Masseto may not quite be Tuscany’s first 100 per cent Merlot, but it’s certainly the most prestigious. Its 6.6-hectare vineyard includes parcels atop the highest concentration in Bolgheri of the blue clay that, just as in Pomerol, is considered ideal for the cultivation of great Merlot. With these similarities, alongside its consistently high critical scores, boutique production and premium price (over £600 a bottle), it is often referred to as the Pétrus of Italy.
As the wine grew in precision, personality, prestige and price, one thing was still missing – Masseto’s own winery (the wines previously being vinified and aged at Ornellaia, the Super Tuscan-producing estate next door – owned, like Masseto, by the Frescobaldi family). Axel Heinz, winemaker at Ornellaia and Masseto since 2005, says that, with the official opening of what they call informally “The Quarry” at the vineyard last month, Masseto “finally has a home”.
2018 Masseto (only the 33rd vintage to be produced) celebrates some firsts – the first vintage to be made in the new winery and the first vintage for new cellar master Eleonora Marconi, although she has been making wines for the Frescobaldi family for over a decade. “I like to treat Merlot like Pinot Noir,” she confides, preferring a more gentle, hands-off approach. Heinz cites the experience of his team and the increasing maturity of the vines (the first to be planted are now over 30 years old) for this growing confidence and consequent need to intervene less: “The fruit now has a more natural depth of flavour and complexity, with greater finesse and refinement.”
While its terroir and location is fundamentally Tuscan, the wine has always had strong ties to Bordeaux. Over an inaugural dinner in the new winery, Leonardo Frescobaldi, now honorary president of the Frescobaldi Group, recalled that his ancestors – having disagreed with the Medicis and prudently absented themselves to France while this most powerful of Florentine families held sway – brought back with them in the late 1850s cuttings of French grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Merlot and the Cabernets. Former winery director Thomas Duroux moved to and remains at Margaux’s Château Palmer, and Heinz joined Masseto from La Dominique in Saint Emilion. Masseto was also the first non-Bordeaux wine to be released on The Place (Bordeaux’s négociant system) rather than sold through regional agents.
But Masseto is far more than an homage to Bordeaux’s Right Bank. Among its unique qualities are the balancing effect of the water-retaining clay soils, which prevent vine stress in the hot, dry summer months, and the cooling sea breezes from the nearby Livorno coast that moderate the benignly warm climate. Thus even in a very ripe year like 2015, or an especially baked one like 2017, freshness is maintained. The 2018 vintage, which was made in the new winery, saw generally cooler temperatures, allowing an extended harvest period.
The winery itself, conceived by architects Hikaru Mori and Maurizio Zito, is solidly geological in concept, with textured and scored surfaces and references to the sub-region’s distinctive blue clay throughout, lifted by pools of water and of light. At its heart, and revealed only at the very end of dinner, is a secret vault, Masseto Caveau, which stores the estate’s library stock of older vintages, all the way back to 1986.
Tom Harrow is a fine-wine commentator, consultant and presenter. His Grand Crew Classé is the ultimate invitation-only club for fine-wine enthusiasts, with exclusive access to rare bottles and events around the world. Follow him on Twitter: @winechapUK.