What do a Russian winemaker, a scion to one of Italy’s most famous merchant families, and a little Tuscan hillside planted with olives have in common?
The answer is Masseto — perhaps the ultimate expression of merlot. Hailing from Tenuta del’Ornellaia, Masseto easily rivals the world’s top wines and is often compared to Château Pétrus, the legendary wine from Bordeaux. It’s Italy’s gold standard.
Although Masseto is coveted by wine collectors, there are some little known facts about its origins.
The story of Masseto began when the scion of a famous Tuscan negociant family, Marchese Lodovico Antinori, founded a small estate on land his mother gave him as a gift.
Called Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, the property is located in the coastal area of the Tyrrhenian Sea in the town of Bolgheri, where some of the best wines in Italy are produced.
Beginning in the 1960s, Bolgheri became the center of the “Super Tuscan” wine revolution — instead of planting traditional Italian varieties, many vintners started producing wines from French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, which they felt were better fits for the area’s soil and climate.
When Antinori received the property, he decided to breathe new life into the vineyard, as he wanted to make wines that could rival the best from Bordeaux. So he hired André Tchelistcheff, a Russian who became America’s most influential winemaker, as a consultant.
By that point in his career, Tchelistcheff had worked with dozens of now famous wineries and counseled countless men and women, many of them now retired, who went on to become prominent winemakers in their own right.
But most of his 56-year career was spent in California, where he was associated with Beaulieu Vineyards in the Napa Valley, and especially with Beaulieu’s signature wine, Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Well, when I think of wine, I think in French,” he would say. His long Slavic face and high cheekbones recalled portraits of Nijinsky or an icon of some forgotten Orthodox saint. He was a diminutive man, barely reaching five feet tall, and when he smiled his slanted eyes seemed to close entirely.
The vines at Tenuta dell’Ornellaia were planted in 1981, and Tchelistcheff believed the property could excel with a variety of plantings.
So the property was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (38 hectares), Cabernet Franc (12 hectares), Merlot (38 hectares), Petit Verdot (7 hectares), and varietals Sauvignon blanc (2,5 ha), Viognier (0,5), Petit Manseng (1 ha), all of which have adapted perfectly to this part of Tuscany.
The vineyards extend over two adjacent areas that are separated by Bolgheri‘s famed Cypress Avenue. There are 99 hectares of vineyards in all, 41 surrounding the Tenuta, and the remaining 58 in an area known as Bellaria, which is closer to the sea.
Today, of course, Super Tuscans need no introduction. From Ornellaia to Solaia to Sassicaia, this area of Italy produces some of the most sought-after wines in the world.
Masseto was born almost by chance in 1986, when Antinori and his winemaker, Hungarian oenologist Tibor Gal, together with Tchelistcheff, decided to vinify their merlot separately. The merlot came from the property’s “Masseto” block, a tiny, 7-hectare parcel on a hill, with soil made up of clay and sand where olive trees had resided.
“Masseto’s soul and backbone come from the compact clay in the central part of the hill, while the hilltop’s sandier and rockier soil, adds elegance,” explains Axel Heiz, who is the estate winemaker. Masseto’s name comes from the word “massi” which means large rocks, referring to the hard clods of gray clay that form in the soil.
Although a very small amount of “Merlot di Ornellaia” was released with the 1986 vintage, the official release of Masseto took place in 1987.
This small release quickly became a collector’s item sold in auctions all over the world. Masseto has received numerous accolades and perfect to near-perfect scores from the most renowned wine critics. Today, about 35,000 bottles of Masseto are produced each year. Michel Rolland, a highly influential Bordeaux-based oenologist, has been consulting with Masseto since 1991.
Those who prefer French wine to Italian have sometimes referred to Masseto as “that amazing French wine made in Italy.” Notwithstanding these opinions, most wine enthusiasts view Masseto as a distinctly Italian creation. The hallmark of Masseto is its power and impressive tannic structure. Most vintages are elegant and complex with intense yet measured aromatics, boasting impressions of perfectly ripe red and dark berry fruit, along with hints of balsamic herbs, smooth spices, and cocoa. Masseto’s mouth-feel is dense, rich, and powerful, with silky tannins reminiscent of Right Bank Bordeaux. Yet, it is different. A very long, leisurely finish reveals a good acidity and concludes clean.
(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and wine enthusiast who resides in Southern California.)