Tasting Note: Ornellaia, Le Volte dell’Ornellaia 2021 IGT Toscana, Italy ornellaia.com/en

One of the pioneers of the Super Tuscan revolution, Tenuta Ornellaia is situated in Bolgheri in Tuscany’s Costa degli Etruschi. Their first wine, simply called Ornellaia, is one of the true icons of the Italian scene. Produced from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, it’s a classic Bordeaux blend speaking with an elegant Italian or rather Tuscan accent. It’s a ravishing, world-class wine that attracts premium prices.

Luckily for us mere mortals, their clever winemakers also produce a number of less rarefied wines released under the banner of IGT Toscana. You could call Le Volte dell’Ornellaia their third or entry-level red with some justification – it’s certainly more affordable – but that phrase doesn’t do justice to the quality of the wine in bottle. The way that the producers themselves phrase it is that this wine “opens the way” to their wider stable of thorough-bred wines. And that’s rather a nice way of putting it. Either way, it’s an accessible and hugely enjoyable wine that displays extraordinarily confident winemaking. 

A bottle of Le Volte – complete with a taste of how the other half live – can be yours for tens rather than hundreds of pounds (it usually retails in the UK around the £25–£30 mark). It’s made, predominantly, from Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon and the varietal that dominates Tuscany, Sangiovese. Each is fermented separately in stainless steel and then carefully blended together and further aged in a mixture of oak and cement tanks. 

The result is on the darker side of medium, a clear, lambent ruby colour in the glass. On the nose, there are pronounced aromas of ripe red and black fruits, a cornucopia of brambly delights: blackberry, cherry and plum but also some raspberry and the piquancy of red and black currants. Behind the fruit lies a little bouquet garni and some white-pepper seasoning. Oak provides notes of smoke and charred wood that gather all that fruit together with a little leather, mushroom and a touch of tobacco. The berry fruits balance and work with the earthy notes perfectly becoming an even more integrated whole as the wine opens up in glass. Finally some perfumed top notes appear when least expected: a dusty rose garden in the Tuscan heat.

The palate is a tad more restrained but the pronounced flavours of black and red berries and earthiness remain along with a slight and pleasant clove-like quality. The wine is dry and toothsome but not drying – tannins are certainly present but sufficiently tamed to add interest not aggression. It’s medium-bodied and the weight is lighter that its blockbuster palate might suggest with surprisingly pert acidity outlining everything delightfully.

Cabernet Sauvignon makes it presence known for sure but doesn’t dominate – overall the two Bordeaux varietals do a lovely job of softening the harder edges of Sangiovese (the whole idea behind Super Tuscans after all). The finish is long, resolving into a fruity loam. I had to search for seasoning in the mid palate – it is there if a little hidden. Even at 14% abv it is very drinkable on its own but would also do very well with pork which, especially if it came in the form of porchetta or wild boar sausages, might draw a standing ovation.

Tasting Note: Apostolos Thymiopoulos, Earth and Sky 2021 Naoussa, Greece thymiopoulosvineyards.gr

Apostolos Thymiopoulos was Decanter magazine’s Rising Star of 2022 and, as they noted at the time, he’s become something of an ambassador for a new wave of Greek wines and wine producers. A firm friend of the highly regarded, and now sadly departed, Haridimos Hatzidakis (whose No.15 Santorini Assyrtiko 2014 I had the privilege of tasting not long ago) Thymiopoulos is similarly committed to organic winemaking using biodynamic principles. He now makes 10 different wines from vineyards in Fytia and around the village of Trilofos in northern Greece where his winery is located.  

Xinomavro, the black variety in which he specialises, is the quintessential grape of his home region of Naoussa and considered to be in the top tier of native varieties. Despite the name literally translating as “sour black”, the grape produces relatively light-coloured wines with a complex and ephemeral quality that is nonetheless powerful and distinct. It’s a grape that Wines of Greece describe as both “finicky” and “demanding”, much like its two most obvious comparators Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir.

Earth and Sky was the first wine made by Thymiopoulos back in 2005. It’s a blend of the highest quality parcels of their estate, grown on limestone with schist and clay topsoils. Fermented using indigenous yeasts, the wine is then aged in old French oak for 18 months which gives the wine a subtle depth whilst cleverly avoiding any of the more obvious oak characteristics. In the glass, the wine is a pale to medium ruby with a very slight turbidity due to being unfiltered. The nose opens with a mixture of black and, predominantly, red fruits: sweet cherry and raspberry but also piquant redcurrant. The fruit is nicely defined and underlaid by fragrant, slightly jammy, rose tones and warmer hints of white pepper and mace. This complex, spiced-fruit bouquet is then quickly joined by a smokiness which dances across the palate now approaching an almost meaty hum and then receding into a wispy cloud of sweet tobacco. On the palate, the wine is medium-bodied (at most) with a refreshingly high acidity. The restrained oak and maturation adds a bit of clove and a light mushroom earthiness to proceedings and a nod to lighter dried fruit like prunes. The wine’s long finish is remarkably fresh, a complex meander that finally resolves into a lovely fruit-sweet and liquorice quality.

It's a wine that is light enough to drink solo, but one that would also pair extremely well with mutton, milder venison or wild duck with a fruit sauce. The insistent umami of Greece’s famous stews, stifado, kokkinisto et al, would make a lovely and more traditional pairing. In a more iconoclastic vein, I’d be tempted to crack open a truffled Baron Bigod with this too.

With thanks to Ben Greene of Wine & Greene (and greekwine.co.uk) for recommending this wine/vintage.

Tasting Note: Isole e Olena, Chianti Classico 2019 Italy

The stunning Isole e Olena Estate lies high in the Chianti Classico hills almost equidistant from Florence in the north and Siena to the south. Its elevation (between 350–490 m asl according to the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico) ensures cool nights which aid long, slow ripening and consequently concentration of flavour whilst maintaining acidity in the grapes. The estate was owned and run by the De Marchi Family who, starting in the mid-50s, oversaw a significant rise in quality of the wines. It is now part of the EPI group’s portfolio along with famous fellow Tuscans Biondi-Santi (and other quality wine brands such as Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck Champagnes).

The terms of the Chianti Classico DOCG stipulate a minimum of 80% Sangiovese so final blends can feature a range of other local and international varieties. Canaiolo and Syrah are used here, the former being a central Italian grape of some historical note and the later needing no further introduction other than to recall its use in some Super Tuscan wines (cf. my Syrah in Focus Pt 2 for Falstaff). Interestingly, not all Super Tuscans are blends, however. Isole e Olena’s own Cepparello, one of the most famous, is 100% Sangiovese.

This slightly humbler Chianti Classico is a typical medium ruby colour with a subtly lighter garnet rim. The nose starts with higher floral notes – rose and violet – that add welcome fragrance to the predominant red fruit and herbal savouriness. The fruit is well drawn and ripe: intense cherry and tarter redcurrant heading off into deeper black plum and bramble territory. There are herbs, a dried bouquet garni that pairs well with the slightly dusty profile of Sangiovese, together with hints of liquorice root. And the ghost of spice too, of the sweeter, earthier garam-masala/incense type.

Beneath this seasoned fruit lies a very cleverly structured and integrated framework of acidity, tannin and oak. The acidity is high, acting to outline the aromas and flavours on show and counterbalance the savoury, umami drag in the glass. This is a full-bodied wine, weightier certainly than Pizzin's Aussie Sangiovese below, with beautifully controlled tannins lending a certain dryness that marries well with wine's juicy fruit. If there is new oak at work, it is very restrained indeed (I suspect the vast majority is old oak but I couldn’t verify it). Bottle ageing adds some light forest-floor elements that match the oak-derived cedar and slight charred-wood tones. The finish is long and continues the seamless mix of fruit, age and oak.

There’s sufficient acid, concentration of fruit and seasoning here to stand up to the wonderful tomato dishes of the area – Siena’s Pici all’Aglione (thick pasta noodles with garlic and tomato sauce) would be a good place to start. The wine would absolutely sing with the charred caramelisation of a simple Bistecca alla Fiorentina served with a dish of wild Italian greens and garlic. It would perk up the earthiness of a local Ribolita nicely too.

Tasting Note: Pizzini, Pietra Rossa Sangiovese 2019 King Valley, Australia pizzini.com.au

Australia's King Valley is a region in Victoria with a strong Italian heritage, one that carries through into the grape varieties grown there: Pinot Grigio, Prosecco (not Glera, but let's not get drawn into that), Nebbiolo and lesser-known varieties like white Arneis (another Piedmontese grape). Reflecting a different side of Australian wine as well as a different history of migration and cultural influence, wines made from these varieties make an interesting change from those typically associated with Australia (Chardonnay, Semillon and Riesling for the whites; Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir for the reds). Although the Italian varieties remain somewhat niche and only account for a small percentage of the country’s plantings, there has been renewed interest in them lately. I was particularly interested to see how Sangiovese, that grumpy of old grape from Tuscany, faired in this landscape and at the hands of these winemakers.

Originally from Trentino in the shadow of the Alps, the Pizzini family have been producing wine in the King Valley since the 1990’s. Joel Pizzini, son of original founders, is now their chief winemaker. Having cut his teeth at leading wineries in both Italy (at the renowned Isole e Olena estate in Chianti Classico amongst others) and Australia (in areas as diverse as Margaret River and Mornington Peninsula), he now makes a range of wines from key Italian varietals.

Pietra Rossa is their mid-range varietal Sangiovese. You know immediately the glass comes to your nose that you are in princely Italianate company, but it’s intriguing to note how its Chianti-like profile ebbs and flows as the wine opens up. The wine is a familiar light garnet colour, clear and bright. Initially the nose is a basket of red fruit (redcurrant and above all cherry) heightened and outlined by a good backbone of acid. There is a plant-like aroma to it: not quite flowers and not quite herbs, dried brush describes it best. Underneath, there are hints of coffee and even liquorice but the overall impression is remarkably refreshing, certainly in comparison to the motherland.

There’s none of the rasping, dry tannic heft that can characterise the grape on its home turf. In its place you have a very smooth texture, softened further by oak ageing. There’s a hint of new-oak character but it's not overpowering by any means. There is some pleasing nuance here and I suspect that their two more rarefied cuvées continue this journey on into intriguing complexity. Approachable enough to drink on its own, the Pietra Rossa also slipped down well with wild mushroom ravioli. Its tannins were sufficiently in check not to frighten the cheeses that followed either.

Tasting Note: Hans Igler, Classic Blaufränkisch 2020 Burgenland, Austria hans-igler.com

Burgenland is a major wine-producing region located in the easternmost part of Austria, hard on the border with Hungary. A lot of wine of both colours flows from its vineyards, but it is arguably best known for its quality reds. The proximity to the relatively warm climate of the Pannonian Plain allows the Blaufränkisch grape to thrive here producing, at the hands of quality producers like Hans Igler, fruity yet characterful wines. The grape is often likened to Gamay, making high-acid, light-bodied, eminently quaffable wines with a predominantly red-fruit profile.

The Hans Igler winery is located in an area of the region particularly renowned for its Blaufränkisch, Mittelburgenland. This is their Classic cuvée, a 100% single-varietal wine that is aged in oak for around a year to soften any tarter, more cranberry edges. The result is a very approachable wine that is, if not complex, full of character and very well drawn. In the glass, it’s a very pure, clear, palish ruby colour. On the nose, the red fruits dominate – red cherry and redcurrant – with a lovely, lifted piquancy outlined by acidity. The oak has left no discernible aromas or flavours but simply rounded the edges of the palate and given a little more texture to its fruit-driven purity. It’s a refreshing wine that works exceedingly well served lightly chilled.

This is the 2020 vintage: it would be interesting to see whether an older wine would approach the more truffled, forest-floor quality of a headier Beaujolais cru such as Morgon. The producer suggests laying down for 5 years. You can read this on the back label, together with suggested serving temperature and details of how long to let the wine breathe – all very useful information provided by pleasingly direct infographics.

Tasting Note: Max Ferd. Richter, Pinot Noir 2020 Mosel, Germany maxferdrichter.de

Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder, is the most commonly planted black grape in Germany. Not, you may think, a particularly interesting fact for a country synonymous with great whites, Rieslings in particular. But, so Wines of Germany tells me, Germany is the world’s third largest producer of the grape – reason enough to seek out a bottle or two. It's less common in UK wine merchants than, say, Californian, New Zealand and of course French bottlings but it is there if you look closely enough (the better supermarkets even have a few).

This one is from a very old and venerable family-owned wine estate that makes delightful Rieslings. They have also planted a small amount of Pinot Noir on the steep slate slopes of the Mosel in Mulheim, and I was lucky enough to find a bottle in my local indie wine merchant. It's unfiltered, so there’s a little turbidity (that’s cloudiness to you and me) to its garnet-rimmed, pale ruby looks. It’s at the lighter end of medium-bodied, high acid and refreshing as one might expect. It’s also complex and intriguing, with a lovely ethereal quality. There is fruit, things like blackberry/cherry and some higher red notes, and a cedar quality from the French oak. With enough tannin to outline the fruit nicely, there’s also a whiff of Pinot forest floor, but quite light and loamy rather than dark and truffle-like. The finish is long, ending on hints of very good, sweet tobacco. It’s a lovely, different take on one of the most chameleon-like of varieties.

Tasting Note: Domaine Gramiller  Sol 2020 Rasteau, France domainegramiller.com

Cairanne has become relatively familiar on wine lists and in wine merchants. Rasteau, effectively the other half of the same rocky outcrop 20kms north-east of Châteauneuf, remains a little under the radar, however – perhaps because it’s wild and pushes at the limits of rusticity on occasion. This is Grenache territory, sometimes but not always supported by Syrah (as well as the other significant plantings of the southern Rhône: Mourvèdre and Cinsault, for example), producing wines of intense, super-ripe, red-fruited opulence. And when they are on point, they can be glorious.

Such, I am delighted to say, is the Rasteau 2020 from Domaine Gramiller (50% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 20% Mourvèdre). The much-overused tasting term “garrigue” is seemingly attached to every red south of Lyon, but it is appropriate here. What it indicates, to this palate at least, is a particular dusty shrub-like bouquet of herbs in which fragrance and bitterness intertwine: thyme, bay, rosemary and perhaps even lavender or juniper. It’s the taste of the wind through the scrubland of southern France mixing with the hot-rock minerality and the incense rising from the small local churches. It’s all here in this glass of deeply flavoured but not overly heavy wine, married by an expert hand to the lush ripeness of the fruit. There is focus and lift as well that replaces rusticity with warm-hearted generosity. Highly recommended. The Domaine offers a range of red and white cuvées, as well as a méthode traditionnelle pétillant made from Clairette. I look forward to trying more.

Tasting Note: Mission Estate, The Gaia Project Syrah 2020, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand missionestate.co.nz

Syrah is New Zealand’s third most planted black grape, although it’s way behind first place Pinot Noir in terms of acreage (and both are absolutely dwarfed by white Sauvignon Blanc). Hawkes Bay on the east cost of the north island, particularly its sub-zone Gimblett Gravels, is home to much of the country’s quality Syrah. The Mission Estate, New Zealand’s oldest winery, is based here and has a number of Syrah cuvées in its portfolio. They created the Gaia Project and its wines (a Merlot, a Pinot Noir, a Chardonnay and a Syrah/Pinot Gris rosé in addition to this 100% varietal Syrah) to highlight the environmental practices and sustainability initiatives of their winery, using local artist Steph O’Kane to illustrate a beautiful label reflecting these ecological concerns.

With a distinct and attractive purple rim, the Syrah has a wood-smoke-through-brambles aroma profile. It’s noticeably high acid with insistent, chewy tannins hidden beneath a medium-bodied silkiness. Have the tannins entirely been tamed? I’m not sure, but there is a frisson of textural excitement running through it, certainly. Fruity (predominantly black with some high red notes) and refreshing, it has an enjoyable mineral smokiness and some subtle floral hints peering out through the undergrowth. It could be the power of suggestion (along with memory and nostalgia, never to be underestimated in wine tasting) but there is a Pinot Noir echo here, albeit distant and just at the edge of perception. Like Burgundy and the Rhône have been uprooted and reflected upside down, down under. It’s a disconcerting and quite thrilling move, and one in which old-world conservatism has been abandoned completely.

This feels like a wine breaking new ground. Self-consciously. Deliciously. And Organically.