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  1. Wealth
November 1, 2012

The Super Tuscans and a Masseto Tasting

By Spear's

When maverick Italian winemakers said arrivederci to rules and regulations, they promptly started producing some of the finest reds in the world. Marlon Abela toasts the Super Tuscans

When maverick Italian winemakers said arrivederci to rules and regulations, they promptly started producing some of the finest reds in the world. Marlon Abela toasts the Super Tuscans

MANY OF THE renowned wine regions and wineries in Europe have a rich history that can be traced back many centuries. Take Bordeaux, for example. Records show that wine was already being sold to England in the 12th century and that, famously, Thomas Jefferson was so enamoured by the wines of Lafite Rothschild that he introduced them to the White House. It can take for ever for estates to become part of the ‘wine establishment’, with them often having to endure periods of uncertainty, including wars, financial crises and changes in ownership.

France and Italy are particularly proud of their wine heritage and view it as a national treasure. Not unreasonably, the reputation and quality of these national icons must be protected. The first step in Bordeaux was the Wine Official Classification of 1855, which awarded the very best châteaux ‘Grand Cru’ status. The Italian equivalent is the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), where the state grants wine regions its most prestigious award. Predictably, an endless dose of regulation and rules, to which wineries producing in a DOCG region must adhere, went hand in hand with this prestige.

The Seventies were the low point for Tuscan DOCGs and for Chianti in particular, dogged by draconian regulations set by the DOCG. These included quotas on the type of grapes used for the wine blend, regulation on alcohol levels, rules relating to barrel-ageing and bureaucracy surrounding when a wine could be released on to the market place after bottling. The list goes on… For example, in the appellation of Chianti, producers were obliged to use 15 per cent of Malvasia bianca (yes, a white wine grape!) in the blend to make their red wines.

But across the hills in the coastal village of Bolgheri, outside the purview of DOCG, a true revolution had been ignited by the Marchese Mario Incisa Rocchetta, who in 1971 released his first vintage, the 1968 Sassicaia.

Many followed his example, with Piero Antinori creating Tignanello and Solaia and his cousin Lodovico Antinori in the early Eighties founding Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia. The era of ‘Super Tuscan’ wine was born and the term is now a household name. There were no DOCG impediments, grapes could be blended freely, French oak could be used for maturing the wines and throughout the region of Bolgheri the vines of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, typically grown in France, became dominant, although the indigenous Sangiovese is still used in some blends. Within less than 30 years, the 1997 vintage was hailed as a benchmark year and Bolgheri’s stratospheric rise to ‘wine establishment’ was complete.

THE LIST OF ‘Super Tuscans’ is long, but the most recognisable labels are Sassicaia, Solaia, Ornellaia, Tignanello, Guado al Tasso and Masseto. The wines tend to be full-bodied, modern in style and worthy of bottle-ageing. Sassicaia in particular has released some phenomenal wines throughout the years, with its 1985 vintage being among the world’s most iconic and sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines and now fetching a staggering £17,000 per case.

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But in recent years Masseto has been commanding the highest prices in the region. Ironically it is now released en primeur through Bordeaux’s négociants system. The current 2009 vintage cost over €200 per bottle upon release, while the sought-after 1997, 2001 and 2006 vintages range between €500 and €700. Astoundingly, a nebuchadnezzar (15 litres) of the 2007 just sold in a US auction for $49,000.

Masseto is an incredible success story, considering the first vintage was released by Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia in 1986. What makes it unique is that it is 100 per cent Merlot. In top vintages, it does not command the astronomical prices of Pomerol’s elite: Pétrus, Le Pin and Lafleur. But it is catching up.

I am very fond of Masseto and understand its success. We feature it heavily on our wine list at A Voce in New York, where I’m proud to say we have just received the prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award. Despite Masseto’s price, as soon as it’s listed it’s snapped up by our discerning clientele.

Bolgheri and its Super Tuscans continue to represent an inspiring success story that the wine world and others can learn from. I hope this is the case, but in the meantime I am sure Bolgheri will continue to prosper.  
Read more by Marlon Abela

Tasting Notes

The Masseto tasting took place at A Voce in New York with Alessandro Lunardi of Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia and Olivier Flosse, wine director for MARC USA. All the wines were tasted from the bottle, not decanted. We also opened, for reference, Pétrus and Le Pin 1998, which was a remarkable vintage in Pomerol.

Masseto 1990
A very good vintage in the region. Colour showing a little age, with some amber rim. A rather complex nose, some volatile acidity. Aromas of truffle, graphite, dried Provençal herbs, balsamic, morello cherry/kirsch, black olive. Medium-bodied, decent length but unbalanced due to rather high acidity. Dry at the finish. Not perfect, yet well-made considering the young age of the vines.

Masseto 1997
Hailed as a great vintage. A turning point for the vineyard with the real Masseto-style showing. Colour of pomegranate, vibrant. Nose a little vegetal/aromas of cut grass, menthol, black olive, cherry. This time around the mouth was superior to the nose. Powerful, harmonious, still youthful, big. Real progress made here.

Masseto 2001
In my mind, the first great Masseto and a great Merlot. Very youthful, dark cherry in colour. A sweet nose, notes of coffee, liquorice, cherry jam, dark chocolate and mint, very After Eight-like! Floral/violet, very complex. The mouth powerful, long, harmonious, soft tannins but still present, very well-balanced and rich. Still extremely youthful.

Masseto 2004
A good vintage, lovely bright colour but not overly concentrated. The nose still tight, lovely floral notes. A minty freshness, very Cassis and dark chocolate. Perhaps a more classic-style Masseto. Mouth fruity, medium to full-bodied, chiselled. A lovely wine.

Masseto 2006
A great Masseto, dense cherry colour. Very complex nose. Ripe, blackberry, liquorice, liquor de Cassis, black olive, but also spicy, smoky, tobacco, cedar wood, a real Christmas cake-type nose. Mouth big, spicy, waiting to explode! A lot of fruit. Quality tannins, still young. Very long, well-structured with a lovely sweetness.

Pétrus 1998
Deep ruby colour. Nose still tight: black truffle, blackberries, cherries, milk chocolate, a little leathery. A big wine, yet elegant, harmonious and velvety, great finesse with backbone, very young. Amplified in the glass, huge potential. A knock-out wine!

Le Pin 1998
Vibrant, dark colour. The nose was very fruity, blackberry jam, violet, sweet. A little oak still showing. Very ripe, some notes of bitter chocolate and smoked aubergine and a meatiness a bit like beef jerky. The mouth, bold and fruity. I would have liked more grip in the mid-palate. A big wine rather than a fine one.

Marlon Abela is Chairman of MARC
Read more from Marlon Abela

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