Ornellaia Blanco: A Serious Tuscan White Wine

At long last, Axel Heinz and Ornellaia release a rival to their celebrated red; plus, eight other bottles of Tuscan white wine to collect now.

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Winemaker Axel Heinz is zipping around Ornellaia’s 130-acre Bellaria Estate, in the village of Bolgheri in southwestern Tuscany, in his dusty Audi A6 station wagon. He’s speaking over Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-Flat Major. It’s mid-April, and vines in every direction are in bloom. Though most will produce grapes for his famous trademark red, he points in the direction of two vineyards where Sauvignon Blanc now grows. He is smiling. These are the vines that inspired the beginning of his new, game-changing wine: Ornellaia Bianco. To keep things straight, Ornellaia already makes a white wine called Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia, a blend that’s mostly Sauvignon Blanc (69 percent), plus Viognier, Vermentino, and Verdicchio. It’s a lean, crisp, beautiful white, with classic notes of citrus, honeysuckle, and white pepper, that retails for around $60. Still, Heinz had his eyes on a bigger prize when he dreamed up Ornellaia Bianco. What’s the big deal? For starters, Tuscany is not known for making world-class white wines. “In Tuscany, when you talk seriously about wine, it’s about red wine,” Heinz says. And if you talk about Axel Heinz and red wine in Tuscany, there’s a lot to talk about.

Born in Munich in 1971 to a German father and French mother, Heinz moved to Bordeaux as a teenager, where he pruned, picked, and lived among the vines, and eventually became the production manager at Château Fourcas Loubaney, and then technical director of Château la Dominique, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé. He learned all sides of the wine business while also making it.

In 2005, at age 33, he was recruited by Ornellaia to become chief winemaker, crafting red wines that have been regarded among the top super Tuscan wines since Ornellaia’s founding in 1981. Super Tuscan, in case you’ve forgotten, is an unofficial term used to categorize Tuscan wines made using nontraditional Tuscan grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Syrah—aka French grapes. Until the early 1990s, the Italian government refused to classify Tuscan reds made with anything other than grapes historically, ahem, rooted to the region, namely Sangiovese. By the time Heinz came onto the burgeoning Maremma region’s scene, sometimes called Tuscany’s Wild West, he found the area awash in French grapes, with very few Sangiovese. Since his arrival, critics far and wide consider his Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore among the best red wines made in Italy, rating it in the high 90s year after year.

Ten years into his tenure, Heinz announced that Ornellaia would be releasing a white wine in 2015, made predominately with Sauvignon Blanc. If that were the end of the statement, there’d be nothing to talk about, really, except perhaps that he was making a sister wine to Poggio alle Gazze. But Heinz added that this new white, Ornellaia Bianco, would be priced in parity with its flagship red. This is nothing short of extraordinary.

Globally, white wines often struggle to command the same respect and prices as reds, which can fetch between about $200 and $300 per bottle in the United States. Why aim so high when Tuscan wine is all about red? Because Heinz can. “Ornellaia Red was well established when I started, but by 2005 Ornellaia had temporarily stopped making white wines, and the first regrets were already being felt,” Heinz says. “Quickly we got the momentum to begin making white wine again.”

For more great bottles of Tuscan white wine, see our slideshow »

In an all-glass tasting room at the Ornellaia Estate, Heinz sets down three bottles and declares, “Anthony, you are the most privileged man on the planet, because you are about to taste all three vintages of Ornellaia Bianco here together for the first time.” At present, only the 2013 and 2014 are for sale; 2015 is still developing in barrels. Of the three, only the 2015 is 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc. Both 2014 and 2013 were cooler vintages, which is why Heinz bolstered them with 30 percent Viognier in the 2013, and 23 percent Viognier and 7 percent Petit Manseng in the 2014. “All three develop and gain a little more focus with air,” Heinz says. “Like white Burgundy, each becomes much tighter, more minerally, and that matchbook aroma blows off.”

Heinz walks over to the huge estate map mounted to the wall and, pointing to the Cancello Basso vineyard, explains that he replaced red Petit Verdot vines with Sauvignon Blanc in 2008 and 2009. “This might be the most interesting area today for Sauvignon Blanc on the estate, because when you graft, the plant had already-established roots from 1999, so the Sauvignon Blanc is acting like 20-year-old vines.” Pointing to another vineyard, Fontina, which he planted in 2008, he remarks, “The site is quite complex—the Sauvignon Blanc needs to be picked in three phases.” Figuring that out takes years, because once it’s picked, it’s picked. Heinz later explains, “Ultimately, there’s a feeling that the longer you wait to pick the grapes, what you tend to lose doesn’t quite make up for that which could have been gained.”

Later that evening at La Pineta, a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant in Marina di Bibbona, Heinz peruses the formidable wine list and orders a bottle of Vilmart & Cie 2009 Grand Cellier d’Or Brut Premier Cru Champagne as an aperitivo; then Ornellaia Bianco 2013 poured alongside Didier Dagueneau 2012 Silex Pouilly-Fumé; followed by Ornellaia Archivio Storico 2006; and, finally, Ornus dell’Ornellaia 2013. Asked to explain the logic of his selections, Heinz says, “I just love champagne.” Pairing Silex and Ornellaia Bianco is an exercise in paying homage to Dagueneau (who died in a plane crash in 2008): “For me it’s a reference point as one of the great Sauvignon Blancs of France.” Unfortunately, the 2012 Silex shows poorly— “It’s so closed,” Heinz says—especially next to the exuberant 2013 Ornellaia Bianco. As for the Archivio Storico, earlier this year Ornellaia re-released a limited quantity of its library wines under this label, including 1994 to 2001, 2004, and the 2006 on the table. This bottle in particular is significant to Heinz because it represents not only his second vintage of Ornellaia as winemaker but a monumental achievement: The 2006 remains the benchmark among all the vintages he has crafted at Ornellaia.

As hype for Ornellaia Bianco’s release gained momentum (early reviews had ratings in the mid-90s), Alessandro Lunardi, Ornellaia’s director for North America, realized he had a problem: Of the 4,000 bottles 2013 produced, only 400 would be offered to the U.S. “I was terrified,” he says. So he devised a plan to offer limited quantities to Relais & Châteaux’s 63 restaurants via online lottery. When the offer went live, 25 properties secured all 400 bottles in a matter of minutes. Jeff Porter, beverage director at Del Posto in New York, who was able to secure just six bottles, says Ornellaia Bianco fills a niche: In a restaurant that offers only Italian wines and champagne, it acts as a bridge between Bordeaux-ness and Italy. “The key,” he says, “is that the palate is innately Italian—a mix between sunshine, minerality, and acidity.” Andy Chabot, director of food and beverage at Blackberry Farm, in Walland, Tennessee, scored 13 bottles. “Patience will definitely be rewarded,” Chabot says, which is why he put six bottles away in his “keep,” a wine cellar specifically devoted to aging.

At an Ornellaia Bianco debut dinner at Chanson, a restaurant in the Relais & Châteaux Royal Blues Hotel, in Deerfield Beach, Florida, Heinz stands up to address a table seated with a handful of well-heeled wine collectors and their guests. “Tonight, we’re here to talk, of course, about our new white, Ornellaia Bianco,” he says. Before he can get out another word, one of the guests innocently lobs a priceless grenade: “Oh, do you make red wine too?” Heinz, without missing a beat, quips in his best American accent, “Yeah, I do!” While Heinz can take credit for Ornellaia’s signature red only from 2005 forward, Ornellaia Bianco is his alone and could ultimately define his legacy in Tuscany— where serious talk of wine has always been exclusively about red. Until now.

Click through our slideshow for eight excellent Tuscan whites that you can actually find on retail shelves »