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Ornellaia: Producer profile

Lodovico Antinori set himself up in competition with Sassicaia when he planted vines in Bolgheri. The estate has changed hands, but the style is consistent. Stephen Brook visits Opulence-on-Sea...

When he began buying land and planting vines in Bolgheri from 1982 onwards, Lodovico Antinori, brother of the more famous Piero, must have sensed that he was in the vanguard of a new wine trend. Much of Bolgheri, which surrounds a tranquil hamlet about 10km from the Tuscan coast between Livorno and Piombino, was the preserve of local farmers who tended their olive trees, orchards and vegetables. The vine was just another plant interspersed among the melons and olives.

There was, however, a distinguished exception. Tenuta San Guido had been producing a Bolgheri wine called Sassicaia since the 1940s, although it was reserved for family consumption until the founder, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta, was persuaded to allow the Antinori family to distribute the wine, which they did with great success. The Antinoris and Incisas were related: Mario Incisa and Lodovico Antinori’s father had both married daughters of the local magnate, the della Gherardesca family, who owned huge swathes of land along the Tuscan coast. Lodovico can’t have been unaware that he was setting himself up in competition with one of Italy’s legendary wines.

Back then, Tenuta San Guido produced just Sassicaia. Antinori, under the prompting of the Russian oenologist André Tchelitscheff, planted a wider range of grapes. The young Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia estate would also produce a Sauvignon Blanc called Poggio alle Gazze, and, from 1987, a single-vineyard Merlot called Masseto, which before long would rival, some say surpass, the renown of Ornellaia itself.

After Tchelitscheff retired, Bordelais consultant Michel Rolland came on board in 1991, and still advises. Although there was a series of winemakers – including the late Hungarian Tibor Gál, Thomas Duroux (now at Château Palmer) and his successor since 2005 Axel Heinz – the style has remained fairly consistent, Ornellaia being more opulent than the more severe, long-lived Sassicaia.

Antinori instinctively understood that Sangiovese was not the right grape for Bolgheri. ‘It’s not a very welcoming wine here,’ he told me almost 20 years ago. ‘It seems to say: “Why drink me?”’ His hunch was correct: it’s the Bordeaux varieties and to a lesser extent Syrah that have made the reputation of Bolgheri’s red wines.

Antinori planted vines on the dense clay soils of the Ornellaia estate, but also acquired what has become a 55-hectare (ha) property called Bellaria just north of the hamlet. Here he began planting from 1992. The soil is stonier, gently sloping and perfectly drained. Axel Heinz loves this site: ‘It gives us fresher, more vibrant wines than the vines around the winery.’

But by 2010 the oldest vineyards were being replanted. Density and rootstocks were not ideal. ‘In the past, Tuscan growers went for the largest possible yields, so the vines were exhausted after 20 years,’ Axel explains. ‘We’ve been able to correct some of the errors. A great site will always give great wines, but with better managed vineyards they will be even better.’

During the 1990s the dynamic Lodovico Antinori, with his raffish good looks and mercurial charm, had whizzed around the world presenting his wines, but by the end of the decade he had become less visible and seemed to be losing interest.

Rumours about a complicated personal life were circulating. In 2000 he sold a share in the property to Mondavi, and by 2002 Mondavi had acquired a controlling interest, with the Frescobaldi family also involved. When Mondavi was bought by Constellation in late 2004, the Frescobaldis became the sole proprietors. With so many other wine interests in Tuscany, they have allowed Heinz and his team free rein – ‘as long as we remain successful’.

Heinz admits he is struggling to keep Ornellaia stylistically consistent. With the introduction in 1997 of a second wine, Le Serre Nuove, production of Ornellaia was reduced from its former level of 200,000 bottles to the present-day 130,000.

Cabernet Franc is taking on a greater role in the blend, and Heinz plans to plant more. ‘I was familiar with Cabernet Franc from my time at La Dominique in St-Emilion,’ he says. ‘It loves clay- gravel and clay-limestone soils, which we have here. But it’s still a demanding variety, and you need to control yields. It can keep its herbaceousness for a long time on the vine, and can be a bit dilute. I don’t find it easy to get the right aromatics and weight. Yet although we only have 2ha here, it almost always ends up in the Ornellaia blend.

“We’re known for Merlot, especially in Masseto, but Merlot is more adaptable and is happy in many soils and expositions. The Cabernets are more demanding, and I’m not always convinced that Cabernet Sauvignon is ideal in Bolgheri, or at least at Ornellaia. It prefers drier conditions, as in 2011. But it doesn’t succeed that well every year.’

When to pick the grapes is the balancing act familiar to all hot-area producers: do you wait for phenolic ripeness at all costs and risk ending up with overripe, alcoholic wines, or pick early to avoid this, but at the risk of greenness in the finished wine? ‘At Ornellaia September can see a cooling off,’ observes Heinz, ‘so we can avoid very high sugars and alcohol. But in some years Masseto can get close to 16%, yet it carries the alcohol well. Each year we seem to pick earlier, yet we still get high alcohol. To bring in wines at under 14% would be great, but in today’s conditions it’s almost impossible.’

Although the Masseto vineyard is only 7ha, it has been divided into sectors. As in Burgundy, it’s the mid-slope that gives the best wines. All lots are kept separate until shortly before bottling, when they are blended. Masseto’s power requires two years of barrel-ageing in new oak, whereas Ornellaia receives 18 months in 65% new oak.

‘We want to maintain the strongest distinction between Masseto and Ornellaia,’ Heinz says. ‘We don’t like to give the impression that Masseto is a kind of super-Ornellaia. They just happen to be very different wines. When young, Masseto can seem monolithic, but it often shows much more complexity with age. Many tasters are convinced that Masseto is the greater wine, but throughout the 2000s Ornellaia has been creeping up.’

The Mondavis decided to halt the production of white wine, so the Sauvignon vines were grubbed up or grafted over. Some of the grafts failed, so a sprinkling of white vines remained. The new owners decided to revive Poggio alle Gazze. Having leased the Maremma’s oldest Sauvignon vineyard, Ornellaia now controls 4ha of white vines. Production of the reborn wine is limited, but is set to grow to 25,000 bottles. Unlike Antorini’s white, this, from 2011, has had a dash of Viognier.

In the 1980s Ornellaia and Sassicaia had Bolgheri pretty much to themselves. No longer: the DOC’s 1,200ha or so are shared out between other illustrious names, such as Le Macchiole, Antinori’s Guado al Tasso, Gaja’s Ca’ Marcanda, Caccia al Piano, Argentiera, Grattamacco and quite a few more. Yet Ornellaia has never really wavered in quality nor ambition. Ten years ago, in New Zealand, I was asked to present an overview of outstanding Bordeaux-style wines to a group of winemakers and wine writers. Some first and second growth Médocs were there, but it was the 1999 Ornellaia that wowed the assembled tasters.

Fleshier and more opulent than youthful Bordeaux, Ornellaia had the advantage of being more accessible in its adolescence, so it would be foolish to declare it ‘greater’ than, say, Léoville- LasCases. But those qualities are not to be despised, and Ornellaia remains a wonderfully enjoyable and hedonistic wine, and it ages well, too.

Ornellaia is inevitably compared with Sassicaia, and Heinz admits the rivalry is real. ‘Of course! Though it’s usually pretty amicable. Sassicaia has legendary status in Italy and it’s wary of losing that. But Ornellaia is a very different wine, with its Merlot component, and we use far more new oak to age it.’ Sassicaia scores on subtlety and finesse, Ornellaia on opulence and sensuality. Which one each of us prefers is a matter of choice, but both show the remarkable quality of which the once-scorned Tuscan coastal area is capable.

Ornellaia at a glance

Estate: 99 hectares

Wines produced:

Ornellaia 140,000 bottles: 55%–65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20%–25% Merlot, plus Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot
Masseto 32,000 bottles: 100% Merlot
La Serre Nuove 190,000 bottles: 40%–60% Merlot, 30%–40% Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot
Le Volte 450,000 bottles: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot
Poggio alle Gazze 10,000 bottles: 93% Sauvignon Blanc, 7% Viognier
Ornus 2,000 halfbottles: 100% Petit Manseng

Ornellaia timeline:

Founded by Lodovico Antinori, with advice from consultant André Tchelitscheff

First plantings at the estate

First vintage of Ornellaia

First vintage of Masseto and of Poggio alle Gazze

Tibor Gál from Hungary appointed winemaker. Winery completed

Michel Rolland taken on as consultant

Le Serre Nuove introduced as Ornellaia’s second wine

Mondavi takes a minority share in the estate➢

White Poggio alle Gazze discontinued

Mondavi, together with Frescobaldi, acquires a controlling interest in Ornellaia

Frescobaldi buys out Mondavi’s share and becomes sole owner. Axel Heinz appointed as winemaker

Poggio alle Gazze revived as the estate’s Sauvignon Blanc- based white wine

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