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Italy slides, Sauvignon glides

Some of the problems pervading today's wine market came crashing down around me as I tasted a wide selection of newly released Italian offerings. Consumer worries about the price, pleasure factor and promise of current releases seemed to crystallize in my mind during this single afternoon.

The dawning of 2002 rang in a golden moment for Italy's premium bottlings. There were the perfect 1997 Tuscan reds, the stellar 1996 and '97s of the Piedmont and from northern Italy in general, and the 2000 whites from all these regions, with their honeyed, supple and luxurious textures. Now, 18 months later, a less sparkling moment is upon us. Inflated pricing has carried over to many unattractive, harsh and hard examples; wines that need considerable aging to be pleasurable. Even then, I'm not convinced that many will ever be so.

Tuscany seems to be the only area without a quality dip. The sangiovese grape is quasi-immune to making mean and impenetrable liquids, no matter how hard people try by over-pruning vines or using new oak barrels to age the crop. Chianti, Vino Nobile, and Carmignano remain delicious, and 1999 is the vintage to seek out first. Brunello, traditionally Tuscany's most expensive and age-worthy red, is always a wine to lay away, as its depth and concentration unfolds, slowly expressing complexity and dynamism. The '97s were amazingly approachable on release, but the current '98s are back to being their normal impenetrable, stone-walled selves.

The same holds true for the great Barolo and Barbaresco of Italy's Piemonte region. Historically, these were never wines to drink young. They are considered wines with a capital W; bottles to be respected, cellared and finally savored on special occasions. The sometimes great '98s upon us now need time. The less good '99s on the horizon will be a difficult sell. Just as our own Napa and Sonoma heavyweights have reached stratospheric prices, so these Piedmont biggies are at unconscionably high cost. In fact, practically none of the wines I tasted, regardless of region, were inexpensive. From $12 to $120, most displayed difficulties that should chase away many consumers.

Twenty years ago, the relatively low release price of age-worthy wines prompted one to invest in their future. Now, the future often costs the same upon release as older wines that are fully developed. Where's the incentive to buy? Getting in on the ground floor nowadays is seldom a tempting option.

What used to be northern Italy's everyday quaff, barbera, is now regularly made to resemble Barolo. The results are one giant pain. They are too big, too powerful and the affable nature of this rustic grape is losing its joy. Thirty dollar barberas are becoming pervasive, and it's just too much money. Some winemakers are even trying to add "beef" and oomph to delicate dolcetto, when all this grape really wants to do is please, accompany, and drink easily as "Italy's Beaujolais." Concurrently, many whites from the north are showing sharp, austere, harsh and unpleasurable personalities. 2001 is the year, but it's the winemaking and over manipulation that is mostly at fault.

In the Trentino/Alto Adige region, meaner, lead-footed creations are cropping up among the merlots and cabernets. These popular wines are now often graceless, hard and unpleasant quaffs with iffy futures. Even in Lombardy's unique Valtellina district, its exquisite mountain nebbiolo should remain its lighter-bodied, magically intense and penetrating self. Adding bulk to the lithe, swimmer-like body is criminal. Turning Schubert into Wagner is an exercise that should be punishable.

And the south! With its overripe, succulent grapes, the south has always produced warm and generous "dago reds." Instead, new and "improved" methodology is making them as stern and unapproachable as their northern brethren; and their prices are doubling.

Somewhere along the line, a few wine writers and demanding importers decided that thick, muscle-bound wines were what consumers wanted. The growers, wanting to expand their markets, acceded to these wishes. But truly experienced palates have always delighted in the difference that soil, regional grapes, and a structure that matches the local cuisine makes. Who wants rich all the time? As with foie gras, the pleasure is in occasional richness. Who wants goose liver every day? I'm so tired of retailers, wholesalers or "in the know" promoters insisting that these heavy-handed, tannic wines taste great right now, while the customer scratches her head and thinks, "I don't like it and I don't want to drink it. Is there something wrong with me? Even if there is, I'm not going to suffer this." The day of reckoning is today. You can only pull people's chain for so long--and I think we're down to the last flush.

Some Exceptions:

2001 Dolcetto Parusso, "Pian Noce" $16
Light, airy, grapey red with a beautiful nose and a delicious flavor. A better Beaujolais.

2001 Dolcetto Clerico, "Visadi" $16
A more substantial style with fuller body and a whiff of cola! Some tannin but really tasty. Can develop further over the next year.

2001 Barbera Villa Giada, "Suri Russ" $12
Ripe, peppery with textbook flavors and so drinkable. Treat a pizza royally! A BEST BUY

2000 Valpolicella Mazzi , $16
Pricey for a Valpolicella, but this is serious, deeply flavored and satisfyingly good; yet fresh and effortless. A superior barbecue red.

1999 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Dei, $26
Perfumed bouquet that's quite ethereal. A penetrating and "chewy" nose. Such sweet, perfectly ripe fruit that will continue to develop for five years. Special.

Sauvignon Sampler
The time for sauvignon blanc is now. In summer, I generally prefer its leaner, brisker style to chardonnays of any flavor. I'm not dissing chard, but for me sauvignon revitalizes and wakes up your hot, parched taste buds. Here are the results of a recent blind tasting.

First, a rule to live by: Extended oak aging and sauvignon blanc are like oil is to water. When wood engulfs this grape, the results are miserable.

2000 Chalk Hill, price N/A
Fruit components are subdued by oak. Better on the palate, but heavy handed, dull and ultimately unpleasant. Grade: D+

2001 Clos Du Bois, North Coast, $10
The fruit is masked by too much wood, making for no desire to drink it. Very smooth on the palate, but a turn off overall. Grade: C-

2001 Redwood Creek, $10
A neutral, flat and uninteresting nose. In the mouth it's tart, colorless, passable but a real ho-hum. Grade: C

2000 Callaway Coastal, California, $8
Agreeable but simple bouquet with a touch of lemon rind; nice, lemony flavors. Unimpressive but polite and well made. Aged only in stainless steel. Grade: C+/B-

2001 Buena Vista, California, $7
Subtle, fresh and inviting; nice texture and weight. A bit lean and green, but would work well with grilled shellfish. A somewhat heavy handed finish. Grade: B-/ C+

2001 Beringer Founder's Estate, $11
Good. An unfruity, grassy style. Very brisk flavors with a touch of bitterness on the finish. A pleasant surprise from this large production bottling. Grade: B-

2002 Adobe Creek, Contra Costa County, $12
Nice, direct fruit. Some cat pee quality suggesting a French Bordeaux blanc style. (not necessarily a negative quality!) Subtle, dry clean flavors. Very varietal. A bit too bitter on the finish. Grade: B-

2001 Chateau Potelle, Napa Valley, $15
A tropical, fruit basket bouquet. Drinks well with a judicious backdrop of oak that gives it body. Slightly dull finish, but alive and polished overall. Grade: B/B-

2000 Beringer, Napa Valley, $14
Lemon grass on a bright, full nose. Flavors are nicely woven, dry and a bit stark on the end. Still, a good, food-friendly drink. Well done. Grade: B

2002 Carmenet Cellar Selection, $8
Tropical--really a fruit bomb. Not for the cellar! A crowd-pleasing style with some residual sugar--yet it works. Flavors are effusive, tart with a nice aftertaste. Acidity is a bit high. A nice drink for now. Grade: B; BEST BUY

2002 St. Supery, Napa Valley, $16
Bright grapefruit and peach sensations. Very flowery and inviting. Has a lingering citrus feel and a brisk, long finish. If this sounds good to you, go for it. Terrific, overt styling. Grade: B+

2002 Brancott Vineyards, Marlborough Reserve, $18
Interesting, full, outgoing with tropical fruit, banana and lemons predominating. Screams New Zealand. Lemon and fruit flavors continue on the fresh, clean mouth feel. Lovely finish. May be too blatant for some, but it's a lot of fun. Terrific sipper. Grade: B+

2001 Conte Della Vipera, Antinori, $26.50
Wonderfully fragrant, but not in a brash way. Grass, sweet pea, pear and lemon all appear on the bouquet. Great cleanliness and purity. Classic Sauvignon blanc. A "sculpted" profile with dry flavor, lovely texture but a slightly short finish. Otherwise faultless. In complexity, on a par with Didier Dagenau's "Pur Sang" from the Loire, but much cheaper.

This wine is available in the Triangle, but not currently in stock. Ask for it by name. Grade: A EndBlock

Arturo Ciompi's WineBeat column appears the second week of every month. Contact him at

Ciompi's grades:
I use the old, public school grading system.

A: A wine that seems to give all it is capable of. It offers a myriad of complexities and memorable attributes that make it a standout.

B: Very good with real flavor interest and a number of highlights that make a fine wine.

C: Average. No true defects, but minor flaws that hinder its charm. It is OK and is recommended.

D: Many irritating flaws take away most of the wine's pleasure. The wine is drinkable.

F: Undrinkable, with unacceptable defects and no pleasure factor. A failure.


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