Tenuta Dell’ Ornellaia at 20, more or less
By John Schreiner
May 26, 2008
When the wine is Italian and the winemaker is German, there has to be a story.
The property is that fine Tuscan producer, Tenuta Dell’ Orneillaia, founded in 1981 and now the star of fine sub-region of Tuscany called Bolgheri. The rest of Tuscany relies on Sangiovese for great red wines but in Bolgheri, the big French varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and friends – produce some of Italy’s most coveted wines.
The winemaker is Axel Heinz, who was born in Munich in 1971 to a German father and a French mother. Thanks to his mother, he grew up amid good red wines. Recognizing that Germany is not the place to make red wines, he studied winemaking in Bordeaux and then worked with several top producers until 2005, when he became the winemaker at Orneillaia.
He took over just in time to make the 2005 vintage, the 20th vintage at Orneillaia. Recently, he has been on a bit of a world tour (including Vancouver) to show off, among other wines, the 2005 Orneillaia and to celebrate what the winery chooses to call its 20th anniversary.
This is a collector wine, coveted by those who cellar what are called the Super Tuscan wines. The current release is said to be available in British Columbia at $159 a bottle, perhaps in a few private stores. There is never much available. The total production at this winery averages 750,000 to 800,000 bottles a year, half of which is a $33 red called Le Volte. Since the winery has both a second label and a super-super-premium Merlot, there is not a great deal of Orneillaia for the entire world. Frankly, I hardly know anybody who gets to buy it.
There are those of us who think there is merit in buying a modest house on a very good street. That is how Le Volte impressed me – an impressive blend of Sangiovese and Bordeaux varieties. This is probably the wine that pays the bills at Orneillaia but it tastes a lot better than that. Not as fine as the 2005 Ornellaia, perhaps, but a great consolation prize if you missed the modest allocation of the flagship wine.
And it is a lesson in value winemaking. There are many big name European producers which pay the bills with a high-volume brand. Without naming names, some of those brands are just not worth the money. Le Volte is worth what the winery asks for it. It is not some winemaker’s afterthought.
This is a winery with a bit of a turbulent history. It was founded by Ludovico Antinori (Piero’s brother). Originally, it was going to be focussed largely on Merlot. This was done on the advice of the great Californian consultant to the project, André Tschelistcheff, who thought the new red from Ornellaia should not be a mere copy of Sassicaia, a Cabernet-based Super Tuscan.
The Merlot wine turned out to be so good that it was bottled on its own, to be released as a rare and expensive red called Masseto. As a consequence, the top Ornellaia red blend is, in fact, based on Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2005 is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot.
The Petit Verdot is new to the blend. The estate planted the variety in 1995 – before it was legal to plant it in Italy. Heinz, the winemaker, speculates that the 1995 planting was registered as Sangiovese since the regulators were hardly likely to discover that it was not yet another of the many clones of Sangiovese. Since then, Petit Verdot has become legal in Italy.
In 2001 the Robert Mondavi winery bought Ornellaia and then, having had some difficulties in Europe, decided to find a local partner. In 2002, a 50% interest was sold to Frescobaldi, ironically, the great rival to Antinori.
Several years later, Constellation Brands took over Mondavi. As the world’s biggest wine group, Constellation decided it did not need a half interest in an Italian boutique, however classy. It sold its interest to Frescobaldi as well.
Fresobaldi now is the controlling shareholder of Ornellaia, with minority interests held by a Russian investor and by Michael Mondavi, one of the sons of the late Robert Mondavi, and the American distributor of the wine.
All that action in the board room seems not to have impacted the winemaking at Ornellaia. Winemaker Heinz says that he and his colleagues have always had a great deal of independence, probably because the wines have been so successful.
The style of the wines is Bordelaise but benefitting from Mediterranean ripeness, so that there a richness on the palate and a wonderful absence of green flavours. Perhaps the wines will not cellar as long as Bordeaux reds. Heinz showed three vintages, the oldest being 1988; it was beginning to show its age. The 1995 Ornellaia is at its peak while the 2005 Ornellaia is still all about primary fruit, with great promise to improve steadily over the next 10 to 15 years.
With wines this rare and this expensive, it is an academic exercise to speculate on how long they will age. Most of us will never find out. But then most of us would also be satisfied with a bottle of Le Volte.
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