Ornellaia's Rare Bird

Tasting a unique white wine from a renowned producer of Super Tuscan reds

Wine enthusiasts know that the Tenuta dell’Ornellaia winery is responsible for producing the wine — appropriately titled Ornellaia — that helped place Super Tuscan international red blends on the fine-wines map during the early 1980s. The contrarian, highly valued and highly rated red wine has been a major player from the Bolgheri region ever since.

And yet, here I am at New York City restaurant Marea drinking an even rarer wine from Ornellaia with Leonardo Raspini, the winery’s gregarious general manager, over a course of Nova Scotia lobster, burrata, basil, and eggplant al funghetto.

“We only made about 1,000 bottles of it, so not much of the '09 is in the United States” he says, as the sommelier pours us a little more. “With the 2010 vintage, which will be here in May, we will have a little bit more of it.”

“It” is the 2009 Ornellaia Poggio alle Gazze, a Tuscan IGT bianco which is made solely of sauvignon blanc. It is delicious — full on the palate with mellow fruit, good mineral flavors, and a richness that comes with white wines mostly fermented in wood and allowed to luxuriate on their fine lees. It is worthy of its $55 price tag.

Alas, it almost never made it to our table.

“We quit making this white in 2001,” Raspini says, “and we grafted over the vines to red grapes, to merlot,” used to make the winery’s signature reds. Around 2006, some in the winery were beginning to question that decision. “We made a sauvignon blanc just for the harvest party,” Raspini says with a straight face, knowing that making a wine for internal consumption is always a fishing lure for someone to take the bait and say, “You know, we should sell this to the public.”

We glance at the Poggio alle Gazze, which features on its label a blue-and-white bird called a gazze. “So in 2007, we decided to produce a white wine commercially,” he says. “You might say the gazze came back to fly again. But the 2009 is our first real trial on the market.”

For the 2009, 55 percent of the grapes were fermented in used oak barrels, 30 percent in new barrels, and 15 percent in stainless steel. The wine was stirred regularly on its lees, was not allowed to go through the softening of malolactic fermentation, and matured for a year in bottles before being put on the market.

Our plates were cleared, and we went on to other courses where the 2008 Le Serre Nuove and the 2008 Ornellaia were poured — both delicious reds. But it was a very pleasurable change to have a meal paired to Tuscan wines that starts with a delicious white wine — and a very rare bird, at that.

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