Each year the estate director of Ornellaia in Bolgheri chooses a single word to describe the character of the wine and reveals it at the wine’s launch. The word Axel Heinz has chosen for the 2019, revealed last week, is il vigore – strength, power, vigour. Given that the current zeitgeist around wine is more about elegance, freshness and even lightness, a word more readily associated with the powerful, strong wines of the Robert Parker era, might seem a brave choice, perhaps, even, one that carries a risk of being misinterpreted. Yes, maybe, but when you taste the wine the moniker il vigore begins to fall into place. Although not instantly.
After the deep, vivid, ruby colour of this Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based blend, the first impression on the nose are balsamic, resin, polished oak and dark chocolate notes, but these give way almost immediately to generous, crunchy-fresh black fruit and a swelling floral perfume – violets especially. The palate is smooth, intense and, yes, powerful, but there's a restraint to it; it's insistent but it doesn't shout. A line of umami salinity runs through the violet-scented black fruit – elegantly ripe rather than super-ripe fruit – and there's a fine seam of graphite (hello Cabernet Sauvignon), a sappy, fern-cum-pine note of freshness, and dried herbs too. The tannins are sleek but firm. They carry the wine but, again, they don't shout.The finish has an appetising salty freshness. The acidity itself isn't high, but doesn't need to be in the face of the sappy and saline elements.
More than 24 hours later, the rest of the bottle having been stoppered and stored at 10ºC, my in-brief note was: balsamic, herbs, dark black fruit (blackcurrant); plush but fresh; glossy, sleek tannins; intense, salty, fresh, mineral length. So drinkable, but a great future. Score: 95+
Ornellaia's estate director Axel Heinz giving a masterclass in Florence two years ago at the unveiling of Ornellaia 2017, a wine characterised by the word solare (radiance). This year he presented 2019, il vigore, to us virtually
Talking of a great future, I drank 1991 Ornellaia in April last year and it was stunning; solid colour, very expressive, beautifully evolved but no signs of tiring. It had been stored in perfect conditions in London throughout its life and the 28-year-old cork was in impressive shape. In fact the three-decades-old wine was less evolved and more expressive than a mellow, cedary bottle of 1995 drunk at the estate in May 2016.
A beautifully evolved bottle of 1991 Ornellaia plucked from my cellar and enjoyed at home in the UK last year
In the early years of Ornellaia (the first vintage was 1985) the blend was very heavily Cabernet Sauvignon dominated: 82% in 1991, with 14% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc; and, in 1995, 76% Cabernet Sauvignon and 18% Merlot. Which brings me back to 2019, where the blend has reverted to a higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon and less Merlot than it has generally had since around 2005.
The 2019 is 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. This is a reflection not so much of fashion or climate change but of plantings. Axel Heinz explains that they started to plant more Merlot at the estate in the 1990s, which began to show in the blends from the early 2000s. They also had to replace a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon that hadn't aged well. "Some of those replanted Cabernets are now returning to the blend when conditions are favourable, which they were in 2019," he says.
"Ripening was fast-paced but harmonious and the vines were not drought-stressed"
The 2019 growing season was not as challenging as some (2017 comes to mind), but it was by no means a walkover.Things got off to a sluggish start with a cold, wet April and May and a late flowering. Then summer came abruptly with very high temperatures from the end of June onwards and no rain until two days at the end of July. The harvest, starting a week later than usual on September 6 and finishing a week sooner in early October, was, says Axel, "short and intense", but ripening, although fast-paced, was harmonious and the vines were not drought-stressed.
In terms of winemaking, the hand-picked grapes were sorted again at the winery both before and after de-stemming. Each variety and vineyard block was fermented separately (in stainless steel and concrete). Then, after about 15 days' maceration, the wines were moved mainly to barriques (70% new), where they aged for 12 months, before being assembled and returned to the barriques for six more months. After bottling, the wine rested for a year before release.
ART AND CHARITY It’s not only fine wine lovers who await the release of each new vintage of Ornellaia: the art world does; as do blind and visually-impaired art lovers. Let me unpack that. In 2009, unveiling its 2006 vintage, Ornellaia also launched its Vendemmia d'Artista project, for which a different artist each year is commissioned to create a label that expresses the character of the vintage. This is used for a limited edition of bottles and (for the 2019) 100 double magnums, 10 imperials and one salmanazar (nine litres). Some of these, since 2019, have been auctioned by Sotheby's and profits donated to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to support its Mind's Eye programme. The programme uses multisensory exploration, virtual and actual, to increase access to art for blind and low-vision people across its three museums (New York, Venice and Bilbao). This year's auction is from 5–19 October.
In 2019, two artists who work together were chosen: Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. The word they had to interpret was, of course, il vigore. They based their work on the theme of "metamorphosis, the cycles of nature and its transformation, as well as the relationship between humans and the Earth" (see the photograph below).
Ornellaia 2019 with labels by artists Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. From left: double magnum, salmanazar, imperial, bottle, and finally a bottle with the standard label
Photographs of Ornellaia 2019 and Axel Heinz by Joanna Simon