Axel Heinz in the vineyard at Masseto

‘Masseto — a truly Mediterranean expression of merlot’

Axel Heinz, Winemaker and Estate Director at Masseto, talks to Christie’s wine specialist Tim Triptree about the ‘magic’ wine he creates and the estate’s new winery

On 26 May in Hong Kong Christie’s will offer a selection of superlative Masseto vintages released directly from the Masseto cellar in Tuscany. The lots include a world-exclusive ‘Premier Preview Masseto 2015’, which offers our wine clients the opportunity to purchase the new release of the 2015 vintage Masseto prior to its official release for sale in autumn 2018. 

Masseto has forged a well-deserved reputation for its stunning 100-per-cent merlot single-vineyard wines, which are produced in very small volumes. Axel Heinz, the winemaker responsible for this iconic wine, studied the virtues of merlot in its cradle of Saint Emilion and Pomerol, where he was in charge of Château La Dominique and Château la Commanderie de Mazeyres (now Château Fayat). The son of a German father and French mother, he has been at Masseto, situated on the Tuscan coast, since 2005. Wine specialist Tim Triptree spoke to him to find out more ahead of the auction.

How would you describe Masseto to someone who has never previously encountered or drunk it?

Axel Heinz: ‘Masseto is a truly Mediterranean expression of merlot, something that seems almost impossible to achieve at first sight. Merlot is considered a fragile grape that easily tends towards over-ripeness and heaviness in a warm and dry climate. In the case of Masseto, the unique and magic combination of blue clay in the soil and a marine influence allows the production of a wine of exuberant richness that maintains freshness and grace at the same time.’

Which is your favourite vintage of Masseto, and why?

AH: ‘As a winemaker it is the question one gets asked most frequently and one doesn’t like to answer! We make wine every year with the same passion and dedication, which is why we like to answer that we like them all equally well. Yet there is no denying that some vintages stand out — 1998, 2001 and 2006 for their power; 2004, 2007 and 2004 for their refined elegance.’

Why did you decide to make a wine from 100-per-cent merlot?

AH: ‘Making a wine with 100-per-cent merlot was never planned, we were just looking for a good place to plant merlot — we were probably the first to develop in Bolgheri at a time when cabernet sauvignon was the undisputed king. We thought the presence of blue clay would be well-suited for merlot. The first results were so overwhelming that we quickly decided that the wine from this unique vineyard deserved to be bottled on its own.’

‘The only challenge of the 2015 may have been that everything seemed too easy! The major difficulty was to resist harvesting too early, and to look for perfect ripeness’ — Alex Heinz

In your 13 years at Masseto, what have been your greatest challenges as a winemaker?

AH: ‘Making wine in a place like Masseto is an exercise in humility. It is all about trying to understand how to make a wine that expresses the uniqueness and magic of this particular terroir, without letting the human impact shine through too obviously.’

What changes have you made to the ways the vineyards are managed and how the wines are made?

AH: ‘The most important changes have certainly occurred in the vineyards. Masseto is now farmed organically. Our main priority has been to preserve and protect the soils, using only manure and estate-made compost, and developing green covers during the winter that nurture the soil and protect it from erosion and leaching.

‘We have also acquired a better understanding of the micro terroirs, which allows us to be much more precise in our farming and also in our harvest dates, something that is particularly important when it comes to merlot. This is reflected in our winemaking approach, where we have recently increased the amount of separate vinification of single portions of the vineyard. It is now quite common to have up to eight different vinification lots in one vintage. The new winery has been specifically designed to be able to do as many small vinification lots as needed and will work 100 per cent by gravity.’

What were the specific challenges of the 2015 vintage?

AH: ‘The only challenge may have been that everything seemed too easy! The major difficulty was to resist harvesting too early and, even in such perfect conditions, have the courage and patience to look for the perfect level of ripeness.’

To which vintage would you compare the 2015, and why?

AH: ‘I believe Masseto 2015 reflects a more restrained and elegant side, without losing anything of its proverbial richness. I would compare it to 2007 and 2004, which were produced in similarly balanced weather conditions.’

What would be the perfect food to pair with Masseto 2015?

AH: ‘A young wine like Masseto 2015 certainly calls for some meat protein to buffer the wine’s young tannins. I would think of a glorious piece of roast venison, with a sauce that has some spicy and fruity elements, to echo the wine’s exotic spiciness.’

What are you looking forward to most with the opening of the new Masseto winery in 2019?

AH: ‘It is always exciting to move into a new winery, especially when you have had the opportunity to specifically design it to the needs of your wine. Everything has been studied and developed to exalt the character and quality of the wines. Finally, Masseto will have its home.’