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Ornellaia: An Italian Icon
By Michael Apstein
Jun 1, 2010
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“It was luck,” according to Axel Heinz, the winemaker at Ornellaia, that accounted for the extraordinarily rapid ascent of Ornellaia in the eyes of the world.  “It was lucky that Mario Incisa della Rocchetta [owner of Sassicaia] planted Bordeaux varieties when [in the 1940s] and where he did [Bolgheri].  Remember, there were no consultants or elaborate soil testing back then to help determine what to plant and where to plant it.”  But the story of Ornellaia’s success is far more than luck.  There’s good ol’ fashioned sibling rivalry, a clear vision and extraordinary attention to detail. 

In thirty years, a blink of an eye compared to the centuries wine has been made in Bordeaux or Burgundy, Ornellaia and Masseto, the estate’s single vineyard Merlot-based wine, have catapulted from obscurity to being tightly allocated and commanding triple digit prices around the world.  To be fair, there are cult California Cabernets that command the same price and have risen rapidly from similar obscurity, but those wines are produced in tiny quantities, sold primarily via mailing lists and sought after by American collectors, by and large.  By contrast, the Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’s annual production is comparable to that of the major Bordeaux estates with 140,000 bottles (12,000 12-bottle cases) of Ornellaia and 35,000 bottles (3,000 12-bottle cases) of Masseto.  And there is clear global demand for Ornellaia and Masseto; only one-third of the production is sold in Italy. 

Sibling Rivalry

Lodovico Antinori was entirely different from his older brother, Piero, who was (and still is) the consummate manager, businessman, and well-heeled organizer running a very large family business with many commercial tentacles and many wine estates.  Piero was associated with Tenuta San Guido, Bolgheri’s leading estate in the early 1980s, where he helped his cousin commercialize Sassicaia, the estate’s wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Perhaps motivated by a desire to distinguish himself from his brother, Lodovico envisioned doing something unique and different.  He looked at wine growing areas around the world, including Napa Valley, for a place to make Bordeaux style wines.   André Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu Vineyards’ legendary winemaker, urged him to look closer to home, in Bolgheri because his cousin was already making a high quality Bordeaux blend, Sassicaia, there.  Lodovico liked the idea--he already had land there that he inherited from his mother--and initially was tempted to make a Bordeaux blend similar to Sassicaia.

Tchelistcheff, impressed by the rich clay content of the soil in some areas, including the vineyard that was to become Masseto, convinced him to include Merlot in the blend because that vine was ideally suited to clay soils.  Viticulture aside, using Merlot would differentiate his wine from Sassicaia, which never had Merlot in the blend, and more importantly, from his brother.  (Ironically, Lodovico and Piero are currently collaborating on another wine venture).

A Little History

Lodovico founded Tenuta dell’Ornellaia in 1981 with about 100 acres of vineyards, planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon and expanded it about a decade later with the acquisition of 140 acres a couple of kilometers north, an area called Bellaria.  In November 1999, Lodovico took in Robert Mondavi as a minority shareholder, but soon sold his share to Mondavi to pursue yet another new project.  In 2002, Mondavi, now the sole owner, needed to find another Tuscan partner with equally high standards and brought in Frescobaldi, a leading Tuscan wine family, as an equal partner.  Frescobaldi became the sole owner in 2005 when the family purchased Mondavi’s half from Constellation Brands who had acquired it as part of their takeover of Mondavi. 

1997:  A Turning Point

The first vintage of Ornellaia, 1985, was made at Tenuta San Guido because the current--and gorgeous--Napa-esque winery was not completed until 1987, a year which also marked the first commercial vintage of Masseto.  In my mind, another critical turning point was 1997 when, following a Bordeaux tradition, they created a second wine, Le Serre Nuove, which immediately boosted the quality of the grand vin.  Sixteen years after the first vines went in, the team at the estate realized that batches of wines, usual from the younger vines or less blessed sites, were not up to top quality level and should be culled into a separate wine.  All of the batches start out with the expectation that they could be used for Ornellaia--that is they are harvested, fermented and aged in the same fashion.  But when the time comes to put together the final blend, about 30 percent of the wine is relegated to Le Serre Nuove.  (I think it was no coincidence that following the creation of Le Serre Nuove, the 1998 Ornellaia was voted Wine Spectator’s wine of year).  

Heinz also thinks that 1997 was a turning point in Tuscany in general--the equivalent of 1982 in Bordeaux--because the Tuscans realized what special wines could be made from ripe grapes.  Heinz noted, “there’s a reluctance on the part of winemakers to work with very ripe grapes because so much can go wrong; spoilage, rot, the analysis can be all off.”  He said that prior to 1997, winemakers preferred to play it safe, harvesting a little early to avoid the rains but also to work with grapes that were slightly under ripe because “It was safer.”  But after 1997 in Tuscany--and 1982 in Bordeaux--winemakers changed their philosophy and were willing to take a risk to wait for optimum ripeness.

The Estate Today

The estate remains an example of the Byzantine nature of Italy’s wine regulation.  Currently, the vineyards are planted primarily with the usual red Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon (92 acres), Merlot (95 acres) Cabernet Franc (30 acres) and Petit Verdot (25 acres).  Although Petit Verdot is now allowed by the DOC regulations, it was not when it was first planted. 

They also are resurrecting Sauvignon Blanc, which Lodovico planted initially, and are reintroducing their white wine, Poggio alle Gazze, which is made from it.  The 2008 Poggio alle Gazze has a lanolin-like texture atop a subtle pungency that is characteristic of the varietal.  It is seamless and suave, but not oaky, and quite Bordeaux-like until the citrus tinge of acidity in the finish reminds you it’s Tuscan.  Future bottlings may include Viognier and Verdicchio in the blend.

Branching out from dry wines, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia is experimenting with Petit Manseng, a grape popular in southwestern France where makes a late harvest sweet wine without needing to be attacked by botrytis because it shrivels by itself without rotting.  It should be a good choice for Bolgheri--and judging from their 2006 O della Ornellaia, it is--because the area is well-ventilated and does not support botrytis.

Less than 1% of Bolgheri is planted with Sangiovese because, as Heinz points out, the area is too wet.  Sangiovese suck ups water like a sponge, which would translate into dilute berries--and wine--in an area like Bolgheri.  Nonetheless, regulations allow up to 70% of the final wine to be made from Sangiovese, presumably because it’s Tuscany’s signature grape.  Curiously, regulations prohibit the exclusive use of a single variety in Bolgheri--although a single variety is required for Brunello and allowed in other parts of Tuscany, such as Chianti Classico.  Hence, in a flashback to the origins of the Super Tuscans in the late 1960s, Masseto, the region’s most expensive and revered wine, does not have DOC status because it is always 100% Merlot. 

Ornellaia

The blend of Ornellaia depending on how each of the varietals ripens in any given year.  Heinz is “quite thrilled with Cabernet Franc,” even from the young vines.  It comprises about 12 to 15% of Ornellaia, up from 5% initially, and he expects it to increase as the vines become older.  Recent vintages (2005 – 2007) of Ornellaia contain Cabernet Sauvignon (55 – 60%), Merlot (22 – 27%) and Petit Verdot (4 – 5 %) in addition to Cabernet Franc.  The 2007 Ornellaia ($180), ripe and intense, but extraordinarily glossy, could turn out to be one of their best, but needs many more years to show its complexity and finesse.  The 2005 Ornellaia ($180), from a less well-regarded vintage, shows the uncanny combination of elegance and power characteristic of the estate and is a delight to drink now.  To me, the 2006 ($180), a monumental wine, has everything but requires a decade of patience.  

Le Serre Nuove

Alessandro Lunardi, the estate’s representative in the United States believes, “Le Serre Nuove today is almost comparable in the overall quality as the Ornellaia was in the 1990s because of the advances in viticulture and winemaking.” After tasting the 2006 (reviewed previously) and the glorious 2007 (about $60), it’s hard to argue.  In contrast to the grand vin, Le Serre Nuove is Merlot based (50%), because they are the younger vines, with Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), Cabernet Franc (9%) and Petit Verdot filling out the blend.  At about one-third the price of Ornellaia, it’s an excellent value.

Le Volte

The estate’s third wine, Le Volte, like Serre Nuove, represents very good value, albeit at a much lower price.  Le Volte, introduced in 1991, has always been made from a combination of purchased wine (currently about 80%) and wine from the estate that Heinz feels is not suitable for even their second wine.  The blend is roughly half Sangiovese, all of which is purchased elsewhere in Tuscany because the estate grows none, with the other half comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, much of which comes from the estate.  The 2007 (about $30), ripe and lush, conveys a dark black cherry profile, with a slight spiciness.   It’s a good choice for current consumption.

Next month, I’ll be back with the details that made Ornellaia the icon that it is and the fascinating story of Masseto, Italy’s Chateau Pétrus.

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Questions or comments?  Write to me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com