Ask the guitar-playing, French-born winemaker Axel Heinz of Italy’s Tenuta Dell'Ornellaia what tops the priority list when it comes to ordering and enjoying an expensive bottle of wine, and he’ll give you a very down-to-Earth, non-French, non-I’m-a-snooty-winemaker-of-one-of-Italy’s-priciest-wines-ever answer:
“The will to have a second glass is always the most important. It’s everything.”
In the world of fine wine, where you can sometimes find an epiphany at $15 but stand an equal chance of getting burned at $150, it’s nice to have some go-to producers on your radar when facing off in that staring contest against the intimidating 500-page steakhouse wine list.
It’s even better to know that some of those go-to producers realize that whether you’re looking for a cold glass of tasty Sauvignon Blanc to guzzle as an icebreaker or are planning a full-on raid on the expense account for an impressive, balls-to-the-wall red wine to impress your date, your boss, a big client (or all three), the wine you order has to taste good, or everybody is going to go home at least a little bit pissed off.
Enter Ornellaia, one of the original “Super Tuscans” who have been making red wine in the sunny hills near the Tuscan coast in some way, shape or form since the early 1980s. It was producers like Ornellaia who told the Italian wine-governing bodies to take their restrictive laws (specifying which grapes could be planted where) and shove them where the Tuscan sun doesn’t shine. They instead planted the grape varieties that made Bordeaux famous — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc — on the hunch that they would do well in their Mediterranean clime. Turns out that those Super Tuscan pioneers were right — the grapes didn’t just do well in the Bolgheri hillsides, they went top of their class and graduated summa cum laude, creating powerful, vibrant, long-lived wines with prices to match their kick-ass factor.
That kick-ass factor was high enough for Robert Mondavi Winery to take a minor interest in the business in 1999, which turned into a partnership with another Italian family, the Frescobaldis, by 2002. You can probably guess where this is going…In true Mafioso fashion, things got very, very ugly when Constellation brands got involved in buying out the Mondavis in the mid-2000s, and who most screwed whose pooches in the subsequent turnover to full Frescobaldi control depends on which family you ask. It’s a familial battle worthy of the Sopranos, and one that was brewing even before Constellation came into the ring as the 800-pound gorilla, if the coverage of the story in the controversial 2004 film Mondovino is to be believed.
In the case of Ornellaia, the kick-assness still comes at a hefty price — it now runs between $200 and $250 per bottle — but based on a retrospective tasting of some of their latest releases held at audiophile heaven EarsNova in NYC, it’s a red worth raiding the expense account for, if you can get away with it. (Hey, the economy is improving, right?) Heinz is fond of saying that “if you try to make a grape say what isn’t in its nature, you will not have a balanced wine,” and it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from once you taste his work.
The upcoming release of Ornellaia (2009) is wrapped up almost as tight as a female Olympic swimmer’s sharkskin suit when you open it up. But give it time in the glass (or a decanter) and you start to smell where your money just went: graphite, backing spices, dark plums, dried herbs, black tea, cocoa and earth tones all take turns peeking out. In your mouth things really get moving — this is a big, structured wine, but it’s vibrant and silky and fruity, too. Your steak will probably declare Ornellaia its new BFF after a few bites, and it will almost certainly up your chances of proving to the boss, client or date that you knew what the hell you were doing when you went for the big-ticket item on the wine list.
If, after raiding the expense account to try it, you actually get the crazy idea of buying a bottle for yourself and are wondering how it will hold up over time, you need look no further than the 2001 vintage, which is still in fighting shape right now. It has tons of blackcurrant action and is lush, plummy, but still fresh, with hints of mushrooms and smoky spices. Whatever — you probably won’t be able to hold out ten years anyway…
About the Author:
Joe Roberts is a certified wine geek, and has been called "an original" by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, "provocative" by the Seattle Times, and "a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings" by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, Publix, Palate Press, Mint.com, and Wines.com. You can find Joe regularly roasting wine's sacred cow (and pairing them with robust, obscure red) at the award-winning 1WineDude.com.