David Williams reports from the online launch of the latest release of the annual artistic project from Ornellaia.
The process behind each vintage of Ornellaia’s Vendemmia d’Artista sounds straightforward enough.
In the words of the estate’s director Axel Heinz, speaking from the winery in Tuscany at the online launch of the latest, 2019 edition, in February, 2021, “We start from the wine itself. It’s when tasting the wine that we think of one word that will describe the vintage.”
That single word is then passed through the Ornellaia organization to the year’s chosen artist, who uses it as the inspiration for their designs for a set of labels and limited-edition bottles. The results are then sold via an online auction by Sotheby’s, with all profits going to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s Mind’s Eye program, which provides support to blind and low-vision visitors to its galleries in New York, Venice, and Bilbao.
2019 Ornellaia: Finding inspiration
Inevitably, Heinz confesses, the process has grown more complicated in the years since the first Vendemmia d’Artista, which featured work by the Italian artist Luigi Ontani for Ornellaia’s 2006 vintage (released in 2009) on a theme of “exuberance” (“L’Esuberanza”), and which inaugurated a series that has so far raised more than $2million for art charities.
Indeed, by the time of the 2019 vintage, with 13 vintages in the bank, an unwritten rule that no word can be used twice, and some of the more obvious adjectives (energy, balance, celebration…) already taken, Heinz and team could be forgiven if inspiration took a little longer to strike.
“It’s a difficult task, because we’re not at the beginning,” says Heinz. “We really try to summarize as much as we can the impressions we get from tasting the wine. Sometimes we get more conceptual. But in 2019 it was a description, a literal term. We think we have a wine with a lot of energy—power and elegance, contained power.”
A vigorous brief
For Heinz, the word that best encapsulated that combination of attributes—the word that became the brief for this year’s chosen artists, the Swedish multi-media artists, Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg—was il vigore or vigor.
As Heinz says, it’s “a term that has to be used with care in viticulture. If a vine grows too easily or abundantly it’s to the detriment of the fruit.” But the sense as it applies to this vintage of Ornellaia has more to do with taming the forces of nature on the Tuscan coast in 2019.
Or, as the quote from Heinz, in full poetic flourish in the official press release, has it, “Il Vigore is the strength of the healthy growth of the vines. It is the active vigor of mind and body. It is the character of a wine that captivates the senses and projects the flavor into a natural landscape of energy, power, strength and vitality. The flavors, aromatic nuances and the body of the wine transport it into a spiritual dimension, where the power of nature is central to the experience.”
A vintage story
Back on earth, at the online launch, Heinz explains a little more of the technical detail. “It was a vintage that wasn’t quite as challenging as others, but still it had a very clear division between the phases,” he says. “There was a shift from late winter to summer without having much of a spring [… ] a quite dry and very hot summer—quite a brutal change from the cold winter and spring” with temperatures in mid-to-late June of the kind that “you would normally have in July and August.”
By September 7, 2019, everything was set for “a fast and steady harvest. We started one week later and finished one week earlier”—a three-week harvest in total, compared to the usual month.
“It wasn’t a dry year,” Heinz continues. “It was luckily dry enough to ripen correctly and develop good potential. But at the same time there was no brutal effect of drought: [there was] just about enough water to get the vines through the month of September with even ripening.”
Ultimately, 2019 is “clearly a wine that’s come from a vintage with moments of great heat and drought, but which has managed to succeed in not being over-ripe,” Heinz says.
The wine is marked Heinz says, by a kind of counter-intuitive—and counter-empirical— freshness. “Analytically it’s not particularly high in acidity, but it does have smoothness and freshness.
It also has what Heinz calls “sapidity. We’re quite close to the coastline and the sea. Is the sapidity coming from the sea? The mysterious side of a great terroir is that you don’t always know, but [Ornellaia] always has a saline character that lifts the wine even when it doesn’t have high acidity.”
Vendemmia d’Artista: Wine into art
How does that translate into art? According to Djurberg, speaking at the launch, “Inspiration came from the soil, the dirt, the underneath and hidden, [which is] usually seen as ugly and dirty. But it’s the starting point of life, the capability of growth of chaos and transformation that is happening, and also man’s hand in the soil that is helping to shape it into something that becomes art, this hidden beauty underneath that we seldom think about.”
The official press release, meanwhile, says: “The chosen artists based their work on the theme of metamorphosis, the cycles of nature and its transformation, as well as the relationship between humans and the Earth. These concepts are expressed in a project that evolves from the design developed for the 750 ml and 3-litre labels to sculptures for the large 6-liter and 9-liter formats.
“The finger, depicted on the 750ml label, which leaves a print on the Earth, is a fine representation of the wine, which sparks curiosity and a desire to reveal itself gradually before leaving a tangible impression in a lingering tasting experience. In the glass, connoisseurs discover the energy that nature gives to plants and humans, but in particular to the region that expresses itself as lifeblood: the lifeblood of il vigore.”
The official release date for 2019 Ornellaia is April 1, 2022. An online auction of the 2019 Vendemmia d’Artista collection arranged by Sotheby’s will take place between October 5 to 19, 2022. All proceeds go to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to support the Mind’s Eye program.