Tenuta dell' Ornellaia has recently decided to begin a program to support the arts. Not simply by buying pieces, but rather selecting a word or phrase to describe the vintage of Ornellaia slated for release and then commissioning an artist to do a work featuring the descriptor as its theme.
This year's descriptor is "Exuberance."
It was chosen, says enologist Axel Heinz, because the 2006 vintage was extremely unusual, with a great many quirks that, taken individually, could easily have spelled disaster. But instead they balanced each other out, and in the end produced a wine of considerable grace and harmony coupled with unusual structure and power, a power that, Axel says, is more reminiscent of Masseto (Ornellaia's single-vineyard Merlot) than the Ornellaia of a more normal vintage.
And the quirks? To begin with, it didn't rain a drop during the entire summer. Periods of drought can lead to vineyard stress that can in turn cause problems with ripening -- either overripening or interruptions in ripening -- but this more commonly happens when the summer suddenly becomes dry. In 2006 it was dry from the outset, and as a result the vines adapted, producing a less luxurious leaf canopy than usual, and also smaller bunches of grapes. Not fewer, but smaller, and in practice this means that the vines spontaneously reduced yields.
Dry weather and high heat, as I said, can lead to problems. But in 2006 that's not what happened -- it was dry, but not searing, and therefore ripening was fairly normal, though a bit behind schedule due to the drought. No overripeness, but rather ripe fruit, coupled with high sugar concentrations thanks to the small size of the bunches, and marked acidities due to the relatively cool summer.
Going into the harvest, Axel says, the grapes were ripe, but not exceptional. And still it didn't rain. Rather, hot dry temperatures further concentrated the grapes. However, on September 16, when they were half-way though picking the Merlot, the heavens opened, dumping 20 cm of rain (about 8 inches) in one fell swoop. Now, rain during the harvest usually ruins everything, and had these 8 inches come over a period of several days the grapes would have swelled up and that would have been that. But since it came all at once, the ground absorbed what it could and the rest ran off. The injection of moisture proved a Godsend, because it revitalized the vines, especially the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, which ripened quickly, forcing them to hurry everything into the cellar; Axel recalls that they finished before Sassicaia, and adds that Mario Incisa Della Rocchetta muttered when he found out.
Nor were the problems over when the grapes reached the cellar: the grapes were concentrated enough that it was difficult to determine how much sugar they contained (the sugar is bound into the pulp too), and the relative lack of moisture in the musts made temperature regulation much more difficult, because hot spots tended to develop. The fermentations were very long, an in some cases continuing after the wine had been racked out of the tanks and into barriques. "This is normally something we don't want," Axel said, "but the 06 had a mind of its own and did what it wanted to." He admits to having had doubts about the quality of the wine at the time, and did not expect it to develop the elegant balance it now displays.
Tenuta Dell'Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore 2006, Tasted March 6 2009 Elegant impenetrable pyrope ruby with cherry rim -- poured ink, almost. Rich nose with beautifully balanced red berry and black currant fruit with rich, sweet blackberry notes supported by spice, graphite shavings, slight jammy notes, and peppery spice. A delight to sniff, in a very, very young key, and it develops very well in the glass, revealing new facets with time, including very ripe pesca cotogna (a decadent late-ripening peach, one of the finest stone fruits there is), hints of balsam, greenish warmth, cedar, and green walnut. It will be very interesting to see how it develops over the next few years. On the palate it's rich, with powerful slightly bitter cherry and black currant fruit laced with blackberry sweetness and supported by deft tannins that have a sweet core, and a youthful pencil shaving-bitter burr, and flow into a clean, very long slightly bitter berry fruit finish that gains depth from hints of sea salt. Tremendous depth and elegance, and very, very young: It's like a toddler born of two perfect parents -- a little unsteady on its feet, but definitely going places, and one can already guess that it will scale to considerable heights.
If you must drink it before 2010 -- decant it -- it will need food, and I think could approach perfection with a Porterhouse steak cooked rare, or rare roast beef sliced fairly thick. But it will richly reward those blessed with the patience and fortitude to give it time; I would expect it to begin to hit its stride in about 2014, and age nicely for a decade thereafter.
NO STAR goes to wines that are correctly made but nothing to get excited about.
ONE STAR goes to wines that are good. TWO STARS go to wines that are very good to excellent. THREE STARS and a POINT SCORE (90-100) go to wines that are superb to extraordinary. And I will give pairing suggestions, which I consider much more important than the scores.