Maremma, part 3: drinking from the holy grails

Ante scriptum: In keeping with a tradition established by Brooklynguy, a wine blogger whom I admire greatly, I feel obliged to make note of the fact that this is my 300th post. I can only echo his typically deadpan understatement, “It has been such a pleasure to write this blog, mostly because of the community of wine people it has given me access to.” Earlier this year, Vino al Vino and Do Bianchi launched a blog born through a virtual transatlantic conversation. Today, My Life Italian and Do Bianchi are driving up to Dallas from Austin to dine with Italian Wine Guy. There are truly remarkable people behind all of these URLs: Neil, Franco, Tracie B, and Alfonso are four people whose lives wouldn’t have intersected with mine if not for blogging, and there are so many others… I am truly thankful for all of them in my life…

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Above: Sebastiano Rosa (left) gave me a tour of the storied vineyards where the grapes of his family’s Sassicaia are produced.

My September pilgrimage to the Mecca of Super Tuscia (how’s that for a neologism?) would not have been complete without a visit to the holy grails of Super Tuscandom, Ornellaia and Sassicaia. These wines need no introduction and a click-through to their websites and a Google search will give you plenty of information on their illustrious history and their presence in the market today.

Above: I visited the famed Masseto vineyard, where Ornellaia grows its top Merlot grapes, just days before picking began. While others in the area had already begun to harvest their Merlot, Ornellaia extended hang time to achieve riper fruit and higher sugar levels.

I’ve tasted these wines a number of times over the years and although I am not a fan (nor can I afford to be), they are among the greatest — if not the greatest and most original — expressions of the genre: elegant terroir-driven wines, made with French varieties grown on Tuscan soil, structured and nuanced, long-lived and highly coveted in the market.

My visit to Sassicaia was impressive for how unassuming the facility is. Sebastiano Rosa, whose family owns the legendary estate, is a dude about my age who studied enology at UC Davis. He speaks English like a Californian (like me) and his family’s winery has remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century. There is no vaulted-ceiling entrance or grand tasting room. And aside from the introduction of stainless-steel, the winemaking facility and vinificiation practices are pretty much the same as they have been since the wine was first produced in the 1940s (and first released in 1968). I tasted with Sebastiano and then we drove up to see one of the growing sites. He is one of Italy’s top winemakers and produces one of its most sought-after wines. But he struck me as a mellow guy with whom I’d rather drink a beer and roll a taco…

Above: as Ornellaia’s vineyard manager, Leonardo Raspini oversees some of the most coveted growing sites in the world, producing wines that command top prices on the world wine market.

Ornellaia is the polar opposite: as you drive through manicured estate and arrive at the corporate offices and winery, you are keenly aware that every detail has been scripted to evoke the same opulence and prestige contained in each precious bottle.

Above: the aging room at Ornellaia is a temple of barrique.

If you’re traveling to Bolgheri, I cannot recommend a visit to Ornellaia highly enough. From the winery and vineyard tour to the elegant tasting cottage, this was simply one of the most enjoyable, user-friendly, and informative winery visits you can make. And unlike Sassicaia, the winery is open to the public: you must reserve in advance and they will customize the tasting according to your palate and your price point (Ornellaia possesses an extensive library of older vintages). He’s not always available but if possible, request vineyard manager Leonardo Raspini as your guide. I was blown away by his ability to convey the artistry of state-of-the-art winemaking technology and philosophy and I was thrilled to shake the hand of the guy who grows the grapes for the first Italian wine to be sold in the Place de Bordeaux.

This just in…

Sue me, Summus. The Italian news weekly L’Espresso reports that nearly 50% of Banfi’s 2003 Brunello has been declassified.