You have to hand it to Negociants New Zealand. When it comes to sourcing, importing, distributing and – perhaps most importantly of all, selling – a diverse range of high quality, highly sought after wines from all over the world, this company pretty much has it nailed. Of course they are not alone.

The range of imported wines in New Zealand has never been more adventurous, if you track the diversity available in both traditional retail stores and within the trade for restaurants and bars to stock. The mention of Negociants is timely because the company has just taken over the distribution of Italy’s highly revered Super Tuscan wine, Ornellaia.
The brand’s initial presence in New Zealand was pioneered by Master of Wine and lover of Italian vino, Stephen Bennett, who hosted several outstanding tastings of Ornellaia over the past 15 years-plus – including at Decant in Christchurch, Kemp Wines at Harbourside and the Fine Wine Delivery Company in Auckland. He was a staunch advocate of these wines, as of all great Italian wines – which are a tough sell, particularly in a modest sized market, such as New Zealand.
The latest tastings of Ornellaia, held earlier this month, were in Auckland and Wellington. They were the first official outings of the brand since Negociants NZ became the official distributor. Our host was Patrick Lachapele, who was born in Bordeaux, now lives in Hong Kong and is charged with the task of introducing the Ornellaia wines to the Asia-Pacific region. The tasting began with a small pour of the company’s maverick new white – Poggio Alle Gazze dell’ Ornellaia, a Tuscan take on the Sauvignon Blanc theme, only blended with Vermentino, Verdicchio and Viognier and from the 2015 vintage. It’s an interesting dry white but it was not the main event.

That was Ornellaia. It is  very good wine but when it came to the price (approximate retail is $249.99 a bottle), I was more seduced by both Le Volte and Le Serre Nuove Dell’Ornellaia. And of course, Masseto, which was not present at this tasting but which I was lucky enough to have enjoyed a year ago. Read more about Masseto (100% Merlot) below.

Tasting notes are below but first…

Ornellaia Estate is in the Bolgheri DOCG (first formed for whites in 1983, with reds included from 1994 onwards). It is on the Tuscan coast – a region best known for cheap pink wine, until the late 1960s.
Today this area is not only known as ‘the California of Tuscany’, due to its strong tourism industry, but also as home to the wines that, perhaps more than any others, showed the world that Italy could make great wines, post World War II when Europeans were trying to piece their lives back together after war.
This vineyard was not the first to break new high quality Italian wine ground, but it followed in the footsteps of those who did, such as Sassacaia.
Since Ornellaia’s first grapes were planted in 1981, the wine has had a stellar reputation internationally, especially with collectors and lovers of Cabernet Sauvignon based red wines.
Its first vintage was 1985. There are 99 hectares of vineyard, 20 of which are organically managed. The land is planted in Cabernet Sauvignon (40 hectares), Merlot (40 hectares), Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, with a tiny fraction of white grapes, including Petit Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdicchio and Viognier.
The first Ornellaia in 1985 was made by Ludovico Antinori and it was eclipsed by the estate’s release in 1986 of the estate’s 100% Merlot, which is called Masetto.

And then there’s Masseto – a Merlot marvel

Masseto is a ground breaking red wine that costs anything from $675 to $1000+ a bottle (click on Wine-Searcher above on this page for more detail).
It is made from a 7 hectare area of the vineyard where the soils are rated highly for their richness.
Revere it you may – I always do – but I also regard the price as too high. Masseto was modelled on the big, soft, plummy great reds of the right bank vineyards in Bordeaux, such as Pomerol. And like those wines, it costs a pretty penny too. The last bottle I was lucky enough to have not only tasted but consumed with two friends had cost one of them the best part of $800+.Those are the kinds of friends I love having and plan to keep because, like Masseto, they are rare.
That said, it’s always amazing to taste and drink Masetto because it shines a refreshingly savoury light on the soft and plummy Merlot grape.
The estate also produces an incredibly intense, top quality olive oil, which is, sadly, not available in New Zealand.

The wines…

2014 Le Volte dell’ Ornellaia IGT $39.99
This wine is heavily dependent on the much maligned Merlot grape, which makes up 70% of the blend and tastes bigger, more savoury and fuller bodied than it does in most other places that Merlot is made. This blend is 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Sangiovese (the only grapes not sourced from the estate and bought in from nearby Maremma). It was aged for nine months in oak (no new oak and all French – for now). It’s dry with high tannins and acidity, a full body and long finish with very dark berry and plum flavours. It drinks well now and, in my view, can age for 4 to 5 years further.

2013 Le Serre Nuove Dell’ Ornellaia $84 to $109
Hand harvested grapes go into this second tier wine from Ornellaia, which is Cabernet Sauvignon (36%) and Merlot (32%) with relatively significant amounts of Cabernet Franc (20%) and Petit Verdot – just 12% and a late ripening grape, usually used to boost colour, tannin and perfume but only in very warm vintages in its traditional French home, Bordeaux. Everything is different in Tuscany where the climate is warmer due to being closer to the Equator. This provides richer flavours due to a more favourable ripening period.
The wine spent 15 months in barrels, 25% new and the remainder in older barrels.
It’s still youthful and has the potential to develop for up to a decade and, history suggests, far beyond that too.

2013 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia $249.99
Black fruit flavours, dry as a bone and full bodied, this top notch Italian wine may be firmly in the special occasion category or, for many, the once-in-a-lifetime drink, but it’s  important on the world stage because it highlights Cabernet Sauvignon and its other late ripening grape blending partners here, on the Tuscan coast, where they have a new lease of flavour with darker fruit characters, firm but smooth tannins and that quintessential Italianesque savouryness, which provides its sense of turangawaewae (place) in the bottle. A keeper.

Exact prices vary because retailers range in the mark ups they apply.

Ornellaia ownership
The Ornellaia estate has had something of a chequered career of ownership, of late. it was founded by Lodovico Antinori, who is the brother of Piero Antinori (founder of the nearby Tenuta San Guido’s Sassacaia). In 1999, Lodovico sold a share of Tenuta dell’Ornellaia to the late Robert Mondavi, who later took complete control of the estate with the Frescobaldi family and then in 2005 Constellation Brands (which had bought Mondavi) sold the rest to Frescobaldi. So now it’s back to business as an Italian company.