MASSETO: THE MAGIC OF MERLOT
If there is one winery in Tuscany that contends with the chateaux in Bordeaux and Burgundy, it has to be Masseto. It even sells a large proportion of its production through Bordeaux wine merchants. Set under the sunny Bolgheri region of Italy, Masseto’s iconic vineyard stretches across a gently sloping valley, where greyish-blue clay lies underfoot and the Tyrrhenian Sea ricochets light across the vines.
It wasn’t until last year that Masseto finally opened its own winery. Before that, the wine was produced from its vineyards in the cellars of Bolgheri’s famous estate of Ornellaia, which also shares the same owners, the Florentine Frescobaldi family.
Opening prices for new vintages reach as much as $800 a bottle, but the wines sell out from the winery within weeks. This unbelievable demand and superb quality make it one of the cult wines of a generation and the Wine of the Decade for JamesSuckling.com.
The winery produces superb, pure merlot vintages that consistently taste fresh yet structured, soft yet powerful. James Suckling was one of the first American wine critics to recognize the winery’s magical merlot, having awarded three Masseto vintages – 2001, 2011, and 2016 – perfect 100-point scores. He actually helped create the wine in the 1980s when he tasted a vat of pure merlot with then-owner Lodovico Antinori and told him the wine could be “the Petrus of Tuscany” if he bottled it separately.
“I believe the best vintage is the monumental 2001,” says James Suckling. “The 2001 is a perfect 100-point wine and arguably one of the greatest wines ever made in Tuscany … It’s balanced with fascinating rosemary and dark fruit character that turns to plums and light chocolate. The undertones on the nose remind me of walking through the Masseto vineyard during a cool summer’s morning.”
The winery’s 2001 vintage catapulted the winery onto the international map, where it has stayed ever since as a red-hot commodity for auction houses and discerning collectors. And while Masseto has already hit the bullseye time after time, there’s reason to believe that the best is yet to come.
BRAND NEW WINERY
Today, in the middle of the vineyard, a massive angular doorway marks the entrance to the underground winemaking lair – a 27,000-square-foot, ultra-modern space nicknamed “The Quarry.” Brought to life by Milan’s renowned ZITOMORI studio, the winery feels raw and rugged, with extensive use of brushed concrete, glass, steel, blue-grey claystone (providing natural insulation) and stone as a nod to Masseto’s heritage (“masso” means “rock”).
“Nothing is missing, and there is no more than necessary,” says Axel Heinz, winemaker and estate director of Masseto. “Our winemaking is about reducing the process, reducing intervention, with a ‘less is more’ philosophy.”
While the new architectural identity elevates Masseto to the level of its sister winery Ornellaia – which produces an exquisite Bordeaux-style Super Tuscan – the most important consideration was the gravity-flow production process. The spacious underground rooms move seamlessly from single-lot vinification tanks to barrique barrel-aging to the bottling line. And in homage to Masseto’s superlative track record, a dramatic “Masseto Caveau” wine cellar showcases all 33 vintages.
A MERLOT MIRACLE
The fact that this library of merlots exists in the first place is something of a miracle itself. As the story goes, acclaimed Russian-American oenologist Andre Tchelistcheff took notice of a rocky hill on the outskirts of the winery while consulting for sister winery Ornellaia in the early 1980s. Set about 120 meters above sea level, the hill’s soil contained loose pebbles, sand and ancient clay which, he believed, would lend character, power and finesse to merlot grapes, particularly when combined with cool sea breezes, long sunny days and Mediterranean temperatures.
Over the past two decades, Masseto has kept a razor-sharp focus on this single grape. Its famous depth can be attributed, at least in part, to the winery’s special terroir, which is divided into three main zones – Massetoe Alto, Masseto Centrale and Masseto Junior – each with its own contribution.
“The key part is obviously the heavy-clay slope of Masseto Centrale, which gives a merlot that’s different than any merlot I’ve tasted – a lot of density, a lot of structure, a lot of tannins which you can actually taste on the berries,” Heinz says. “That [density] somehow needs to be softened a little bit, and that’s where the other parcels come in … the perfect wine is the balance out of the three parts.”
On par with the best in Bordeaux and Burgundy, Masseto’s reputation soars with each passing vintage, and its continued success is a testament to Italy’s wine-making expertise. When Masseto emerged in the early 1980s, the Tuscan region was just gaining its momentum, hot off the heels of the successful introduction of Super Tuscan wines by renegades such as Sassicaia (founded by Antinori’s cousin). Adding to this wine revolution, Antinori’s unconventional decision to pursue merlot – as opposed to more obvious sangiovese or chianti – served as a catalyst for independent winemakers across the country.
Since then, the quality of wines coming out of the Bolgheri region, near the Tuscan coast, has been the gold standard. They’ve proved that not only can Italy craft excellent Bordeaux-style blends but also world-class, pure merlot that rivals the best in the world when it comes to quality and complexity.
“I remember a tasting in Florence in 2004 when I sat next to the owner of Petrus, Jean-Francois Moueix, tasting the two wines side by side, and he exclaimed that Masseto was more than just a brother of his famous Pomerol – it is the ‘twin,’” wrote James Suckling in 2011, after trying the second 100-point Masseto vintage. “Masseto is a wine that impresses you with its depth of fruit, richness, and structure, yet there is something so very decadent and sexy about the wine. It is a pleasure to taste and a joy to drink. I wish I had more of it in my cellar.”