Last month we introduced you to the talented and passionate winemaker Michele Satta and softly hinted at further articles about his eponymous winery. Since founding his company in 1983, a year before the official recognition of the Bolgheri DOC, Michele Satta has been farming 23 hectares of vines that produce about 150,000 bottles of wine per year. Today we’re bringing you an exclusive look at the man and the philosophies that drive his winemaking.
Michele Satta is explorative, if not a maverick. His willingness to break from tradition has allowed him to excel with grapes such as Sangiovese, Syrah and Teroldego in a region where they hadn’t been planted. Compulsive is too strong a word, because Satta is deliberate and firmly believes in tradition. This is illustrated by what he recently told me: “In 1991, I planted my first vineyard with the consciousness of wanting to produce a wine that could be faithful to the wake created by Sassicaia and Ornellaia, but also to be true to my personal vision and experiences with and in the vineyard. Hence, the need to plant alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grapes that I thought could express the Bolgheri Mediterranean terroir even better; Sangiovese and Syrah.”
The result of this seemingly simple innovation was the Super Tuscan Piastraia, first produced in 1994 and the wine which changed everything for Satta.
Today Satta runs his family estate alongside his son Giacomo. Recently we caught up with Michele to taste three of his reds and delve deeper into the wealth of knowledge so innocently masked by his penetrating blue eyes.
Michele, thank you so much for sharing some time with me and my Tuscan Vines readers. I also want to thank Giacomo for aiding with some translation when required!
“Grazie a te Giovanni. Your website is a wonderful service to lovers of Italian wine and we are happy to be part of the inclusion.”
As I mentioned above, you believed in Sangiovese in Bolgheri from an early stage. In fact you have said that you think Sangiovese is capable of reflecting the Bolgheri terroir even better than Cabernet or Merlot. If that is the case, why do you think Bolgheri hasn’t permitted 100% Sangiovese wines to be labeled as Bolgheri DOC?
“That’s true. The first wineries in Bolgheri were born following the idea of Incisa della Rocchetta (Sassicaia owner) to make a great Bordeaux wine in Italy for the very first time. At that time, it was easier to communicate a new place in Italy ready to be compared to one of the most important places in the world to make wines. We had the opportunity to say “ Hey, Tuscany could be something more than Sangiovese!” Even if I agree that Bolgheri is probably the only place in Italy to make some very good international wines, Sangiovese finds here an incredible expression, of course different from Chianti and Montalcino, but very tasty nonetheless.”
Chianti and Montalcino have long traditions. That’s one thing. But Morellino di Scansano are new like Bolgheri. How do you feel Sangiovese grown in Bolgheri differs from Sangiovese grown in Maremma – say near Grosseto in Morellino di Scansano?
“All of the places can reflect Sangiovese differently, that’s why they all have their place. Generally, I think Sangiovese in Bolgheri differs from Sangiovese in Maremma in the way other wines differ. We have more elegance, a better balance between alcohol and sweeter tannins.”
Today you run the estate with your son Giacomo and your daughter Benedetta. What roles do the three of you play in the business? Are you still making the wine alone or do you collaborate with your son?
“My daughter Benedetta is involved in the administrative part, my son is taking my path and he is starting to make wine. The size of the winery allows me to continue to make wine with Giacomo. We control every single step. It’s a family business.”
You speak often of your appreciation for the constant movement of sea and wind near Bolgheri. How do you think that impacts the vines and how close are vineyards to the sea?
“The vineyards are only 5 km from the sea. The sea is so important for the temperature, especially during the summer. It’s never too hot and there is a big difference between the temperature of the night and the temperatures during the day. Without the sea we wouldn’t be able to make that complexity in the grapes. Than from the sea blows a lot of wind that cleans the moisture from the air which allows the radiation of the sun to be indirect and also helps to prevent fungus on the plants.”
Ok, let’s taste the first wine, your 2009 I Castagni. This wine is an example of your explorational spirit. It’s derived from a small single vineyard of 1.5 hectares and is a blend of 70% Cabernet, 20% Syrah and 10% Teroldego. Deep purple in color, the wine is incredibly complex on both the nose and palate. Crushed ripe black fruits combine with milk chocolate, licorice, eucalyptus, liquefied licorice, pipe tobacco and salinity on the nose and palate. Very, very long on the finish. It’s remarkable and despite the warmer than average vintage, this wine remains very fresh. I know many consider Piastraia to be your flagship wine, but this is hard to beat! Aging takes place in 1/3 new, 1/3 first and second passage barrels and lasts for two years. Once bottled, the wine rests an additional 18 months before release. 96 points. Retail is about $100. Disclosure: This bottle was an importer provided sample.
So, in Italian, “I Castagni” means chestnuts. Why is the vineyard named that? Are there chestnut trees in it or nearby? Does that impact the wine in any way?
“Yes, chestnut trees surround the vineyard, that’s where the name comes from. The trees don’t impact the wine directly. Also, the main village in Bolgheri is called Castagneto Carducci. Castagneto means the place of chestnut trees. Chestnuts are very popular down here.”
Piastraia has always interested me because it is equal parts Cabernet, Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah. What personality do you think that wine displays and do you think the personality changes as the wine gets older? Sangiovese is very elegant. Do you feel it is overwhelmed by the international varietals in the blend?
“Piastraia is the way I see Bolgheri blends. International varietals with Mediterranean grapes like Sangiovese. Sangiovese gives a lot to the balance of the wine, a lot of freshness. With Piastraia I don’t want to show the potential of Sangiovese, but the potential of my terroir through different grapes and the way they interact with each other.”
And that terroir is created by soil and sea?
“Yes, certo Giovanni. The soils are of medium consistency, with a slight tendency towards the sandy grain size. Beyond the quantitative description of the size and fertility of the soil, it is good to say that this area is close to the hills of Castagneto Carducci and to the Donoratico Tower. This proximity allows for important water reserves in the soil during the summer, because the hills collect all the spring and summer rains, allowing them to empty on to the Bolgheri plain.
The presence of the sea is of significant importance for three reasons. The first is that it reflects the sunlight, thus allowing for a quantity and quality of light that allows a full and complete functioning of the photosynthetic apparatus of the plant, bringing the grape to very complex phenolic ripening. The second very important aspect is that the sea acts as a thermal flywheel: in definition, the summers are not too hot during the day and yet, cool at night. In this way the plant is not stressed, but rather is induced to a more fluid functioning of the secondary metabolism. Finally, there are winds blowing toward the coast. The wind is important because it makes the air less saturated with water. Moisture is one of the major causes of the development of fungal diseases and largely reflects the light of the sun, reducing the radiation on the plants.”
Ok, let’s taste the Michele Satta 2014 Piastraia. As mentioned above, the blend of the 2014 is equal parts Cabernet, Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah. The grapes are sourced from 5 different vineyards on the estate. In the glass, the wine is a medium purple color with violet reflections. The aromas of the wine are elegant and very refined. Polished notes of crushed cherry, vanilla, cocoa, Mediterranean herb and blue flowers are easily noticeable. My wife loved the way it smelled. On the palate, the wine is equally as elegant. Round ripe tannins are supported by crushed red and black plum flavors. Notes of dark cocoa bean, cracked black pepper and eucalyptus are also noted. As the wine glides across your palate you notice the ripe round fruit flavors, then the mouth watering sapidity which gives way to the tannic grip on the back end. An exceptional 2014 and clearly has the ability to age with time. Good value! 94 points. Retail is about $35 though the 2014 is not yet released. Disclosure: This bottle was an importer provided sample.
Michele, in Central Tuscany, many winemakers tell me of increased problems from Capriolo (deer) and Cinghiale. Do you have significant issues with these animals in Bolgheri? How do you combat them if so?
“We have problems mainly with the Cinghiale. They dig under the vines, they make burrows, they eat the grapes of course! The only way to combat them is to use the right fencing to exclude it from the vineyard. But it’s not as easy as that sounds.”
Let’s try another of your wines. This time, your 100% Syrah. Do you have a few words about this wine before we taste?
“In 1991 I planted the first vineyard of Syrah. The choice of Syrah stemmed from the will to represent to the maximum the own aromatic complexity of our Mediterranean terroir, as well as to realize a personal identification with some great wines from the Rhone. Knowing that the average age of the vineyards would need to be of at least over 15 years, I patiently awaited their sojourn, in order to bring out to the maximum each and every characteristic of this inexhaustible grape.”
The 2011 Michele Satta Syrah is a deep blackish purple color in the glass. Fully opaque. Indeed it is very aromatic with ripe black plums punctuated by dark cocoa, new leather, black olive and smoked meat notes on the nose. On the palate, this full bodied wine is tannic, but finely woven and balanced well by large scaled black fruits, espresso bean, cocoa and flinty shale. It’s like Napa meets Northern Rhone with a punch of Tuscan acidity. I forsee a long aging here if you have the patience to refrain from opening. 92 points. Retails at about $32. Disclosure: This bottle was an importer provided sample.
You have said that 2012 was a very dry year with no rain for months. Yet the vines remained green. It’s a challenge to make the plant devote its energy to fruit and not foliage. How have the drier, hotter summers impacted your approach in the vineyards?
“In Bolgheri we are very lucky because we have a lot of water in the soils, the soils close to the hills act as a basin and as I say before; the soils are deep enough to store water during the winter. The 2017 vintage so far is very similar to 2012. The only thing you can do is to avoid big cuts to the plant. So there is no need to cut the branches on the top, and I will not remove many leaves. The plant is not able to support many stresses. Then I have no irrigation system so I pick grapes that are an expression of the vintage! The plants give attention to the fruit only if they are able to get water enough from the soil.”
The next question was submitted by a reader of mine and relates to your belief in Bolgheri as a premium wine region. He asks: What more does Bolgheri have to do to compete with Bordeaux or Napa Valley?
“That’s interesting because I think Tuscany is already one of the greatest wine regions in the whole world and Bolgheri is a small part of that region. But specifically, Bolgheri needs only more time to stay on the market. Bordeaux was born many years ago. They had time to conquer the market as much as they needed to grow with the name Bordeaux. Often the quality of our wines is not so far away from the best Bordeaux and some times they are better! It will just take more time before the markets realize this.”
My readers reside around the world. What is new at Michele Satta? What would you want them to know about the estate or your wines that they can’t find out from your website?
“I think wine is so interesting because while you are drinking you are crossing the bridge that link to persons: the winemaker and the customer. My philosophy is to make wines that are able to tell where I live and the choices I made. I always work looking for that in the wine. That’s why I’m still planting new varietals to try, new barrels to make fermentations, new blends and so on. A good wine maker told me once that a whole life is not enough to understand the wine you make.”
Long time readers will remember this final question. When you sit down with your family, when the day is done and you’re tired from working, what other wines beside your own do you like to drink?
I like wines that tell a story. The ones when you drink it and you say: Ah, that varietal, that place, this vintage. Wines that have history behind them, wines with their own identity, wines that you can not repeat. Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Nerello Mascalese are my favorite. I’m a big fan of Radda in Chianti and Etna wines. In my heart there is a special place for Burgundy too. I also love Verdicchio, Carricante, and Fiano di Avellino! But most of all Giovanni, a story about the place and time the wine was born!”
Michele, I am always writing about wines that tell a story. It seems the more I taste and write the more stories I find. The true success stories begin with passion like you exhibit. I cannot wait to taste and read the chapters you have left to tell! Grazie tanto for being with me and my readers today. Salute!
“Prego Giovanni! ”
Want to find Michele Satta’s wines? Go here: Wine Searcher
Have a follow up question for Michele? Leave it in the comments section and I will have it answered!