During the release of our new Italy Investment Report, Cult Wines will be publishing a series of videos showcasing a selection of key Italian producers. Today, we're taking a closer look at Ornellaia.
1. Pioneers of Italy’s fine wine landscape
Ornellaia first came to life in the early 1980s, when Lodovico Antinori (brother of the famous Piero) began buying up land and planting vines in Bolgheri. Until then, the area was largely the preserve of farmers, olive trees and orchards. The vines – which would later put Bolgheri on the map – were just another plant among the area’s lush greenery.
2. Bordeaux influence
Antinori began creating his wines in the Super-Tuscan mould, eschewing native varieties such as Sangiovese for those more typical of Bordeaux. He cultivated Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and released the first vintage of his flagship wine, Ornellaia, in 1985.
3. A star-studded family
As well as Ornellaia, Antinori was responsible for creating the equally – if not more highly – renowned Masseto. Despite its fervent acclaim, Masseto lay in Ornellaia’s shadow for many years, until 2012, when the winery’s name was changed from ‘Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’ to ‘Ornellaia e Masseto’ in recognition of the Merlot-based wine. In 2019, Masseto got its own winery for the first time.
4. Growing acclaim and growing pressure
Ornellaia quickly rose to global acclaim, but as its reputation grew, so did its financial pressures. Robert Mondavi acquired a minority stake in the brand in 1999, but due to monetary woes Antinori was forced to sell Ornellaia to Mondavi completely in 2001. Mondavi entered into a 50/50 partnership with the Frescobaldi family in 2002, which later took complete control of the label in 2005.
5. The Heinz legacy
Estate director Axel Heinz was first offered the job of senior winemaker in 2005. He admits he has in the past struggled to keep Ornellaia stylistically consistent, but this was addressed in 2010 when many of the site’s oldest vineyards were replanted. In an interview with Decanter, Heinz said that “in the past, Tuscan growers went for the largest possible yields, so the vines were exhausted after 20 years. We’ve been able to correct some of the errors. A great site will always give great wines, but with better managed vineyards they will be even better.”
6. Vineyard variety
The estate’s 76 hectares contains dozens of different parcels with individual characteristics. The soil can be volcanic, limestone, alluvial sand or marine clay. As well as the land around Ornellaia itself, there is a separate area to the north called Bellaria, with pebbly clay and sandstone, younger vines and more exposure to the sea breeze. According to Heinz, “it gives us fresher, more vibrant wines than the vines around the winery”.
7. Le Grand Vin
Ornellaia is typically a blend of between 50-60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20-25% Merlot and around 15% Cabernet Franc. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and typically aged in French oak for 18 months, although Heinz has been outspoken in the winery’s continual experimentation with different barrels and cooperages in pursuit of even greater excellence. The estate’s Grand Vin is relatively accessible in terms of price, but older vintages can go for considerable sums at auction. A salmanazar of the 2005 vintage of Ornellaia fetched more than $30,000 during an auction at Christie's in New York, for example.
8. An extensive menu
In addition to Ornellaia, the estate produces a second, third and even fourth wines. The second red wine, Le Serre Nuove dell'Ornellaia, was introduced in 1997 and is made from fruit from younger vines, with a higher percentage of Merlot. The third wine, Le Volte dell'Ornellaia, is an inexpensive blend of Merlot, Cabernet and Sangiovese, while the estate’s ‘fourth wine’ – Variazioni in Rosso dell'Ornellaia – is essentially a copycat blend of Ornellaia that changes composition depending on vintage conditions.
9. The White Stuff
According to Heinz, Ornellaia has been experimenting with white wines since its inception – many of which have never left the cellar doors. However, there are two available. First came the Poggio alle Gazze dell'Ornellaia, which is a mishmash of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Vermentino and Verdicchio. Then, in 2016, the estate launched the inaugural 2013 vintage of the Ornellaia Bianco, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Both are made in tiny quantities – around just several thousand bottles – and are generally reserved for long-term clients and friends.
10. Distinct characteristics
The character and intricacies of each individual vintage are so important to the estate that since the 2006 vintage Heinz has identified a single word that captures the character of each vintage, and that word is then interpreted by a contemporary artist who produces special labels and a site-specific work of art for the estate. Its most recent theme, for example, was ‘La Tensione’ (tension) for the 2016 vintage, which was conceptualised by American artist Shirin Neshat.