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Masseto

One of the hottest wines from Italy is a pure Merlot produced on the west coast of Tuscany, near the town of Bolgheri, on the wine estate of Tenuta dell' Ornellaia. Masseto was first commercially produced in 1986, but it has only recently become a legend in its own time. It's a full-throttle, exotic red with mounds of opulent fruit, yet it remains polished and classy in style; it's a cross between a powerfully refined Pomerol from Bordeaux and a fleshy, flamboyant Merlot from California's Napa Valley.

The wine comes from two vineyards on the Ornellaia estate, Masseto and Vigna Vecchia. The latter, whose name in Italian means old vines, produces the most structured wines while the former gives the finesse and class to the pure Merlot. The wine is given the full treatment in the cellar, from long fermentations to extended aging in 100 percent French oak. According to consulting winemaker Michel Rolland, who is famous for making world-class Pomerols as well as other top-rated reds, the wines of Masseto "deserve" the high-class winemaking because of the exceptional quality of the grapes.

Seek out the most recent vintages available, primarily 1997 and 1998. Both are opulent and exciting, bursting with fruit, although I have a slight preference for the 1998. I scored the wines 96 and 97 points, respectively, in Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication. Older, weaker vintages, including the 1991, 1992 and 1993, are also very good but they lack the richness and generosity of newer vintages. Most Massetos need about five or six years of bottle age to lose some of their baby fat, although the lavish fruit of their youth is irresistible from the outset.

About 1,200 cases (almost half the production) are shipped to the United States each year. Finding a bottle however, can be like panning for gold dust in Manhattan. The release price for the wines is usually about $200 to $240, although prices may double within a few months due to the demand.

For more information visit www.winespectator.com or call the estate at 0565 /762140-1.

Wine

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