Tuscan producer Tenuta dell’Ornellaia is converting a ramshackle building in the middle of its vineyards into a winery for its legendary Masseto brand.

The rare Masseto brand has an annual production run of just 32,000 bottles and is currently produced at the same winery that makes the “super Tuscan” Ornellaia brand, along with the various other wines the firm produces.

To give it more of an identity and separate it from Ornellaia, the team is giving Masseto its own winery amid the vineyards planted with grapes earmarked for the brand.

Winemaker Axel Heinz told OLN: “It’s going to be exciting because for the current team it will be the first time we have built a winery from scratch and we will be able to design the winery for the specific needs of Masseto.

“It is always hard to say to people that Masseto is a completely different wine [to the rest of the portfolio] but the new winery will make it easier.

“We are starting in a few weeks. We have been ready with the project for about two years and we are lagging behind, but we are quite confident that by June we will start working on it.”

The site was once the home of the local master kilner, who produced pottery for the Bolgheri area, but has now fallen into disrepair.

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia will restore the building to its precise original splendour and turn it into a tasting area, while underneath it will dig into the hill to create a winery specifically designed for Masseto.

It should be ready by the end of 2017 and the first total vintage produced in the winery is expected to be the 2018.

Masseto is a brand that excites wine lovers because it is rare and of exceptional quality. It is 100% Merlot and regularly earns extraordinarily high points scores, with critic James Suckling hailing the 100-point 2011 the third best wine in the world.

But it represents just a fraction of the 1 million bottles Tenuta dell’Ornellaia produces annually.

The eponymous Ornellaia brand itself has an annual production run of 160,000 bottles, while 250,000 bottles of its second wine, Le Serre Nuove, are produced each year, all from grapes grown on the 100ha estate, which is perched on a hillside hugging the Mediterranean coast, meaning it benefits from cool maritime breezes that allow it to create wines blessed with great finesse.

It also buys grapes such as Sangiovese and Merlot from the region and blends them with estate grown grapes to create La Volte, which accounts for 500,000 bottles a year, while it produces white wine Poggio alle Gazze – a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino, Viognier and Verdicchio – and a small amount of the highly sought after Ornellaia Bianca.

Bottles of Ornellaia and Masseto can reach the stratosphere in terms of sales prices, whereas a bottle of Le Serre Nuove 2013 is around the £40 mark and La Volte 2014 is currently selling for around £17 online. The wines are distributed in the UK by Armit, apart from Masseto, which is sold by negotiants via the Place de Bordeaux.  

Heinz, a quadrilingual German who worked in Bordeaux before moving to Tuscany, is faced with different challenges as he strives for excellence in each tier, and he feels that Le Serre Nuove is perhaps the most difficult.

He said: “It’s a different challenge. It’s a different process. For La Volte we don’t grow most of the grapes we use. Due to the revival of Sangiovese it is less easy to get good Sangiovese. Before people would almost give it to you for free, but now if they have good Sangiovese they keep it.”

It helps that Heinz can buy the wines that were showing best in a particular year for the blend.

“If most of the best wines came from Merlot, the blend will have a lot of Merlot,” he said.

“We have some contracts [with local grape growers] and we are increasing contracts. When you are buying in wines there is an entire process you need to follow. You just select wines you like. It’s a completely different approach. You just have to trust your palate. It takes time.

“When you are making wines from your own vineyards you are tied to what you are producing. You have to rely on what you are producing yourself, although you do have full control.

“The most difficult wine to make is the second wine [La Serre Nuove]. For the first wine [Ornellaia] you select as much as necessary to have a great wine. But you need a second wine that doesn’t show the challenges of the vintage. It’s more about detail and finesse. Early on a second wine maybe doesn’t express its nuances, but as it ages it grows apart from the first wine.”

Heinz, who lives near the estate with his wife and daughter, said he is “very pleased” with the 2015 vintage.

He told OLN: “2015 was a very even, warm, sunny, dry growing season. We had a terribly hot summer and then we had some quite substantial rains towards mid-August and a drop in temperatures that stayed all the way through September. Given the hot summer and the early development of the vines, we expected a very early and quick harvest, but it was actually one of the longest and slowest we have had at Ornellaia. “We thought we would finish by the end of September, but we finished by October 12 for Ornellaia. Masseto was picked relatively early, by September 20, which is fairly normal.

“We are very pleased with 2015, because it followed 2014, which was very hard work. It produced nice results, but compared to that 2015 was easy, one of the easiest vintages – nice weather, grapes looked great, it was ripening very slowly.

“It has got the richness and fullness of a warm vintage, but the aromatic freshness at the same time, which is usually more difficult to get with this type of vintage. We didn’t have the late rain that Bordeaux had.

“The wines have richness and at the same time they are silky, rounded, textured and aromatic and are ripe without being over the top.

“That’s what makes Bolgheri so fascinating. There is a great precision in the aromatics. In 2015 I feel the varietal texture for each varietal is very clearly defined.”

Waxing lyrical about recent vintages, Heinz added: “2013 has more structure than 2014. I have no doubts it will age well and it will also be very enjoyable young. There is no roughness in the tannins – they are integrated, so it’s going to drink nicely.

“It is a wonderful drink, all about the fruit and the perfume, with a bit of power much not too much to make it too challenging to drink. This aromatic character will have faded in 15 years’ time.

“2014 was a difficult vintage, but eventually produced good results. It has 20% Petit Verdot, which has made it powerful without being harsh

“I’m not normally a massive fan of Petit Verdot. It gets too powerful, too tannic and too rustic.
“Aromatically it is not overly refined – it has very harsh, very strong tannins and even if you try to do as little as possible during vilification it always maintains this character.

“But in 2014 we had exceptional Petit Verdot. It had all the qualities – dark in colour, powerful, rich, very structured – and when you need it the most it usually fails, but for one reason or another in 2014 it didn’t. It was quite magical. I have learned that Petit Verdot likes to suffer. It’s always performing well at Ornellaia in the most difficult vintages. It likes to be beaten up.

“2006 is probably my most successful vintage so far, although the one I feel the least responsible for [he had just started at Ornellaia in time for the 2006].

“In the long term I think 2011 will stand out as one of the exceptional Ornellaias. I can understand that now people would rather have 2010. In a way 2010 is magical because it has restraint and finesse, which is what we have to fight hard for here because we have heat and it’s hard to put on the brakes to stop it getting too exuberant. It had spontaneously all the qualities we have to fight for.”

Heinz was educated in Bordeaux and worked in various roles there before moving to Ornellaia in 2005, and he is often asked how his wines compare to Bordeaux’s finest offerings.

“There’s always this temptation to look over your shoulder at what’s going on in Bordeaux. At Ornellaia we share general ideas with Bordeaux – style, finesse, not overdone – but these are wines born in the sun and we are not afraid of that or trying to hide it. It’s a generosity of texture.

“There’s an intense generosity to the wine that is lusher than Bordeaux. It’s not everyone’s choice. The magical thing I feel is that it combines generous levels of ripeness without it being cloying. We don’t lose complexity and that’s what defines the area.”

One challenge Heinz sees on the horizon for the wine trade is encouraging the next generation of drinkers to enjoy aged wines.

“I grew up with aged wines and I appreciate them,” he said. “But a lot of younger drinkers nowadays shape their palates with young wines and are surprised by aged wines. Aged wines are certainly not how you get in touch with wine and shape your taste preferences today, and that’s a risk.”