Saturday, January 11, 2014

Have some Ornellaia. Really.

Let us sum up, dear things, and create a sort of timeline too: as far back as the 1940s, a family of winemakers in Tuscany (home of Chianti) begin to produce Sassicaia, meaning "place of stones." This is a red wine named for its unpromising vineyard and made, against all Chianti's rules, from French cabernet sauvignon instead of the approved Italian sangiovese. With time these unusual Sassicaias earn appreciation as "interesting and powerful."

Comes the year 1971. The winemakers' cousin, Piero Antinori, takes notice and makes a rule-breaking wine of his own. It is all sangiovese, but aged French-style in oak barrels, as Chiantis are not. He calls it Tignanello. It is "the first well known non-Chianti Chianti; the press nicknamed these new Italian wines 'super Tuscans' " (Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible).

1985. Piero Antinori's younger brother Ludovico takes notice and makes a wine of his own, next door to the vineyards of Sassicaia. He combines cabernet and merlot, the classic blend of French Bordeaux. He calls it Ornellaia, "place of ash trees," again for its unpromising site (think summer heat, rocks, and swamps, besides the ash trees).

The rest is all glory, and four star reviews, and vintage dates in wine guides highlighted in red. Not to mention more prestige than you can shake a stick at. "Wealthy bandwagonists," Hugh Johnson calls the Sassicaia/Ornellaia crowd, though he gives the big O. four stars and red ink, too. Especially, as it happens, the 1998 vintage.

An old cedar box
bright puckery acidity
sound strong tannin
thick, satiny, meaty taste
black pepper and tomato

one thinks: "this is

Yes, one may think all one likes, but in coping with a bottle of wine that sells at retail for about $200 or $300, a bottle from one of the (now) most prestigious DOCs in Italy -- Bolgheri, of the once unpromising stones and ash trees -- in coping with a bottle produced by the twenty-sixth generation of a legendary Italian wine making family, well. Anyone with a few decades' experience in wine is going to respond to a sample of this with more than my haiku of five lines. People with great experience, James Suckling for example who named this 1998 Ornellaia Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2001, are going to mention currants and blackberries and tapenade [an olive-and-caper paste used in Provençal cooking, and a good descriptor to remember the next time I want to say a wine seems "briny," or olive-like]. They are going to mention dried herbs, velvet, "fine minerality," and "incredible concentration." Hugh Johnson in his Pocket Wine Guide will simply say, after the bit about bandwagonists, "vy. good."  

Can people with great experience therefore appreciate it more than we do? Perhaps.

Retail? Specifically? You had to ask. The 1998 vintage sells (at auction) for between $150 and $275 a bottle; the 2008 vintage retails at about $300. 

To carry on the timeline -- July, 2008: go here for Steven Spurrier's Decanter interview with the Antinoro brothers, Ludovico and Piero,

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