Tuscany’s Ornellaia makes a Splash at Swiss benefit auction….
Well into his 70s, Marchese Ferninando Frescobaldi is still an attractive man. So much so, that his second wife jealously hovers about as he skilfully plies his well-honed charm before his adoring congregation of fans. We are in Basel, at the Fondation Beyeler in the grounds of the Villa Berower, for the unveiling of the iconic Tuscan wine, Ornellaia’s 7th annual Vendemmia d’Artista. This year, the Swiss artist, John Armleder, was commissioned to interpret the Ornellaia 2012 vintage by creating a piece of artwork to adorn a limited number of special-edition bottles to be auctioned by Sotheby’s for the benefit of the Beyeler. This glittering annual event celebrates the intimate relationship between wine and art, and cements the Frescobaldi family’s continuing commitment to support and recognise the great artists of their time.
This ancient Florentine family has always known how to marry their passion for public works, art and wine. Experts in all things beautiful, the family funded the original wooden Santa Trinita bridge in 1252 and later, were instrumental in the construction of the Santo Spirito, with Stoldo Frescobaldi positioning himself as an operaio, one of the committee members responsible for collecting and distributing the building funds. The family sponsored the cappella maggiore, and as patrons, were able to procure an additional unbuilt chapel. Members of the family were painted by Michelangelo, and they also supported Donatello and Michelozzi, all of whom became clients and bought their wines – or bartered them for their works.
Today’s Marchese initiated the Vendemmia d’Artista project in 2009, with the intention of creating a modern interpretation of his family’s long association with artists. Although it was the Château Mouton Rothschild in 1945 that originally came up with the idea of having an artist design each vintage’s label, the Frescobaldis take it a step further. Proceeds from past auctions have gone to the Witney Museum in New York and the Royal Opera Foundation in London – hardly entities “in need,” you might say, but each recipient provides to Frescobaldi their plan for the funds: new acquisitions, funding artists, etc. This year’s exclusive auction offered 9 lots, which included 9 of the special-edition bottles which, with the help of Sotheby’s Senior Director Stephen Mould, raised 202,700 Euros.
When Armleder tasted the 2012 Ornallaia for the first time, he was immediately “taken by surprise,” thrown into a pool of unexpected pleasure, a trance….and so he called the wine “L’Incanto” (the enchantment) and created “Splash,” an opulent glass sculpture that cradles and caresses the neck of the bottle. A stunning piece of fluid creativity, it transports us into Armelder’s dream. You must have a taste of your own.
As beautiful as the artist’s creation, the true star of the evening was the Ornellaia, one of the most famous Super Tuscans ever produced. What is a Super Tuscan? A Tuscan wine using a majority of international grapes as opposed to Sangiovese – the indigenous grape of the Chianti region. Tired of their clownish caricature of the 1970s, and the antiquated and restrictive appellation rules, Chianti Classico producers re-invented themselves in the 80s. Partly because the poor quality Chianti was making fools of them, but also because they saw what the New World producers, especially in Napa, were doing with the international (Bordeaux) varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The market was exploding with these bold, oaky, fruit-driven, high-alcohol New World monsters, and the Old World felt left behind. The Chianti Classico of old was issued mainly from the indigenous Sangiovese and Canaiolo Nero grapes, but were also 30% or more of the white grapes Trebbiano and Malvasia. A disastrous recipe. So quality-driven, and commercially-minded, Chianti Classico producers, started planting the “international” varieties which, when added to Sangiovese, greatly improved it. It also gave them a wine with which they could compete against the French and the Americans on the international market.
However, the Chianti Classico authorities did not permit these grapes for the DOC or DOCG quality designation. In response, the producers sold their wines as Vino da Tavola, or IGT, the lower quality designations with more lax laws, and thus, the “Super Tuscan” was born. They also started planting further south where land was cheaper and not constrained by appellation law. So the Bordeaux-blend Super Tuscans ended up creating what they were trying to escape: a DOC, created in Bolgheri in 1994. The Super Tuscans, whilst huge hits on the international scene, lost their Italian identity. Today’s producers are trying to go back to a more restrained, Tuscan style of wine and some are returning to Sangiovese in their blends, but a new and improved version of the grape. They are using high-quality, low-yield Sangiovese clones to produce wines that are terroir-driven and that taste of Tuscany.
Straddling both the Old and New Worlds in terms of style, Ornellaia is grown in Bolgheri, on the southern Tuscan coast of Maremma. The wines are cooled by the coastal breezes and given structure by the alluvial and volcanic soils. The wines served on the night were indeed, enchanting. The Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia 2013 (70% Sauvignon blanc, Viognier, Verdicchio, Vermentino) was fresh and lively with great acidity and structure, and a perfect accompaniment to the sautéed Swiss chard on asparagus salad with a warm hazelnut sabayon. Then came a creamy veal tartar with a sour cream dip on roasted mushroom and endive salad, which we had with Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2007 (Bolgheri DOC), a Bordeaux bland of 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.
Slightly marked by oak and alcohol on the nose, it developed into a vibrant, dense and intensely appealing wine. For the main course of beef tenderloin, we were spoiled with two vintages of the flagship wine, Ornellaia, in 2003 and 2013. The 2012 (56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot) is rich, fruity and spicy and slightly slumbering at the moment, as it matures, readying itself for its next explosion of power. The 2003 was an intensely classic Ornellaia vintage – all power and vibrancy with plenty of concentration of extracts to carry it for years to come. Their 2009 Ornus dell’Ornellaia stole the show (100% Petit Manseng). This unctuous, late-harvest wine was served with an assortment of divine puddings and then followed by the Eligo dell’Ornellaia Grappa Reserva. You must have a taste of perfect luxury of your own….