Masseto among the giants

Sometimes the wait is really worth it. In my decade long engagement with the wines of Tuscany I have principally focused on local varieties, rather than the Cabernets, Merlots, Chardonnays and latterly Syrahs which are now being grown. I love Sangiovese in all its local expressions. My mission is to find a very good dry Trebbiano. I am passionate about all the local varieties – Ciliegiolo is a particular favourite, but offer me a glass of Abrostine, Colorino, Cannaiolo, or something really obscure I will always try it and assess with it with hope.

But of course it was the French grape varieties which really changed the course of wine history in Tuscany. Sassicaia is a Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc blend, while Tignanello and Solaia are various proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. I have now just about got over my slightly perverse aversion to these wines, not least because by a tortuous route, they led to the renaissance of Tuscany’s own wine tradition of Sangiovese-dominant wines. The super tuscans showed the quality that could be achieved in Tuscany and they challenged Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano to produce wines of world class quality.

This early tantrum about super tuscans led to my one big buying mistake of the last decade. My local independent wine shop for years had a bottle of Masseto 1990 on its shelves. This wine is 100% Merlot and comes from a small, seven-hectare single vineyard within the Ornellaia estate. the bottle was priced at £185 and I did not even think about buying it. Surely if I was going to spend that sort of money, I would buy a grand Brunello with twenty plus years of bottle age? I was actually in the shop when someone with obviously deeper pockets than me bought what was described to him as Italian Pétrus. So that was that. A few years later I visited Ornellaia and did not even get to taste Masseto. To my amazement I learnt that the then current vintage was sold at the property for €300 and the release price has doubled since then. So I had turned down the opportunity to drink a fully mature, bottle-aged, Masseto at a quarter of the current release price.

Masseto 2006And what was I missing? I did finally get the chance to taste Masseto in Florence in May 2014 at the symposium organised by the Institute of the Masters of Wine. And in many ways this was the perfect setting as I had the privilege of tasting this wine alongside some of its peers. The penultimate session of the gathering of 450 wine people was hearing the inspirational stories of the five owners/CEOs of some of the world’s top wine properties – Harlan Estate, Napa; Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet; Henscke, Eden Valley; Pingus, Ribera del Deuro; and Masseto, Tuscany. And of course MWs and others did not just listen to the inspiring stories, the final session and climax of the entire Symposium was a tasting of the wines of the estates.

To start with my conclusion: while Masseto may not be made with a Tuscan grape variety, it holds its own among the very best wines in the world. I preferred the Pingus 2009 for its extraordinary expression of what Tempranillo can be like on the Deuro, with its layers of leather, earth, savoury black fruit and powerful, ripe tannins. It is, it can only be, Tempranillo in one of its greatest home expressions. Equally, I loved the Mount Edelstone 2010 for its powerful eucalyptus notes and soft, rounded, profound Shiraz fruit. This variety is so good in South Australia that we can conveniently overlook its French origin and regard it as one of the greatest expressions of Australian terroir. After all, the vines are planted on their own roots in 1912 so I think we can agree that they are fully indigenised. With Pingus and the Hensches’ wine setting the standard, we have set the bar high for Masseto.

2006 was a tricky year on the Tuscan coast. The wine maker, Axel Heinz, says that Masseto 2006 was the result of everything went wrong. The season alternated between long droughts and rainfall of biblical proportion. In the winery they had problems with stuck fermentations and it finished late. But in his view 2006 is one of the greatest wines the estate has produced. The Masseto vineyard, especially the central section, has much more clay than the surrounding area which gives the vines resilience in drought. What makes for a complete wine is the bringing together of the fruit from the three parts of the vineyard – the body from Masseto Centrale, the flavour from Masseto Alto and the freshness from the younger vines in Masseto Junior. Then the wine maker has to follow the wine and not try to dictate to it. With all the best training in the world, what makes great wine is intuition.

In the glass, the wine is just a touch under medium intensity ruby in colour. From the first moment you are struck by the enticing and outstanding bouquet, with its warm, berry fruit and graphite notes, powerful and elegant. This tension continues on the palate with its array of fruit and reserved stoniness. Rich and balanced, the power of the fruit easily covers the 15% alcohol. All three of these reds are big wines, 14.5-15.5% and they all carry their alcohol well. Masseto stands out for its clean, intense, warm fruit, its elegance and its silky tannins. After all this time, this Bolgheri super tuscan is best tasted or drunk alongside some of the world’s other superstar reds.

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