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Italy’s First Growth, Greatness Realized Through Ornellaia

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Ornellaiaseating1I remember the early days of my exploration into Italian wine, and to this day, it’s interesting to think about the effect it had on me. You see, I was very new to wine at the time. Don’t get me wrong, I had delved into wines that were well-branded and known by the average consumer, but beyond having a belief that wines I didn’t enjoy were the result of my unrefined palate–instead of the possibility that they were simply poor wines (a common misconception)–all I really knew were names.

I tried them all, yet often didn’t understand what I was tasting. Rioja, Chianti, Burgundy, Barolo and Bordeaux all sat on my table at one time or another. Then came my real introduction to wine in Culinary School, and everything changed. I found so much to like in the wines that were poured for me that I decided to go on my own vinous exploration, and having heard that Italy was one of the most complex countries to understand–that’s where I decided to start. In my mind, mastering the most complex wine-producing country would only make it easier to understand the rest of the world.

OrnellaiasealWhat I didn’t expect was that I would develop an undying love for Italian wine that has lasted since those early days. Why did this happen? It’s simple. It’s because Italy not only has a seemingly unending rollcall of their own varieties and expressions, they have also come close to mastering many of the world’s greatest wine styles and international varieties.

That brings me to the Super Tuscan movement, which is today a very hard category to define, but at one time had been best understood as Italy’s attempt to compete with Bordeaux. Let’s put Sangiovese and the Chianti wars aside for a moment and focus on Bolgheri, the Tuscan coast, and what is in my opinion the First Growth Bordeaux of Italy–I’m speaking about Ornellaia.

Although Sassicaia still receives more attention from collectors and auction houses to this day, and lays claim to be the impetus of the Super Tuscan movement, It was Ornellaia who came onto the scene with an image, a sense of style, and the ability to create a brand or name that would outgrow the moniker of Super Tuscan. For Sassicaia, this happened much on its own momentum, yet Ornellaia was a force to be reckoned with, and today, works hard to improve upon their goal of perfection.

ornellaiavinesFounded by the Marchese Lodovico Antinori, Ornellaia released its first wine with the 1985 vintage. These weren’t lands that had been used for vine-growing in the past, but instead a well-planned development of vineyards with the intention of harnessing the terroir that Sassicaia had already proven capable of successfully growing Bordeaux varieties. So determined to compete with Bordeaux as they were, famed oenologist Michel Rolland was brought in early to help the estate realize its aspirations.

ornellaia1995When tasting these early wines, you can see the potential that the winemakers were faced with, even though they were going through a time of exploration and experimentation. Looking at the ‘95 vintage, the wine it produced is a perfect example, as this was not a great vintage for the region, and yet the wine is glorious to this day.

In an average year, Ornellaia is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, but in varying percentages depending on the vintage. Techniques have certainly changed since those early days, as has the winemaker, and yet as Ornellaia evolves, it is remarkable to taste across vintages, because the real secret behind its success is terroir.

Today, Ornellaia is owned by Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi (as of 2005), with a winemaker who has earned his own fame, Axel Heinz. What Axel brought to the picture was a more refined approach and the willingness to allow the wine to firmly express its Tuscan terroir. Other major advancements in the brand included the creation of both a second and third wine. The Le Serre Nuove now uses the fruit that doesn’t make the cut for Ornellaia and has become a wine of some renown in its own right. This further refinement and selection of fruit has resulted in an even more focused and esteemed expression for the company’s flagship wine, Ornellaia.

ornellaiavins2No expense is spared, just as any first growth in Bordeaux would boast, and the methods rely fully on a strict adherence to excellence, which is seen in the vineyards and the winery. Hand-picking and tending each block of the vineyards separately not only starts in the vineyard but is also followed throughout the vinification process, as parcels are crushed, macerated, fermented and aged for the first year before blending begins.

What this means for the consumer and fans of Le Serre Nuove is that even Ornellaia’s second wine is given the same attention as their flagship all the way through the winemaking process. In the end, the proof is in the bottle, and with each vintage, whether it’s cool, cold or warm, Ornellaia emerges as the pinnacle of what the Bolgheri hills can produce.

It’s also important the recognize the variation between the Tuscan coast and the rest of the region. Here, warm vintages and cold are both moderated by maritime influences. As seen with the 2002 vintage, strict selection returned a wine that is drinking beautifully today. Michel Rolland admits that the owners at the time were quite displeased with the amount of fruit he dropped in hope of creating a great wine in a vintage that most other producers were lucky to produce anything worth drinking at all. Yet that is exactly what sets Ornellaia apart from all the rest–the pursuit of excellence.

Ornellaiaseating2With the new release of the 2013 vintage, we can see that even after changing ownership three times over, and with a completely different winemaker at the helm, this is a wine that truly deserves the standing of Tuscany’s First Growth.

Nowhere else is this more evident than in a vintage retrospective that spans nearly twenty years of Ornellaia, the likes of which I was lucky enough to experience first-hand (detailed below). The final result was the conclusion that Ornellaia is as important a wine as any in the world. We will be drinking these vintages for 20 to 30 years, and I’m fully confident that auction markets will sooner or later catch on.

So without further ado, on to the tasting notes:


Ornellaia2013-22013 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – The nose was youthfully compact, displaying red currant, dusty spice, and minerals, along with a hint of bell pepper. On the palate, it opened with silky textures turning to concentrated tart cherry and cranberry fruit which seemed to grip and saturate the senses with a coating of fine tannin. The long, structured finish was center-focused and lean with hints of bitter herbs lingering. (93 points) find it at Morrell

2012 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – The nose was elegant, expressing cool red toned fruit, as well as black currant, hints of cola and a beautiful perfume of herbal mint with hints of tobacco leaf. On the palate, it was silky-smooth, yet quite closed, showing dark weighty textures which nearly masked its fine-grained tannin. Flavors of tart red berry with a hint of herbs lingered long into the finish. This is a very pretty expression of Ornellaia, in need of time in the cellar for the palate to catch up to the bouquet, and may warrant a higher score down the road. (94 points) find it at Morrell

2010 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – The nose showed cherry and floral undergrowth in an elegant and lifted expression. With time in the glass, notes of plum came forward, along with spice and savory herbs. On the palate, I found tart cherry on a medium-bodied frame with hints of minerals, yet ultimately lean in its expression. The finish showed dried strawberry and hints of lingering tannin. (93 points)

Ornellaia20072009 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – The nose was densely packed with black currant, blackberry, and plum with hints of herbs and orange peel. On the palate, it was rich and youthful with black fruits and dark chocolate but lacking depth. The finish was long, showing silky structure with lingering blackberries and dark chocolate. This may not be one of the great vintages for Ornellaia, but there’s no denying how enjoyable it is today. (92 points)

2007 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – The nose was dark and intense, showing crushed black cherry, dusty spice, plum sauce and hints of sawdust. On the palate, I found rich, silky textures with notes of ripe red fruits, tobacco and sweet herbs, turning savory toward the back palate, as hints of tannin and vibrant acidity contrasted. The finish lingered long, showing a mix of cherry, plum and spice. The 2007 is in a great place right now and still has many years of development ahead. (95 points)

Ornellaia20052005 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – The 2005 Ornellaia is in a wonderful place right now, displaying a dark yet vibrant nose of muddled red fruits (cherry, raspberry and strawberry), giving way to tobacco and floral undergrowth. On the palate, silky, soft textures ushered in a mix of black cherry and dusty spice, along with pretty inner floral tones. Hints of tannin were still present on the long finish, yet the emergence of dried strawberry and earthy minerals provided a perfect counter-balance. The 2005 is on the verge of peaking. (94 points)

2004 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – The nose was elegant and refined with intense aromas of crushed raspberry, black currant, and tobacco with hints of smoke and spice box. On the palate, I found silky textures over a tannic spine, providing a wonderfully classic feel with resonating notes of wild berry, herbs and tobacco. The finish revealed its still-youthful state with a coating of refined sweet tannin across the senses providing measured grip. This is a gorgeous, classic Ornellaia. (97 points)

Ornellaia2002-2sm2002 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – Sometimes lightning does strike twice–I tasted the 2002 Ornellaia last year, a wine I didn’t expect to be impressed by, and here we are again. The nose on the 2002 is giving and alluring with pretty floral tones up front, followed by sweet cherry, apple, and with time, turning savory and spicy. On the palate, I found silky, soft textures with notes of rich cherry sauce, plum, currant, and sweet spice. The finish was long and soft with a lasting impression of ripe red fruits and fig. Is there a hint of heat? Maybe just a little; but still, it is just stunning. (93 points)

1995 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia – The ‘95 Ornellaia is perfectly matured and giving at this stage of its life. Here I found notes of savory roasted meats, undergrowth, dried cherry and flowers, fall leaves, and hints of spice. It caressed the palate with notes of dried red fruits, minerals and inner floral tones, as hints of tannin and acidity mingled. The finish was refined and long, showing dusty spice, dried strawberry and earthy florals. This was a beautifully elegant and mature showing, and it was enjoyable in every way. (93 points)


Article, photos and tasting notes by: Eric Guido

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