Tenuta dell’Ornellaia: Masseto – A Complete Retrospective 1986-2008

Flight 1: In The Beginning

1986       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Il Merlot dell’Ornellaia         93

1987       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   94

1988       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   96

1989       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   95

1990       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   95

Flight 2: The Challenging Vintages

1991       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   93

1992       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   91

2002       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   95+

2003       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   92

2005       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   94

Flight 3: To Drink Now and Tomorrow

1993       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   94

1994       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   95

1995       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   94

1996       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   91

2000       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   88

Flight 4: Milestones

1997       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   94

1998       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   97

1999       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   96

2001       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   97

2004       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   96

Flight 5: Present and Future

2006       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   99

2007       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   96

2008       Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto                                   96+

This truly once in a lifetime tasting was the largest Masseto vertical ever staged in the United States and spanned every vintage back to 1986. The tasting was remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to taste bottles directly from the estate’s cellar. Provenance was as impeccable as it could have possibly been. Winemaker Axel Heinz was on hand to add his valuable perspective throughout the evening.

Each table is named after a theme that relates to Masseto

The wines were grouped into thematic flights rather than served in strict chronological order; an approach I find keeps the palate fresher and more engaged. I was quite surprised by how well the wines have aged, especially the early vintages from the 1980s. The only wine that was disappointing was the 2000, a vintage that garnered consensus for its poor showing. All of the other wines were somewhere between fabulous to utterly mind-blowing.

John Ragan, Eleven Madison Park’s Wine Director, and I opened the wines a few hours before service and tasted each bottle. We started with the youngest vintages and worked our way back to the 1993. All of the vintages from 1993 to 2008 were double decanted. We then opened all of the older wines, which were subsequently gently decanted to remove sediment. Any subpar bottles were not served. Eleven Madison Park’s attention to detail, especially with regards to handling and serving of the wines was exceptional.

Eleven Madison Park's Wine Director John Ragan

Executive Chef Daniel Humm and his team prepared a flawless menu that paired beautifully with the wines. There was plenty of richness and depth to the food to stand up to these wines, a testament to Humm’s creativity. The lobster with black truffle, leek and potato was a standout, but I could say the same about the suckling pig and the beef. Did I mention the minestrone was outrageously delicious? A round of tasty canapés paired with the 1997 Salon was the perfect way to prepare the palate for the reds that followed.

Over the years Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’s Masseto has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s great wines. As it turns out, Masseto’s existence is quite accidental. When Lodovico Antinori and Tibor Gal first developed Tenuta dell’Ornellaia in the early 1980s, their goal was to create an estate wine that could stand on its own terms next to Sassicaia, Bolgheri’s established superstar. Sassicaia is 100% Cabernet, so Antinori and Gal decided that Ornellaia would have a significant percentage of Merlot, which would help differentiate their wine. Out of curiosity and armed with a hunch they had a superior site, in 1986 Antinori and Gal bottled their first pure Merlot, Il Merlot dell’Ornellaia, as an experiment. Though not commercially released, the wine was a huge success and paved the way for the 100% Merlot Masseto, which was first released with the following vintage. One of the little-known consequences (and ironies) of the success of Masseto is that Ornellaia remained a much more heavily Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine than originally conceived.

Masseto is made from as many as three vineyards, although in challenging years not all of the parcels make it into the final blend. Masseto Centrale is the original Merlot vineyard on the estate. It was planted in 1984. Masseto Centrale is further divided into two sub-parcels, Sinistro (left) and Destro (right) which are often picked and vinified separately. Masseto Alto lies just up the hill from Masseto Centrale. The ocean views from this higher-altitude site are quite striking and serve as a poignant reminder as to the origins of the Tuscan Maremma. Masseto Junior is the youngest Merlot vineyard and was planted in 1999.

The Masseto Centrale Vineyard

The harvest generally takes place from early to mid-September. Each of the parcels is harvested, vinified and aged separately. Fermentation and maceration has been around 25-30 days in recent years. Masseto is aged for 24 months in new French oak barrels. Typically the blend of sub-parcels takes place after the first twelve months of aging. The final, blended wine is returned to barrel for a subsequent twelve months before it is prepared for bottling. During the 1980s the estate experimented with shorter aging regimes, notable with the 1989 and 1990, which spent 11 and 14 months respectively in oak. Beginning with the 1991, all vintages have spent two years in barrel.

Flight 1: In The Beginning

The 1986 Il Merlot dell’Ornellaia is a revelation. Layers of sweet dark red fruit and spices grace this soft, seamless wine. The finish turns surprisingly exuberant and fleshy. This is a great showing for the first, experimental vintage of the wine that would become Masseto. Drinking window: 2011-2014. The 1987 Masseto comes across as quite floral, delicate and understated, with lovely definition in its fruit. I don’t think the 1987 has too many more years of fine drinking left, but it is undeniably impressive in every way right now. Drinking window: 2011-2014. The estate’s 1988 Massseto takes things to another level. It is the first of the early wines that is stratospheric. In some ways, I wish we had decanted this a little longer. The 1988 is a firm, structured Masseto endowed with considerable power, length and the stuffing to drink well for at least another handful of years. The 1988 is in my view the first truly epic Masseto. Drinking window: 2011-2016. The 1989 Masseto is pure silk. It shows striking inner perfume and sweetness as it blossoms on the palate with layers of expressive fruit. This is a fabulous showing for the 1989. Drinking window: 2011-2014. The 1990 Masseto comes across as quite ripe and almost exotic, very much in the style of the year. This is a decidedly opulent, full-bodied vintage. Tar, smoke and licorice wrap around the huge finish. My preference was for the 1988 in this first flight, but to tell the truth all of three last wines were spectacular. Drinking window: 2011-2015.

Early Vintages of Masseto

Flight 2: The Challenging Vintages

In many ways, this was the most illuminating of the three flights, as we had a chance to check in on a number of wines, many from long-forgotten vintages.

The 1992 Masseto is a revelation. I am amazed by the sheer integrity and purity of the fruit in this explosive Masseto. The wine turns a bit more delicate in the glass, with elements of brightness that balance some of the more extroverted qualities. I especially admire the dramatic, sweeping finish. Simply put, this is a stunning wine. Bolgheri escaped the big rains that compromised the harvest throughout the rest of Tuscany. Drinking window: 2011-2015.The 1991 Masseto, from a cold, rainy year, is still fresh and intact. This is a small-scaled, floral Masseto that has held up beautifully, although it is fully mature. Drinking window: 2011.

The 2002 is another eye-opening wine. The year is mostly remembered for its cool, wet summer and a number of dilute, uninteresting wines. Not here. The 2002 Masseto will go down as one of the handful of truly great wines made that year. I imagine in ten or twenty years it will be fascinating to taste alongside Miani’s Merlot, Soldera’s Brunello Riserva and Conterno’s Monfortino. There is no question the wine is in that league. Today the 2002 remains a baby, with tons of depth in its dark fruit. Hints of rose petal and spice develop in the glass, adding further complexity. There is plenty of structure underneath, suggesting the 2002 will be a very long-lived wine. Today, it is a knock-out. Drinking window: 2012-2022.

The 2003 Masseto is another product of a difficult year, but in this case it is a vintage characterized by brutal, unrelenting heat. The estate made the decision to use only the central, oldest part of the vineyard, but even that was not enough to fully counter the effects of the sweltering heat. The 2003 is an opulent, port-like Masseto loaded with sweet, dense fruit. It retains good freshness and delineation, but the style is very ripe and heavy. Drinking window: 2011-2018. The 2005 Masseto comes across as fresh, vibrant and beautifully delineated. It is a mid-weight wine that will most likely age along the lines of some of the more slender years from the 1980s. Today the 2005 impresses for its length and sheer energy. In this tasting the 2005 comes across as a bit out of place in a flight of wines from ‘challenging’ vintages. The 2005 is a striking Masseto. Drinking window: 2011-2020

Winemaker Axel Heinz

Flight 3: To Drink Now and Tomorrow

This flight highlighted wines that should be at their peak today. For the most part the wines showed true to type, although the 2000 was a big disappointment. One of the attendees remarked ‘this is the only vintage of Masseto I would not be excited to own.’ That pretty much sums it up.

The 1993 Masseto is a rich, layered wine. This isn’t a particularly big Masseto, yet the wine possesses striking balance and a totally harmonious, complete personality that is hard to capture with mere words. This mid-weight Masseto is pure pleasure. Drinking window: 2011-2021. The 1994 Masseto is another super-impressive wine in this tasting. The warmth of the year comes through in the super-ripe, dense fruit. There is plenty of underlying structure to ensure another decade of very fine drinking here. This is a stunning Masseto from a long forgotten year. Drinking window: 2011-2021. The 1995 Masseto impresses for its silky tannins and exceptional finesse. There is plenty of power and structure in the glass, but ultimately this is a wine that convinces for its elegance and utter sense of harmony. The 1995 Ornellaia is now fading, but the Masseto has plenty of life ahead. Drinking window: 2011-2021.

In 1996 the flowering was delayed and the summer was on the cool side. Only a spell of heat towards the end of the season allowed the fruit to ripen. As a result, the 1996 Masseto is both fresh, but also rather compact. It possesses gorgeous, well-delineated aromatics and plenty of complexity but not the depth or richness to improve materially from here. Drinking window: 2011-2018. In a large tasting such as this one, there are bound to be positive and negative surprises. The 2000 Masseto is the one wine that is quite disappointing. The aromas and flavors are quite soft and forward, with oxidative tones that have begun to creep in. There is no upside from cellaring bottles further. I tasted four bottles, and they were all similarly evolved, which was a big surprise given the way every other wine in this tasting showed. Drinking window: 2011

Each wine is meticulously labeled and served in its own glass

Flight 4: Milestones

The Milestones flight was the most anticipated of the night, as these are the vintage’s that have shaped Masseto’s present- day status as one of the world’s icons. The wines did not disappoint.

The 1997 is still in great shape. Wow. This is a dazzling Masseto endowed with gorgeous fruit and a sexy, opulent personality. The 1997 isn’t the most complex or complete Masseto, but it sure is hugely pleasurable. Drinking window: 2011-2017. The 1998 is even better. It shares much of the richness of the 1997, but with more delineation and nuance. The wine blossoms beautifully on the mid-palate and finish, with layers of expressive fruit and fabulous overall balance. This is a stunning Masseto. Drinking window: 2011-2018. The 1999 Masseto is a cool, inward wine graced with exquisite finesse, but it still needs a few years in bottle to show its potential. That said, it is pretty spectacular even today. This is a vintage that will appeal to readers who enjoy firm, structured wines. Drinking window: 2012-2024.

The 2001 Masseto lives up to its reputation as a modern-day legend. The wine has everything; beautifully delineated aromatics, generous fruit and plenty of structure to support all of the elements. It is a big, massive Masseto endowed with huge fruit and an exotic, powerful personality. An eternal finish rounds things out in style. The 2001 is dazzling from start to finish. Drinking window: 2011-2023. The 2004 Masseto is all silk and elegance. The 2004 is arguably the most finessed, silky Masseto ever made. Bright floral notes add lift and precision to a core of sweet red berries and spices in this supple, exceptionally polished wine. This is the height of elegance and polish with Masseto. Drinking window: 2011-2024.

Winemaker Axel Heinz’s notes on the inaugural 1986

Flight 5: Present and Future

In my view the 2006 is the greatest Masseto ever made, and the wine certainly lives up to those expectations tonight. It is a marvelously balanced wine with well-articulated aromatics and generous fruit, all supported by powerful yet sophisticated tannins. This is a fabulous showing. Drinking window: 2016-2031. The 2007 Masseto is totally different in style. Here the fruit is sweet, seamless and totally inviting, in a style that is immensely pleasing today without sacrificing potential longevity. Floral notes wrap around the generous, insistent finish. Drinking window:  2014-2027.

The 2008 Masseto is stylistically closer to the 2006. An irregular crop set lowered yields while the warm, dry summer concentrated its efforts on the smaller crop. Cooler temperatures towards the middle of September lengthened the cycle and allowed for the full development of aromatics and phenolic ripeness. The 2008 is a gorgeous, dense Masseto endowed with massive fruit and tons of structure. The only missing element is a degree of finesse, but that may develop in bottle. For now, the 2008 is a wine to bury in the deepest corner of the cellar. Drinking window: 2018-2033.

The dinner finished with the 2008 Ornus, a sweet wine that Ornellaia has yet to release in the United States. It paired beautifully with the pear dessert, but to be honest, the stage on this night belonged to Masseto.


Scallop; Seared with Heirloom Beans and Minestrone

Lobster; Poached with Black Truffle, Leek and Potato

Loup de Mer; Poached with Morels and Spring Peas

Suckling Pig; Roasted Rack with Onion and Farmers Cheese

Beef; Roasted Tenderloin with Ramps, Smoked Potato and Sauce Bordelaise

Pear; Burnt Honey Cream with Bosc Pair Sorbet

Eleven Madison Park, 11 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10010, +1 (212) 889-0905

--Antonio Galloni