Superb Tuscans: Ornellaia

February 8, 2017

It couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for such a romantic occasion. The warm Italian sun never burned but kissed your skin and bathed the idyllic rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside in the most magical golden light. The cypress trees rustled in the dry, fragrant wind while the branches of the olive trees stood noble and steadfast like picturesque wise old men.


Perched upon a hilltop with views to infinite beauty, my family celebrated in intimacy the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents. Sumptuous mountains of freshly made pasta, Chianina beef grilled to perfection, simple but wildly delicious ricotta cheesecake — a delightful cloud of white fluff topped with a thin layer of velvety dark chocolate.


It didn’t matter that the run-of-the-mill chiantis were not necessarily to our liking, the air was filled with love and happiness and our glasses were filled with cool and effervescent Prosecco and crisp, pleasantly pale whites.

For all my ardent wine drinking, living in France has vastly spoiled my palate. I have a natural tendency towards Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style wine and I am terribly clueless about Italian wines — the red wines in particular.  Quite frankly, there are not very many moments that I have encountered an Italian red that truly captured my fancy. I am not really a fan of Sangiovese, which is a varietal that abounds in the Tuscan region and, apart from the exceptional moments where it is of a certain prestige and quality and perfectly paired with a slow-cooked ragu of wild boar, it’s not really my cup of tea — or glass of wine, I should say. But the learning process continues and of course I chalk up my apparent distaste to pure ignorance, simply because once in a while when the occasion arises, I do find myself biting my tongue and in a state of blissful admiration of a spectacular glass of Italian wine.


In come the Super Tuscans. As a wino I’ve heard the term Super Tuscans used frequently but the fact is, being so blindly Francophile, I never really delved into the whole concept in detail. Super Tuscans is a wine movement that began in the 1970s, starting with the Marchese Piero Antinori, who decided to create his own version of a Chianti-style wine while ignoring the extremely restrictive DOC regulations resulting in Tignanello — a lush blend of Sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon.

More wineries followed suit and by the mid-Eighties the unofficial Super Tuscan “brand” was well established and known for yielding extremely high quality non-DOC wines. By the 1990s the DOC system was revised so that it could encompass these out-of-the-box wines with the less restrictive denomination of IGT Toscana. As it also turns out, many of the more prestigious Super Tuscans use a Bordeaux-style cabernet sauvignon — a merlot blend, non-indigenous grape varietal that was imported, planted and flourished in certain Tuscan enclaves, notably Bolgheri. It was one such wine from this region that made my heart flutter.


Not too long ago I was invited to a tasting lunch paired with wines from Tenuta dell’Ornellaia. It was a small, select group hosted by Premium Wine Exchange at M Restaurant in honor of the presence of Patrick Lachapèle, the winery’s export manager for Asia-Pacific. Everyone there seemed to be familiar with the name Ornellaia. At the thought of tasting their famed wines, I was also excited, yes, but for different reasons. I was looking forward to learning. I came as an absolute blank slate thirsty for knowledge and lots of wine.

The winery produces three wines: Ornellaia, their sophisticated flagship wine; their second wine, Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia, which is produced exactly like a second wine in Bordeaux with all the grapes sourced directly from the vineyard; and their last but not necessarily third wine, Le Volte dell’Ornellaia.

As it turns out, their winery also produces the legendary Masseto. (No wonder everyone was excited!) But five years ago, Lachapèle explained that they separated the two brands, feeling that Ornellaia deserved its own limelight. “We realized that when we would conduct tastings, everyone was waiting for the Masseto in the end and Ornellaia was always in its shadow.”

We started with Le Volte dell’Ornellaia 2013 paired with a lush burrata, smoky Serrano ham and sweet melon. Lachapèle clearly described Le Volte as not being a regular third wine; the first vintage in 1991 was created for a very particular reason. “We wanted to bring a non-pretentious, very juicy, very easy-drinking touch to Ornellaia. A wine that doesn’t really require aging nor decanting, that you can drink with your friends.”

The blend is 50 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, which are from their vineyards but they added a 30-percent touch of the local Sangiovese, sourced from other neighboring growers that lends that particular juiciness he is talking about. The result is a métisse wine that has all the boldness and joviality of Italy and the refined finesse of the French. It was that particular touch of Sangiovese that allowed the wine to hold up nicely against the tangy but rich burrata and sweet melon.


We were then served glasses of Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2012 paired with an earthy Funghi Casarecce with Tallegio Fonduta, decadent mushroom pasta with creamy blankets of melted taleggio cheese. Produced from the younger vines of the estate but with the same attention to detail and blending finesse, the second wine is a classic Bordeaux blend of 52 percent merlot, 28 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent petit Verdot and eight percent cabernet franc. It was such an enjoyable wine. I felt like I was in the company of a handsome, youthful man, charming, cultured and surprisingly sophisticated despite his youth, a gentleman with the right upbringing and a natural confidence from years of excellent education and worldly exposure. This was the most surprising aspect of Le Serre Nuove. Most of the time I won’t even go near a Bordeaux without at least five years of aging. They usually need a little more coaxing, a little more maturing. Here was a wine that was young but with all the confidence to hold its own. Much like the beloved firstborn son of a dignified, old-world gentleman, walking in his father’s footsteps, ready to make him proud. At a not-cheap but not out-of-this-world price of P2,900 a bottle, it is wonderful value for money and worth a nice little investment. The best part is that it doesn’t need to age anymore and can truly be enjoyed right now.

For our main course of glazed lamb breast, minted peas and potato, we were served a 2012 Ornellaia plus a special treat of a smuggled bottle of Ornellaia 2002.

“We are very stingy with back vintages,” said Lachapèle. “We don’t sell back vintages and we don’t hold a lot of them. But when they said it was a gathering of real wine lovers and media, I just had to bring something special in my suitcase.”

Quite frankly, the predominantly cabernet sauvignon 2012 was already very special, elegant and sophisticated but still approachable. The rather dry climate of that vintage punctuated with some rain towards the end produced a wine rich in fruit and spices, very well rounded and overall very attractive. The winemakers like to give an overall characteristic to define each vintage and this particular one is “incanto,” or enchantment. The 2002 could have been easily described just as enchanting, but in truth it was more distinguished and noble. If Le Serre Nuove is the son and Ornellaia 2012 is the father, the 2002 vintage would be the grandfather. The man who has seen it all, lived a full and vibrant life, well cultivated and wise while retaining all that boyish charm and a sparkle in his eye. The type of gentleman you spend hours with, indulging in long conversations about anything and everything, and not because he’s learned it but because he’s lived it. This particular vintage I learned later on was a very wet year, resulting in a very stringent selection process and a wine that is rather exceptional.


As the lunch wound down, ending in funny anecdotes and stories doused with grappa, I had to ask what a French man from Bordeaux was doing working for an Italian winery.

“I was working with Mouton at that time and they were trying to convince me to work with them so they invited me to their estate,” shares Lachapèle. “It was an instant connection. I fell in love when I saw the estate. I thought I was going to taste very heavy, tannic wines, but that was not the case at all. We had lunch under this big, beautiful tree and at the end of everything they gave me a big, warm hug. And that really did it for me.”


The irony of it all is not lost on me. Here I am falling in love with this great Italian wine based on a Bordeaux blend, much like the irony of a Bordelais working for a Tuscan winery, but the truth is, as much as the construction of Ornellaia is based on the Bordeaux varietals and comes with that inevitable sense of familiarity, it is perhaps that unique and gentle Italian-Mediterranean sun and all the other elements — environmental and romantic — of the Tuscan terroir that lends a very warm and friendly aspect to the wines. All the elegance of a great classic but with all the flirtatious charm the Italians are known for, resulting in a wine that could best be described as not just a Super Tuscan but a Superb Tuscan.

***this article first appeared in The Philippine Star***


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