I call them the “aia” wines: Sassicaia, Solaia, and Ornellaia. Others refer to them as Super Tuscans, vini da tavola, or indicazione geografica tipica- shortened in that uniquely American way of speaking to IGT.
Each wine has its style, grape selection, and place in the wine world’s constellation. And they are owned by different branches of the Antinori family tree.
For decades, Marchese Lodovico Antinori observed that his cousin’s Sassicaia winery, in Tuscany’s then unknown Bolgheri area, won acclaim and a following among Europe’s royalty and wine cognoscenti. Perhaps with some degree of family competitiveness, he purchased land adjacent to Sassicaia in 1981 and founded Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia.
At the outset, Ornellaia employed a Bordeaux-styled blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. A decade ago, it added a small amount of petit verdot to the assemblage. Ornellaia was consistently very good, and its 1998 rendition was selected Wine of the Year by the Wine Spectator magazine.
In November 1999, Robert Mondavi purchased a minority share of Ornellaia, and two years later partnered with Tuscany’s Marchesi de Frescobaldi to take over the entire wine estate. Ownership changed again when Mondavi’s financial problems caused its sale to the international giant beverage company, Constellation Brands; it also permitted Frescobaldi to exercise its option to buy all of Mondavi’s Ornellaia shares, making it the sole owner of the estate since 2005.
While the ownership chairs were revolving, the winemaking remained in professional hands. Tim Mondavi consulted with Thomas Duroux, who was Ornellaia’s winemaker from 2001 until he moved to Chateau Palmer in 2004. Since then, German-born and Bordeaux wine educated-and-trained Alex Heinz has been the winemaker. And the controversial international wine consultant Michel Rolland has remained part of the team.
I have been tasting and collecting Ornellaia (and its single-vineyard 100 percent merlot bottling, named Masseto - but that wine is its own story) from the late 1990s. Here are some observations.
At the beginning of this Millennium, Ornellaia was nearly two-thirds cabernet sauvignon, just shy of one-third merlot and completed with a dash of cabernet franc. The aging in French oak barrels was moderate by New World standards, yielding a wine with aromas and flavors ranging from black olives and black cherries to secondary sensations of tobacco. Mild tannins and acidity supported the rich fruit and oak flavors giving the wine balance. Ornellaia was centered between New World richness and Bordeaux elegance.
The 2001 Ornellaia is superb and still vibrantly young. It’s about $200 in the auction market; and about $250 retail. I don’t advocate buying a decade old wine from a store unless you know the retailer has pristine storage conditions. Wine bottles sitting on a shelf or rack are exposed to countless hours of light, motion, and room temperature, all conditions damaging to wine.
After the excellent start in 2001, Ornellaia produced a better wine than others in Italy’s dismal rain-soaked 2002 vintage. This was followed by Europe’s scorching summer of 2003, that made every wine atypical and Ornellaia was no exception. Buying either of these vintages now is not encouraged.
As we entered the middle of the decade, Ornellaia added petit verdot to its blend and maintained its excellent balance, even in the difficult 2005 vintage.
The 2004 is mouth-filling. Its rich black fruit flavors and integrated tannins give 04 Ornellaia a luxurious texture and great length. It will also have great life: in a proper cellar, 20 to 25 years. Retail and auction price for the 2004 Ornellaia is $175-200. Which ever market you use, make sure the wine has been in temperature-controlled storage.
Weather was not generous to winemakers from Tuscany and northward in 2005. Many wines are lacking body and fruit while possessing substantial tannins and acidity (this is particularly true in Piedmont). The 2005 Ornellaia escaped that fate. It takes a challenging vintage, where attention to detail in the vineyard and winemaking is demanded, to show why a winery like Ornellaia is consistently world-class. Both retail and auction markets price the 2005 at $150.
In 2006, Ornellaia’s blend had 56 percent cabernet sauvignon, the first time it was below 60 percent, and it has remained beneath that level. The only change I’ve perceived is that when tasting the wine upon its release, it exhibits a little more vanilla aroma and flavor from the French barrel aging and it feels a little plusher on the palate.
The 2006 and 2007 are superb wines. Each offers bountiful fruit flavors, supporting tannins, long savory finish. They are immensely appealing in their youth-like a fashion model wearing form fitting clothes. But both will be much more majestic later in life. To get the best from the 2006 and 2007 Ornellaia, you’ll need to cellar the former for a decade and the latter for a dozen years. Both retail for about $175.
In a little over a quarter-century, Ornellaia has placed itself among the very best Italian wines. As with the other two “aia” wines, collectors seek it for its quality and aging potential. Ornellaia comes to us from the Old World, but bearing New World sheen. It’s modern without being excessive.