"Il vino fa ballare i vecchi." ("Wine makes the old folks dance.")
Italian winemakers have awakened and smelled the espresso. For years, blessed with perfect soil and climate conditions, the Italians made silver wines with golden potential.
Now, hundreds of Italian estates have caught up with state-of-the-art vineyard and cellar practices—ones that used to be the provenance of France and Germany alone. No longer do vintners open a bottle, find it wanting, shrug their shoulders and open another. Italy is seeing a quality boom that is turning consumers toward the treasures that were simply waiting to be made.
Ten years ago, if you had asked the general consumer to name a favorite Italian wine, Chianti, Lambrusco, Valpolicella and Soave might chime in, with perhaps a Barolo or some kind of Montepulciano in the mix. Today, the talk not only includes Brunello, Amarone and Super-Tuscans, but Bolgheri, Nero d'Avola and Lugana. This is just the tip of a vinous iceberg that is melting and leaving myriad choices at wine lovers' feet.
Aside from our weakened dollar, this more intensive labor quite naturally translates into higher prices. Importers now encourage a better product, and the results are often jaw-dropping. This week's column visits regions all over the map—from the tip of Alto Adige to the offshore southern island of Sicily. Some wines are familiar. Some are absolutely novel to America's shores. All are better than they were a decade ago.
2006 Bianco di Gambellara, "Sassaia," Angiolino Maule $23
Extremely fresh, lemony crisp nose followed by gentle yet mouth-cleansing fruit flavors. Oysters please.
2001 Ribolla Gialla, Azienda Radicon $68
Distinctive orange and peach nose overflowing this white, which is full of character. Fabulous mouth texture—creamy, enticing flavor profile with complexity usually reserved for a red. Fabulous wine and price to match!
2004 Merlot, "Varneri," Marco Felluga $16
Herbal bouquet of dried currants and ripe blackberry. Honest, mountain flavors of plentiful fruit and a dry, mouth-cleansing finish. Will develop further. Nifty, airy expression of Merlot fruit. Drink 2009-12.
2006 Soave Classico, Inama $14
Pungent, oily with light citrus, wildflowers and banana. Smooth and sippable with a second (malo-lactic) fermentation evident. Tangy, citrusy finish. Soave with real character. Good buy. A solid
2004 Valpolicella Ripasso, "Solane," Santi $13
A Valpolicella with some of its grapes shriveled on wooden mats. Starts out simple, but its ripeness, filled with cherries on leather, soon emerges. You can smell the body. Deliciously pert and pleasing. A sure bet with roast chicken. True value.
2005 Gavi, "Figlianotti," Cascina degli Ulivi $19
Warm comforting nose with almond-tinged fruit. Excellent fruit ripeness that's crisp but generous. Scallops rejoice!
2001 "Solea," Roagna $31
Almost sweet perfume. Has an attractive touch of grapiness and botrytis. An unusual, fascinating flavor profile. Almost like chewing on the pips (grape seeds). Long aftertaste and a nice kick of acidity. A true original. Seventy-five percent Chardonnay and 25 percent Nebbiolo.
2006 Grignolino d'Asti, Cascina 'Tavijn $20
A vigorous red that's absolutely inviting. Not grapey, but smells of freshly crushed fruit. Smooth as silk. A terrific red wine for hors d'oeuvre. Seldom seen in the United States, but adored in Italy. ('Tavijn, as my mother would know, is dialect for the name Ottaviano: 'Taviano = 'Tavijn). Highly recommended.
2005 Barbera, "Quatro Fratelli," Boroli $16
Rugged yet round, plumy and pungent, persistent fruit. Tobacco, mushroom and forest floor components. A mouth-filling wine with dense blackberry and dark cherry notes. Long aftertaste and vitality. Fine value.
2005 Barbera Monferrato, "Mounbe" $27
Velvety pure fruit on a generous, penetrating nose. Excellent stuffing on a palate that's light in body but satisfyingly complete. Delicious.
2006 Dolcetto d'Alba, Roagna $17
Undeveloped but ripe, dry, earthy nose. Simply needs time, but all the elements are there for an expressive, powerful red. A sleeping beauty. Drink 2010-14. Good buy. ()
1999 Barbaresco, Paje Vineyard, Roagna $61
A fabulous, volcanic nose—such fruit, such identity! Although not big in mouth-feel, it has grace, elegance and a terrific sense of place. This is old-style Barbaresco with its characteristic brick-colored juice.
2003 Barolo, Vigna Rionda, Roagna $61
Nebbiolo complete. Wild mushrooms, nuts and earth inhabit the dry expressive fruit. Simply like no other grape on Earth. Beautifully expressed—terrific weight and balance. Worth the price.
Moscato Chinato, "Luli," Chinati Vergano $42
Now for something completely different: Muscat grapes are treated to an addition of spirits, quinine and varied spices to create a wine reminiscent of honeycombed nougat. Smooth, sweet and not terribly bitter at all. Yet has the oomph of quinine bark. Try with cheeses.
Nebbiolo Chinato, Chinato Vergano $42
A variation of Barolo Chinato that my grandfather drank regularly after dinner. Here, sweeteners are added to the same brew as the above wine. The nose is cocktail-like. Subtly sweet with light bitter finish. A great tradition with dark chocolate. One seldom sees these famous wines in America.
2006 Toscana Rosso, Montesecondo $16
Direct, pinpoint nose with generously rich fruit. A fresh and balanced drink. Most pleasurable and Chianti-like in the best sense. Good buy (arrives in March).
2004 Rosso del Rospo, Montesecondo $31
Smooth and integrated bouquet that is heavenly. Dark and beefy, yet nicely rounded and ingratiating. Still young, but it's all there in this promising, complex mouthful. (Sixty percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 percent Sangiovese.) Drink 2009-14.()
2004 "Primavoce," Arceno $20
Spicy, linear nose with brooding tar and bay leaf elements that grow in the glass. Full-flavored and tannic. A rich, starchy red of brawn and drama. Should be put down for a while. (Eighty-five percent Merlot, 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.) Drink 2009-12. Excellent value. ()
2004 Toscana Rosso, Villa Antinori $23
A Médoc-like first impression. St. Julien smoothness with lanolin textured leather and black currant bouquet. Positively alluring. Dark chocolatey-rich fruit and powerfully long aftertaste. Delicious now with some tannin to lose and expanded flavor profile awaiting. (Sixty percent Sangiovese, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Merlot, 5 percent Syrah.) Great value. Drink now-2013.
2005 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, La Valentina $13
Very ripe and concentrated fruit on the nose with calm and velvety sensations. Blockbuster flavors—dried pomegranate, fig and a wallop of tannin. Impressive. Some will like it now, but promises more. Great buy. Drink 2009-12. ()
2005 Negroamaro, "Passamante," Li Veli $16
Potent, satisfying and complex. Aromatically broad-shouldered with plummy/ prunish fruit. Côte Rôtie-like with an even, hearty palate. Has lifting acidity that embraces the weight and keeps it light on its feet. Unique. Best buy.
2006 Frappato, Occhipinti $30
Frappato is the name of the grape. Opaque, ripe fruit exploding on the nose. Soft, rich texture in this easy to understand red. Delightful. (Arrives in March.)
2005 Nero d'Avola, "Siccagno," Occhipinti $30
Profound, serious and Herculean fruit essence with olive overtones. Warm and leathery with concentrated fruit flavor and fabulous length. Suggests a Hermitage, the noble northern Rhône. Impressive. (The 2006 is almost as good.) Best wine for the money.
A recent dinner out with friends produced the kind of wine evening that strengthens the bonds of cellaring wines and sharing the bounty. I brought a 2000 La Tour de Mons ()—a Cru Bourgeois Margaux wine that showed its paces splendidly at eight years of age. It demonstrated the typical, seductive perfume of Margaux—outgoing, fleshy and flashy. It possessed a perfect medium-bodied frame with generously long aftertaste. However, another member of the table brought a 1990 Chateauneuf Du Pape from the great Chateau de Beaucastel estate (). This wine, at 18 years old, seemed at its peak—the perfect age at which to experience this top-ranked southern Rhône strutting its stuff. And what stuff! It sang of earth, peat and darkly integrated fruits in an explosive nose. The wine had melded into a super-smooth mouthful with a grainy texture that excited the taste buds, and a luxurious finish that would not quit. The weight seemed not all that dissimilar from the Bordeaux—just totally grander in scope. A younger example could never display these qualities, and yet most people will not wait long enough to get their true money's worth.
Just in case the table was willing (and it was), I had brought a half-bottle of 1994 Isole e Olena Vin Santo from Tuscany (). This luscious wine was everything that I cherish in this style. (It ages and develops in the attics of barns.) It had a huge nose of pear, peach, almond and honey, and it drank with a lovely light sweetness perfectly balanced by acidity and long, caressing mouth texture. With a dish of varied cookies, this was a heavenly, close-to-wine-perfect meal—an experience that's best achieved by purchasing young wines upon release, cellaring them and waiting for the ideal time to showcase what bottle age is all about.
Arturo can be reached at email@example.com.
I now use the five-star system that dates back generations and has had a special appeal to me as suggested in The Great Vintage Wine Book by English writer Michael Broadbent. My take on the system works as follows:
Not very good
Fair to moderately good
A star (or stars) in parentheses means what the wine promises to achieve with further aging. For example:
() = Fair now but should become extremely good with bottle age