Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bolgheri on a budget (almost)

 Photo: Tenuta Argentiera's Jeanette Servidio

There is a small vineyard area on Italy’s Tuscan coast called Bolgheri that has more in common with Bordeaux than with Tuscany.

This appellation is dominated not by Sangiovese – as it was years ago -  but rather by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The producers here make red wines every bit as elegant and collectible as Bordeaux’s top reds.

The fifth largest winery in the appellation, Tenuta Argentiera, recently sent its sales and marketing manager, Jeanette Servidio, to host vertical tastings in various cities, including Vancouver, of six vintages of its flagship wine, Argentiera Bolgheri Superiore, along with two other reds it makes.

They are worth seeking out as exemplars of the superb quality of Bolgheri reds. Because Tenuta Argentiera is not as well known as some other producers, its flagship wine is not nearly as expensive as Sassicaia, the wine that put Bolgheri on the map.

Tenuta Argentiera Bolgheri Superiore 2008 is available in private stores in Vancouver for about $70 a bottle. The British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch lists three better-known Bolgheri wines. Sassicaia is $199 a bottle; Ornellaia is $190; and a Bolgheri from Guado al Tasso is $94. I can’t imagine how much Gaja’s Ca’ Marcanda would sell for if it were listed.

The roots of Sassicaia go back to 1944 when Italian Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon in the region now known as Bolgheri. It was then a variety not allowed in any Italian appellation. However, he was not producing a commercial wine but only a very fine wine for personal consumption in his household.

In time, the Marchese’s son and a nephew, Piero Antinori, convinced him to release the wine commercially, beginning with the 1968 vintage. Ten years later, Hugh Johnson and two other British wine writers organized a blind tasting of Sassicaia 1972 against a number of Bordeaux reds. Sassicaia won, drawing serious consumer and collector interest to Bolgheri.

Such were the appellation rules in Tuscany that Cabernet-based wines like Sassicaia were sold as "table wines". It was only 1994 when DOC, or appellation, was established, enabling producers to give their wines the prestige of appellation.

DOC Bolgheri takes its name from the village of Bolgheri. Many of the vineyards are on slopes between nearby mountains and the ocean. The vineyards on the mountainside grow in stony soil: “sasso” is the Italian word for stony field that inspired the name of Sassicaia. The lower slopes have richer soil, with clay and limestone. The long hang time here is ideal for maturing late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon.

This appellation, the only one in Italy based on French grape varieties, is fairly small, with about 1,000 hectares of grapes. However, there are 48 wineries here, with Tenuta Argentiera farming 60 hectares. The winery is named for the silver mines that once operated in the hills.

Argentiera’s first vintage was 2003 and is no longer available. Ms. Servidio’s vertical consisted of wines from 2004 through 2009. Some six-bottle verticals can be purchased through the winery’s Vancouver agent, Appellation Wine Marketing.

Allowing for vintage variations, the wines have a familial and elegant personality. The aromas and flavours have an abundance of black cherry, blackberry, coffee, vanilla and, in the case of 2009, even a touch of licorice. None scored less than 91, either on my score sheet or from other wine critics.

The savoury Tenuta Argentiera Bolgheri Superiore 2008 (92 points) is a full-bodied and powerful red from an excellent vintage. The 2009, not yet in this market, is already appealing but needs a few years in the cellar to develop fully. That being said, the winery holds the wines, after 18 months in barrel, in bottle another year before releasing them. That means the impatient can enjoy the wines on release.

Argentiera makes two other reds as well which are offered by some private wine stores in the Vancouver market. These are bargain Bolgheri wines.

Tenuta Argentiera Poggio al Ginepri 2009 ($29) is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. It also has the elegance that is this winery’s house style, along with aromas of spice, red fruit and vanilla, with flavours of red fruit and with luscious textures. There are notes on spice and licorice on the finish. 90

Tenuta Argentiera Villa Donoratica 2010 ($37). This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The wine is bold, with brambly blackberry and cherry aromas; with black cherry and blackberry flavours and with a long, savoury and spicy finish. 91.


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