Nurse…coldly precise: Doctor the patient is coming around. tBoW…confused: Where am I? Why can’t I move? MD…calmly: Please relax sir. The police brought you here. You were mumbling about marmamaya, razzbeanies. tBoW…gasping: I was with Leonardo Raspini of Ornellaia! We were scarfing down a white truffle pasta. Nurse…chest swelling: Doctor his blood pressure is ramping up! MD…excited: 40 units nembutal stat! And bring me that brown bag he brought!
While hundreds of locals were waiting to crowd into a Marriott banquet hall so legions of waiters could pour wine after wine after wine into goblet upon goblet upon goblet…tBoW was lunching with the agronomo and general manager for Orenellaia at Madeo [ed. LA's finest Italian restaurant since Il Giardino shut its doors] talking dirt and sipping wines from Italy’s top producer of Bordeaux blends.
Full disclosure: The tBoW tasting team generally eschews Cabernet-based wines. Our proudly ignorant position should be familiar to readers.
REASONS NOT TO LIKE CAB: The varietal is best suited to blending. On its own it is just too big a wine. When blended with the softer Merlot and spinier Cab Franc the flavors can still overwhelm the palate. Even among the top Bordeaux labels the wine is often simple without charm. Ever hear of pencil lead? Ever hear of a Bordeaux without graphite flavors? Certainly not if the blend is majority Cabernet. We always taste it in Pauillac and St Estephe wines. Then there is the pricing. You can thank Robert Parker for creating the Cabernet cult market with correspondingly cultish prices. Of course, the same can be said for Burgundy: stupidly high prices, cult status for many producers and bottles, and now we understand Pinot Noir is being grown with the kind of lemming-like fervor as was Cabernet 20 years ago.
REASONS TO LIKE ITALIAN CAB: On the other hand, we’re talking Italy here; not New Jersey. It’s beautiful. What’s not to like!?! Who cares what’s in the bottle! You see we are oeno-tionally conflicted about this. However, Mr. Raspini knows how to impress us. Serve great food and great wines. A good bet for Cabs. We dined. We sipped. We went to school.
Leonardo shared plenty of tidbits worth repeating. He has been the winery viticulturist since 2000. He even made the 2004 Ornellaia blend…which we opened.
tBoW: I have always thought the decision to make these Super Tuscan wines was purely about business; capitalizing on Robert Parker’s preferred style, the success of Bordeaux and Napa Cab wines in the late 70s and early 80s.
Leo: The Marchese di Barolo moved to Bolgheri from Piemonte. He preferred Bordeaux wines to Baroli. He was the first to plant Cabernet in Bolgheri. He made the wines for himself until he released Sassicaia. Lodovico saw all this and planted the same grapes next door.
tBoW embellishes: The origins of the Super Tuscan movement are centered on the Rochetta and Antinori families. Sassicaia’s Marchese Mario is descended from the Incisa della Rocchetta family which was rooted at the Rocchetta Tanaro in Piemonte. Mario planted Cabernet when he lived at Tanaro. When Mario married and moved into the Tenuta San Guido estate in Bolgheri he again planted Bordeaux varietals. He made Sassicaia for himself until his son Nicolo and his nephew Piero Antinori convinced him to release the 1968 vintage to market. Lodovico Antinori, whose mother was Mario’s sister-in-law, was consulting at Sassicaia. He witnessed the success of the Bordeaux blends and advised Mama to plant the same varietals on their adjacent Ornellaia estate. The first Ornellaia was released in 1985 to huge success. The vintage is regarded as Sassicaia’s greatest. Ornellaia quickly became known as the superior wine. the Tenuta dell’Ornellaia was briefly held by the Mondavi family of Napa. In 2005 the Orenellaia estate was transferred to the Frescobaldi empire, considered friendly rivals of Antinori. So Italian! There must be a Pope involved somehow.
tBoW: Masetto is supposedly equal to or better than Petrus. How did Merlot come to be so important in the region?
Leo: When Lodovico planted in Bolgheri he was also aware of the growing interest in the Napa Valley. He visited and met several people. One of them was André Tchelistcheff who he invited to Bolgheri. André told Lodovico to stay in Bolgheri and plant Merlot in a certain area of his vineyard. He said we could make great wine. André was 84 y.o. He worked as a consulting winemaker until he was 88. The first vintage of Masetto was 1987. He wrote in his resignation letter which we have at the winery “I am no longer able to fly long distances.”
tBoW: What is it about Maremma that is so special? I read this was marshland forever and only became wine country mid-century when the marshes were filled in by the government.
Leo: When I think of terroir I think about how long the land has been here. Burgundy is older than Bordeaux which is older than Napa. Bolgheri which is at the northern end of the Maremma has clay that goes down 200 meters. But the top 2 meters are far as the roots can penetrate. We also have no ground water so there is no irrigation. And it is hot. The lower regions always flooded so there is also sandy soil. Bolgheri is at 150 meters elevation so we are only clay. Some people refer to us as Alta Bolgheri. Vines must work hard to produce fruit. What vineyards were here at the beginning of the 20th century were wiped out by phylloxera. Everything worked together to make the opportunity for these particular Italian wines.
One week earlier…tBoW knew he had to get in shape for this meeting. We picked up a couple Ital style samples at local vendor Woodland Hills Wine Co.
2008 Greppicante $22: This is a Bolgheri wine but is it the poor man’s Orenallaia? No Sangio in the blend. Even better – not listed on the link above to regional Super Tuscan wines. 5,500 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cab Franc. Gingerbread nose. Strong furit. Restrained. Tight. So Old World, acidic. All the OW Bordeaux blend components are here. Bring the turbonator! Now we are getting black wax, new vinyl ca. pre-70s on the nose. Is it brett? It cannot be. Not in the flavors. This has to be poor man’s Ornellaia [ed. it wasn't]. Instructive. 13%
2007 Sportoletti Villa Fidelia Rosso $23: Umbrian blend of Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. sweeter flavors than the Greppicante. Hard to pick as Old World much less Italian. Middle weight. Not a big Parker bomb. Useful benchmark. Could not imagine buying wine like this. Lacks the character of the Rangeland. Maybe I would feel different if I was from Umbria…or if I was in Umbria soaking up the sunshine lunching with Diane Lane. Makes me wonder why Italian Cab? Is this the same thing as asking why Rhones in Paso? 15%
Here are tasting notes for the Ornellaia wines. All wines were tasted semi-blind in that they were each decanted 40 minutes and served without bottles on the table although the Ornellaia was decanted last in a different shaped decanter. The decanters were color coded to the glasses. First we tasted for 45 minutes without food. Afterwards we continued tasting the wines with white truffle pasta and strips of rib eye with seared veggies and spuds.
2010 Le Volte dell’Ornellaia $25 (SRP $30): Their entry level wine is produced 100% off-site: grapes, bottling, labels. They make ~50,000 cases. The wine spends some time in neutral oak. Indistinguishable from any number of New World blends except that the weight is lighter. Easy to drink and easy to forget. A good wine to bring when invited to dinner at the home of new friends. 14%
2009 Le Serra Nuove dell’Ornellaia $45 (SRP $75): 100% estate fruit from young vines which Leo says are 10 years old. 50% Merlot 30% Cab Sauv 15% Cab Franc and 5% Petite Verdot. The character of the wine is distinctive. Color is dark red. Body is medium weight. Round with tannins that softly coat the mouth. Not a big monster. He says it is a marriage of Bordeaux and New World with the benefit of Pleistocene dirt. I have to ask myself would I prefer this to a $45 Napa Cab? Yes. Is it worth the price? Yes, especially if I wanted to taste the difference of a Super Tuscan blend. Certainly tops the two “training” wines. 14.5%
2004 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia $215 (online): Just lovely. Compact. So nicely integrated like it has been hand stitched and manually assembled. Cannot taste the alcohol at all. If this were Bordeaux it would be St. Julien which is more fruit driven. This wine goes through three phases over the 90 minutes we have it: compact to voluptuous to lean with tobacco. This is not like Bordeaux or Napa. We ask would we rather have a 1st growth Bordeaux or Ornellaia? Not only do we prefer the Orny blend, the value ($250 vs $800) is a no-brainer. Can one be lobotomized by a wine? If we MUST drink Cabernet blends then this is the one we will stick with! This is what goes on my bucket list. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. 15%
Final comments: Ornellaia buys their wines online to check on the fraud question. So far no suspicions. They include an RFID chip in the most recent releases for Ornellaia and Masetto. These are popular wines and the winery has substantial markets in the US, Canada, India and Kazakhstan.
So, if you find yourself looking over a wine list in Алматы [ed. Almaty is Kazakhstan capitol] and spot a bottle of Ornellaia you can be confident it is the real deal.