If there is any part of Italy that has a true vocation for French grape varieties, it has to be the Tuscan Maremma, that range of hills and scrub that lies just behind the Tyrrhenean coast. Cabernet and Merlot had already achieved fame there almost 40 years ago with Sassicaia and Ornellaia, before Angelo Gaja (for reasons other than rhyming) chose to make a major land purchase and build his monumental new winery there. Only gradually did native Maremmana grape growers join in the party, though in the past 20 years more and more of them have realized that the outsiders were on to a good thing. The latest entry, and a very promising one it is, is Aia Vecchia, whose young scion, Elia Pellegrini, describes his family as “the last of the real Bolgheri blood.”
Bolgheri, of course, is where Sassicaia originates, a small country town with a pretty centro storico and a famous avenue of cypress trees leading up to it. There is a poem about them by Giosuè Carducci that almost every Italian schoolchild at some point has to memorize, so the spot was well imbedded in the Italian consciousness before Sassicaia called the wine world’s attention to it. The Pellegrini family has been growing grapes there for generations, and when they decided to produce their own wine they obtained the advice of the near-legendary Tibor Gal, a Hungarian, in selecting sites and varieties. After Gal’s shockingly early death in an auto accident, they worked with agronomist Daniel Schuster, a New Zealander. They produced their first commercial bottling (of Lagone, of which more below) in 1998. The name Aia Vecchia is not, as may appear, an attempt to ride on Sassicaia’s coattails, but the name of a tiny town that lies between Bolgheri and Castagneto Carducci.
Like the consultants they opted to work with, the grapes the Pellegrinis chose to grow show a distinctly international bent. In the Aia Vecchia vineyards, most of which lie within the Bolgheri DOC zone, they planted Cabernet franc, Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Petit verdot, and – oh yes – Sangiovese. On their acreage in Grosseto province, they grow Merlot and Viognier in addition to Sangiovese and Vermentino.
The preeminent figure in Pellegrini family history is Elio’s great-grandfather Ugo, who was known locally as Sor Ugo. Sor is local dialect for Sir, an honorific bestowed by popular acclaim because of his local importance, and now the name of the family’s top-of-the-line red wine.
The latest generation, Elia, hadn’t planned to join the family business just yet: He hoped to play professional soccer, which in Italy is rock-, movie-, and TV-stardom all rolled in one. And he did: he was playing for Livorno until just a few years ago, when, as he says, “I broke my knee and my heart.” Now he throws himself into wine with as much enthusiasm as he did soccer. Happily, the wines his family makes give him plenty to be enthusiastic about.
Over a very pleasant recent lunch at Craft Bar, Elia poured three of the family’s most important wines. (A fourth, Morellino di Scansano from the Grosseto property, is not imported at this time.) We started with Vermentino, a lovely white wine from the grape of the same name. Most of the Vermentino coming to the US originates in Sardinia, but the Tuscan Maremma also shows a real aptitude for it. The bottle we tasted was a 2013, entirely handled in stainless steel and containing 5% Viognier, which contributed to its herbal/mineral aroma. The round, fruity palate seemed all Vermentino, however, especially the mineral/slaty finish. All in all, a very enjoyable white wine to drink as aperitif or with light antipasti, and an excellent value at a suggested retail price of $12.
We then proceeded to the first red wine, Lagone, which is the mainstay of Aia Vecchia’s line. It too is an unquestionable value (suggested retail price: $15). Here the Bolgheri internationalism comes to the fore. Merlot (60%), Cabernet sauvignon (30%), and Cabernet franc (10%) make up the blend, which spends some time in American oak. The result is a very easy drinking, almost soft wine. A few tough tannins still showed, but this 2011 was still a very young wine, and those will no doubt soften, perhaps within the year. Lagone showed itself a fine companion to several different dishes and gives every sign that it can be a versatile dinner wine, its slightly California-inflected palate led by that soft Merlot and structured by the two Cabernets. And you can’t beat the price.
The final wine we tasted was Aia Vecchia’s top-of-the-line Sor Ugo. All the grapes for Sor Ugo come from the estate’s best Bolgheri vineyards. Cabernet sauvignon (50%), Merlot (30%), Cabernet franc (15%) and Petit verdot (5%) spend a lot of time – 18 months minimum – in new Allier oak to produce a wine that surprised me completely by how much I enjoyed it. Regular readers of this post will know that (a) I’m not at all fond of using international grapes in Italian wines, and (b) I can’t stand an oak-dominated wine. Well, Sor Ugo isn’t oak-dominated, despite all that time in barriques. Its style is international in the precise sense that it balances France and Italy quite beautifully. Sor Ugo’s aroma is very elegant, in a distinctly Bordelaise manner. On the palate, its Bordelaise cassis is harmonized with Mediterranean macchia, Italian minerality, and bright acidity. The whole is very fine and quite elegant, and the 2010 we tasted gave every indication that it would age nicely for easily another 10 years. The Pellegrinis’ goal has been to make a wine of Bolgheri quality at a less-than-Bolgheri price. With Sor Ugo’s suggested retail price of $35, I’d say they have come very close indeed to achieving that goal.