Last week, I attended a dinner at Bouley, where winemaker Axel Heinz presented four vintages of Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’s Masseto (the highly acclaimed Merlot-based Super Tuscan), including the not-yet-released 2006 as well as the 2005, 2001 and 1997. Heinz invited everyone who attended to bring a bottle—one they felt was iconic in some way, from a producer who had “stood the test of time.” Unfortunately, I have no cellar to pull such a wine from, so instead I opted for the 1998 López de Heredia Viña Gravonia ($28, find this wine), a white Rioja from a traditional producer who holds wines at the estate for years—even decades, for its top wines—before releasing them. (1998 is the current vintage of this wine.)
As the sommelier poured me some 1988 Dom Pérignon, he set my bottle down next to a 1970 Château Margaux and a 1990 Ridge Geyersville, which made me feel more than a little sheepish. Thankfully, my humble bottle—one that at eleven years old tastes fresh and, in some ways, even too young to drink—provoked a great discussion about López de Heredia’s iconic status. I said I chose the wine because I admired the producer for sticking to its traditional-winemaking guns. In Rioja, many producers have embraced a more international style of wine: The whites are aged in stainless steel (instead of old oak barrels) and are often crisp but unmemorable. The reds are highly extracted and aged in new oak barrels for a richer, more polished style. Everyone agreed that López—with its elegant reds that age wonderfully and its extraordinary whites that often last even longer—has become an icon, but some people at the table wondered if it's simply because the López is the "last man standing" in a sea of producers who have modernized. Whatever the answer, I was happy it that it paired beautifully with Bouley’s porcini “flan,” an egg white–thickened dashi broth studded with meaty chunks of Dungeness crab. Better than the '06 Masseto, I must say.
And what about the Massetos? I found it fascinating to taste how all of the vintages had a distinctive (and wonderful) combination of mouth-filling fruit, terrific structure and a luxuriously long finish. The 2006 was much more opulent than the 2005, which was a tougher year in Tuscany; the ’05 seemed a bit closed. The sexy 2001 and 1997 were both noticeably silkier, thanks to their softening tannins, but had little in terms of secondary notes; I imagine more will start to develop as they continue to age. These wines have a lot of extraction, yes, but their balance across the board was impressive. In summary, the wines were correct—impeccable, even. It was hard to find a flaw. But does being flawless make something inspiring? Does flawlessness make a wine an icon? Perhaps. But is it worth paying upwards of $250 for that?
I'm not so sure. But I'm grateful to have tried them, and if you ever get the chance to taste Masseto, I would say definitely do. —Kristin Donnelly