Leopards don't change their spots...

All this shouldn’t last; but it will, always. A century, two centuries… after that it will be different but worse. We are the leopards, the lions; those who’ll take our place will be jackals, hyenas…’

The words are those of Don Fabrizio Corbera, title character of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s homage to Italian aristocracy, The Leopard. And while the tale of family loyalties may have a certain resonance for the owners of that most classial Tuscan estate, Ornellaia, those involved will be hoping the region’s future can prove as glorious as its short past.

Almost from its first vintage in 1985, Ornellaia was counted among that select group of legendary Tuscan wines. The surname of its creator and owner, Lodovico Antinori, helped. But its status was also inherited from its neighbour.

Ornellaia was created almost as a challenge. The coastal region of Bolgheri was pretty much devoid of any serious vineyards in the 1980s, save one. Sassicaia was, and still is, owned by the Incisa della Rocchetta family, its wines distributed by Piero Antinori, cousin of Lodovico. From its first vintage, in 1968, it triumphed as an extraordinary Cabernet Sauvignon in a region better known for its somewhat insipid Sangiovese.

Sassicaia was the exception in Bolgheri. Until, that is, Lodovico Antinori planted Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. There is a suggestion that his decision was motivated by the same sort of family rivalries that permeate Lampedusa’s epic tale. But in so doing, Antinori achieved far more than oneupmanship. He showed that not just Sassicaia, but the whole narrow strip of land below the last mountainous ridge before the sea had all the attributes for great winemaking.

The achievement has shaped the area’s last 20 years. But its true history can be traced back further, and mirrors the type of Italian family saga so vividly portrayed by Lampedusa. The property of Tenuta dell’Ornellaia is adjacent to Sassicaia. It used to be part of the same estate, owned by the de la Garardesca family. The family had two daughters, one marrying into the Incisa della Rocchetta family, the other into the Antinoris. The estate was being used as a summer retreat when Lodovico Antinori planted Ornellaia in 1981.

Now Ornellaia has attracted two other legendary names: Mondavi and Frescobaldi. Joint owners with Antinori since 2002, they provide the capital and support that enables Ornellaia to stay at the top of the Italian wine hierarchy.

R Michael Mondavi, chairman of Robert Mondavi Winery, is not so crass as to echo Don Fabrizio’s concerns over future generations. But he lauds Ornellaia’s ‘incredible pedigree’ and believes that ‘the potential for growth is fantastic’. ‘Ornellaia is a truly great estate and wine, yet it really has not reached its potential when compared with some other first growths and cult wines,’ he says. To push the estate to what Mondavi calls ‘a gem of Italy’, the cellars are being renovated, the vineyard extended and a new winemaker, Frenchman Thomas Duroux (from Bordeaux), arrived in 2001. The sole white wine, Poggio alle Gazze, has been phased out, and the vineyard will be planted solely with red varieties.

Pass the Parcel There are currently 84ha (hectares) of vineyard, with another 24ha planned. Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety, followed by Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Bolgheri works for these varieties, according to Duroux, because of its west-facing proximity to the sea. ‘We have clay soil, alluvial soil and volcanic soil. That gives the wine richness and balance. The trouble is, the cellar was built to cope with 30ha of vines,’ he adds. ‘We now have three times that. So we’ll be installing new, small fermentation tanks.’

Along with new wooden fermenters, the tanks are designed to help put into practice Duroux’s philosophy of keeping every parcel of fruit separate until blending. It doesn’t stop there: ‘We can make up to three wines from every parcel – two portions which go through malolactic in barrel and age in barrels from different coopers, and a press wine. When it came to the blending this January, there were 248 different wines to taste.’

The attention to detail is worthy of a smaller, boutique property. ‘Our challenge is to manage our estate as if it was a Bordeaux garage estate, even though we will have 100ha,’ says general manager Leonardo Raspini. ‘We can spend up to 800 hours every year on each hectare, and that translates into similarly labour-intensive work in the cellar.’

The vineyards are spread along the hillside, separated by small copses of trees which act as protection against the sea winds. Behind, to the east, the mountains rise steeply into the Tuscan hinterland. In one corner of the estate is the old farmhouse which appears on the wine labels. Nearer the road to Bolgheri is a reception and guest accommodation area.

Among the vines themselves, there is the same sort of experimentation that can be found in any modern wine estate. ‘We work with different rootstocks and clones, especially in new plantings,’ says Duroux. ‘And we’re trying different vine densities. There’s nothing revolutionary about this, except that we want to see what effect these experiments have on our conditions.’ As you would expect, greater densities are having a positive impact on the fruit, but rootstocks and clones are still in an experimental stage.

At the heart of the vineyard is the Masseto block. This 2ha plot is now the most famous Merlot vineyard in Italy – producing its own single-vineyard wine – and Leonardo Raspini calls it ‘an estate within an estate’. Like so many good things, it happened almost by accident, when its fruit was vinified separately in 1986 because it was so promising. Today the nearly 20-year-old vines, planted on clay soil, are beginning to look properly gnarled. The wine they produce can easily reach 14% alcohol.

Nearer the road is the Poggio alle Gazze vineyard. This year the land will be planted with Cabernet Franc and Merlot, bringing Ornellaia’s total of red wines to four. Three are estate wines, and the other is a blend of Sangiovese bought in from the southern Maremma region, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. At the top of the pecking order is Masseto, the 100% Merlot. It is aged for 24 months in wood, and a further 12 months in bottle before release.

The major wine of the estate is the Ornellaia. A blend of Cabernet and Merlot, it is dominated by the former. It ages for 18 months in barrel and then 12 months in bottle before release. The ‘second’ wine of the estate, in the Bordeaux sense, is Le Serre Nuove, whose first vintage was in 1997. Over time, according to Duroux, Serre Nuove is likely to come from younger vines and a few sections of vineyard which will never make the grade. The selection is made at final blending stage, six months before bottling.

While the new owners are planning to continue much as Ludovico Antinori began in 1981, the world around them has changed a good deal since. ‘When we started there was just Sassicaia,’ says Raspini. ‘Now we are part of a new world. Look at our neighbours – Allegrini, Gaja, Folonari, Viader. The most famous wine families in Italy, and now the United States, have come here. It means we can promote Bolgheri as well as our wines.’ There are still only 600ha of vineyard in Bolgheri, but its prestige is enormous. Small wonder that Mondavi wanted a slice.

Roger Voss is a freelance wine writer.