The high nobility of Italian wines: his majesty, the Masseto Ornellaia, and the "Supertoscans"

Quite rightly the wonderful, Bordeaux-like Masseto from beautiful Tuscany is called the “king of Italian wines”. As one of the so-called “Supertoscans”, it is probably the most expensive wine in Italy and is one of the most sought-after crus worldwide - no wonder, since just 30,000 bottles of Masseto are produced each year. The grapes for this outstanding Merlot ripen on the vineyard of the same name, a single vineyard of barely seven hectares in size, to which connoisseurs attribute “magical powers”. Undoubtedly, this particular vineyard produces excellent vintages repeatedly, for which enthusiasts are happy to pay several hundred euro. What makes Masseto and its aristocratic relatives so great?

The home of Masseto is the well-known wine village of Bolgheri, a district of the community of Castagneto Carducci near the Tyrrhenian coast in Maremma, about 60 kilometers south of Livorno. It is the Mediterranean climate with its mild summers that provides ideal ripening conditions for the Merlot grapes, which are rather unusual for this region. Since it is made from the “foreign” grape variety Merlot, Masseto - as the regulations would have it - is not allowed to adorn itself with the designation “Bolgheri/Bolgheri Superiore DOC”, but comes along as a “simple” country wine, i.e. as Rosso Toscana IGT. An understatement that this noble growth can easily afford! 

The superstar among the "Supertoscans"

The Masseto vineyard belongs to the top wine estate Ornellaia e Masseto of the Frescobaldi family, which in addition to Masseto produces several other “Supertoscans” and became known as “Tenuta dell’Ornellaia”. The vineyard, which today is praised as “magical”, led a quiet existence for a long time - until in the 1980s wine connoisseurs with admirable instinct, a lot of courage and pioneering spirit recognized the potential that this site has for Merlot grapes. This grape variety, which is originally at home in the French Bordelais with its Atlantic continental climate, ripens in a different way on the Tuscan clay soils, illuminated by the mild Italian sun, than in France - and, as it quickly turned out, develops a very unique character as an Italian.

Two elements characterize the Masseto vineyard: the soil and the Tyrrhenian Sea. The “mare tirreno” bordering southern Tuscany, above which the vineyard rises at an altitude of about 120 meters, is considered an essential part of Masseto. In summer its waves reflect the sunlight and enhance its effect on the vines. At the same time, the warm, humid sea breeze has a moderating effect on grape ripening and compensates for unfavorable climatic influences. And even under the ground, in the soil, the sea unfolds its power, since the vineyard lies on a million-year-old mineral clay layer - the former seabed.

Clay, sun, wind and sea ...

The soil: The Masseto vineyard is divided into three sites, each with different soil characteristics - sandy-stony at the top, clayey in the middle and sandy-loamy in the lowest site. On each site, the grapes ripen at different times and are harvested separately. The most complex results are produced by the central middle site with its high clay content. It is precisely this blue clay from the Pliocene era to which Masseto owes its typical character, its strong tannic structure. And its name: “Massi” is the Italian word for the blue clay clumps that form on the vineyard.

The loamy terroir is capable of retaining moisture and then slowly releasing it. However, it also makes viticulture a challenge: In years with a lot of rain, the soil becomes wet and cold. Dry, hot summers make it rock-hard, so that the roots have a hard time working their way deep into the subsoil. But the vines always manage to hold their own against the challenges of the elements, supported by the craftsmanship of the winegrowers. Perhaps it is this assertiveness that makes the wine so concentrated and powerful in the end. “The production of Masseto is a balancing act in which one constantly walks on the edge of the abyss, as if on a tightrope,” the winemakers write on their website. And the winery’s director, Munich-based master enologist Axel Heinz, sums up the difficult interplay between climate and winemaking this way: “Our goal is simply to capture the essence of nature and bring it to the highest level.”

Three years to age

Which, by the way, also takes a lot of time: Between grape harvest and bottling are about three years. The Masseto is produced separately from the other Ornellaia wines and is even allowed to mature in its very own cellar - a cellar designed by two star architects, by the way, which is in no way inferior to “its” wine in terms of exclusivity. In the heart of the cellar there is a kind of cave, the “Masseto Caveau”. This is where the treasures of the winery are perfectly stored and guarded: the Masseto bottles of all vintages since 1986.

The production can be described in a brief way like this: At the beginning of the highly complex process, the individual grapes are sorted before and after destemming, hand-picked and pressed, followed by fermentation in the special vinification tanks under strict temperature and maceration control. Subsequently, the wine is aged in barriques. In the next step, the grape varieties are blended together for the assemblage of the base wines before the wine is put back into the barrique barrels where it matures for two years. Only after that comes bottling and another 12 months of aging, until the result - provided with a special label that also has information on authenticity and traceability - is presented on the market. There, the creators hope, the wine will find the owners who deserve it: According to Masseto boss Axel Heinz, the winery is particularly concerned “that the wines are drunk by people who appreciate the wine, and not by people who buy it because of the high price and then leave it in the expectation that the price will continue to rise.”

Yes, it should be drunk, this wonderful Merlot, with love, pleasure and understanding. As different as each vintage is, as complex its character, the essential characteristics of Masseto can be summed up: rich and intense, concentrated and juicy, lush, fruity, velvety, sensual and still fresh even after many years of aging - a wine for lovers.

The noble relatives of the Masseto 

Which, of course, applies just as much to the relatives of Masseto, the other “Supertoscans”. Prestigious names fall under this (informal) category, besides the Masseto at the top, for example, Tignanello, Sassicaia or Solaia. Even a few white grapes become Supertoscans, such as the masterful Ornellaia bianco.

Why, in fact, the rather casual designation “Supertoscan” for such noble wines? Legend has it that an English-speaking wine journalist exclaimed during a tasting, “This is a super Tuscan!” However it occurred, the term caught on in modern wine journalism and became a kind of seal of approval. Not an official one, however, because the superstars of Italian winemaking usually carry neither a DOC nor a DOCG label. Basically, they are “plain” Vini da Tavola, i.e. table wines, and were marketed as such for several decades. It was not until the 1990s that a new quality label was introduced in Italy, the “Indicazione Geografica Tipica” (IGT), with which the Supertoscans are labeled today. Bolgheri is a small exception: wineries from this village are allowed to use their own DOC seal for some wines, although the grapes used do not originally come from the region.

"Revoluzzer" created new superlatives 

The fact that the “super wines” emerged at the end of the 1960s is due to nothing more than a small revolution on the part of the innovative Tuscan winegrowing nobility. At that time, the strict regulations of Italian viticulture not only required the use of exclusively domestic grapes, but also always a certain proportion of white wine from the Trebbiano and Malvasia grape varieties. The winemakers pushing for new shores broke these chains: they reduced the traditional varieties or dispensed with them altogether and brought in other, foreign grape varieties. The first of these “wine revolutionaries” were Marchese Piero Antinori, the “father” of Tignanello (which to this day also contains Sangiovese grapes), his cousin Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, who created the first Sassicaia, but also Enzo Morganti, who produced a stunning Vigorello at the San Felice winery as early as 1968. Their model was Bordeaux, so they simply imported Bordelais growths to Italy, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Merlot, and brought them into their soils, which turned out to be a godsend for these grapes. The Tuscan winemakers also introduced the barrique aging typical of Bordeaux.

The Antinoris were then the first to bring their new barrique-aged wines to market. The success of their extremely high-quality productions was not long in coming - more and more modern “designer wines” from the Italian vineyards followed. “Italy’s answer to Bordeaux” was born. And the rest is history. To this day, the Supertoscans come primarily from the best, sunny, maritime sites of the Maremma and especially the region around Bolgheri with its favorable mild climate, the fantastic terroir - and of course the extremely capable cellar masters. They know how to blend the grapes in such a way that their wines are exceptional and at the same time satisfy the tastes of a wide range of customers.

Because this is also what matters to the Supertoscans: that they correspond to a style that “goes well” internationally and is commercially successful. A fact that these wines are occasionally reproached for by tradition-conscious purists. We, however, bow to both the courage and the great winemaking skills of the noble Tuscan winemakers - and also to their modern wines, which, in our opinion, are in no way inferior to the best international traditional wines in terms of greatness.