took place at Castagneto Carducci (the main town near the arty village of Bolgheri), where 16 wines from the 1997 vintage were displayed - along with four French intruders' - all from estates affiliated to the Associazione Grandi Cru della Costa Toscana (Association of Grands Crus of the Tuscan Coast; Also up for assessment were around 90 wines from various vintages between 2001 and 2003, which evinced widely differing characteristics: the Montescudaios, from Pisa province, were mainly built on Sangiovese, with the odd addition of Bordeaux grapes; the Bolgheris being for the most part Bordeaux varietals or blends, though with some Hermitage'-style Syrahs; while the Val di Cornias contained everything from unblended Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Ciliegiolo or Sangiovese to any combination of the above. Leaving aside those few estates that have made and are making the running and that, as it were, symbolise the Bolgheri denomination (Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Guado al Tasso, together with a small bunch of lesser luminaries such as Michele Satta, Grattamacco and Le Macchiole), most of the others seem to be seriously dragging their heels in terms of quality, reliability and character. And as one moves away from Bolgheri out towards the other DOCs (Val di Cornia, Montescudaio and the future Terratico di Bibbona), the situation seems to grow progressively worse. Bolgheri - thanks to the mythical Sassicaia and to the relatively recent arrival in the zone of high-flying names like Antinori, Mondavi-Frescobaldi, Gaja, Folonari, Scienza and Guido Berlucchi - constitutes one of the most important brand-names' in Italy. Perhaps because of this, the denomination now covers a remarkable heterogeneity of people, sensibilities and ideas that might be expected, 20 years on from the arrival of the DOC and 10 years after its modification to include the sub-zone Sassicaia, to give a new energy to production quality. The area under vine has gone from 300 hectares (ha) in the early 1990s to the present 900ha, many of which are not yet in full production, a growth that has stretched the gamut of possible wine-styles, while on the other hand rendering more difficult the emergence of a precise character for Bolgheri. What is indispensable today is a determined move towards a recognisable identity for Bolgheri wines on the part of the consumer, something that cannot be reduced, as has happened so far, to mere commerciality or to the premium wine' status of certain labels, but which should translate into an easily perceived and communicated true Bolgheri style'. As for the tasting of the '97s, which pitted big names like Sassicaia, Grattamacco, Paleo and Cavaliere (Michele Satta) against stars from Pisa (Lupicaia from Castello del Terriccio, Veneroso from Tenuta di Ghizzano) and from Grosseto (Sassotondo from San Lorenzo and l'Avvoltore from Moris Farms), as well as against four Bordeaux chteaux (Lynch-Bages, Chasse-Spleen, Pavie-Macquin and Sociando-Mallet), the winning wine was declared to be Grattamacco, followed by Sociando-Mallet, Paleo, Sassicaia, the three other French wines, then the Pisan trio of Lupicaia, A Sirio and Veneroso. However, there emerged various other interesting wines that, certainly, did not display a brutta figura next to the French offerings. These were genuine, elegant wines, balanced and enjoyable, in some cases expressing a personal style. With few exceptions, they were still robust or even at their peak, often displaying good ageing potential. Another positive element to emerge from the tasting was the rarity of overoaked or overextracted examples. Our personal favourite was Paleo from Le Macchiole, rich and potent yet with great elegance of perfume, finesse of tannins and perfect balance, followed by Sassicaia, Veneroso, Castellaccio from the Fattoria Uccelliera in Pisa, N'Antia from Badia di Morrona and Grattamacco. As for the French contingent, unlike other tasters we found the wines far from irresistible and less appealing than the Tuscans, the top performer for us being Chasse-Spleen, in eighth place.