Tenuta dell’Ornellaia “Masseto,” Toscana IGT, 2005 (Folio Fine Wine Partners, $300-$350): I’ve forgotten the vintage, but I can still recall the taste of the first Masseto I experienced many years ago. I had never encountered an Italian wine that was so plump and so dense with fruit character. As a Merlot, it was also vastly different from the fairly austere and simple Merlots from Italy’s northeastern regions -- a revelation.
Masseto is the star of the outstanding collection of wines made by the Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, in the Bolgheri wine zone on the Tuscan coast. The estate was founded in 1981 by Ludovico Antinori and now, after various changes in ownership, is the property of the Frescobaldi family. The wine called Masseto comes from a single vineyard of the same name, whose 17 acres are planted entirely to Merlot.
Merlot is not traditional in Bolgheri; the great, original Bolgheri red, Sassicaia, is mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% Cabernet Franc, and the wine called Ornellaia is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and 27% Merlot. According to Ornellaia winemaker Axel Heinz, it was Andre Tchelistcheff, Ornellaia’s first wine consultant, who “created” Masseto because he recommended planting Merlot in order to distinguish the Ornellaia estate from that of Sassicaia. In fact, the soil of the Masseto hillside -- predominantly grey clay on a bedrock of deep, sedimented clay -- is particularly suited to Merlot.
In 1986, the Tenuta dell’Ornellaia made a wine called “Merlot di Ornellaia,” and in 1987, Masseto debuted. It quickly won international acclaim as one of the world’s finest Merlots.
The 2005, from a vintage framed by two stellar years, is the currently available Masseto. It is an engaging Masseto that is already drinking beautifully, although it can undoubtedly develop for ten or more years. The 2006, which the winery will release at the end of this year, is a more concentrated wine, but the 2005 offers plenty of quality and here-and-now pleasure.
The aroma of the 2005 is medium intense and perfumed, suggesting fresh fruit -- plums and dark berries -- along with rather exotic spicy notes such as sandalwood. The nose is open and easy to appreciate, unusually for such a young wine. The wine’s flavors, too, are fresh and open, ripe plum and chocolate, with spicy accents, a touch of minerality, and barely a trace of oakiness. The wine is ample in your mouth as ideally a great Merlot should be, but its frame is lean. The winery’s tasting notes mention a “tremendous tannic structure that is atypical for Merlot” but in tasting the wine on two occasions, I find the wine’s soft, velvety texture and fresh fruit character more striking than its tannin. The rear palate reveals very fine-grained tannin, and it is tannin that creates the wine’s lean frame but this is a soft, ample wine overall. It has beauty more than power.
This is a unique Merlot that combines fresh fruity character, which you would expect more from a New World wine, with the lean structure typical of Bordeaux. It is a pleasure to drink, to the mind and the palate.