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Ornellaia Uncovered: Tasting the iconic Tuscan wines with winemaker Axel Heinz

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

We were meant to be basking in the warm winter sun of Bolgheri’s stunning coastal vineyards before tasting with the extraordinarily talented and charming winemaker Axel Heinz at the Ornellaia cellar in Tuscany. But once again Covid had other plans. Instead Axel joined us via zoom to take us through the new 2018 releases of Le Volte, Le Serre Nuove and Poggio alle Gazze and the Ornellaia 2017 in what swiftly became the best Friday morning of lockdown 1 or 2.

Axel started by exploring the differences between the 2017 and 2018 vintages, both were challenging in their own right, but both have produced excellent wines. 2017 was a year of intense heat and drought and many were fearing that the vines might shut down preventing physiological ripeness, that sugars would sky rocket, acids would plummet and the grapes would dehydrate. However despite the heatwave, by August the temperatures had normalised ensuring that the vital final stages of ripening were balanced and the vine did not shut down. Powerful and concentrated certainly, but the 2017’s still boast a surprisingly beautiful freshness, a combination perhaps of the cool, clay rich soils, altitude and coastal proximity of the vineyards.

2018 by comparison was wet and warm until mid-June, a dangerous combination when it comes to mildew pressure in the vineyards. Once again the vintage was rescued in the latter half of the growing season with a beautiful warm, dry summer. The wines of 2018 don’t have the same tannic power and concentration as the 2017’s, but they have beautiful structure, aromatic expression and freshness. Some really classy wines for mid-term aging.

And so to the wines.

Le Volte 2018

The purpose of Le Volte is to provide a delicious, fruit forward, crisp wine that has immediate drinkability. It must still have structure and depth, yet maintain an open and accessible palate.

The nose is so appealing, with briar fruits and the subtle floral lift of violets leaping out of the glass with a vibrant perfume. The palate is soft and velvety on entrance with forest berries and spice. The finish is surprisingly long with a lovely mineral grip that enhances the freshness. Exuberant yet well sculpted, the wine provides instant pleasure while still showing off its pedigree.

Le Serre Nuove 2018

Le Serre Nuove stands between the early appeal of Le Volte and the incredible ageability of Ornellaia. It boasts an impressive structure that can certainly stand the test of time, combined with a rich and open fruit profile that can welcome earlier drinking.

The 2018 has an unusually high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The nose shows rich dark velvety fruit, hints of smoky tobacco and a subtle lift of menthol. The palate has lots of aromatic freshness with a beautiful tannic structure providing grip and a velvety texture. Crunchy cassis and cedar with a gently herbal midpalate leading to a lovely white pepper and mineral finish. It has so much finesse and appeal, even at this young age.

Ornellaia 2017

Little introduction is needed for a wine such as this. Despite the relative youth of Bolgheri and indeed of Ornellaia, this wine has gained global acclaim for it class, quality and complexity.

There are dense black and purple fruits on the nose with a subtle perfume of violets. It is still too young to have really opened up aromatically on the nose but there is so much tantalising promise held in those dark depths. The palate has huge intensity with rich cassis and fresh fig, beguiling depths of forest floor and dark chocolate underscore the more lifted notes of black pepper and mint. The wine has incredible freshness and again, that lovely long mineral finish. The wine is concentrated yet still light on its feet with incredibly integrated oak thanks to very careful consideration of cooper and toast. It will definitely reward long term aging. The 2018 will be release next year.

Poggio alle Gazze 2018

This is Ornellaia’s delicious white blend made from predominantly Sauvignon Blanc blended with Vermentino and Viognier. A beautifully judged combination of barrique, concrete eggs and stainless steel are used in its production adding subtle aromatic complexity, texture and freshness.

On the nose you find passionfruit and yellow peach, grass and a lovely hint of horse sweat, it is very much showing its Sauvignon dominance on the nose. The palate however is a superbly complex and textural mosaic of lemongrass, fresh ginger, fresh lemon, beeswax and white pepper. A rich entry leads through to a mineral driven, almost ethereal finish.

The exploration of fermentation vessels for this wine is fascinating. The Sauvignon did not take at all to the concrete eggs becoming overly reductive but it loves the stainless steel and oak. The Vermentino struggled with oak swiftly loosing its aromatic freshness while the stainless steel tanks rendered it a touch too simple. The concrete eggs however preserves the aromatics and built it’s texture. Finding how each variety responds to these different mediums and then weaving these elements into a seamless and delicious wine is a huge skill.

Sadly we did not get to try the Ornellaia Bianco or the late harvest Ornus, wines as rare (and rumoured to be as beautiful) as the unicorn.

Bolgheri is still an incredibly young appellation considering the qualitative heights that it has already reached. Many of the vineyards have been planted on virgin terroir resulting in really healthy soils and vines as man has not yet had time to damage the soil with chemicals. This means that sustainable viticulture is very important to the producers in the region as they are in a position to maintain and protect the soils they work. They are also endeavouring to prevent over cultivation of the region to maintain the quality reputation of the DOC for which they have worked so hard.

I wish all Friday’s started like this….

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