Ornellaia - Tasting an Eight-Vintage Vertical

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

I recently tasted an eight-vintage vertical of Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Rosso Superiore. I was in Rome on a trip with Gambero Rosso. The tasting was part of an entire evening with Marchesi Frescobaldi, which owns Ornellaia Estate and many other estates in Italy. Frescobaldi is 2020 Gambero Rosso Winery of the Year.

My previous article for JJ Buckley details Ornellaia Estate overall. It also covers the Bolgheri DOC.

Tasting Eight Vintages of Ornellaia Rosso

Lamberto Frescobaldi and Axel Heinz represented Ornellaia Estate at the tasting. Lamberto is both president of Marchesi Frescobaldi and 30th-generation winemaker for the family's 700-year old business. With Ornellaia since 2005, Axel is estate director and head winemaker. (He made the three-hour drive from Florence to Rome just for this tasting, then headed back immediately afterward to board a flight for Tokyo.) 

Axel chose to show the 2016, 2015, 2010, 2006, 2004, 2002, 2001, and 1999 vintages. The wines were poured directly into our glasses from 750ml bottles without decanting. We began tasting immediately.

There’s always debate as to whether to start with the youngest or oldest wines. We started with 2016. Axel's view is that If older wines aren’t good enough to hold up to the youngest, it's not a good sign.

2016 Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore Rosso

For several years, Ornellaia has given their top wine an additional, fanciful name for each vintage, reflecting the personality of that year. In 2016, that name is “La Tensione.” It’s fitting. Upon opening, the wine is impressively taut, precise with an iron firmness.

The color is opaque red. Aromatic intensity is moderate, but magnetic, with disciplined red cherry, ferrous mineral, unsweetened chocolate, and black currant. The flavors generally followed the nose, but more intense and trading chocolate for mocha. The overall vibe is more about mineral and salinity than fruit. Body is medium-plus with fine-grained, structural tannins to match.

From the outset. it was evident that this is an extremely good wine. It evolved substantially in glass during the 90-minute tasting. The wine became much more generous and a little softer, though remaining fresh and precise. It  revealed itself to be the best wine on the table, and that's saying something. The 2016 Ornellaia is absolutely fantastic and will only get better over the next 20+ years.

2015 Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore Rosso

This wine’s vintage-specific handle is “Le Carisma.” It, too, is aptly named. From first sniff, the 2015 gorgeous and inviting. Whereas the 2016’s personality is mineral, the 2015 is organic. 

The aromas are warm and earthy, loaded with mocha, and offering a rich background of black currant. It’s nearly full-bodied on the palate with plenty of persistent, chalky and velvety tannins. The flavors are earthy mocha, dark chocolate and black currant. It's a beautiful palate, and extremely long.

There is friendly disagreement at Ornellaia as to which wine is better, 2016 or 2015. It’s easy to see why. Both are tremendous, but they're polar opposites. Initially, I was squarely in camp 2015. However, after the 2016 had plenty of time to breathe, it pulled ahead in my view. The smart wine lover will buy both and drink 2015 while waiting for 2016 to develop.

2010 Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore Rosso

2010 was hailed as a tremendous vintage in Tuscany. That, according to Axel Heinz, is largely due to phenomenal weather in Montalcino. On the other hand, Bolgheri was unusually cold, more than a little rainy on the coast, and ripening came quite late. 

The long, slow maturation led to a complex and elegant Ornellaia. Alcohol is lower than the 2015 or 2016. The aromas and flavors are delightful: leather, warm iron, tagine spices, dark fruit, dry earth, cigar box, and graphite. Tannins are very fine and still a bit grippy, but transitioning to velvet. All in all, the 2010 is beautiful, savory, and sophisticated with persistent texture.

2006 Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore Rosso “Archivio Storico”

Archivio Storico is a recent program at Ornellaia. The wines are new, direct-from-the-winery releases of excellent, back vintages. As is the case at most wineries where a volume of bottled wines are held back, Ornellaia stores their bottles unlabeled. For release, the Archivio Storico wines get a special label identifying them as such. This way, consumers can easily tell the difference between a wine that are released normally and held in-market or by a consumer and those stored at the winery for a late release.

Heinz told me, “There is no great wine without the capacity to age, to develop complexity and layers.” Archivio Storico wines have developed in that vein, but are by no means at the end of their potential development. The 2006 Ornellaia is a good example. It has developed substantially, but still has the capacity to age a good while longer.

The 2006 vintage was interesting, in the euphemistic sense. It began with an extended drought, 1.6mm of rain until mid-September. August was cool. The first part of September was about hot winds. Then, on September 16 and 17, came what Heinz called “an absurd amount of rain.” He thought the vintage might be ruined. But water didn’t soak into the baked soil, so grapes didn’t bloat up. Harvest eventually proceeded normally a couple of days later. He says “this wine is not [his] ideal Ornellaia. There’s too much of everything, but it all came together for excellent balance.” 

It’s a great testament to Ornellaia that a vintage like 2006 and a wine which isn’t exactly what the winemaker might hope for can deliver something as ridiculously good as this one, 13 years from vintage. The 2006 remains opaque and ruby-colored in the glass. The nose serves up tobacco, a complex melange of spices, and plenty of nuanced fruit with a chiffonade of mint. The palate is full-bodied and a touch warming, but both mouthwateringly fresh and loaded with very plush, structural tannins. This is Ornellaia dialed up to 11 and it’s superb.

2004 Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore Rosso “Archivio Storico”

Though two years older, this wine is less developed than the 2006. It’s also opaque ruby in color and shows a tertiary note of cherry pipe tobacco, but the nose is otherwise still young and tightly integrated, focused on plum pudding and elegant Christmas spices. 

The palate is still coming together. It presents itself in two layers. One is of very grippy, chalky tannins that dominate in the front of the mouth. The other is waves of acidity that roll across the tongue. 

The 2004 Ornellaia has the components to be very good, but needs several years more in the cellar for the palate to knit and its complexity to unfold.

2002 Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore Rosso [not Archivio Storico]

As we began to examine this wine, Lamberto Frescobaldi said, “Vintage ratings in Tuscany are based on Sangiovese. 2002 [in Bolgheri] was a terrific vintage until September 22. Fruit picked before that was great.” So, even though 2002 isn’t looked upon favorably for Tuscany overall, this 17-year old Super Tuscan is super indeed, if not at the same level as some of Ornellaia’s very best vintages.

The nose and palate are generous and open, with dry herb, cigar box, spice, and a complex assortment of elegant fruit. It’s medium-bodied in the mouth with persistent juiciness, and tannins that are soft and very chalky. The finish is quite long. This wine is at or near peak, certainly ready-to-drink, but will hold for a few years yet. 

2001 Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore Rosso “Archivio Storico”

Axel Heinz said this is “one of the reference vintages” for Bolgheri. That makes it tough for other vintages, because perfection is a tough act to follow. The nose is generous. The rich, full-bodied palate is both extremely juicy and extremely long. And it’s replete with sensuous tannins. The fruit—black currant and ripe plum—is beautifully mature and surrounded with exotic spice and savory, dry leaves. Clearly, the wine is drinking wonderfully now. But it still has time ahead, should you want even further complexity. 

1999 Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore Rosso “Archivio Storico”

This wine shows the most development of all, appropriately given it’s age. Yet it’s still huge. Lamberto Frescobaldi called it comparatively “rustic and muscular.” The opaque, ruby-hued wine is shy on the nose, but there’s discernible iodine, spice, and dense, matured fruit. The full-bodied palate is about texture and, to a lesser extent, acidity. It overflows with very fine, softly chalky tannins. There are flavors of mocha and bay leaf, but the fruit is quiet now. Loaded with potential, this 20-year old wine will be best with another 5–10 years in the cellar.


Axel Heinz didn’t cherry-pick great vintages for this tasting. He certainly showed some, but he also, purposefully, brought wines from less lauded years. Yet, the only wine which might be considered merely very good is the 2004. And it, too, could get better with time.

We took a vote at the end of the tasting as to which wine we thought the very best among them. With about 15 people in the room, a handful of wines got votes. However, there were two clear winners: 2016 and 2001. The deciding factor between those two is simply whether you want full enjoyment now or prefer the excitement of watching a great wine develop over 30 years. There’s no wrong answer.

Here's a look at the Ornellaia on offer at JJ Buckley.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing  appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. He's founder of Wine Writers' Educational Tours, an annual, educational conference for professional wine writers. He also leads private wine tours and conducts tastings and and seminars. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator, Northwest Wine Appellation Specialist, and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's twice been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.