Sunday, August 27, 2006

Ornellaia: A Quick Look At The Recent Vintages

Ornellaia (the wine) doesn't require much of an introduction: It's the flagship wine of the Ornellaia estate Ludovico Antinori founded in Bolgheri when his cousin Mario Incisa Della Rocchetta's Sassicaia started attracting international attention. Unlike Mario, who concentrated exclusively on the Cabernets in creating Sassicaia, Ludovico worked up a blend, using primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, to which he added Merlot and Cabernet Franc; the current proportions are 65-15-20, with an additional 5% Petit Verdot. In other words, he developed a classic Bordeaux-style blend, and since Bolgheri is superbly well suited to Cabernet, the wine, which he made with considerable care -- he didn't want to fall behind either Cousin Mario, or his other cousin, Piero Antinori, who was developing Guado Al Tasso -- was quite good and quickly gained an international following.

Many things have happened since Ludovico Antinori introduced Ornellaia in 1985, including his departure for other projects, and now the estate is owned by Marchesi de'Frescobaldi, who wisely decided not to change anything when they took over a few years ago. To celebrate the release of the 2003 vintage, this April they held a quick four-vintage vertical in Florence's Grand Hotel. It was quite interesting. The Wines:

Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Supeiore Rosso 2000
Deep pigeon blood ruby -- a color they all share -- with violet rim. The bouquet is quite rich, with intense forest berry fruit laced with alcohol, balsam, and deft cedar. Great harmony and depth in a young wine; it brings to mind looking in on a roomful of 7th graders who are good looking and will improve with age. On the palate it's rich and chewy, with powerful black currant fruit supported by graphite bitterness and ample sweet tannins that are wound quite tight and flow into a long clean black currant fruit finish with bitter undertones. It's quite nice, displaying great depth, and though one could enjoy it now with succulent red meats it will go places with time; I'd give it 5-8 years and mayhap more.

Up until this vintage, the grapes for Ornellaia came exclusively from the Ludovico Antinori's Ornellaia Vineyard. However, starting in 2001 grapes from the Bellaria Vineyard were also used.

Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Supeiore Rosso 2001
Again, deep pigeon blood ruby with violet rim. The bouquet is a bit sharper than the 2000's, with vegetal notes and slight savory animal tang laced into the forest berry fruit that provides the framework, and this is likely a contribution of the Cabernets that didn't come through in the 2000 vintage due to higher August temperatures. Truth be told, the accents add pleasant depth and facets produing a delightful whole. On the palate it's rich, full, and defter than the 2000, with powerful black currant fruit that is supported by ample tightly woven tannins that lay a bitter dusky trail over the tongue, and flow into a clean rich berry fruit finish. The tannins have a touch more equilibrium than those of the 2000, drawing more from grape, and though the wine is younger than its sister, it also has more potential and depth, I think. Great elegance too, and though it has a lot to say now it will have much more to say in 5-10 years. Something to set aside

Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Supeiore Rosso 2002
Deep pigeon blood ruby with violet rim. The bouquet is quite rich, surprisingly so considering the vintage's reputation, with rich black currant fruit laced with some cedar and hints of underbrush, mingled with graphite shavings, sea salt, and underlying vegetal notes. Nice balance in a cooler vintage key. On the palate it's lighter than either the 00 or the 01, but deft, with rich black currant fruit that has pronounced bitter overtones supported by tight sweet tannins that have slight greenish notes with a cedar underlay and flow into a bitter cedar laced finish. It's clearly less intense than its older siblings, but quite pleasant, and will drink well with red meats. A fine expression of a more difficult vintage, and though it is ready it will also hold nicely for 3-4 years.
2 stars

Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Supeiore Rosso 2003
Inky pigeon blood ruby with violet rim. 2003 was in many ways the negative image of 2002 -- hot and dry to 2002's cool and wet -- this is reflected in the bouquet, where the initial rush of youthful violets and cherry blossoms is joined by powerful jammy accents that mingle with black currant fruit and graphite shavings, with some underlying menthol. Nice harmony in a softer hot weather key. On the palate it is full, rich, and very round, with ample jammy black currant fruit that's a touch sweet (but gains direction from acidity) supported by full sweet tannins that are very smooth, so smooth they seem smaller than they are, with some oak that still needs to fold in, but will by the time the wine reaches stores. It's quite elegant in a softer, riper key -- the heat of the vintage is quite apparent -- and if you like this slightly softer style you will like it very much. Given its softness I wouldn't age it for that long, though it will age nicely for 3-5 years at least.
2 stars

A couple of observations from the post-tasting discussion:

Everyone present thought that the 2001 was the best wine of the flight, and we also all agreed that it needs time. The second best? Some say 2003, in expectation of the future, though I found myself preferring the 2000 for its present expression. Then, (for me) the 2003, and finally the 2002.

One important thing to keep in mind about blends such as Ornellaia is that they are not carved in stone; in 2002 they used more Merlot than they do in normal vintages because it ripens more easily, and in 2003 they used more Cabernet than they might otherwise because it stands up to heat and drought better than Merlot (and the wine is therefore slightly more vegetal).

Also, the 2003 vintage really was exceptionally dry, so dry that towards the end of the summer the vines stopped drawing water from their roots and began to absorb it from the grapes instead. Considering this, the fact that Ornellaia's agronomists were able to prevent cooked aromas and overripening is impressive indeed.

Bottom Line Impression? Ornellaia is an international style wine, with a beautiful balance or wood and fruit, and great harmony. If you like this style of wine, you will enjoy it very much. Given its price and limited availability, however, it is best suited to special occasions.

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