Every now and again appears a staunch reminder as to why I do what I do; earlier this year this came in the form of a fleeting visit to Tuscany. Going for dinner with Supertuscan stalwart Ornellaia, and lunch the following day with Sassicaia; life is tough.
For those who don’t know either of the properties, they both make what are known as ‘Supertuscan’ wines: What started as a reaction to the strict DOC regulations in Chianti became a worldwide phenomenon. Initially Chianti producers had to use no more than 70% Sangiovese and then the balance in a local white grape – if these restrictive rules weren’t adhered to, the producer would have to put the lowest Italian wine designation vino de tavola on the bottle. Some producers knew that a better wine could be made if these rules were ignored – perhaps by adding Cabernet or Merlot and started to do so. The popularity of these wines grew – with the producers drawing on the brand name as opposed to the DOC for recognition – hence Tignanello, Solaia, Masseto, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, etc. became and remain household names. Sassicaia was the first Supertuscan to be made commercial in 1971 (although the first vintage was made for personal consumption in 1944) followed by Tignanello in 1978.
I arrived in Pisa and took an hour and half taxi up the coast to the wonderful Ornellaia property – having never been before I had built up an image in my head of what it would look like – lavish, manicured and ostentatious (I’ve spent too much time in Bordeaux). How wrong I was. Ornellaia’s property is embedded half way up a hill outside Bolgheri. It’s a series of villa-like buildings that was obviously once a working farm – no great big signs, no poncy flower beds, no ghastly on-site restaurant. How refreshing. Visible is the sea down the slope and the hills behind. It’s stunning; vines interspersed with olive trees as far as the eye can see.
"It’s stunning; vines interspersed with olive trees as far as the eye can see."
We take a walk around the vineyards at sunset – I can see M marked on Vine posts, I enquire what it denotes - it’s for Merlot (I feel like a fool), I then see C for Cabernet and P for Petit Verdot. I ask which plots go into ‘Le Grand Vin’ as opposed to the Serre Nuove and Le Volte. ‘Whichever produces the highest quality grapes’ I’m told, which varies vintage from vintage enormously. All the grapes though, are picked by women only. I deduce from this that Ornellaia believe that women are decidedly less cack-handed than men and I’m inclined to agree. We whip past the Masseto vineyards quickly – they edge onto a dark wood but are far smaller than I imagined. No wonder the wine commands such a huge price tag.
The walk concludes with a visit to the tasting room; Ornellaia 2012 is on the menu which is simply stunning: big and bold, cherries, tobacco – incredible balance and finesse . I note in my tasting pad that I would happily drink this now, so a wary note to the impatient – lock this away if you want to see it at its best, which I think will be in about ten years. We taste the Serre Nuove 2013 (2nd wine) and Le Volte 2013 (3rd Wine), both are exceptional. Le Volte is insanely good value for the cherry-driven, smooth, leathery wine that it is. The Serre Nuove is polished and beautiful – it’s delicious now and no need to wait – cherries, liquorice and sweet spice with a wonderfully silky texture.
The tasting leads the way to dinner prepared by a local in-house chef – an ever so delicate Tuscan white bean soup to begin with, flavoured by a splash of olive oil from the hills surrounding us. The pasta plate is incredible; a wild boar ragu cooked for hours just lining some home-made spinach filled ravioli (earlier in the day it was explained that boar create significant mischief for the wine properties in Tuscany – I can’t help but think that this Ragu is some sort of wonderful revenge). We eat this with older vintages of Serre Nuove – 2010 and 2009 – I remind myself to lock some away for a rainy day as opposed to drinking it early on of which it is so easy to do. After dinner; Grappa and a fire – Tuscany is very cold at this time of year and the Grappa is always a useful sleep aid.
Vineyards at Ornellaia
I depart Ornellaia the next morning and took a cab to Sassicaia – Sassicaia is even more unassuming – they barely take any visitors at all apart from trade – and it’s essentially two large barrel rooms (I can see the 2014 doing it’s magic in racks as high as the ceiling) joined by a tasting room. We taste within minutes of being here – starting with their third wine – the Difese 2013. It’s absolutely great; rich, silkily textured and lots of plum, morello cherry and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s remarkable value, buy as much as you can for midweek suppers and taking to friend’s houses, it will not disappoint. Next up is the great Guidalberto – tipped by the wine advocate as the best Guidalberto ever – I concur. It’s hefty, dark fruit laden and almost as long as the Sassicaia. It’s not quite ready though – wait a year or two (if you can). The Sassicaia 2012 is awesome – Dark fruit, blueberries, blackberry, vanilla – a velvety texture – but it’s also beautifully restrained and elegant. I cannot rave about it enough – If you buy one box this year – buy this. It doesn’t have the hype that other vintages come – the upcoming 2013 is set to be outstanding, but it’s amazing in its own right.
"Sassicaia 2012 - If you buy one box this year, buy this."
It’s back in the car again - Sassicaia don’t have a kitchen, but then why would you when down the road is Osteria Magona? Run by two brothers, they specialise in Beef – huge hunks of beef lightly passed over a charcoal flame and put on a plate served with some token vegetables. It has to be seen to be believed. On the table we have a Sassicaia ’04 an ’06 , a ‘10 and another ‘12. It’s as if I’ve died and gone to heaven. The ’04 is the winner – in fact it’s the winner of the trip. It’s got enough body to it to stand up to the still mooing slabs of beef all over the table and the herby, spicy, tobacco plum and cedar wood frame is a wondrous accompaniment.
Beef Fridge at Osteria Magona
On the way back to Pisa airport I stop in Bolgheri, it’s a charming little town, I pick up a couple of bottles from the local Enoteca – a Sassicaia 2010 and a Gratammaco 2012 – I think the prices are very fair, and they ought to be considering the properties are but a stone’s throw away. The restaurants look charming and the wine lists are very comprehensive, but the three cows-worth of beef I’ve eaten for lunch aren’t going to allow me to have anything more and so I get back the car and back to Pisa. Checking my e-mails in the airport I think to myself,’ what a wonderful break I’ve had’, still heady from a very long lunch, ‘oh wait, it's work’.