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DFWE 2023 Ornellaia masterclass: Four decades of a Tuscan icon

In front of a sold-out audience, Ornellaia’s Vianney Gravereaux, director of sales and marketing, along with the Decanter’s World Wine Awards Regional Chair for Tuscany Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, discussed the evolution of the wines from the iconic estate.

Contrary to other well-known wine regions in Tuscany, Bolgheri has always stood apart: instead of being influenced by the hills and soils of the Appenines, Bolgheri has been shaped by the nearby sea. From the sandy loam with pebbles as well as clay, and limestone in the hills, the sea has left its imprint upon the land and circulates the air around the vineyards.

Scroll down to see tasting notes and scores for 10 wines from the Ornellaia masterclass

The historical records indicate that, due to the proximity to the sea, Sangiovese was not well suited to Bolgheri. In contrast, it is the sea – providing luminosity and cooling breezes – that allows other grapes to excel. Enter international varieties.

Bolgheri and its vines are often compared to Bordeaux, but the wines never quite taste like Bordeaux. They might be French grapes, but the vine cuttings originated in Italy and have been in the region long enough that they deliver a distinct expression of Tuscany.

So where does Ornellaia fit in? It’s not the first famous wine from Bolgheri – that would be Sassicaia – but rather one established by another branch of the Antinori family in 1981. Vines were planted in 1982 and a wine produced in 1985 that quickly made its mark. But it would take another decade for the vines to become ‘comfortable’, according to Gravereaux.

Vianney Gravereaux & Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW

Credit: Ellen Richardson / Decanter

Additional vineyards in Bellaria, near the Bolgheri hamlet, were added and planted from 1992. At higher elevation and facing the sea, these new vines quickly became significant to Ornellaia’s future.

During the 1990s, the estate gained a better understanding of what the vines were going to produce, and increased the number of micro-vinifications and plot selections, leading to what Gravereaux described during the masterclass as ‘the greatest shift in the estate’s evolution.’ In 1997, a second wine, Le Serre de Nuove dell’Ornellaia, was introduced, giving the winemaking team the freedom to select only the best components for Ornellaia. Today, Ornellaia is a meticulous selection sourced from over 70 different plots.

The early 2000s brought more changes: of ownership, of winemakers and, in some ways, of the wine itself – yet it remained true to its origins: a distinctly Tuscan expression of a Bordeaux blend of grapes. The last 20 years, under the stewardship of the Frescobaldi family and CEO, Giovanni Geddes da Filicaja have cemented Ornellaia’s place among Italy’s top wines.

From the 2013 vintage, the quest for elegance and expression of terroir became the focus: recent vintages of Ornellaia have a purity of fruit and freshness that has become a hallmark of the wine. The amount of Cabernet Sauvignon was reduced from 70-80% of the blend to 50-60%, with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot making up the difference – which, in their increased percentages, allowed for a greater diversity of flavours and structure (both acid and tannins), as well helping to mitigate the effects of the changing climate through thicker skins and later ripening.

Another innovation in the last 20 years has been the Vendemmia d’Artista project. Every year since 2006, a single word is selected to describe the vintage, interpreted by a different artist each year, who is commissioned to create both a label and art installation. Large format bottles using the exclusive label are auctioned off, with proceeds going to the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation to support its Mind’s Eye project, which enables the blind or partially sighted to appreciate artwork via verbal and sensory experiences. As Gravereaux put it, it’s Ornellaia’s way to ‘help communicate and interpret wine through art.’

White wines at Ornellaia

White wines have always been a part of the history of Ornellaia, but were somewhat neglected until the change in ownership. In 2008, Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia was re-introduced, a predominantly Sauvignon Blanc-based blend. And in 2013, the first vintage of Ornellaia Bianco was created; also largely Sauvignon Blanc-dominant, but a blend which has changed around from year to year, while the most recent vintages have settled on 100% Sauvignon Blanc.

Gravereaux insisted that Poggio alle Gazze ‘should not be considered as the second wine of Ornellaia Bianco.’ Rather, the technical team identified certain plots where the white varieties excelled, and felt that they could produce a wine deserving of the Ornellaia name. Both white wines have brought a differentiating factor to the winery and have been a resounding success.

Ornellaia: An overview of changes

By Aldo Fiordelli

Today Ornellaia is managed by the Frescobaldi family, but it was founded by Lodovico Antinori and was partly owned by Mondavi in the 2000s.

From 1981, the legendary Napa winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, consulted, overseeing the first vintage release, 1985. It was his guidance that led the estate to plant Merlot on the blue clay soils of what is today the Masseto estate.

At the beginning of the 2000s, Thomas Duroux, today CEO of Margaux third growth Château Palmer, arrived. He was followed by Danny Schuster, who can still be seen around the vineyards (I personally met him in 2022) and Michel Rolland is also a historical consultant of Ornellaia.

Now, after the great vintages under Axel Heinz (departing Ornellaia this year for Margaux second growth Château Lascombes), the new production manager of both Ornellaia and Masseto has been named as Marco Balsimelli, a 40-year-old Tuscan winemaker who graduated from the Faculté d’Oenologie in Bordeaux.

He arrived from Château Gruaud-Larose, second-growth estate in St-Julien, but since 2010 has worked with Eric Boissenot, son of Jacques, and trained in oenology-ampelology under the tutorship of Gérard Seguin and Yves Glories, consulting for top producers of the Left Bank (Châteaux Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild…). From 1 January 2024, the winemaking baton at Ornellaia will also pass from Olga Fusari to Balsimelli.

The determination from this masterclass? Terroir at Ornellaia is key. The wines – 2020, 2013, 2011, 2008, 2003, 1998, 1993 and 1990, plus Ornellaia Bianco 2020 and 2014 – demonstrated a seamless continuity that, according to Gravereaux, ‘transcends’ blends and climatic conditions.

Ornellaia: ‘Four decades of a Tuscan icon’

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