In the 1940s, the wonderfully named Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, an Italian aristocrat with a yearning for Bordeaux, planted Cabernet Sauvignon on a stony patch of his coastal estate in Tuscany’s Maremma region – in defiance of local custom insisting on the native grape, Sangiovese.
The wine, Sassicaia, turned out to be extraordinary, as did another grown from illegal international varieties, Ornellaia, that the marchese’s nephew Lodovico Antinori grew on the estate next door. Today, both “SuperTuscans” are world famous, and the regulations have been changed to permit them – in fact, Sassicaia has its own DOC (the official Italian designation of quality, which is similar to the French appellation contrôlée). Cabernet, Merlot and even Syrah coexist with the native Sangiovese, and everyone is the better for it. There is a lesson here that Italy’s resurgent far right would do well to learn.
Borders, meant to simplify life, so often do the opposite. Drive north from Bolgheri, past the Sassicaia vineyards, and you enter the DOC called Terratico di Bibbona, although you wouldn’t know this unless the locals told you. The vines don’t immediately change, but the labels must.
Lodovico Antinori, once of Ornellaia, now has an estate, Tenuta di Biserno, here. The wines still cheerfully avoid Sangiovese and are labelled Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), the delineation that the Italian government came up with in 1992 for quality wine that doesn’t follow strict DOC rules.
The Bibbona wines, so much less famous than their neighbours, are beautiful – sturdier and less elegant than the Bolgheri wines, due to higher slopes and hotter sun, although whether the changed conditions begin where the new border starts is a moot point. Borders are a strange blend of history, geography and sheer human perversity, and in this they resemble wine.
Nearly 1,000 miles from Tuscany, two very different men are intent on making Italian wines available and comprehensible, even if no entrepreneur on Earth can make them simple. “I’m a wine socialist,” says Luca Dusi, founder of Passione Vino in Shoreditch: “everyone should have access to a well-made bottle.”
Dusi imports small producers directly from Italy, to take home or open (£10 corkage) at small tables beneath wallpaper as effusive as its owner, accompanied by simple, freshly made dishes: dried cod from Norway, rehydrated on-site; superb mortadella. When I expressed an interest in Tuscany, he brought out a Sangiovese, L’Erta Poggio della Bruna, made by brothers Paolo and Lorenzo Marchionni near Florence: a spicy mass of dried fruit, labelled as IGT.
Dickie Beilenberg, of the terrific new Brixton restaurant Maremma, also imports wines from small estates in Tuscany. A red from Bolgheri went beautifully with homemade parpadelle and wild boar ragú and its name, Ai Confini del Bosco (to the borders of the wood) served as a reminder that some boundaries are more important than others. The vineyards of the Maremma are better for the discoveries made by breaking the rules; we are better off for obscure wines brought across borders to our table.
Lines must be drawn, of course, or the world is chaos and wine unintelligible. The trick is to draw the right ones, and know when to respect them, and why.
Next week: Felicity Cloake on food
This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down