There is a tradition at Ornellaia that every year the estate director chooses one word to capture the essence of the vintage. For 2017 – one of the hottest and driest vintages on record – Axel Heinz chose the world “Solare”, meaning radiant.
The single word chosen is then presented to an artist to create a limited-edition label, as well as an art installation for Ornellaia’s sleek modern winery in Bolgheri. The first Vendemmia d’Artista was the 2006 vintage, interpreted by the Italian Luigi Ontani; since then, the roster of artists has included painters and sculptors from Japan, Switzerland, China and Canada. Last year the New York-based Shirin Neshat was asked to interpret “La Tensione”, as Ornellaia 2016 was characterised.
Earlier this year, before lockdown, at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, the Argentinian Tomàs Saraceno was revealed as the chosen artist for the 2017 vintage. Twelve lots of the wine, with his new label, have just gone on sale online at Sotheby’s; the auction lasts until 9 September.
Saraceno is a conceptual artist who explores our relationship with the environment. He is known for his dramatic interactive installations, through which he considers the toll humanity is taking on the natural world. In his current installation at the Palazzo Strozzi, vast silvered orbs reflect the Renaissance architecture, or play host to complex plants and arachnids – the spider family is another of the artist’s preoccupations.
The issue of environmental sustainability is close to Ornellaia’s heart: climate change presents huge challenges for winemakers in Tuscany. Despite the proximity of the sea, with its moderating effect on the climate, there’s no escaping the fact that coastal Bolgheri is an increasingly hot spot – as evidenced by the fact that 2017 was the earliest harvest in the history of the estate.
Heinz has various methods to mitigate hot, dry summers, from delaying pruning, to leaf-shading the grapes as protection from the sun. He also has the great advantage of choice: he can blend 70 different parcels of vines, and four different varieties, from a 108-hectare tapestry of terroir.
2017 was all about tannin management – not extracting too much from the small, thick-skinned berries with their concentrated flavours. The core of the blend, typically around 50%, is Cabernet Sauvignon, supported by Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a small amount of Petit Verdot. In hotter years, including 2009 and 2003, Heinz draws on the freshness of Cabernet Franc and downplays the Merlot, but in 2017, yields of Cabernet Franc were too low and he reached for 10% Petit Verdot (usually sparingly employed as a “seasoning”).
It’s often at the blending stage, Heinz says, that he hits upon his single-word characterisation of the vintage. Saraceno’s interpretation of that word – Solare – is in the form of a solar eclipse. The 110 large-format bottles have thermochromic labels: responding to the heat of a hand, the sun slides from full to fully-eclipsed by the moon (there will also be one thermochromic label in every 6-bottle case of Ornellaia 2017).
The auction’s headline lot is the salmanazar sculpture, entitled PNEUMA 4.21×105. A 9-litre bottle of Ornellaia 2017 is topped with a sphere representing a suspended city, floating cloud-like, powered by solar energy.
Nine lots contain imperials (6 litres) depicting the various phases of the solar eclipse. There is also a vertical of the last six years of Ornellaia, featuring Vendemmia d’Artista labels. The final lots are six Ornellaia Bianco magnums from the last three vintages.
Ornellaia’s Vendemmia d’Artista is a charitable project which began with the 2006 vintage. The large format bottles are auctioned and the proceeds have been donated to various art foundations and museums including London’s Victoria & Albert museum. Last year Ornellaia negotiated a three-year relationship with the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation to support its Mind’s Eye project, which enables the blind or partially sighted to appreciate artwork via verbal and sensory experiences.