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Top, Top Tuscans: on the Masseto Merlot trail

Ornellaia and Masseto are close siblings but very different wines, as I discovered on a recent visit

All planted to Merlot – the Masseto hill near Ornellaia

Two of my wine drinking, as opposed to tasting, highlights last year were Ornellaia 2000 and, from the same Frescobaldi stable in Bolgheri, the all-Merlot Masseto 1989. I’d resolved at the start of 2015 to open some of my most treasured, mature bottles with friends and family, instead of waiting for elusive, supposedly right occasions. Opening a special bottle instantly makes the occasion special: you don’t need a fanfare.

I was as good as my word – it must be the first time I’ve ever kept a new year’s resolution. Over the year, as well as the Ornellaia and Masseto, I opened a bevy of mature bottles, including Grange, Tertre Roteboeuf, Mouton Rothschild, Domaine du Martray Corton-Charlemagne and an 1890 D’Oliveira Verdelho Madeira. To my surprise and delight, there wasn’t a single corked or otherwise duff bottle (unlike the Dr Loosen Erderner Pralat Riesling Auslese 1998 that I opened last night: sadly, badly, madly corked).

Unsurprisingly, this year is proving to be more modest on the home drinking front, but there have been some spectacular away matches, including a visit to Ornellaia and Masseto where I did a tasting of barrel samples of the very promising 2015 vintage by plot and by grape variety (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot) and where I drank, among others, Ornellaia 1995, 2005 and 2013, Masseto 2003, 2006 and 2013 and the miniscule-production whites, Ornellaia Bianco 2014 – only the second vintage of this wine – and Ornus 2011, a dessert wine made from Petit Manseng.

The 2003 and 2006 Masseto decanted for dinner – perfect partners for the roast suckling pig (below)

But there was another element to the visit that was particularly stirring: Masseto. I’ve been to Ornellaia before, but not to Masseto and hadn’t realised quite how separate and distinct an entity it is. Because of its rarity and expense, there’s a tendency for Masseto to be seen as a sort of ‘super-Ornellaia’ – annual production at around 32,000 bottles is only a fifth that of Ornellaia and, whereas you might expect to pay about £160 a bottle for Ornellaia 2011, Masseto 2011 will set you back around £490.

"As so often, the difference is in the dirt"

In reality, the two wines are very different, although both are notable for their generosity of texture as well as flavour – a Mediterranean generosity, rather than the more Atlantic reserve of Bordeaux – and for a complexity and precision that Axel Heinz has moved up a gear since he arrived as winemaker in 2005, hot foot from Saint-Emilion.

Axel Heinz, winemaker since 2005

The difference is not simply that Masseto is 100% Merlot, whereas Ornellaia is Cabernet Sauvignon dominated (with, in descending order, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot). As so often the difference is dirt. Masseto is from vines grown on a self-contained seven-hectare hill remarkable for its marine-origin clay, a hard-to-work clay where nothing else will grow and where even vines struggle to get their roots down, but Merlot is renowned for liking clay. Think Pomerol.

The amount of clay varies. It’s thinner and sandier higher up the slope and in other sections it’s more saline (and less good). And the hill is a mosaic of different plots that ripen at different times.

Although there are only seven hectares, the harvest can take up to a month, and the timing can vary dramatically. In 2014, a difficult, cool year, the last grapes were picked on 9th October. In 2011, a great vintage, the final day was 1st September. In 2015 (which, as I said, is looking very promising) the last grapes were picked on 20th September. I look forward to tasting the finished wine at some point. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be in a position to buy any. If you are, you know where to find me when you open the first bottle – with or without the roast suckling pig.

All photographs by Joanna Simon

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