Wine News Masseto at One-Fifth the Price?

Masseto at One-Fifth the Price?

Barrels of Baffonero lie in the depths of the winery, waiting for the day when it will do battle with Masseto.
© Rocca di Frassinello | Barrels of Baffonero lie in the depths of the winery, waiting for the day when it will do battle with Masseto.
It's good to have ambition and one Italian winery is certainly aiming high, W. Blake Gray discovers.
Posted Saturday, 02-Nov-2019

Very few advertisements for any product mention a competitor directly, and in the genteel world of wine it's almost unheard of. It's far more likely for a competitor to sue over a similar label than to say anything at all about another wine.

Thus the back-label copy on Rocca di Frassinello's top-end wine Baffonero is shocking in its directness: "Born to be the challenger of Masseto, Baffonero is now one of the world's best Merlot" [sic].

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If you're going to have a goal, you might as well make it lofty. Masseto is a Merlot created by Ornellaia in Bolgheri, about 25 miles northwest of Rocca di Frassinello's property in the Maremma area of Tuscany. At about $800 per bottle, it's among Italy's most expensive wines. And it is beloved by the Wine Advocate, with 100-point scores for both the 2015 and 2016 vintages and no score under 94 since 2003.

Baffonero is not cheap, at about $150 a bottle, but it's certainly cheaper than Masseto. The Wine Advocate likes it also, albeit not as enthusiastically; it has never scored below 91 or above 95. Of course sometimes an Advocate score can be as much about style as quality.

"The main differences in Masseto and Baffonero is in the approach," Rocca di Frassinello winemaker/general manager Alessandro Cellai told Wine-Searcher. "When you taste Masseto you feel immediately a full body, full structure. You have an explosion of fruit from the beginning to the end. With Baffonero, you have from the beginning a fantastic elegance."

Masseto and Baffonero share this important characteristic: they are both 100-percent Merlot. Ornellaia was the first to decide that a great Super Tuscan could be made solely from Merlot. Andre Tchelistcheff suggested to Ornellaia founder Lodovico Antinori that Merlot would grow well on his new Bolgheri property before he planted it in 1981. Merlot did so well that Antinori began making Masseto as an offshoot, and charging more for it, in 1987. (Ornellaia has since been sold and is now owned by the Frescobaldi family.)

"Masseto is 100-percent Merlot and we decided to keep the same idea, the same way, to produce an extraordinary 100-percent Merlot," Cellai said.

Like the world's most-acclaimed Merlot, Petrus in Pomerol, Masseto has benefited from not being too limited in production: about 3000 cases a year, which means that if you want it, and can afford it, you can have it. Masseto is thus a bragging-rights wine, where both Instagrammer and Instagram follower might know what it is. There's actually much less Baffonero to go around – about 400 cases per year, though Cellai hopes to crank that up to 600 when a new vineyard comes online soon.

While not Petrus or Ornellaia (yet), Rocca di Frassinello is not without credentials of its own. It was founded 20 years ago by a partnership between Paolo Panerai, owner of the Chianti Classico estate Castellare de Castellini, and Eric de Rothschild, owner of Château Lafite Rothschild.

Panerai is better known for his bulky, expensive wristwatches than his wine endeavors. But Castellare de Castellini does not make bulky, expensive wines – its Chianti Classicos are known for freshness and balance. That said, nobody better understands the value of hype in netting high prices for luxury goods than a watchmaker.

Rocca di Frassinello began making Baffonero in 2007. Cellai said the Lafite team's main contribution was in helping to select the clones of Merlot that would best fit the soil, but that subsequently Cellai has made the decisions, and the wine is definitely made like the one-percenter wine it aspires to be.

"We do a very high selection in the vineyard," Cellai said. "We do three different green harvests in order to leave only one cluster per vine. We are speaking about only 300 grams of grapes per vine. At the end of the harvest the selection is made individually berry by berry, like Château d'Yquem. We want to assure that 100 percent of the berries in the wine are beautiful. We do fermentation in concrete. This is the only wine in Rocca di Frassinello with zero percent stainless steel. We keep between five and six weeks skin contact. After that we move directly into small French oak, 100-percent new, and 100-percent medium toast. We keep for a minimum of two years, without filtration and no fining."

Cellai said that different soils account for some of the difference in taste between Masseto, which is grown on sandy clay soil, and Baffonero, which is grown on limestone.

"When I compare Masseto and Baffonero, that is always my idea," Cellai said. "Both wines are really beautiful, a different style from the same grape. That is the main difference in the glass. One you have immediately the explosion ... just to make a comparison, Masseto can be considered like a boxer. Baffonero can be considered a big man in jacket and tie."

I tried to reach out to Ornellaia to see what they think about this upstart actually mentioning them on the back label – not to mention calling them Mike Tyson the pugilist as opposed to Mike Tyson the thespian. Nobody wanted to respond.

The Wine Advocate's Monica Larner, in giving the 2013 Baffonero 95 points – its highest score yet – wrote: "This wine is intended to challenge, and perhaps provoke, Merlot king Masseto ... This wine is thick and vinous with rich primary aromas of blackberry and cherry liqueur. Indian spice and cured tobacco are presented with lavish abandon. This is the ultimate statement wine, for sure, but I'm not sure it has Masseto trembling in its boots just yet."

That said, she gave 2013 Masseto just 97 points. Is it worth paying five times as much for two extra points? Panerai would understand this better than most; you should see what real Rolexes cost.

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