Three Vintages of Ornellaia

April 27, 2011 at 10:15 am Leave a comment

Does Axel Heinz, winemaker at Tenuta dell’Ornellaia in Bolgheri, have his own personal approach when he makes the estate’s flagship wine, Ornellaia, each vintage? “I certainly have,” he says, “but it’s not always a very conscious process. The idea is to maintain a certain continuity.” Noting the changes in the winemaking scheme and in the ownership as well at the estate, he adds; “The estate has maintained its production philosophy and its style throughout the years.”

Ample proof of that emerges in the three most recent vintages of this iconic wine from the small wine district only five miles from the sea in the Tuscan province of Livorno. I sat down with Axel to taste the 2006, 2007 and soon to be released 2008 bottlings in order to experience how the wines vary from year to year. They certainly do, even in these three vintages, each of which Heinz labels as “great”, but of course, the stylistic thread that is Ornellaia is ever present.

A few words on Ornellaia before the specifics of each of these vintages. This is a blend of four grapes, all Bordeaux varieties, that dominate the plantings in Bolgheri. Unlike the rest of Tuscany where Sangiovese is the dominant grape, that variety is rarely seen in this wine district; indeed it represents only about 1% of the plantings in Bolgheri. The clay soils, which are prevalent here are a main reason; clay is ideal for Merlot, for example, but not for Sangiovese. In fact, Heinz points out that Bolgheri is one of the few DOC zones in Tuscany where Sangiovese is not required in the final blend.

The dominant variety in Ornellaia is Cabernet Sauvignon, usually representing about 55% of the blend. Merlot is next (about 27%), followed by Cabernet Franc (usually around 15%) and finally, Petit Verdot at 4% or less. Heinz points out that the percentage of Cabernet Franc has slowly increased over the past few years, as the variety is performing, in his opinion, “brilliantly at Ornellaia and throughout Bolgheri.”

The wine is aged in approximately 70% new oak – French barriques – for anywhere from 15-20 months on average. The wine is a Bolgheri Superiore, which means the wine has to spend at least one year in wood, which is exceeded at the estate. While the new oak is noticeable, it is well-integrated into the wine and does not stand out, especially given the powerful fruit concentration.

Axel Heinz (Photo ┬ęTom Hyland)

Heinz recalls 2006 as an outstanding vintage, but one that did not have the usual characteristics of a great year, as it was quite hot and extremely dry; in fact, it was the driest vintage ever. The reason the wine turned out so well, according to Heinz, it that as conditions were a bit extreme, the vines reacted in producing less fruit with smaller berries, resulting in especially intense and concentrated wines. Tasted now, the wine has marvelous balance and very good acidity, despite the hot conditions of that particular growing season.

As for 2007, the winemaker remembers that year as a more classic one from which you would expect greatness. Bud break was very early – as much as 10-14 days early and temperatures were moderate; cool temperatures were the norm until the end of August. Thus the grapes received great hangtime, which provided beautiful aromatics as well as ideal acidity. This is a beautifully balanced wine, which was the norm for Bolgheri in 2007.

Regarding 2008, it was a hot, dry summer with temperatures reaching as high as 35 degrees Celsius (100 degrees F); thankfully, that changed quite dramatically in mid-September, as conditions during the day plummeted to 18 degrees C (66 F), allowing a bit more ripening time in the vineyards.

Heinz had to treat the 2008 Ornellaia a bit differently in the cellar as compared to other vintages. Because of its intensity, he aged this wine 21 months in oak, longer than any other wine he has worked with at the estate (he became winemaker at Ornellaia in 2005). Heinz made this decision as he believed the wine “needed polish to shed the hard tannins.” The wine does have a blast of tannins in the finish, but again there is excellent depth of fruit and beautifully defined acidity.

Ornellaia vineyard, February (Photo ┬ęTom Hyland)

My own notes on these three wines note that remarkable depth of fruit and power each wine has; aromas of black cherry, anise and mocha or dark chocolate, along with the vanilla notes of new wood, are primary. Each wine is full-bodied with excellent complexity and the structure to age for 20-25 years, perhaps longer. The 2006 seemed a bit sharp in the finish, but as Heinz pointed out, the wine may be going into a stage where it shuts down for a bit.

The 2007 is an extraordinary wine, the most perfectly balanced of the three, in my opinion. The wine has ideal acidity and an extremely long finish with strong notes of mocha and anise. The 2008 is extremely deep in color – bright ruby red with evident purple hues – and offers beautiful ripeness and excellent persistence. This may turn out to be even better than the 2007, I believe. As for Heinz, he notes how beautiful the wines from 1988 and 1998 were from Ornellaia (the 1998 being “one of the greatest of all Ornellaia,” in his opinion), so he is not surprised that the 2008 has turned out to be such an amazing bottling. He admits there may be something to the last number, so the 8s have it, at least as far as the quality of Ornellaia goes. Does this mean the 2018 Ornellaia will also be a legendary bottling?

“Ornellaia is now considered one of the classic estates of Tuscany and of Italy,” Heinz remarks. “Yet, it’s still an estate that is growing and stabilizing, because it was created barely 25 years ago. Given the efforts of Heinz in only five years, I think it’s safe to say that Ornellaia will continue to prosper and improve, providing us with legendary wines that will live on for decades.

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