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Ornellaia, with Thomas Duroux

by Tom Cannavan, 10/02

Note that Thomas has moved to Château Cos D'Estournel in Bordeaux since this feature was written.

This tasting was organised by the Circle of Wine Writers. At the time, earlier in 2002, the famous Ornellaia Estate was owned jointly between the Marchese Lodovico Antinori, and Robert Mondavi of California. Since then, Mondavi has completed a buy-out of the company, and it is now 100% US-owned. Lodovico is brother of Piero Antinori, boss of the eponymous Tuscan producer famed for their Chiantis and a stable of fine wines.

winemaker  Update: Thomas Duroux has since become winemaker at Chateau Palmer in Margaux.

The tasting was presented by Thomas Duroux, viticulturist and winemaker at Tenuta Dell'Ornellaia (who has since been retained by Mondavi). Ornellaia is one of the most respected "new wave" estates in Italy. One of the finest (and most expensive) "super-Tuscans", Ornellaia is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with a little Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Situated 60 miles south of Pisa, the Ornellaia estate lies close to the sea and was first planted in 1981. Thomas is Bordeaux-born, and he is joined around four times per year by another Frenchman, consultant Michel Rolland, whose job is confined to overseeing the blending of the wine.

Thomas says the village of Bolgheri is at a higher altitude than most of Tuscany, with temperatures noticeably cooler. Controversially, he insists that Bolgheri and Bordeaux are the world's only two truly great Cabernet Sauvignon regions. All harvesting for Ornellaia is by hand, and the de-stemmed grapes are fermented in a mix of stainless steel and wooden vats. Orenllaia is aged in French oak, a 50/50 split between new, and one-year-old barrels, though that percentage is adjusted depending on the quality of fruit from the vintage. After 18 months or so, the wines are blended from individual vineyard lots, and bottled. They will be released 12 months later.

The tasting also included a vertical of every vintage made of Le Serre Nuove, a second wine which was first released in 1997. In an identical system to most Bordeaux châteaux, the creation of second wine allows them to use younger vines and a broader selection of grapes than is destined for Ornellaia. Thomas insists that Le Serre Nuove is made not only with the same care as Ornellaia, but with exactly the same treatment: same vinification, oak-ageing and blending process. The only difference in the blend is that Le Serre Nuovo contains no Cabernet Franc, juts a split of around 75/25 Caberent Sauvignon and Merlot.

And so to the wines. I did not know these wines well before this event, and I was suitably impressed I must say. The Ornellaia is remarkably consistent, with wonderful depth and concentration, but also developing complexity and savouriness in the older examples. Yes, this is another "international" wine, with little I could see to define it as Italian, but it is an outstanding wine in any context.

John Armit Wines is the UK distributor (and one of several retailers) of Ornellaia (020 7908 0600) and prices are around £70 for the current vintage, and around £20 for Le Serre Nuove.

Le Serre Nuove

Le Serre Nuove 2000 (barrel sample)
Deep crimson/black. Very smoky, ashy, dusty quality with a little incense note. Sweetness of fruit shows through. Lovely ripe fruit on palate, quite plummy but lots of fresh, crisp blackcurrant and a creamy quality. Bittersweet plum and dark chocolate nuances and a long finish. Very promising. Very good indeed.

Le Serre Nuove 1999
Opaque, but bright crimson colour. Creamy, dusty, soft vanillin notes, touches of briar and cedar and berries. The palate is smooth and rich, with lots of crunchy black fruit quality and some spice. There's a good deal of ripe, soft, almost strawberry fruit over a tighter, more mineral core. Tannins and lemony acidity are crisp into the finish. Very good.

Le Serre Nuove1998
Very smoky quality on the nose. Soft, gently woody, dusty notes with hints of tobacco and soft black fruits. Rich, expansive and mouthfilling sweetness of fruit on the palate. Very warming, rich and spicy, with tobacco, plum and a plumskin bittersweetness. Long and very good indeed.

Le Serre Nuove 1997
The first vintage, of which only 30,000 bottles produced (production is now 60,000). Deep, dense ruby colour. Attractively fresh, with summer berries, cherry and black fruit. A little hint of cedar, but this is juicy and fruity. On the palate it is still braced by lemony acidity and crisp tannins, but there's a warm, silky core with savoury appeal. Long and concentrated, this still has time ahead of it and is deeper and more gutsy than the 1998. Excellent.

Ornellaia

Ornellaia 2000
Deep, rich colour. Big, deep, chocolate, spice, clove and nutmeg nose. Plenty of toasty oak. Rich and very fat on the palate. Glycerine-rich, with deep, plummy fruit and blackcurrant. Seems more Californian than Bordeaux in style. Very ripe and concentrated, with a fudgy depth, but structure and fine length. Quite precocious, with tobacco and woodsmoke on the finish and very opulent. Very good indeed/Excellent.

Ornellaia 1999
Similar colour to the 2000, with a slightly sweeter fruit quality to the fore. An impression of fat, generous fruit, though quite crisp cherry and blackcurrant notes, with lots of cedar and toast in the background. A straightforward black-fruited palate which is silky-textured with big, ripe, but dry tannins kicking in. This is actually quite grippy and tightly-structured, but perhaps lacks a little charm? Very good indeed and needs time.

Ornellaia 1998
Still a deep, dense crimson. Much brighter nose here, with woodsmoke and incense; very fragrant and quite delicate, though good fruit. The palate is forward and fruity. It is supple, smooth and has a rounded quality. Lots of plum fruit, but soft and with dark chocolate notes and a lovely ripe tannic grip. Lots of drama here, with bold fruit and power into the finish. Delicious, though relatively straightforward adn should develop complexity with ageing. Very good indeed/Excellent.

Ornellaia 1997
Deep red, just developing a warm core. Adds a fantastic dimension of intense violet sweetness on the nose. More concentration, and a deep aromatic core. Little fudge-like notes, but plenty of fat, sweet black fruit with floral nuances. Absolutely delicious palate with ripe, concentrated, palate-filling fruit that is creamy and dense. Savoury tobacco, cedar and ripe tannins give support, and there is superb concentration. Very long finish and fine balance, with hints of a compact, muscular core beneath the opulence. Outstanding.

Ornellaia 1990
Ruby core broadening to an orange rim. Beautifully sweet nose. Integrated sweet oak with hints of decaying leaves joining sumptuous black fruit. Coffee nuances, but plenty of fruit. The palate is silky and very composed and elegant still. There's a fern-like, foresty quality to the palate with cherryish acidity brightening black fruit. Some cigar-box, claret quality and a long, smooth finish with good balance. This is drinking well now, and for a few more years I'd say, but no reason to wait. Excellent.

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