Ornellaia: A Major Retrospective 1985-2006
December 2009

Flight 1 – The Early Years
1985 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum) 
1988 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
1990 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
Flight 2 – The Challenging Vintages
1994 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
1996 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
2002 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
2003 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
2005 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
Flight 3 – Wines to Drink Now
1993 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
1995 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
1997 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
1998 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
2000 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
Flight 4 – Milestones
1999 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
2001 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
2004 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)
2006 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Le Serre Nuove (magnum)
2006 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia  Ornellaia (magnum)

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia is the brainchild of Lodovico Antinori, who founded this gorgeous, sprawling estate in Tuscany’s Maremma in 1981. Vines were planted in 1982 and the first vintages were overseen by the legendary oenologist and winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff. Today Ornellaia is owned by the Frescobaldi family, but like all of the Frescobaldi properties, it is run independently. The estate produces a wide range of wines, from the entry-level Le Volte to the super-premium Merlot Masseto. To me, though, it is the Cabernet Sauvignon-based Ornellaia which truly captures the essence of these unique vineyards and microclimates.

This remarkable tasting, organized by Executive Wine Seminars, spanned seventeen vintages of Ornellaia going all the way back to 1985. All of the wines were brought over directly from Italy and served from magnums, the first time such a comprehensive tasting had been ever been held. The winery very smartly decided against a straight chronological sequence of vintages, which helped break up some of the monotony that can result from conventional order of youngest to oldest or vice versa. Instead, the wines were divided into four themed flights that allowed for a much more focused examination and dialogue. Needless to say, the opportunity to taste this breadth of vintages with equal and unparalleled provenance was an incredible experience. 

The conversation among the group was lively and spirited. Winemaker Axel Heinz was on hand to add his invaluable commentary, which added to the electric atmosphere in the room. I have known Heinz for a number of years and have always appreciated his candor, a rare and refreshing attribute among Tuscan producers.

Early vintages of Ornellaia were predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, typically 75-80%, with Merlot and Cabernet Franc playing supporting roles. Beginning in 1996 the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon was reduced and Merlot took on a more prominent voice, reaching the 30% or so that is customary today. In 2003 Petit Verdot was introduced as the fourth variety in the blend. Of course, the final blend each year is a result of vintage conditions. Other significant stylistic changes include increased selection in the vineyards and cellar with the introduction of a second wine, Le Serre Nuove, in 1997, which subsequently led to a more concentrated style in Ornellaia. Over the years the estate increased its use of new French oak barrels from roughly 40% in the first vintages to the 70% or so that is the norm these days. Fermentation and maceration times have also moved up from the 15-20 days that was typical early on to roughly 25-30 days that is common in recent vintages.

Great attention is given to viticulture and winemaking. Each of the varieties and parcels is harvested, vinified and aged separately, a process that can include as many as 60 or so separate component wines. Fermentation takes place partly in wood and partly in steel, while the malolactic fermentation is finished in French oak barrels. The wines are aged separately for roughly twelve months. The final blend is assembled and the wines are racked back into oak for a further six months. Generally Ornellaia is neither fined nor filtered prior to being bottled, although in some vintages the estate performs a light fining.

Ornellaia Vineyards

Flight 1 – The Early Years

The 1985 Ornellaia (magnum) is big and full-bodied, with gorgeous complexity in its dark fruit, sweet cedar and spices. At nearly 25 years of age, the 1985 remains beautifully balanced. This is an exceptional wine, especially considering the vines were only three years old and there was no selection to speak of when it came to the harvested fruit. As delicious as the wine is, there is little upside in further cellaring and the 1985 is best enjoyed sooner rather than later. 1985 was a benchmark year in the early development of Bolgheri, as it was a great vintage for Sassicaia, the region’s most iconic wine, and also the first vintage of Ornellaia. The 1985 Ornellaia is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc that spent between 12 and 16 months in French oak. Interestingly, the 1985 was made at the cellars of Antinori in San Casciano. 90/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2011. The 1988 Ornellaia (magnum) shows a touch more complexity and delineation than the 1985 in its layers of dark fruit, herbs, licorice, minerals and spices, with a surprising level of freshness and firmness. It is a beautiful Ornellaia with several years of fine drinking ahead. The 1988 Ornellaia is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc that spent 11 months in French oak, 40% new. 92/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2012.

The 1990 Ornellaia (magnum) foreshadows an opulent style that would become the norm in future years. A rich, dense Ornellaia, the 1990 offers exceptional balance in its expressive bouquet, ripe fruit and beautifully balanced acidity. Earthiness, licorice, smoke and menthol linger on the elegant finish. In 1990 temperatures were unusually warm toward the end of the growing season, which comes through in the wine’s generous, open personality. The 1990 Ornellaia is 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc. The wine spent 15 months in French oak, 40% of which was new.94/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2020.

Ornellaia Barrel

Flight 2 – The Challenging Vintages

This is in many ways the most interesting flight of the evening. I fully expect the highly-reputed Ornellaias to deliver the goods, which they most certainly do, but this selection of wines from lesser years is equally impressive, as it is precisely the wines of these vintages that show a winery’s ability and drive to overachieve.

The 1994 Ornellaia(magnum) is a decidedly small-scaled, mid-weight effort with attractive, fragrant aromatics and delicate notes of tobacco and spices that add a measure of nuance to the fruit. While the 1994 lacks the complexity of the finest vintages, it nevertheless possesses lovely overall balance and harmony. The 1994 Ornellaia is 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc that spent 15 months in French oak, a third of which was new. 89/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2014. The 1996 Ornellaia (magnum) is one of the less-polished wines in this tasting. The tannins are a touch harsh and prominent, while the aromas and flavors tend towards fully mature suggestions of truffles and beef bouillon. In 1996 Ornellaia is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc, marking the first move towards a lower percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. The wine spent 18 months in French oak, 60% new. 88/Anticipated maturity: now

The 2002 Ornellaia (magnum) is a modern-day equivalent of the 1994, which is to say a very pretty wine where all of the elements are beautifully-balanced within the context of small vintage. Still, the wine’s sheer concentration and sense of harmony are truly remarkable, especially considering the cool, rainy conditions that affected Tuscany that year. In the magnum format, the 2002 Ornellaia is particularly impressive. There can be little doubt that much of this wine’s success, as well as that of the other lesser vintages that followed in this flight (2003 and 2005) can be attributed to the stringent selection of fruit and wine that the estate introduced in the late 1990s. In 2002 Ornellaia is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. The component wines spent six months in French oak, 70% new. The final blend was assembled and the wine was racked back into barrique for a further six months of aging prior to being bottled. 92/Anticipated maturity: 2010-2020.

The 2003 Ornellaia (magnum) is another impressive wine. Owing to the heat of the vintage, this is an especially ripe, opulent Ornellaia. The blend contains a higher percentage of Cabernet Franc and less Merlot than is the norm, which helps preserve a measure of freshness. It is also the first vintage where Petit Verdot is part of the blend. Dark, jammy fruit is nicely balanced by a vein of minerality that gives the wine clarity and length, yet the tannins are a touch less finessed than in the finest years, which is consistent with the quality of the vintage. The final blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot, aged a total of 18 months in French oak, 70% new. This is without question a very impressive 2003.93/Anticipated maturity: 2010-2020. The 2005 Ornellaia (magnum) is a lovely, silky wine graced with expressive, perfumed fruit and terrific overall harmony. This is a decidedly lithe, feminine Ornellaia, but the wine has more than enough freshness to develop beautifully over the coming years. The estate coped quite well with repeated spells of rain during the harvest. Simply put, the 2005 Ornellaia is a gorgeous wine from a challenging year. The 2005 Ornellaia is 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. The wine spent 18 months in French oak, 70% new. 93/Anticipated maturity: 2010-2025.

Ornellaia Grapes

Flight 3 – Wines to Drink Now

The 1993 Ornellaia (magnum) is just plain beautiful. Plums, tobacco, spice box, cedar and spices come together with notable elegance. The wine possesses exceptional purity in a soft, approachable style. The 1993 is one of the best Ornellaias for current drinking. It is a wonderful effort. In 1993 Ornellaia relies heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon (78%) and Cabernet Franc (5%) in the blend, while the remaining 17% is Merlot. The wine spent 16 months in French oak, 33% new. 92/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2012. The 1995 Ornellaia (magnum) is remarkably fresher than the same wine from bottle. There is a warm, almost exotic quality to the luxurious, rich fruit. Sweet tobacco and licorice add further layers of nuance and flavor. In magnum the wine still has a few years left, but bottles are further along in their evolution and need to be drunk over the next few years. The 1995 is a rather unique Ornellaia in that only a portion of the wine (40%) finished its malolactic fermentation in barrique, while the majority of the wine underwent malo in cask. The blend is 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc, and the percentage of new oak is 39%. 95/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2014.

The 1997 Ornellaia (magnum) is a big, fat wine endowed with tons of fruit. Mocha, coffee beans and ripe, dark fruit emerge from the glass on a rich, opulent frame. The structural elements are easy to overlook, as the tannins are so juicy and ripe, and the fruit is incredibly intense. Simply put, everything is in the right place. Not surprisingly, 1997 is the year Ornellaia introduced their second wine, Le Serre Nuove, and the extra selection that was carried out to produce this wine has paid off big time. The 1997 is also the first Ornellaia in which Merlot is a full 30% of the blend, while Cabernet Sauvignon is 65% and Cabernet Franc is 5%. It is also the first year in which the percentage of new oak is 50%. In many ways, the 1997 is a wine that signals a move towards the more extroverted style that is common here these days. The 1997 Ornellaia, like many wines from Tuscany that year, is marked by a unique growing season that saw an April frost lower yields dramatically, followed by a hot, dry summer which concentrated the remaining fruit to a levels not seen previously. It remains a magnificent example of this Tuscan classic.95/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2017.

The 1998 Ornellaia (magnum) is the least impressive vintage in this flight. Hints of oxidation come through in notes of beef bouillon and mushroom, suggesting that either the wine has not developed particularly well in bottle or this is not a perfect example. Ideally, the 1998 is best enjoyed sooner rather than later. In 1998 the blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc is 5%. The wine spent 18 months in French oak, 50% new. 89?/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2011. The 2000 Ornellaia (magnum) is a pretty, well-balanced offering with good concentration and complexity. The 2000 lacks some of the visceral thrill of top vintages, but it is an excellent choice for near-term drinking. In 2000 Ornellaia is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. The wine spent 18 months in French oak (70% new) and was lightly fined prior to being bottled. 93/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2020.

Flight 4 – Milestones

Our last flight is naturally the most anticipated, as it covers most of the estate’s greatest vintages of the last few years. The 1999 Ornellaia (magnum) does not disappoint. This vivid, energetic wine emerges from the glass with a myriad of graphite, menthol, licorice, leather and dark fruit wrapped around a powerful core. The bouquet alone is worth the price of admission. Though not as opulent as the 1997, the 1999 offers exceptional length and a finessed, regal close. The 1999 Ornellaia is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. The wine spent 18 months in French oak (60% new) prior to being bottled. 95/Anticipated maturity: 2009-2021.

The 2001 Ornellaia (magnum) offers up violets, black cherries, minerals and earthiness in a big, structured style. The wine’s sheer intensity and thrust are nothing short of remarkable. Ideally, readers will give the 2001 another few years in bottle; as it is truly majestic stuff but will require patience. The 2001 Ornellaia is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. The wine spent 18 months in French oak (70% new) prior to being lightly fined and bottled.96/Anticipated maturity: 2011-2026.

The 2004 Ornellaia (magnum) has always been a beautiful wine, but stylistically it stands out quite a bit from other vintages of this era, something that is particularly evident in this tasting. The 2004 is perhaps the most delicate, feminine Ornellaia ever made. Silky tannins frame a perfumed core of ripe fruit all the way through to the sublime finish. The wine’s inner fragrance, sweetness and balance are all impeccable. The 2004 remains one of my all-time favorite Ornellaias, and it is firing on all cylinders on this night. In 2004 the growing season was long and even, with a cool early summer and warmer late summer. Yields were on the high side, as the vines released the stored energy they had held in reserve from the previous year, which required the estate to aggressively green harvest in order to keep the plants in balance. The 2004 Ornellaia is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. The relatively high percentage of Cabernet Franc may explain the 2004’s gorgeous, vivid bouquet. The wine spent a total of 18 months in oak (70% new) prior to being bottled.95/Anticipated maturity: 2012-2024.

It is fascinating to taste the 2006 Le Serre Nuove (magnum), the second wine of Ornellaia, in this setting, as it shows quite well, especially next to some of the Ornellaias from smaller vintages. Le Serre Nuove is naturally made to be more accessible than Ornellaia and contains a higher percentage of Merlot, which gives it a touch more roundness. The fleshy, generous 2006 Le Serre Nuove offers terrific balance in an enveloping, warm expression of this important vintage. I have little doubt that current vintages of Le Serre Nuove are actually better wines than the early vintages of Ornellaia, which highlights how much viticulture and oenology have developed here over the last 20+ years. The 2006 Le Serre Nuove is 50% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petit Verdot. The estate employs shorter fermentation and maceration times lasting 10-15 days and gives the wine 15 months in French oak, 25% new. 94/Anticipated maturity: 2012-2021.

The 2006 Ornellaia (magnum) is a massive, towering masterpiece. There is awesome depth and richness to be found in the glass. Flowers, minerals, tar smoke and dark fruit are all woven in an intricate fabric of almost indescribable elegance and power. Tonight the 2006 Ornellaia is absolutely moving in its beauty and expressiveness. Vintage 2006 will go down as one of the all-time greats in Tuscany, and Bolgheri in particular, as all of that region’s benchmark wines are spectacular. The 2006 shows the intensity of the small berries that were harvested that year, with exceptional concentration, acidity and freshness, qualities that are precious and exceedingly rare when they are found in a single wine. In 2006 the final blend is 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. Simply put, the 2006 Ornellaia is a must-have bottle. 97/Anticipated maturity: 2016-2031.

—Antonio Galloni