Exploring Bolgheri: The Happy Place for Cabernet Franc

By | 2 April 2024

Has Cabernet Franc found its ideal site in this small pocket of coastal Tuscany?


Sarah Marsh MW

“Bolgheri is the best place in the world to ripen Cabernet Franc perfectly.” A bold claim from Riccardo Binda, Director of the Bolgheri Consorzio, but not without merit. I didn’t set out to write about the ascendancy of Cabernet Franc in Bolgheri, but on a flying visit to Podere Il Castellaccio on the Segalari hill I was intrigued by their silky-textured Cabernet Franc.

Cabernet Franc started life in Bolgheri as a supporting act to Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon. Sassicaia has a smidgen (15 percent). But with warmer summers the variety has won favour for its freshness, fruit, and texture as part of a blend and increasingly as a standalone wine. 

During the last decade, Cabernet Franc’s surface area expanded from 7 percent to 16 percent of the 1,544ha (3,815 acres) vineyard land in Bolgheri. The designated area is limited, spanning only 13km (8 miles) in length and 7km (4 miles) in width, and planting is restricted therein. As a result, most of the single-variety Cabernet Franc wines—14 out of 20—are found outside the circle of trust, that 1,365ha [3,370 acres] presently authorized for DOC wine production in Bolgheri and Bolgheri Sassicaia, and these wines get classified under the IGT title Toscana Rosso.

However, it’s worth noting that the Bolgheri Consorzio recognized Cabernet Franc’s potential in 2011 and allowed its use as a single-varietal DOC wine in tandem with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Discussions of a slight expansion to the DOC area are ongoing, potentially encompassing some IGT outliers.


Bolgheri is an evolving region, unapologetically young, unrestricted by tradition and able to adapt to changes in climate and taste. The vineyards average only 17 years of age. When the wave of plantations began to surge in the 1990s, Merlot was in vogue and well-suited to the terroir, but in the recent hot summers Merlot tends to ripen too fast especially at lower altitudes. It accumulates high sugar levels rapidly and it’s difficult to attain full skin ripening. Bolgheri producers express concern when discussing managing Merlot vineyards. Leaf cover is only partially effective. In the 2021 vintage, which was released in January, I noticed that single-varietal Merlot and Merlot-centric blends appeared somewhat jammy.

The 2021 summer was hot, well above average, although there were sufficient water reserves from a wet spring. The wines are rich, but with some of the elegance of 2019, the most refined of recent vintages. But 2022, like 2017, was very hot. The trend is undeniable, and producers are reconsidering choices in the vineyard, while a change of approach in the winery is par for the course for those producers in search of greater elegance in line with current tastes.

At Ca’Marcanda, Angelo Gaja took the radical step in 2008 of ripping it out his Merlot. Ca’Macanda started as a Merlot-dominated blend, but, after this dramatic change in direction, 2015 was the first release of the new blend of Cabernet Sauvignon supported by 20 percent Cabernet Franc. Not content with this alone, Gaja is flirting with whole bunch. Most producers eschew stems which are challenging to lignify in Bolgheri, but from 2020 Ca’Marcanda has 25 percent whole bunch which is used to provide a sense of freshness while absorbing some alcohol. I tasted 2021. It’s rich but finishes fresh. This is an example of a well-established estate that has found a new style with the help of Cabernet Franc.

Le Macchiole is well known for a richly sumptuous IGT Cabernet Franc called Paleo. This estate has moved to a more delicate extraction by employing a cooler fermentation at 24–27°C (75–81°F) with fewer pump-overs during a longer vatting period of 30–43 days. Coming largely from the sandy soil of the plain, Paleo is expressively fruity, but I feel 100 percent new oak barrique rather dominates the 2019. In 2020, 5 percent of the blend was kept separately in amphora to preserve freshness to combat the riper season—and it works in a wine that is really splashing.

Now for a more recent arrival. Caccia al Piano began producing in earnest from 2013. I was drawn to their breezy bright and energetic Bolgheri Superiore 2021 which comes from a single vineyard, San Biagio. This drapes over a 180m (590ft) ridge with northwest and southeast exposures and rocky calcareous clay soil. The blend includes 40 percent Cabernet Franc which provides upfront fruit when the wine is young, while the Cabernet Sauvignon is there for structure and ageing potential. The 50 percent of new oak used for barrel ageing doesn’t dominate. After a year it is blended and moved to larger older oak. I like the saline finish.

The vineyards of Bolgheri span from sea level to a height of 380m (1,250ft). The vineyards situated on the hillsides are known for their fresh fruit quality but Bolgheri is a warm region and it’s typical for the wine to reach 14.5% alcohol. Vineyards situated on slopes facing the sea, including those of Podere Il Castellaccio, located 4.5km (2.8 miles) from the Tyrrhenian Sea, make the most of the saline coastal breezes. Nonetheless, according to Alessandro Scappini, owner of Castellaccio, the sunlight reflection from the sea, termed as the “mirror effect,” can prove stronger on these slopes where the vineyards get a clear view of the sea, in comparison to that noticed on the plane.

Scappini owns a small 0.5ha (1.2 acres) vineyard of Cabernet Franc, which was planted in 2009 on a blue clay-schistous soil that retains moisture, and faces the sea. His Castellaccio vintage of 2021 reaches a robust 15% alcohol level yet is fresh and full of energy with intriguing notes of tart, bitter cherry, and dark chocolate. Part of the ageing process is conducted in concrete vats to retain the freshness. The 2020 vintage, having had more time to develop, displays a balanced, sleek, and streamlined character. Scappini’s wines are known for their smooth textures.

Located higher in the hills at an altitude of 400m (1,310ft) and 10 km (6 miles) from the coast is the Tenuta Sette Cieli, which features a vineyard spanning 10ha (24 acres), partially lying outside the Bolgheri delimitation. Elena Pozzolini, the winemaker, shares that the Cabernet Franc is harvested 15 days later at this altitude compared to vines on the plane. Here, the peak mid-summer temperatures touch 30-31°C (86–88°F) in contrast to 38–39° (100–102°F) on the lower levels. The vineyard is planted on calcareous marly and quartz soils which maintain adequate moisture and prevent the vines from becoming stressed.

Having made wine for 23 years, Pozzolini has adapted her method over the past decade and now opts for a cooler, longer fermentation period and shorter oak aging. The Tenuta Sette Cieli Scipio IGT Toscana 2019 displays delightful blackcurrant flavors. Despite its high-altitude stature, it is surprisingly rich with a vibrant and energetic texture. Hints of vanilla and asphalt can be detected, with a finish that is juicy with a captivating aroma reminiscent of the garrigue.

Cabernet Franc from around the world often leans too heavily on its pyrazines which results in a sparse, herbaceous profile that does not appeal to my taste. In Bolgheri though, Cabernet Franc can achieve phenolic ripeness, resulting in delightfully fruity wines with fine, silky tannins. The Cabernet Franc in Bolgheri exudes a captivating aroma of soft garden herbs, along with a faint hint of tomato leaf. Even though the alcohol levels in Bolgheri are high, Cabernet Franc helps to balance this out. Though the wines may not completely capture the terroir, they do reflect it well.

This is particularly noticeable in the southern part of Bolgheri. Here, at Tenuta Meraviglia, Cabernet Franc is planted on a unique geological formation of marine and volcanic origin. Rhyolites, which are quite rare in Tuscany and only found in Bolgheri, along with the elevated altitude of around 150m and the sea-influenced microclimate, contribute to the savoury, miso minerality and fine texture of their wines. The ownership, team, and consultant Alberto Antonini, are also associated with Dievole in Chianti Classico.

The 2020 Meraviglia Bolgheri DOC (14%) is refreshingly juicy and leafy and the alcohol content is not overpowering; indeed, it is quite trim. The tannins are light and crisp and I enjoy the tingling, mineral finish which is quite characteristic. Meraviglia’s wines are priced fairly, even though they are from Bolgheri.

The Maestro di Cava Bolgheri Superiore DOC 2018 (13.5%), chosen from only the best vines, is even more impressive. It has a silky texture thanks to the tannins and a smoky, soft graphite feel. The wet summer and the influence of Cabernet Franc create a powerful yet elegant wine. Delicate minty notes enhance the freshness and layer the palate with intense flavours. I particularly enjoy the savoury element and the long-lasting, lead-pencil finish. The only disappointing aspect is the hefty bottle, which doesn’t do the wine or our environment any justice.

Meraviglia has exclusively chosen Cabernet Franc for their red wine, observing that the grape shows an exceptional compatibility with the volcanic soil of this specific area in Bolgheri. Certain producers possessing more extensive plantations are also choosing Cabernet Franc for their premium product.

Poggio al Tesoro, the Bolgheri estate owned by Marilisa Allegrini, features an iconic wine dedicated to Marilisa’s brother Walter that is entirely composed of Cabernet Franc. The Dedicato a Walter Bolgheri DOC Superiore is produced using grapes from two rows within Poggio al Tesoro’s 7ha (7 acres) Via Bolgherese vineyard in the “Soprastrada,” the most prestigious section of the Bolgheri region. Located above the Via Bolgherese at a slight elevation of 56m (184ft) above sea level, the soil is a mineral-rich blend of red sandstone and dense compact clays. The vines, densely planted, are 30 years old. The 2018 vintage, matured in 100% new oak, is dense, leathery, assertive, and hefty at 15% alcohol, but simultaneously lively and refreshingly fruity. Though it may have a hint of the herbal about it, this dimension is balanced by a pronounced intensity of fruit. This is a compact wine, powerful through the finish, and requires further aging to fully reveal its nuances.

I admit, the motive behind my visit to Bolgheri was to sample the scarce Tuscan grape, Pugnitello. Given the vast array of indigenous Italian grape varieties, I don’t typically find myself drawn to those from Bordeaux when I’m touring the country. However, as someone deeply interested in the impact of terrain on wine, I was irresistibly drawn to the synergy between Cabernet Franc and this niche piece of coastal Tuscany. It’s here where the Cabernet Franc grape finds its true calling, and Bolgheri finds a sincere advocate for its unique terroir.

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