So far I’ve worked my way through a pretty impressive set of wines that would make for some splendid gifting. I’ve covered Cabernet, Pinot Noir, the wines of France and today I turn my attention towards Italy. Without a doubt my favorite wine producing country; Italy is home to more variety and styles of wine than anyplace else on the planet.
As much as i would love to run through all of those wines today, the truth is that gift giving will generally focus on but a handful of famous wines. This of course makes perfect sense, gifting being about buying something that someone might not buy for themselves or buying something that is particularly noteworthy and special. With this in mind I will spread my attention a bit more liberally throughout the country. I’ve got my suggestions for Nebbiolo and Sangiovese of course but there are simply so many noteworthy and special wines being produced in Italy today that to ignore them would do a disservice to them and to you, our potential gift giver.
I will however start here with Nebbiolo, my favorite grape and when placed in the hands of one of the top producers, a grape capable of producing wines that marry power and elegance. At once hugely structured, yet so aromatic with delicate perfumes of violets and roses, leather, tar, red fruits and licorice all wrapped up in an age worthy package that can evolve for decades. Barolo and Barbaresco, they are two of the world’s greatest wines. Dare i say the greatest? Having said that they also generally require a fair amount of cellaring, which can pose a problem for pouring whatever vintage is on the shelves at this moment. Here is a very brief rundown of vintages to help guide your purchasing.
2010 Just a few Barbaresco from this vintage have hit the shelves as of yet. A vintage that seems to be better in Barolo, where it is spectacular, than in Barbaresco, where it is merely very good. A classic vintage that might have some early appeal but is structured for the long haul, and is not the best option for early consumption.
2009 The current release for Barolo and a lovely one at that. Big, rich with the fruit of a warm vintage yet quite structured as well. These should drink well enough today and for the coming year before closing down.
2008 A very aromatic and smaller scaled vintage that is bright and austere with an almost lacy, yet frm structure. Not a hedonistic vintage but one that is remarkably complex and has that delicate/powerful thing going in spades.
2007 A warmer vintage; plump with ripe fruit yet many wines are not very well balanced. Still drinking well enough though and as a generalization, with an approachable character that makes them good for gift giving.
2006 Tough as nails, but a great vintage.
2005 Similar to 2008 in style though many wines have shut down.
2004 A very good vintage with fairly classically styled wines, though some are a touch dilute. Still approachable today.
2003 The product of a very hot vintage, easy drinking and plump if neither terribly complex nor particularly structured.
2002 A washout best avoided with one notable, and expensive, exception.
A warmer vintage that yielded plump, generous wines that do not represent the pinnacle of what Nebbiolo can achieve but these wines are drinking terrifically today and would make a perfect gift this holiday season.
The Produttori del Barbaresco bottle a set of single vineyard wines from the top sites in Barbaresco, except when they don’t. In which case, as so happened in 2010, the wines are simply declassified and blended into the Coop’s basic Barbaresco, which is not a terribly fair to characterize this wine. A classic example of Barbaresco and the vintage in the best sense of the word,. This is a great introduction to Barbaresco and while it is a wine that is accessible upon release it promises to improve for a decade with ease.
I think I’ve written enough about Burlotto’s Monvigliero so I expect I am preaching to the choir here. It’s a very traditional wines that is foot trod, whole cluster fermented, macerated on the skins for 100 days and aged in large format wood. Coming from the top site in the village of Verduno, tucked away in the north western corner of the Barolo zone, it’s a wine that has escaped attention for years but is a stunning example of Nebbiolo. Elegant and rich, approachable early in its life and capable of improving for two decades, it delivers a beautiful expression of Nebbiolo redolent of strawberries, cinnamon spice, olive tapenade and hints of truffle and herbs.
Here’s another little known producer turning out big time wines. Cascina delle Rose is a small family run winery with a very young winemaker, but don’t let that dissuade from trying the wines. They are fabulous. Gentle and delicate yet so complex and nuanced, they represent some of the best values in Barbaresco today.
I’ve been a big fan of Brovia for quite some time, and the Rocche vineyard as well. When they come together you get one of the finest wines of the region. Classically austere and almost severe at times, Rocche is one of the greatest vineyards in the region and Brovia’s interpretation is a wine for the ages. There’s plenty of fruit but the wine is linear, with it’s toughness well buffered by sweet herb and licorice tinged red fruits. It’s a wine that will reward cellaring and several decades of it in fact.
Mascarello’s Monprivato is a rarity in Piedmont. A single vineyard wine from a monopole. It’s a wine that can be underwhelming in its youth but when it matures it’s an explosion of power and elegance. Full on rose petals and strawberries laid over lovely limestone and herbal nuance. It has one of the greatest track records in all of Piedmont and remains a compelling value in the world of fine wine.
Trentino/Alto-Adige. This is where I feel at home, having spent many years in the region. I love these wines, there is such a variety to be had, and yet they tend to see spotty representation here in the states. To a certain degree that is due to their great success in their local markets. The Brenner Pass feeds Austrian and German tourists right into the region and they tend to return home with their trucks full of great wines, but the paucity of great wine from the region also reflects our buying habits. We have focused so much on Italy for wine values, ie cheap wines, and famous Italian gems for so long that we have missed the boat with many of the less famous or more difficult to farm regions. So our fascination with other regions of Italy tends to make these wines tougher to find, though it also keeps the prices within reason. It’s a great region to find surprises for even the most knowledgeable wine geeks.
Here’s a wine with a very long name, and a confusing one at that. It’s simply Terlan’s Pinot Bianco Reserva with the name written in both Italian and German as is the custom in the Alto-Adige. Terlan is famous for their white wines and their Pinot Bianco in particular, and this is one of the finest renditions available. Offering a great blend of cool white fruits and minerality, it ages superbly developing richness and depth that is almost unheard of at this price.
Another wines that is iconic of the Alto-Adige is the indigenous Lagrein. Prone to hard, green tannins, it’s only been over the last two decades or so that vineyard practices and and an understanding of terroir have come together to yield the exceptionally high quality versions that we have today. That makes this wine, whose vineyards date back centuries even more surprising. It’s a fabulous example of the variety. Rich with dark fruit and subtle chocolate and mineral accents that develops an alluring, velvety character with age. It’s tough to track down, though it is imported, which makes it a killer gift.
South of the Alto-Adige one finds Trentino where the great reds come from Teroldego. I have some emotional attachment to the grape, my palate was, to a large degree, raised on it. An unusual wine for a list like this, Teroldego is not known for it’s great cellaring abilities, but rather for it’s early appeal, tart berry flavors, and supple, rich mouthfeel. Some producers are able to take the wines to another level. Foradori has recently resumed producing single vineyard examples of Teroldego, biodynamically farmed, raised for a period in amphorae; they are wines that are bursting with life and vivacious flavors. Teroldego almost tamed but still with it’s wild, mountain roots intact.
Finally, further south in Trentino, almost to the border with the Veneto one finds the isolated farm of San Leonardo. Making a Bordeaux blend in indigenous wine country is not an easy or simple task. Making wines that are world class does make it a bit easier, but the truth is that while Cabernet is not completely unknown in the region, this is an odd wine to find here. It makes it an outlier and a bit on the obscure side of things but if you take the time to taste the wines of San Leonardo you’ll be rewarded with a fabulous experience, reminiscent of Bordeaux of a certain age. Black currants and herbs share the glass with firm little tannins that effortlessly support 12-20 years of ageing. This is a bit of a throwback wine in that it’s not a blueberry shake of a Cabernet based wine, and it has the high acidity that Italian palate loves, but if that sounds like something you might be interested in you have to track down a mature bottle of San Leonardo to enjoy while you are waiting for the current releases to reach their apogee.
Of all the regions of Italy I would expect the Veneto to see the most seasonal business from consumers in the USA. The wines, mostly the Amarone, are expensive and associated with cold weather drinking. Benefitting from several months of air drying before being fermented, the fruit from these vines yield concentrated wines. We have some deep seated need to associate these wines with other wines made from dried grapes, most of which are dessert wines, and think that Amarone must be this incredibly dense, rich and strong wine but, both modern and classic versions are evidence to the contrary. Amarone is a rich wine, and powerful, but on par with many a Zinfandel or a Shiraz, and as such can and should be enjoyed year round, though they do make great gifts!
Speri is one of the more traditional producers of Amarone. Their wines are powerful, and rich with spicy flavors but they are also endowed with enough fruit to drink rather well when young. A dry Amarone, some are noticeably sweeter, and a structured one at that. Speri’s wines age quite well and to my mind represent a happy medium between the rustc and the modern styles of Amarone.
To a degree Tedeschi’s wines are similarly styled, approachable when young but better when aged, though they are more fruit driven and lack some of the rustic appeal of Speri’s Amarone. A powerful example of Amarone, smooth, polished and deep with dark berry and cherry fruit, it’s a great introduction to the style for people more used to modern wines.
And then there is Bertani. These are wines for the cellar. never about fruit per se, Bertani’s Amarone is about nuance and elegance, only apparent when mature. These are wines that speak with perfume, and persistence on the palate. they seem to be small scaled when compared to many of the wines produced as Amarone today, and while they do need some 15 years in the cellar to fully blossom, once they hit that peak of maturity they reveal wonderful aromatic complexity full of red fruits, dried citrus peels, nutty nuances and hints of dried flowers.
Sicily is the new frontier. Long a backwater of Italian wine, old vineyards, and new wine makers have been transforming the landscape. Today Sicily is one of the most exciting regions of italy for wine. Values abound and old-vine Nero d’Avola and Nerello (Mascalese and Capuccio) are establishing themselves as exceptional world class wines. There’s a lot of natural winemaking going on in Sicily as well, which helps focus the minds of many in the business of promoting and selling wine. It’s a great region for wine gifts, still emerging and not yet on the radar with many wine lovers and as you can see that means that the wines remain relative values.
Calabretta is one of the great values in Sicilian wine. An old school producer framing old-vine Nerello organically, the wines are kept in large format wood for six to seven years before bottling, and then released after about ten years of age, so don’t be surprised by the vintages you see on offer. The high altitude vineyards on Mount Etna give wines that are are complex, rich in minerality and firmly structured. I don’t know of a better value for lovers of traditionally made wines.
Frank Cornelissen has been producing natural wines from vineyards high on Mount Etna only since 2000 making him a new comer to this region. The wines are made in a totally non-interventionist way and represent only what the year has given. As such they are certainly not for everyone, though everyone should try one of the Cornelissen wines to understand the potential of both the region and natural winemaking in the extreme. Rosso del Contadino is the entry level wine here, a blend of red and white grapes from various vineyards. It’s subtly spicy, with that telltale volcanic aroma framing pure and lively cherry/red berry fruit all topped with feral, musky nuance. Not a wine for everyone but an amazing wine none the less.
Another old-vine Nerello, Passopiscare represents the elegance and brilliance Nerello Mascalese is capable of. Vines range from 70 to 100 years of age here and the wines are produced in a traditional style, though one that is much more refined than at either Calabretta of Cornelisson. There are fine grained tannins here supporting the lovely red fruit with fine acidity lending lift to the palate. It can seem almost lightweight at times but given air, or time in the bottle, the wine gains weight and length for it’s spicy, mineral driven finish.
While Nerello definitely has the lion’s share of the spotlight shining on Sicilian wines these days Nero d’Avola is also an important and noteworthy variety that is making a name for itself. One of the primary differences between the two is that Nero d’Avola is somewhat well known, albeit for producing great value wines. As such it faces a steeper challenge breaking through to becoming simply recognized for producing great wine. At their best, and this Gulfi is among the best, they are powerful wines, rich in luscious black cherry fruit. Gulfi specializes in single vineyard examples of Nero d’Avola, organically farmed and produced in an enlightened traditionalist style. Grown in fairly chalk soil, this is a Nero d’Avola with an austere edge, and flavors that are acid driven, gaining richness and complexity with age.
Everyone who meets Arianna Occhipinti can’t help but be amazed by what this young woman has achieved. A finer ambassador for Sicilian wine and natural farming would be challenged to find, based on her wines of course. While I am partial to her SP68 Bianco in particular, her Frappato could be seen as her finest wine. In my mind Frappato, with it’s easy character and lovely fruit, could be Sicily’s great vinous ambassador, so it’s no wonder that Arianna has such a knack for drawing out the grape’s delicate charm. Gorgeously aromatic with haunting notes of wild herb laid over the pure and sometimes subtly austere fruit of Frappato, this is just a joy to drink.
Arguably Italy’s greatest grape, Sangiovese makes its way to our shores in everything from simple, inexpensive table wines to some of the grandest bottlings Italy is capable of. Due to it’s long history we are totally accepting of this remarkable flexibility and in fact this is part of the grape’s appeal and charm. How many other varieties can produce wines that are perfectly suitable for a meatball hero on Tuesday night and then an elegant dinner on Friday? It’s that drinkability, that high acid, fresh fruit and subtle complexity that has won so many over to Sangiovese. Of course this makes it an exceptional candidate for gift giving, a built in consumer base and near universal recognition of it’s potential. At the same time though it also allows for the production of plenty of over-priced dreck gussied up and sold to unsuspecting consumers under the banner of Sangiovese. Here is one section of the market where buying blind is the proverbial mindfield, at any price, though you don’t have to spend much for world class Sangiovese.
If you want the poster child of affordable, great Chianti look no further. Monsanto has a fine track record for producing wines that, as is typical with Chianti Riserva, drink well on release yet age well for a decade or two. Monsanto’s Chianti Riserva almost demands some ageing, coming off as a bit ordinary when young, then finding its stride about 8 years after the vintage. 2010 is an exceptional year for Chianti, not as ripe as 2009 but with great focus and balance. This is a wine to buy by the case.
Year and year out Bucerchiale is one of my favorite wines. This is not from the Chianti Classico region but rather from Rufina where one finds wines that are usually rather austere and restrained. This is a wine that has benefited from the extra fleshiness and ripeness of the 2009 vintage, though there is also plenty of alcohol here as well. Leather, slightly rustic tannins, yet supple, long and bright with great purity of fruit. I’ve watched the price of Bucerchiale creep up over the years but I’m still looking forward to adding the 2010 to my cellar. This usually begins to show well about five years after the vintage and drinks well for at least another decade.
No it doesn’t say Chinati on the label but this classic blend of Sangiovese with dollops of Colorino and Canaiolo aged in large format wood could be labelled as Chianti, and would be one of the very best. The estate decided long ago to forgo the right to use the Chinati moniker in the pursuit of producing better quality wines. We’re talking about decades ago when the white grape Trebbiano was a required component in Chianti and Montevertine wasn’t having any of it. The results speak for the themselves. Some of the most ethereal, deep, and complex wines being produced in Tuscany today, the whole line-up from Montevertine is attractive but this Riserva is the sweet spot between quality and price.
While many, if not most so-called Super-Tuscans relies on some Cabernet I Sodi is built on Sangiovese with just a touch of Malvasia Nera added for perfume. It’s a wine that reflects its terroir, poor and difficult to farm, in the best of ways. This is a powerful wine, structured yet so well balanced and rich with soil and smoke nuances laid over a base of well judged oak spice. It’s a wine that always surprises on the upside in the cellar and has remained an attractive value. I love the marriage of the old, a classic blend of grapes, and the new, that touch of new oak here and the fact that the winemaking does not obscure the wine’s origins.
If you think of the region that is most closely associated with premium Sangiovese you have to think of Brunello. Whether or not this is absolutely true, the Brunello producers have done a terrific job of promoting themselves and their wines in the marketplace. Many of the wines are too modern for my tastes but some, like those from Conti Costanti for example, retain a slightly rustic edge, leathery, gamy nuance, and tart red fruits that are typical of Brunello. There is also a Riserva from Conti Costanti that sometimes is a better wine, but rarely is worthy the considerable uptick in price. As is the case with most of the great Brunellos, this wine require cellaring, until about the age of ten. Before then you’re likely to think the wine thin and uninteresting as it has a tendency to shut down in the bottle, but when it finally emerges as a mature wine you’ll be treated to a symphony of tobacco and spice, velvety richness and wild red fruits.
After weeks of writing about wines for the holidays I’ve realised that I haven’t even mentioned dessert wines. It might seem odd to finally do so here, while recommending the wines of Italy, but the truth of the matter is that Italy is packed with dessert wines from North to South. Some of the most famous grapes in Italy got their start as famous dessert wines, Sagrantino and the grapes used for Amarone, while many are made exclusively into dessert wines, Moscato Rosa and Zibibbo for example, and don’t even get me started on Vin Santo and Vino Santo! The bottom line is that Italy is a fantastic resource for amazing dessert wines, virtually all of which are not fortified, making them an easy and delicious way to cap of the perfect holiday meal.
Moscato Rosa is a rare specialty from the Alto-Adige. Red muscat, redolent of roses, red fruits and subtle baking spices is a wonderful dessert wine and seeing as it’s a rare find it also makes for a wonderful gift. Girlan is a great producer, also responsible for the greatest expression of Schiava from the Alto-Adige, the ancient vine bottling from the Gschlier vineyard which is seldom available at retail here in the States. The Pasithea Rosa is a passito style wine, modest in alcohol at about 12.5% but quite sweet, if well balanced with fine, juicy acidity.
Coming from Pantelleria, an Island off the coast of Sicily that is closer to Tunisia than Sicily, it seems quite obvious that Ben Rye should be a sweet wine. Produced from the local Muscat of Alexandria, known as Zibibbo, the grapes for Ben Rye, Arabic for “son of the wind” , are in fact air dried for about a month after harvest, after which they are slowly fermented, with new dried grapes added to the must periodically, until the wine achieves about 14.5% alcohol. It is then briefly aged in stainless steel before bottling, capturing it’s unique bend of peach, dried fruit, orange rind spice, and wind swept herbal perfumes.
Vin Santo is a totally misunderstood wine. There is plenty of inexpensive Vin Santo that is in fact best used for dipping biscotti in, but that hardly does justice to the genre. Felsina’s Vin Santo adheres to traditional guidelines, blending Trebbiano, Malvasia, and Sangiovese grapes that have been air dried on trellises, this Vin Santo undergoes a typical slow fermentation before the wine is aged in small 100 liter oak casks for seven years. The resulting wine is plenty sweet, with enough acid to balance the sweetness of course, and is full of honied pineapple, peach and dried citrus flavors layered with the subtle spice of its oak ageing. It’s a rare Vin Santo that really needs a few years in the cellar to reach perfect harmony but at the age of about 15 years it really starts singing. It is the perfect end to a holiday dinner, or a list of Holiday gift suggestions!
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