Tasting Ornellaia's Big, Bold Luscious Wines

Mention the term "Super Tuscan" to winemakers from the Italian region like Axel Heinz and you'll get either a wince or, more likely, a shrug.

Heinz has been winemaker since 2005 at Ornellaia, an estate long in the company of other illustrious single labels like Sassicaia, Solaia, and Tignanello that inspired the Super Tuscan label, but also came to include many inferior wines that merely appropriated the name.

The classification has no standing under Italian wine law, which by regional tradition dictates which grapes are allowed in typical Tuscan wines like chianti and brunello di montalcino.

The term Super Tuscan, concocted in the 1980s by the media and promoted by the industry, refers to wineries that don't play by those rules and who, as a result, may only label their bottles "I.G.T." (typical regional wine), just a step up from the lowest appellation "vino da tavola" (table wine).

Thus, over lunch at Lincoln Ristorante at Lincoln Center, Heinz, 39, ignored all the hype and concentrated on the enviable reputation that Ornellaia's 26-year old winery has achieved on its own, using a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, and, since 2003, a little petit verdot.

To that end, much like Bordeaux's Mouton-Rothschild has done for decades, the winery has commissioned artists to illustrate its vintages. Under a program called Vendemmia d'Artista, large format bottles with labels by an artist are auctioned off to support the arts, as when a salamanzar (12 regular bottles) of the 2006, entitled "L'Esuberanza" with a design by Luigi Ontani, was sold for 17,000 euros ($24,255) to fund restoration work at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan.

High Alcohol

At the luncheon, I asked Heinz, who looks like action movie star Jason Statham with wild hair, about his wines' high, 14.5 percent alcohol level.

"The higher the alcohol level, the harder it is to make a great wine," he said, a comment that flies in the face of many winemakers around the world who deliberately boost alcohol content. "If you are actively trying to make a blockbuster, you will not have a good wine."

Part of the problem, he said, is global warming. "Just in the last decade, alcohol levels have accelerated 1 to 1.5 percent because of the heat," he said. "A winemaker has to be very careful in monitoring how the grapes grow through each season and figuring out the best time to pick them."

Ornellaia has always been a big, bold, luscious wine that shows enormous finesse and an Italian refinement that can be amiably pleasing even when young. The wines we tasted, 2006 through 2008, including Ornellaia's second, less expensive wine from younger vineyards, Le Serre Nuove dell' Ornellaia, made since 1997, showed just how different vintages can be yet still show the unique character of terroir.

Perfect Weather

Of the 2006 L'Esuberenza ($150-$175), Heinz said, "The wine made itself," from a harvest that was near perfect, with uniform ripeness. The wines were aged in barriques for 12 months, when the final blend was made, aged six more months, then bottled and kept for 12 months before release. I thought it was a truly magnificent expression of the Ornellaia style with several levels of complexity and tight but wondrous fruit qualities.

The 2007 Harmonia ($130-$150), with a label by Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, was very tight, even after an hour with food, with a modest nose, needing a long time to emerge from its glass cocoon. It was definitely not made from over-ripe grapes, so its virtues are going to take time to develop.

The 2008 L'Energia ($155-$170), with a design by Rebecca Horn, lives up to its moniker: it's got a big nose with a woody, but not oaky, bouquet, and a remarkable herbaceous content of violets and mint. The tannins are already loose, and I enjoyed this youthful wine enormously, knowing it will get better and better over the next decade.

'Brutal Drop'

Heinz said it had the "lushness of the Mediterranean," which is an apt description of a vintage that began wet, had a dry, hot summer, whose temperatures were lowered by the northerly tramontana winds. At harvest, a "brutal drop in temperature" turned out to be a blessing to prevent over- ripening.

The equivalent vintages of Le Serre Nuove showed exactly the same characteristics but in a lighter, more approachable style.

Although the 2009 was not available for tasting yet, Heinz called it a "very difficult vintage to make. The grapes were picked early and the tannins are soft and the wine will only be of medium weight." No name for that one yet, but maybe he'll call it "mal di testa," which is Italian for headache.

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