One of the great chefs and hunters of Tuscany, Omar Barsacchi of Osteria Magona, took a deep breath as his boisterous and playful demeanor melded into a peaceful calm. Presenting the final dish from a wonderful Tuscan wine lunch in the heart of Soho, in New York City, he spoke about a good friend and fellow chef who gave him the recipe for the exquisite apple tart that was beautifully enhanced by a cream made with a rare sweet wine that the great Super Tuscan producer Ornellaia makes in minuscule quantities. But then, when he stated with a grieving heart that his friend passed away last year, it became apparent that this final dish was a heartfelt pause to remember all those who have died in the past couple of years.
One of the many fascinating things about New York City is that some of the most inconspicuous buildings usually have the most wondrous surprises behind their doors. Sometimes it can be an enchanting garden, a noteworthy historic enclave or it can encompass glorious spaces that are quintessentially New York. That day, the prestigious Super Tuscan wine producer Tenuta dell’Ornellaia brought Tuscany to one of those quintessential downtown NYC places. The space, 214 Lafayette, is said to have been originally built to house all of the power lines for downtown Manhattan during the turn of the century. The soaring ceilings accented with beams and the exposed brick walls transport one into the movie version of the perfect look of downtown Manhattan in New York City.
Ornellaia’s estate director, Axel Heinz, started the lunch by addressing the idea that there is no substitution for coming together in person and if some found it hard to travel then they would bring Tuscany to New York City. A special treat of that day was that the famous Tuscan chef Omar Barsacchi, whose restaurant Osteria Magona is nestled in the small village of Bolgheri, surrounded by some of the most respected Italian wine producers, was in charge of the meal. Axel presented a small vertical of Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’s top wine, Ornellaia, and a couple of the rare Ornellaia white Bianco wines as well as the rare sweet Ornus dell’Ornellaia.
The guests were spoiled from the first moment they entered the building with incredible Italian meats and cheeses covering a large, rustic wooden table. Then lunch started in a grand space complete with a gourmet kitchen and it was kicked off with the two vintages of Ornellaia Bianco paired with an aromatically enticing spinach flan highlighted by a truffle fondue, representing the truffles and spinach that can be found in the Tuscan area. Then the newest release of the red Ornellaia, the 2019 ‘Il Vigore’, was presented with wild boar ragout as boar is commonly hunted in Tuscany by the locals as there is an overpopulation issue. Chef Omar Barsacchi is quite the accomplished hunter who honors the wild animals by making sure not to get in the way of featuring the fantastic natural flavor. And it would not be a proper Tuscan meal without bistecca, Tuscan prime rib roast cooked to a juicy pink perfection accompanied by the 2012 and 2007 Ornellaia, giving a peek into the 2019’s future.
Axel became the winemaker for Ornellaia back in 2005 and was promoted to estate director for both Ornellaia and Masseto estates in 2015. He brings an outsider’s perspective to Bolgheri, spending his previous wine education and experience in Bordeaux, France. “The area of Bolgheri has everything in abundance,” noted Axel, and he continued by talking about the tremendous amount of sunshine they receive. In some ways, he feels fortunate that there are no issues with ripeness, yet he is cautious as even though he wants to make wines that do have a generosity of spirit, like the local Bolgheri people themselves, he keeps that ripeness in check as he always wants the wines to have an elegant restraint and overall finesse. Since many of Ornellaia’s vintages can be enjoyed in their youth, Axel felt the need to express that even though he is not against “occasionally opening a young bottle” of Ornellaia, the wine is really for the “long-term,” as with age it reveals “all its facets and complexities.”
The aging window depends on the vintage but Axel gives a broad window of between eight to 15 years for the wines to reach their peak and that many of the great vintages could easily go for 30 years if not way beyond, as the Ornellaia wines that he has tasted recently from the mid to late 1980s have been impressive. He figures that the 2019 Ornellaia ‘Il Vigore’ (‘Vigor’) shows the “strength of the healthy growth of the vines” as it has such an irresistible ripeness balanced by bright acidity and overall multifaceted complexity of flavors and texture. Axel chose the 2012 and 2007 vintages as they were similar to the 2019 in their youth; the 2012, which was forward and friendly in the beginning, is now showing some real “muscle” after ten years and it still has some more time to go, according to Axel. But the 2007, in Axel’s opinion, is a true “parallel vintage” to the 2019.
Axel discussed how the great vintage of 2007 had the misfortune to follow another great vintage, 2006. At the time of the 2007 release, he felt that its more subtle character was overshadowed by the more “flamboyant” 2006, yet through time, he thinks that the 2007 has become one of the most “graceful and harmonious vintages”. The 2019 reminds him of the 2007 in its primary stage, hence, he believes tasting the 2007 now will give a glimpse into how the 2019 will evolve.
Appreciating the Challenges
At first, the shutdowns of 2020 and beyond seemed like a gift in some ways, once the hospitals were able to treat and manage Covid patients, enabling people to have a slower life with no crowds and more rest. Events were non-existent, many were working from home and everyone’s main responsibility was to stay away from people. It gave many a chance to reexamine their previous lives, of always being on the run with constant stress, as unhealthy existences. But as time has gone on, the mind starts to become numb and depression sets in; people have realized that the multitude of people challenging one through their day is an essential jolt to stay in the present. Even seemingly unpleasant challenges caused by others in the moment can become deeply rewarding and fulfilling once they are resolved through mutually beneficial compromise.
When Axel had his first harvest at Ornellaia in 2005, he was thrilled to be able to calculate the ideal day to start picking the grapes – but it was, unfortunately, a Tuesday. The vineyard manager informed him that local superstitions don’t allow them to start anything on a Tuesday or Friday, so it was out of the question. Axel thought that it was ridiculous to allow superstition to dictate the harvest, still, he was disciplined and thoughtful enough not to convey his frustration but instead show respect to the vineyard manager and try to figure out a way around the superstition. And so he proposed they pick one crate of grapes on Monday and do the rest of the harvest on Tuesday, that way, they officially started on Monday. The vineyard manager thought it was a good idea, so he gave it a try. It ended up being a problematic harvest with lots of rain so the following year the vineyard manager told Axel, “No tricks this time, you see what happens when you try to cheat.” And ever since then, Axel says that he has honored the superstition.
All his previous years working in Bordeaux, Axel could never imagine that he would run into such a challenge or an illogical way of handling one of the most critical decisions in the vineyards. But it has made him grow in ways he could not imagine and the challenges certainly keep him on his toes. And many people, after the shutdowns, have come to realize how much they are missing by not having those challenges from people with different perspectives. And yes, many have felt the loss of people who they could never have imagined passing away at a relatively young age, such as chef Omar Barsacchi’s friend, and it is apparent that he is determined to keep his friend’s memory alive by pairing the apple tart with Ornus dell’Ornellaia cream paired with the scarce sweet wine 2019 Ornus dell’Ornellaia that day. The Ornus is a wine meant for friends and family and at that moment, it was the exemplary pairing of the day as everyone felt connected by the losses in their own lives.
The locals in Bolgheri are known for having a strong personality, carving out unconventional paths, as who else would be able to bring in international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon to a country known for having the largest quantity of well-known grape varieties in the world? The wines not only succeeded in Italy but were able to go head to head with the most notable Bordeaux wines, becoming some of the most sought-after wines in the world. In the beginning it seemed crazy to do such a thing but as Axel has learned, many things may not make theoretical sense as they need to be experienced. And it is this challenge that makes Ornellaia so special – the combination of Axel’s meticulous nature combined with the unbridled passion of the locals produces a wine that is dangerously delicious while young yet it reveals itself through time in ways that one finds surprising for such an initially friendly wine.
And that is the path that many are on now, avoiding those challenges that are toxic to one’s very being yet seeking out the challenges that help keep one in a place that is more extraordinary than one could ever imagine.
The 2019 Ornellaia Vendemmia d’Artista project includes a label styled by the artists on one of the six 750ml bottles in every case of Ornellaia. As in previous years, the project includes a limited release of 111 large-format bottles (one hundred Jeroboams (3 liter), ten Imperials (6 liter) and one Salmanazar (9 liter) which are numbered and personally signed by the artists. Every year a selection of these bottles is auctioned by Sotheby’s and the profits go to support the Mind’s Eye program at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Ornellaia has raised over two million dollars for the Mind’s Eye program – assisting visitors who are blind or have low vision to experience art by using all the senses.
Rosso – Red Wines
2019 Ornellaia “Il Vigore” (translates to Vigor): 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. Ornellaia is historically known to have more plantings of Merlot than other top “Super Tuscan” producers but over the years they have been planting more Cabernet Sauvignon in areas where it will do well and 2019 was a great vintage for the Cabernet Sauvignon, according to Axel. This wine has a nose that sings from the start with notes of violets, rich blackberry and blueberry fruit with spicy and herbal notes intertwined that has a touch of lushness on the mid-palate yet balanced exquisitely by bright acidity and lots of vitality along the fine, silky tannins that had an extraordinarily long length of flavor, finishing with a refined saline mineral note.
2012 Ornellaia “L’Incanto” (translates to Charming): 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 7% Petit Verdot. An enticing nose of cumin and sandalwood with plush red cherry fruit on the palate with hints of dried blueberries balanced by hints of earth displaying muscle in regards to structure yet the texture has a velvety quality.
2007 Ornellaia “L’Armonia” (translates to Harmony): 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot. Multi-layered nose of fresh Mediterranean herbs, black truffles and a mixture of fresh and dried black and blue fruit with seamlessly integrated oak and well integrated tannins; a fine texture with a superb length of flavor on the finish.
Bianco – White Wines
2019 Ornellaia Bianco: 81% Sauvignon Blanc and 19% Viognier. An enchanting nose of crushed stones and citrus blossom with zesty lemon rind on the palate and fierce stony minerality that finishes with ripe white peach and honeysuckle.
2014 Ornellaia Bianco: 80% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Viognier and 5% Petit Manseng. Richer aromas of baklava and lemon confit with that same intense stony minerality also present in the 2019 with jasmine flower and green mango on the palate and a persistent finish.
Dolce – Dessert Wine
2019 Ornus dell’Ornellaia: 100% late-harvest Petit Manseng that was harvested in several pickings – four different times. Candied violet petals, orange marmalade and Earl Grey tea on the nose with a lush mouthfeel that accompanied the decadent flavors of peach pie and drizzled honey balanced by bright acidity.