Until the 1960s, the coastal area of Bolgheri was typical southern Tuscan farming country, its thick undergrowth and marshland a haven for wild boar and partridge. Thanks to an aristocratic outsider from Italy's north, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, this improbable terrain has shown a remarkable propensity for producing wines equal in class and quality to cru classé Bordeaux and top Californian cabernet. It started in 1944 when the Marquis della Rochetta decided to try to recreate the taste of his beloved claret and harness the special luminosity and maritime climate of the region. He planted a small plot of cabernet sauvignon in the wooded hills 350 metres above the beaches of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The result, Sassicaia, eventually proved to be the blueprint for the region's worldwide renown today.
Brought up in a castle in Piemonte in north-west Italy, the Marquis had been persuaded to move by his new wife Clarice della Gherardesca, following her inheritance of 4,500 acres of Tuscan land. It was just as well he had the foresight to set aside 25 cases of his new baby each year, because the wine he made was derided as filth at the start. But a decade later, a few bottles from the 1940s were dusted down, and the ugly duckling had become a very fine swan. Vindicated, the energetic Marquis started all over again and in 1968, his nephew Piero Antinori persuaded his uncle to let him sell Sassicaia, a pure cabernet, on a commercial basis.
Coincidentally, the father of Piero and his younger brother Lodovico, married Clarice's sister Carlotta, so the Antinoris inherited the other half of the Gherardesca land. Out of this, the two brothers developed their own wines, Piero at Guado al Tasso and Lodovico at Ornellaia. The latter won Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2001, helping cement Bolgheri's reputation as Italy's little Bordeaux. Ornellaia commands £250-odd a bottle today, but its second wine, 2006 Serre Nuove, £29.95, £161.70/6, Armit (020-7908 0660), is less dauntingly priced.
Bolgheri's growing reputation has lured some very high-profile figures. Piermario Cavallari was one of the first of the new intake at Grattamacco, along with Michele Satta, another son of Lombardy. Cinzia Campolmi is one of the few with local ties to the region and her Le Macchiole estate's herbal, cassis-rich 2005 Paleo, £39.95, Lea & Sandeman (020-7244 0522), is one of the world's great pure cabernet franc reds. More recently, even bigger Italian guns have ploughed a furrow in Bolgheri's white clay and limestone soils, most notably Piemonte's Angelo Gaja, whose 2004 Ca' Marcanda, £62.65, Armit, with its black olive, spicy liquorice and bittersweet dark chocolatey fruitiness, is an ultra-stylish, albeit pricey, blend.
In 2002, Lodovico sold Ornellaia to Robert Mondavi (it's now owned by Frescobaldi). Joining forces for the first time, he and his brother set their sights on the 90-hectare Tenuta di Biserno in Bibbona on the hillside slopes of the Alta Maremma. Among the promising results to date is a spicy and succulently fruity 2006 Insoglio del Cinghiale Toscana, £14.99 – £17.50, D Byrne, Clitheroe (01200 423152), Philglas & Swiggot (020-7402 0002), Portland Wine Cellars (01704 534299). The launch in the spring of the new cabernet franc-based flagship wine, Biserno, will tell whether Biserno is the new Ornellaia. Given Lodovico's instincts and track record, only a fool would bet against it.