Bolgheri, on the Tuscan coast, is littered with the greats from the Italian wine making world: Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Antinori, Gaja. These behemoths have set the bar high for both quality and price for the region. So when you find yourself surrounded by the them you may be excused for feeling a little intimidated as proximity to greatness has never guaranteed quality. But, if you are of a sensible disposition, it should encourage you to prove your worthiness.
The Donna Olimpia estate has been in existence since 1898 (hence the name) but was purchased in 2001 by Guido Folonari. They have focused their efforts on those grape varieties that have proven to do well in this region: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. It is flanked on the north side by the Tenuta San Guido estate, that of Sassicaia fame, to the south by Marchesi Antinori’s Guado al Tasso, and to the east by Ornellaia.
We happened upon Donna Olimpia, not at a tasting, but over dinner on a warm evening in Bologna, a much kinder way to be introduced to something special. Having never heard of them we took a chance and ordered a bottle of their Millepassi Bolgheri Superiore and were not disappointed. It was full and powerful but with an underlying complexity that kept us guessing. On our return to the UK we went in search of it again as we like to be sure our taste buds haven’t been misled by the enjoyable context of that first taste. Having found just two cases available and recognising its quality once again, we went in search of the producers. We would love to continue this story with enticing tales of a trip to Bolgheri but sadly, travel was not such an option by this time. Instead a mini tasting in London of their full range gave us the chance to see how the quality translated to their other wines and where the value truly lay.
We were reassured that our first instinct was correct: the Millepassi is delicious. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot; it is noticeably Bordeaux like in its make up but has all the characteristics of a Super Tuscan which is what make these wines so interesting. The current release is the 2016 which is being hailed as one of the great years in Bolgheri. And Donna Olimpia have done a wonderful job on this vintage. It is still young but with air and a good meal you can really get a picture of what this wine is all about. It is big and punchy to start with, lots of fruit and tannins but then starts to settle and evolve with more nuanced, aromatic layers emerging. It has all the claret like tobacco and leather notes but there is also a delicate side to it which we would expect to become more noticeable with a bit more age.
What we really appreciate about this wine is the quality and thought that goes into it and how well it represents the Bolgheri style whilst still remaining approachable. It is a serious wine but it hasn’t reached the heady prices of some of the others.
2016 Donna Olimpia 1898 Millepassi Bolgeri Superiore £48 per bottle
2012 Donna Olimpia 1898 Millepassi Bolgeri Superiore £52 per bottle
Single vineyard, small batch wines are a bit of a trend among Tuscan producers and Donna Olimpia have followed suit with Orizzonte, their 100% Petit Verdot wine. However, always one for a challenge, Guido Folonari has created a Super Tuscan that has broken the Super Tuscan Rules: to be classified as a Bolgheri DOC you cannot make a wine containing more than 30% Petit Verdot. So, like those wine makers that broke the original rules, Mr Folonari has followed his instincts and created a wine, not because you’re allowed to, but because it feels right.
Petit Verdot is usually used in small quantities in Bordeaux blends to add acidity and balance. When used alone, as long as the grapes are allowed to ripen properly, it can produce a complex and characterful wine with great ageing capabilities.
The Tuscan sun has certainly ripened the Petit Verdot grapes at Donna Olimpia but the cooling sea breeze has ensured the wine is not too tannic to soften. That said, the 2015 Orizzonte is a bit of a beast. Deep red, almost black in colour with a full and silky texture, it has acidity and freshness on the nose but with plenty of depth. Whilst young there is a tightness in the flavour but with time this settles and the balance of berry, spice and oak starts to come through. It is an ever evolving wine that changes not just each year but also by each glass. We would expect this to need another 5 years in bottle to really show what it’s capable of and should last another decade and more.
This is the first vintage of Orizzonte and Donna Olimpia are quietly determined to keep production of this wine to very small quantities with just under 2000 bottles produced each year. If they can stick to their guns it will definitely be one to keep an eye on as the attention to detail and dedication to quality in this wine is impressive.
2015 Donna Olimpia 1898 Orizzonte £75 per bottle
Both the 2015 Orizzonte and 2016 Millepassi are evidence that Donna Olimpia have been quietly improving their production over the last decade and the focus on quality and complexity is edging them closer in reputation to their famous neighbours.