Thirty years after its first vintage, this 100% Merlot continues to stand apart from its Bolgheri neighbours as an exceptional single-vineyard expression. The key is in the individuality of the terroir, explains Stephen Brook...
Masseto at a glance
Density 4,000 vines/ha
Elevation between 100m and 110m
First vintage 1987
Average production 30,000 bottles
There’s a large hole in the ground next to the Masseto vineyard, with just some concrete walls to suggest the outlines of what late this year will be a new winery. Tearing away at the hill has revealed the blue-grey clay soils that give Masseto its typicity. Now the Frescobaldis, owners of Masseto, want to consolidate that identity by giving this all-Merlot wine its own production facility and cellar.
Until now Masseto has been a wine in the embrace of its neighbour Ornellaia. Both were created in the 1980s by Lodovico Antinori. Ornellaia was the first project, and its first vintage was 1985. Until that time the Tuscan Coast was not known for prestigious wines. The Antinori family estate produced rosé wines along the coast, and most local wines were simply part of a polyculture system, whereby farmers made some wine alongside olives and fruit.
There was one major exception: Sassicaia. This too had begun as a private estate, essentially supplying the Bordeaux-style wine its owner enjoyed drinking. It was only after several years that the wine received a commercial distribution from the ubiquitous Antinori family. By 1985 it had become a celebrated wine, and it couldn’t have been an accident that the adventurous Lodovico Antinori established Ornellaia as another Bordeaux-style wine in the region, even with a slightly different varietal blend than Sassicaia.
Masseto emerged as a separate wine precisely because it didn’t fit into the Ornellaia concept. It was André Tchelistcheff, the Russian-American winemaker, who, in his role as Ornellaia’s founding consultant, identified one seven-hectare parcel on the Bolgheri property as ideal for Merlot, largely because of its clay soils, which were clearly not ideal for either of the Cabernets.
Antinori was reluctant at first, as Merlot was largely an unknown quantity in Tuscany, other than some plantings at Castello di Ama in Chianti Classico, a very different region from the Tuscan Coast. The Frescobaldis’ own Merlot wine, Lamaione – produced on the Castelgiocondo estate in Montalcino – was not made until 1991. Moreover, the benchmark wine in Bolgheri was Sassicaia, which never included Merlot in the blend.
Most of the vineyard was planted in 1984, and the remainder, in the lower sector, in 1995, although there has been some more recent replanting too. Nobody knows the origin of the plants, which came from an Italian nursery. It soon became apparent that Masseto was a fine and distinctive wine in its own right. It attracted the attention of Italian collectors undaunted by its high price. As its reputation spread, so did its circle of buyers. A perfect 100-point score from an American critic for the 2001 vintage sealed its fate as a ‘collectible’. From the outset, Masseto was released at a higher price than Ornellaia itself.
By the late-1980s, Tchelistcheff had ceased to consult for Lodovico Antinori, and by 1991 Michel Rolland was on board, and remains the estate’s adviser. Rolland, with his Pomerol roots, was thoroughly at home with Merlot, and Masseto, crafted by Hungarian winemaker Tibor Gál, was on a roll, unquestionably Italy’s finest expression of Merlot.
After Gál returned to Hungary, there was a succession of winemakers at the estate, including Thomas Duroux, now at Château Palmer in Margaux. In 2005, Axel Heinz, who had worked at Château la Dominique in St-Emilion, was hired and remains in place.
With a German father, a French mother and solid experience in Bordeaux, Heinz is every inch the cosmopolitan winemaker – thoughtful but confident, relaxed but far from complacent. he appears to be fully trusted by his employers, the Frescobaldi family; they do know a thing or two about wine but seem content to let Heinz do as he sees fit, especially since he hasn’t put a foot wrong in the dozen years he has been in charge of production.
‘By the time I arrived,’ Heinz says, ‘Masseto had its own identity and reputation, so I just wanted to maintain its style.’ The Masseto vineyard is farmed, he explains, in much the same way as Ornellaia. But its clay soils, which are easily compacted, make different demands and can be difficult to work with. ‘Ploughing dates, for example, can vary greatly depending on weather conditions,’ he says.
‘Gradually I made some changes to the way we managed the vineyard, largely because of global warming, even though it’s not a uniform process. summers may be getting hotter but we can still experience a very late vintage – as in 2014, for example, when the last grapes were picked on 9 October.’
Another change has been the introduction from 2008 of bush vines. ‘These work well in hot, dry climates such as ours, but it’s just a small parcel and we’re still assessing how appropriate they are,’ Heinz says. ‘The idea is to try to reduce direct exposure to sunlight. We want to have the most even ripening possible, so we’re constantly monitoring the plots. And since 2012, Masseto has been farmed organically.’
Despite the small size of the vineyard, the harvest can take up to three weeks – but not always: the 2011 vintage lasted a mere five days. Vinification has always been traditional, but since 2008 a small part of the crop has been barrel-fermented, and the new winery will incorporate a special room for this purpose. Heinz is not yet persuaded that the technique gives significantly different results. ‘I find it gives softer tannins and extraction, but the risk is that you are tempted to continue the extraction to a point where the tannins suddenly become aggressive. And I certainly don’t want to change the overall style of Masseto.’
Tibor Gâl generally aged the wine for about 18 months in 50% new oak. Today Masseto spends two years in new oak, as the wine has sufficient substance to withstand all that new wood. Coming from St-Emilion, Heinz was tempted to reduce racking to the minimum, as is common on the Right Bank in Bordeaux, but soon found that Masseto needed regular racking to evolve correctly in barrel.
The risk with Merlot, especially on the rich clay soils to which it is well adapted, is that the grapes easily attain high sugar levels, and that can result in high alcohol. Heinz is well aware of the danger: ‘I’m not panicked by high sugars, though we have had some vintages close to 16%,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to pick early and before optimal ripeness solely to keep the alcohol down. I find that with Masseto we can have 15%, even 15.5%, giving the wine generosity and power without it being out of balance.’
In fact, recent vintages, especially 2011, have been lower in alcohol, possibly as a consequence of farming as well as of vintage conditions. ‘In our climate,’ Heinz explains, ‘tannins accumulate rapidly in the vineyard, so it’s important to wait for them to soften and avoid coarseness. Fortunately the end of the growing season in this coastal area tends to be cool. Even so, to make a Merlot wine here with less than 14% alcohol would be very difficult, and Masseto carries high alcohol well.’
Scorching summers and super-ripe Merlot grapes run the risk of low acidity and a flabby structure, but Masseto is invariably well structured and even lively. ‘What surprises us,’ remarks Heinz, ‘is that even in very lush, ripe, dense vintages such as 2006 and 2012 the finish remains fresh thanks to high acidity. This has to come from the soil, especially in dry, hot years when you’d expect lower levels.’
It was clearly the right decision back in the 1980s to give Masseto its own identity. It is a very different wine from the Cabernet- dominated Ornellaia. Does it justify its stratospheric price? That’s hard to say. Relative scarcity accounts for the price in part, but so does its track record over three decades.
Ornellaia remains the more elegant wine, but in some vintages Masseto too has surprising finesse. In its youth it tends to be more monolithic than Ornellaia, so it needs some bottle age for its complexity to emerge.
It comes down to personal taste, but Masseto’s secret is to marry the imposing character of a warm-climate Merlot with an intrinsically European finesse.
Masseto – a timeline
1984 Major part of Masseto vineyard planted on advice of André Tchelistcheff
1987 First vintage of Masseto
1989 Tschelistcheff retires from his role as estate consultant
1991 Michel Rolland hired as estate consultant
1995 Lower sector of Masseto vineyard planted
2001 The wine wins a 100-point score from The Wine Spectator
2005 Axel Heinz joins as winemaker
2006 Masseto begins to be sold through the Place de Bordeaux
2012 Vineyard converted entirely to organic farming
2016 Work begins on new dedicated winery
Stephen Brook has been a Decanter contributing editor since 1996, and his many books include The Complete Bordeaux.