This iconic Italian wine, the Petrus of Italy as it is known, is owned by Tenuta dell'Ornellaia and is made from a single vineyard of seven hectares. It is 100% merlot, and has been gaining in notoriety ever since its first vintage in 1986 - when it was decided to vinify this particular plot of merlot separately, from mineral-rich clay soils, because it was showing such promise.
The reason that this large tasting was taking place at Vinexpo is because Masseto has just started being sold through the Place de Bordeaux. To celebrate this, the winemaker (Axel Heinz), general manager (Leonardo Raspini), and oenologist (Michel Rolland), held a tasting of 14 vintages, attended by many of the negociants who will be selling it, and a few journalists. The order is slightly unusual - the winers were presented first went by year, and then those wines ready to drink now, then finished with four Icon Vintages.
The gathered Bordeaux palates may have been expecting a merlot that they recognised from Pomerol, but Masseto is very different, with an opulence and fleshiness to it that comes from the hotter weather (the average alcohol was 15%, although the balance was such that you barely noticed). They were keen to acknowledge this: 'Our wines are born under the sun and we don't want to hide that,' said Heinz. 'We know that our merlot is not in Bordeaux, and we want to show the warmth in our expression of the grape, but no great wine works without balance, and we hope this tasting shows that balance and great acidic backbone that makes Masseto a wine for ageing aswell as for pleasure.'
Each year, between 30,000-32,000 bottles are produced. The cost upon release varies from around 90 euros up to 160 euros, depending on vintage, and quickly gains secondary value. The 1998, for example, was 114 euros on release, and is now worth over 500 euros.
1987 Wonderful tertiary aromas in the wine, of white truffles, bracken, lots of warm autumnal flavours, but this is at its plateau I would say. A lovely powerful finish, but one to enjoy today. This was the first vintage to have the name Masseto on the label - the previous (inaugral) year, 1986, simply called this wine 'Merlot.'
1990 Again a lovely open nose, still good fruit and good acidity, some spicy undertones, nice dryness and gorgeous layers of flavour. Masseto usually spends 24 months in new oak, but by this stage it is fully integrated, with melted tannins and very flattering.
1994 - I tasted this right at the end of the tasting (had arrived late), so after I had been drinking the big, concentrated wiens of later years. It was a lovely contrast, still well structured but the texture was silky, gentle and very warming, open nose, leather and roses.
2002 - Heinz on this year 'we had to have the courage not to make a wine that the vintage didn?t allow. The weather didn't give naturally great concentration, so it spent shorter time in new oak than usual'. The wine in this year is delicate and fresh, but underneath the initial delicacy there is real impact and great length.
2003 - No rain at all during this growing season, so early ripening of course. Difficult to get the correct ripeness so as to keep freshness. They have never not produced a Masseto since its first vintage, but in this year did only make 40% of normal production (so around 22,000 bottles), so as not to have any merlot that was raisiny and over-ripe. There are touches of over-ripeness, but still good aromatics and some smooth tannins. Rolland said, 'very pretty, cigar box.'
2005 Also a difficult vintage in which to manage the heat, but great wine. This being Bordeaux, of course everyone expected the 05 to be stunning, but the 2004 and 2006 were apparently better in this region. This was the first vintage that Heinz arrived at Masseto. The vintage started well, but rain in mid-September threatened the grapes. Lots of liquorice, very powerful ' we listened to Michel Rolland who was advising us to wait, and he was right as the sun returned and there was no rot. We picked on September 30, which was very late for Tuscany'. Rolland 'You can't have perfect grapes every year of course, but this is still an excellent drinking wine, very good with food, still another five years before it will really be ready to start drinking.'
1995 Rainy early, then very good weather. One of the first Massetos that is really coming to fruition right now. There is opulence and ripeness but not over-ripe and with a nice spiciness. Gives a good impression of how the great Massetos taste when they are at their peak. Rolland, 'This is not a blockbuster, but a wonderfully balanced wine that is getting ready to drink. Tobacco, chocolate, cedar all coming through.'
1997 Good to drink now, but again a challenge because of very high temperatures. This is very opulent, plush even, and very soft and smooth. This is out of a magnum bottle so ageing more slowly, still very good flesh. A showy wine, but luscious and enjoyable, very appealing (was early on considered a great vintage). 1997 was the beginning of a new era in Tuscany, and this is a strong and powerful wine. I like the desntiy of it, big concentration of tannins. But for me I thought the tannins were a little rough and dry on the finish compared to some of the other years on display.
1998 Another hot one! But seemed easier according to Heinz coming straight after 1997. Masseto is located in coastal Tuscany and this was a very good vintage for the properties that benefited from a coastal breeze. Rich and chewy but more refined tannins, and a minty freshness that adds a lovely skip. Again the slightly dry tannins of a hot year, but there is better balance and freshness in this, and it is very lively. Balsamic and spice, can wait a long time to drink this. Very good quality - my favourite so far in the tasting.
2000 A textbook interpretation of a hot vintage, and according to Raspini 'so pleasant to drink now that I find it hard to wait. Not because it doesn't have potential, but because it is just so pleasant'. I was fully in agreement w A hint ofover-ripeness and dry tannins, but one of the most approachable of all Massetos, giving immense pleasure straight away, very balanced, very Mediterranean. I loved this one, gorgeous ripe damson plums, rich and spicy, good flesh and little punches of freshness sending waves down the palate. 94.
Rolland A fantastic vintage is when everything comes together, when mother nature is very generous and winemaking becomes easy.
1999 Rolland 'so alive and moving in every sense'. True aromatic complexity, density, complexity, longevity. Integrity of the fruit and the tannins are still very closed.
2001 Another great vintage. Thomas Duroux (now of Palmer) was winemaker at the time, as he joined in July 2001, so he stood up at this point to talk about it. 'Winemaking is very different at Ornelaia and Masseto. You have to have nerves of steel, and be prepared to wait. Alcohol is more than 15% and you can worry about balance, but it is there and you have to trust the wine. There is very good balance because the acidity and tannic structure fully balance out the alcohol.' This is incredibly deep and intense in flavour, but no hint of heaviness, not out of balance, all rich and lush but all in check. Power and elegance.
2004: Interesting vintage, this time with Axel Heinz as winemaker. Natural balance in this wine, perfect growing season, meant the wine is well in balance, there is a thickness to the texture, it is heavy and still very very young, but smooth. The grapes were perfectly ripe an everything went well - this is clearly going to age very well, it is strong, a big wine right now, but plenty of potential for serious ageing.
2006 Very dry growing season, no rain from April to September. But that was probably key to the quality because natural concentration, then had the warm winds in September that further concentrated things, then one weekend of very hard rainfall (close to 200mm in one weekend, when Rolland happened to be visiting!). Apparently having a short, intense burst of rain like that is less damaging to the vines than having a little bit fall every day or two for a long period, because much of it runs off immediately, not the same dilution effect. This again has very long ageing ahead of it dry tannins and the en, almost resinous. Very big tannins, but good ripeness, high acidity.