I still remember the first time I tasted Ornellaia, a Bolgheri Super Tuscan. It was at The Masters of Food & Wine many years ago. But I can still picture the table where I was sitting, even which chair I was in. The wine was an epiphany.
I tasted the wine during a 7-course dinner served by some of the world’s greatest chefs. Each course featured a different wine. This was after two full days of tasting seminars, multi-course wine meals and walk-around tastings. Ornellaia came with the third course during the final dinner, just before two successive courses featuring First Growth Bordeaux. I don’t remember the chefs or the dishes that year, but I remember that wine.
The Ornellaia wowed me with its combination of grace, immediate accessibility, complexity, freshness and structure. It was a nexus of Napa and Bordeaux, taking just the most attractive attributes from each. I bought a case as soon as I got home.
About Ornellaia Estate
Ornellaia Estate was founded in 1981 and, in the following year, planted Bordeaux-variety vines on a Tuscan hillside facing the ocean. The estate’s first wine, simply called Ornellaia, was of the 1985 vintage and released in 1988. Over the years, additional vineyards have been planted and several wines added to the lineup. Ornellaia remains the flagship.
It is a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The estate includes about 250 planted acres, divided into numerous blocks. Since the vineyard faces roughly west, it gets a good amount of sun during the growing season. However, cooling ocean breezes—along with regular cloud cover and rain—mean ripening takes a slower pace than in Napa Valley. Blocks, or sub-blocks, are harvested separately based up on their altitude, facing, slope, soil (there are more than 15 variations), grape variety planted, and, of course, ripeness.
Each lot is vinified separately and some are then further divided for aging in different types of barrels. Ornellaia uses 12-14 barrel variations per vintage. Blending takes place after the component wines have begun to express their true character, about 12 months from harvest. The finished blend goes back into barrel for about six months to integrate and further mature.
Beginning with 2009, each release has been labeled not only with the vintage, but also an additional name expressing the character of that year. These have included Exuberance, Harmony, Energy, Equilibrium, Celebration, Infinity, etc. 2014 is called L’Essenza, “the Essence,” a nod to the core vineyard blocks which are essence of this particular wine and the estate itself.
2014 Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore
2014 was a cool vintage, but mostly dry and sunny September and October weather allowed for an extended hang-time that ensured full ripeness. This gentle maturation on vine provided ideal, natural acidity and elegant tannins. The final blend is 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 20% Petit Verdot, and 14% Cabernet Franc with a total of 18 months in barrels, 70% of which were new.
I tasted the wine with winemaker Axel Heinz in January. Right now, the aromas remain very primary with a focus on slightly briary purple berries. The palate is medium-bodied, fresh and well-balanced with fine, softish tannins. Purple berries show again on the palate, along with dark mineral and subtle, dark spices. Although complexity will build with some years in bottle, the vintage’s supple tannins mean the wine will be approachable while still relatively young.
The 2014 Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore is not yet in market, but it’s a wine to look forward to. In the meantime, JJ Buckley has other bottles from Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia you can grab now.
If you like to hold wine for long, slow aging—or you have a lot of friends that you like very much—here are a couple of 6-liter bottles from previous vintages.
2011 Ornellaia, Tenuta dell’ Ornella
2013 Ornellaia, Tenuta dell’ Ornella
Ornellaia’s little brother, Tenuta dell’ Le Serre Nuove is a delicious, beautifully made wine that reaches maturity earlier than the flagship typically does. The 2012 will be ready in just a couple of years.
2012 Tenuta dell’ Le Serre Nuove
2013 Tenuta dell’ Le Serre Nuove
Ornellaia, Tenuta dell’ Massetto is a legendary Merlot which comes from a maddeningly small, but perfect, vineyard on the estate. The 2013 vintage is in pre-arrival now and there individual bottles on-hand from many previous vintages.
2013 Ornellaia, Tenuta dell’ Massetto
You can see all of JJ Buckley's current Ornellaia offerings here.
JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.
Copyright JJ Buckley 2017. Photos courtesy of Ornellaia. All rights reserved.