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A First Course in Wine: From Grape to Glass. Copyright 2013; Race Point Publishers, NY. 224 pages. Forward by Mario Batali.

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The (re)Birth of Cool (Vintages)

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia has a brief but storied history of winemaking, and is one of the great pillars of the Super Tuscan movement.  The estate produces a variety of reds and whites, along with a grappa and an extra virgin olive oil.  The flagship red, Ornellaia, is the crown jewel of the product line.  When it comes to the discussing Super Tuscans, the wine is slightly eclipsed in prestige and price by another Bordeaux-style wine, Sassicaia, but in the hearts and palates of many, Ornellaia reigns supreme.

IMG_7730Lodovico Antinori founded the winery in 1981, and the first commercial vintage was released in 1985 (a wonderful vintage with bottles still drinking great to this day).  The winery is currently owned and operated by another classic Italian family, the Frescobaldis, who invested into the estate in 1999 and acquired the property outright in 2005.  Following the purchase, the family hired Alex Heinz as the winemaker who has been at the helm ever since.  Input also comes from consulting enogolist, Michel Rolland, who began working with the Antinori family at the onset in 1985.

Tuscany is riddled with unique climates, and within these zones are micro-climates, and

enthused winos taking in the Ornellaia splendor

enthused winos taking in the Ornellaia splendor

further still are meso-climates, all of which make Tuscany a great place to grow grapes and make a bevy wonderful wines.  As a result, great wines like Ornellaia are subject to the elements, and each vintage brings with it a different profile.  At a recent tasting at Del Posto in New York City, guests had the opportunity to taste through six different vintages of the wine, all produced during “cool” years.

The different between warm and cool years isn’t so obvious upfront but it all comes down to ripeness and sugar content in the grapes at the time of harvest.  Cooler years (and cooler climates in general around the world) produce grapes that ripen slower or at a later pace throughout a growing season.  Come harvest time, the grapes are certainly “ripe” enough to make great wine, but may have lower sugar levels and higher acid levels than grapes that are grown in warmer and hotter years.  These lower sugar levels in the grapes at harvest time yield more perfumed, lighter, aromatic, and lower-alcohol wines.  Warmer years produce grapes ripe and juicy with sugar content – yielding wines with richer, heavier, weightier, and stronger profiles, and typically higher alcohol content.  No better or worse, just different.

Heinz and Rolland did a great job explaining how cooler weather affects the final blend, and how Merlot takes on a larger role in cooler years as it is the first grape variety to ripen, where as Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon ripen second and are picked slightly later in the season.  This is evidenced by the amount of Merlot used in the final blend in cooler years (upwards of 40%) vs warmer years (around 20%)

The tasting commenced in reverse chronological order beginning with 2013 and finishing with 1995.

  • 2013 showed youth and was pretty flush. Strong notes of oak and grip accented the dark fruit flavors.  Great wine in its youth with a solid aging potential.
  • 2010 was more balanced, had a good weight on the palate with firm tannins.  Still young and strong, it showed some restraint in the finish.
  • 2007 offered up more accessible fruit flavors.  Ripe notes of blackberry and currants with subtle raisenated aromas.  The wine was short on the palate and had weak finish, almost watered-down to a certain extent.  There was a noticeable leathery note which helped give it a true Tuscan character.
  • 2005 was probably the best wine of the lot.  The wine was super elegant with very beautiful notes of tomato vine and vegetal undertones.  It was silky and gentle on the palate and delicately balanced.
  • 2002 showed its scars.  The vintage was one of the worst in quite some time, and in neighboring parts of Tuscany, the weather was far worse.  I recall having some really great 2002 Barbarescos when they were first released in 2006 and 2007, but not much else has really displayed well from 2002 from most of Italy’s premier zones.  It was interesting to taste, but the wine was clumsy with cooked and oxidized aromas and flavors.
  • 1995 was stellar.  Now 20 years old, and about 19 of which are bottle age, the wine showed grace and balance.  A good sign of quality winemaking built for both comfort and for speed.  Of all the wines, this one showed the hallmark flavors of older Bordeaux with really great accents of graphite, chalk, and flinty notes.

Ornellaia remains a great experience for all wine lovers, so should you find yourself face to face with the great juice, relish in the moment.

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