How Wines From a Little-Known Region Became Some of the Most Expensive in the World

Along the coast of Tuscany, it has muscled into the fine wine world with its controversial cuvées in just 25 years.
Ornellaia's vineyard in Bolgheri, Italy.
Ornellaia's vineyard in Bolgheri, Italy. Courtesy of Ornellaia
Courtesy of Ornellaia
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Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo. Any oenophile’s eyes will light up at these names. With histories of winemaking dating back centuries, premier wine regions like the aforementioned trio command high prices and break records at auctions.

So how did Bolgheri, an obscure Italian hamlet, rise to fine wine prominence on par with these regions within just a few decades? For this Tuscan coastal area, which was granted DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin) status for its famous red wines a mere 25 years ago, the answer lies in vision, innovation, and a willingness to ignore the naysayers.

The First Wave

According to Riccardo Binda, general manager of the Bolgheri DOC Consorzio, the official body charged with protecting the local wine industry, Bolgheri’s history can be broken down by three phases. In 1944, Marchesi Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, grapes had never been used before in that part of the country. Like the rest of Tuscany, varieties such as Sangiovese were revered. After several years of cultivating Cabernets just for home consumption, Incisa della Rocchetta, with the help of his nephew, Piero Antinori, released his first public cuvée, called Sassicaia, in 1968.

The greater Tuscan community was shocked. “They said, ‘Oh, what is that guy doing, planting some strange grapes in an area where wine is not suitable? It will be a failure,’” recounts Binda. In a country that prides itself on its hundreds of indigenous varieties, these French grapes were an affront to tradition.

Ornellaia selection table
After harvesting the grapes, workers hand select grapes that will be used and not used.Courtesy of Ornellaia
Courtesy of Ornellaia

Suitable for Sangiovese, no. But for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, Bolgheri was ideal. “What really sticks out in Bolgheri is that we’re only three or four miles away from the sea and that really creates a very specific microclimate,” says Axel Heinz, winemaker at Ornellaia, a producer of Bordeaux-style red and white wines in Bolgheri, an estate with bottles that regularly retail for $230 or more. Heinz also oversees winemaking at Masseto, whose single-varietal Merlot fetches around $700.

The sea acts as a tempering effect, Heinz explains, which eliminates the extremes in the climate, making for a more predictable, mild climate. Winter and spring l are usually sheltered from frost. The results, according to Heinz, are “wines that have this sense of opulence and richness, while keeping a freshness and precision, which is the hallmark of truly great wines. “It’s easy to make wines that are very ripe and showy, but make to wines that are the same time refined, elegant, and complex, that’s much more difficult,” Heinz says.

Axel Heinz in the Ornellaia vineyard.Courtesy of Ornellaia
Courtesy of Ornellaia

During the decade that ensued, Piermario Meletti Cavallari, who founded Grattamacco, one of the first two wineries in Bolgheri, and Michele Satta, of his eponymous estate, began experimenting with Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties. The region still remained largely unknown, but on Sassicaia’s wings, Bolgheri’s presence slowly began to infiltrate the wine community’s consciousness. “The viticulture was not particularly developed,” says Albiera Antinori, president of Antinori, an Italian wine company with roots dating back to 1385 and is now one of the biggest wine companies in Italy. “But these were new wines coming from a new area and there was curiosity; perhaps it was because it was something unusual but obviously of great quality.”

In 1981, a cousin of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, Marchese Lodovico Antinori, took over a property, renamed it Ornellaia, and also began working with international grapes. These aforementioned estates, along with Sassicaia, are considered the founders of the region.

The Power of the Press

In 1978, the little-known Cabernet-based Sassicaia beat out heavyweight entries from Bordeaux and Napa Valley (coming off of its Judgement of Paris accolades) by taking the top award in a competition sponsored by Decanter magazine. Internationally, interest piqued in these blends, but many Italians remained wary. The year 1983 saw the formation of the Bolgheri DOC—but for white and rosé wines only. The controversial reds, which continued to shock drinkers with their impressive quality, remained filed under a lowly “table wine” designation. Searching for a name to describe these oddities, the term “Super Tuscans” came into the wine lexicon.

Cantina Guado al Tasso
The cantina in Guado al Tasso, where barrels of wine are aged.Courtesy of Massimiliano Londi
Courtesy of Massimiliano Londi

A pinnacle moment for the region occurred when the influential wine critic Robert Parker awarded a perfect score (100 out of 100 points) to the the 1985 vintage of Sassicaia. Suddenly, people clamored for these “Super Tuscans” from this tiny coastal area. That wine, if one is lucky enough to have in his or her possession, is valued at around $3,200 today. By 1994, Bolgheri’s reds were finally granted DOC status. Ask any producer today, though, about the phrase “Super Tuscan,” and they are adamant that the phrase be abolished as the DOC now validates their quality.

The Second Wave

Bolgheri’s second wave in the 1990s saw an influx of highly-esteemed winemaking families moving into the region. Famed Piedmont producer Angelo Gaja already had a burgeoning interest in Bordeaux grapes after experimenting with varieties in his Darmagi cuvée in the north. Upon learning about his colleagues’ success in Bolgheri, he headed south in 1996 to build his Ca’Marcanda estate, whose wines regularly appear upwards of $300 on wine lists. “Our focus is on making wines that age and try to express the personality and taste of a place,” explains Gaia Gaja, Angelo’s daughter and fifth generation of the Gaja family. “Wine has soul—which can be translated as terroir—and this personality needs time to come out.” Major Italian wine houses such as Allegrini, Berlucchi, and Frescobaldi (the latter of which bought Ornellaia) also established properties for their portfolios. From the 1995 vintage, when wines started using the DOC designate on labels, the prices of wines jumped 185% in ten years.

It would seem counterintuitive to stop growth, especially given the high prices—Ornellaia could cost $75 in 1999 (or by today’s standards, $113) and even $240 in a post-market-crash 2008—these wines commanded. But in 2011, at the behest of the winemakers, the Bolgheri DOC closed, meaning no new wines could be labeled with DOC status, winemakers could only work with their existing vineyards, and no new estates would be allowed into the DOC. Vineyard surface area had increased nearly ten times since the 1990s, says Binda, and estates decided to focus on what they already had and maximize their current holdings.

Saved historical bottles inside the Archivio Storico at Ornellaia.Courtesy of Ornellaia
Courtesy of Ornellaia

Prior to this point, “it was just experimentation,” explains Binda. “None of them reached the top of their potential. Now, almost everyone understands the path that they should take with the wine.”

Ornellaia, for example, put a focus on Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. “We’ve discovered there are some beautiful soils very much suited to Cabernet Franc, which is certainly the grape variety we’re getting most excited about,” says Heinz.

The Next Wave

This next stage might possibly be Bolgheri’s golden age as estates have had time to reflect on success while finding ways to strive forward. In a rare decree that will take effect in a few weeks, each existing winemaker will be granted 10 more hectares (about 25 acres) of vineyards for DOC status in order to expand production. This means estates will be able to upgrade 10 hectares of existing vineyards and include the fruit in DOC-designate wines. However, new estates are still not allowed to join the 45-member strong organization. The expansion “is not once-in-a-lifetime… but more or less,” says Binda. With this small expansion, winemakers will be able to keep up with ever-increasing demand while still maintaining the integrity of the wine’s high-quality reputation.

Albiera Antinori thinks this allowance will also help improve quality within the overall region and “keep the concentration on doing things better, more than [just] augmenting quantity.” Looking back, the meteoric rise of Bolgheri’s reputation stunned even those closest to the story. According to Antinori, “It was a shot in the dark: between innovation, discovering a new area, using foreign varieties. It’s a little miracle in Italy.”