Ornellaia: An Italian Icon, Part 2

As Axel Heinz, the winemaker at Ornellaia, pointed out, luck played a role in Ornellaia’s success.  It was lucky that Lodovico Antinori, Ornellaia’s founder, went to California in search of vineyards because it was there that he met André Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu Vineyards’ legendary winemaker.  Without Tchelistcheff’s urging, he may not have looked to Bolgheri, on the Tuscan coast, for his project.  Nor after starting the project would he have focused on Merlot and planted it in the Masseto vineyard.  After all, Lodovico had already made a mistake–bad luck–by planting Sauvignon Blanc, for which he had a passion, in what was later determined to be a prime area for red grapes.  But it’s not luck that Ornellaia makes consistently exceptional wines.  It’s their attention to details.

The Details

Although many people compare Bolgheri to Bordeaux, there are substantial differences, according to Heinz, who has made wine in both areas.  In Bordeaux, rain is common during the growing season, whereas in Bolgheri the growing season is dry.  Bordeaux is flat; Bolgheri has sloping hills.  Bolgheri has more hours of light and more vegetation.  Although the soils in Bordeaux vary from commune to commune, within an area they are consistent.  In Bolgheri, soils change over short distances.

The major difference, according to Heinz, is that, “It is easier to make good wine in Bolgheri (than in Bordeaux) because there is earlier, easier ripening.  Making great wine in either place is very difficult.  You still need to pay attention to the details, even in an easier area.  You can never be complacent.”

When to Pick is Crucial

Even in a place like Bolgheri where the grapes ripen easily, Heinz emphasizes that when to harvest remains critical.  “It is important to pick each parcel at its exact correct moment.”  Fortunately at Ornellaia, he has a large window for harvesting and never needs to rush.  “Unlike Bordeaux, there is no urgency to pick because of impeding poor weather.”  Ornellaia maintains 60 permanent employees who can harvest, giving them the luxury of picking precisely when they think each parcel is ready.  Heinz notes that they have an excess capacity of pickers for a portion of the harvest, but there are times when they need every one of them, so it’s worth the expense.

He believes you need the same flexibility with vinification as with harvesting.  For him, there’s no formula.  They decide the details, such as the “pumping over” regimen, batch by batch, as they go along.


At Ornellaia, where they have scores of different vineyard parcels which differ by age of the vines, exposure, vine density, pruning and other viticultural practices, Heinz favors keeping the lots separate as long as possible to see how each develops before deciding how to blend.  Likewise, he favors keeping lots separate before deciding which barrels are suitable for Ornellaia and which should go to Le Serre Nuove, the estate’s second wine.

Even in the small Masseto vineyard they harvested at six different times in 2008, essentially making six different wines.  Heinz believes that keeping them separate to see how they evolve is an important detail that helps make the finished wine better.  Nevertheless, he isn’t dogmatic regarding methods.  When to blend depends on the individual property, and he regards early blending as appropriate for older, more established estates that have more homogenous vineyards.

Polished Tannins

Alessandro Lunardi, Ornellaia’s US representative, believes that 2002 represented another critical time in the estate’s history and evolution.  Starting then, the focus was on “polishing the tannins naturally.”  They installed a second sorting table to remove tiny stems that harbor green, unripe tannins and had been left by the destemmer.  This probably explains why even Le Serre Nuove has incredibly smooth and supple tannins.

Trial and Error

Heinz describes the estate as a viticultural laboratory where they learn by trial and error. The initial planting in the early 1980s was “low-density,” about 2,000 vines/acre.  With each successive wave of planting they slowly increased the density, following the conventional wisdom that forcing the vines to compete with one another increased the quality of the grapes.

However, achieving high density planting is not as simple as it sounds.  For example, the same density can be achieved either by keeping the space between the rows constant and decreasing the space between the plants, or by decreasing the space between the rows and maintaining the distance between plants constant.

At Ornellaia, they found that the results differed depending on which configuration they used.  Axel, again avoiding dogma, notes that the Mediterranean climate makes high density planting a little risky because of insufficient ground water during the growing season.  He believes they’ve been “lucky” at Ornellaia because the soil contains a lot of clay, which holds water well.

Masseto:  An Agricultural Nightmare

“An agricultural nightmare,” was how Heinz described the steeply sloped 20-acre Masseto vineyard, which was planted in 1985 and continues to be dedicated exclusively to Merlot.  “When it rains too much, the soil gets too wet and it becomes an impassable sea of mud.  When it is too dry, (the vineyard) is hard as a rock and impossible to work.”  Indeed, Masseto means “hard as a rock” in the local dialect and had never been used for any crops, but rather as a place for making clay bricks, according to Heinz.

Masseto, although entirely comprised of Merlot, is technically not a single vineyard wine because there is a little block of Merlot, called Vecchia Vigna, several hundred yards away from the main slope that is included in the final blend every year. Even the main slope is divided into several plots based on soil types. The Masseto Centrale, the center of the slope, produces a very powerful wine and needs to be tempered by the wines from the other parts of the slope, according to Heinz.  Merlot from the upper part, where there is less clay and more rocks, adds elegance and vivacity to the wine except in years when the vines are over-stressed, and then it’s not included in the blend.  The lower part of the slope, produces the least interesting wine because the soil is richer.  Despite that, the wine from the lower slope enhances the overall blend by balancing the power that emanates from wines coming from the central part of the slope.

Although Masseto has been called the Chateau Pétrus of Italy, Heinz thinks that despite the same varietal composition–100% Merlot–it tastes nothing like that Pomerol.  Judging from the 2007 Masseto, I agree.  It has an exotic element that Heinz believes is due to a Mediterranean influence.  To me, it’s a hypothetical blend of Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Chateau Pétrus meets Château Rayas) because of an exotic spice and herbal quality as well as a touch of balsamico, a thread that runs through many Tuscan wines.

Heinz, who has great experience with Merlot since he was the winemaker at Chateau La Dominique in St. Emilion from 2001 through 2003, believes that the grape produces truly great wine rarely. Normally Merlot is prolific and, unlike Pinot Noir, is capable of producing wine of reasonable quality at relatively high yields, which makes it commercially very successful.  But it produces truly great wine only in very limited locales, such as in the Masseto vineyard or at Chateau Pétrus, according to Heinz.

Better Lucky than Smart

As the saying goes, it’s better to be lucky than smart.  But even if you’re lucky, be sure to pay attention to details.

Click Here for Part I

June 29, 2010