Italian wine reviews (tasted through July 2018)

Check out my latest reviews: (175 wines): Barolo, Valle d’Aosta, Liguria and more

blind tasting Kerin O'Keefe

Top 30 of the Month

Addio Giuseppe Rinaldi

One of Barolo’s most outspoken and respected producers, Giuseppe “Beppe” Rinaldi passed away on Sunday, September 2nd, at the age of 70. And Barolo will never be the same.

A passionate defender of traditionally crafted Barolo, Beppe, nicknamed ‘Citrico’ for his scathing, acidic frankness and sense of humor, made soulful, fragrant Barolos boasting floral, earthy, red berry and mineral sensations that only Nebbiolo planted in the best sites and not forced in the cellar can produce (here you find my reviews of his Barolos 2009-2013) .

© Paolo Tenti | Beppe Rinaldi on one of his beloved Lambrettas
© Paolo Tenti | Beppe Rinaldi on one of his beloved Lambrettas

Beppe was the lone survivor of the Barolo threesome nicknamed the Last of the Mohicans. The group, which included the late Bartolo Mascarello and Teobaldo Cappellano, were stalwart defenders of terroir-driven, classic Barolos that united back when the Barolo Wars raged between the Traditionalists and the so-called Modernists: the latter used rotary fermenters and aged the wines in all new barriques, while the Traditionalists favored long, post-fermentation macerations and aging in large Slavonian oak.

Beppe, Bartolo and Teobaldo eventually won that war: these days most producers have stepped away from aggressive winemaking practices and have adopted less intrusive cellar techniques that exalt Nebbiolo’s floral, red berry and balsamic characteristics. But Beppe found himself moving on to the next battle, that of defending Barolo’s hallowed vineyard sites. He, along with Maria Teresa Mascarello and Enzo Brezza, bravely took on the establishment to defend Barolo’s historic vineyards, namely the much-contested Cannubi vineyard. As he told me in 2013, during an interview for my Barolo and Barbaresco book, “Today, Barolo makers have planted vineyards in areas our grandfathers would never have imagined planting Nebbiolo.”

Named after his grandfather Giuseppe, who founded the firm in 1890, Beppe, a trained veterinarian learned the art of winemaking from his father Battista, who graduated with honors from Alba’s Enological School. In their country villa on the outskirts of Barolo, in cramped, cavernous cellars dominated by Slavonian oak casks, you’ll find all of Beppe’s passions: a primitive chair made of a used barrique, with a hand written sign: “The Best Use of Barrique”, and in another area removed from the vinification and aging cellars, two entire rooms filled with old Lambretta scooters in various stages of restoration and crates full of parts.

Above all, Beppe was committed to turning out Nebbiolos that best expressed their vineyard sites and the vintage. To this end he shunned most modern cellar technologies, including selected yeasts. “I don’t need selected yeasts. Before selected yeasts were invented, wine fermented spontaneously. I simply let nature take its course,” he told me in 2008. He also never used any chemicals in his vineyards, which are among the most coveted sites in the denomination: Cannubi San Lorenzo, Brunate, Ravera and Le Coste.

But above and beyond his earthy, soulful Barolos, Beppe had a charisma that could move armies, and he marched to the beat of a different drummer in every sense. On several occasions, I would come to his house, and walking through the elegant living room, find one of his motorcycles parked in front of the elegant settees, because, as he told his wife Annalisa , “It was raining last night”.

Beppe was one of those rare souls that said what he thought and fought hard for what he believed in and didn’t give a damn if you agreed or not. And when you met him, you never looked at Barolo in the same light.

© Paolo Tenti | Barolo Giuseppe Rinaldi Brunate Le Coste 2009

Thankfully, his daughters, Marta, who graduated from the University of Turin in enology and Carlotta, who graduated from the same university in agronomy, have been working alongside their father for years.

I first found out that Beppe was ill back in early June, and while in Piedmont this past weekend, heard things weren’t looking too well. On Saturday we shared a bottle of Rinaldi’s 2009 Brunate – Le Coste with friends, and even in this difficult vintage for Barolo, Beppe pulled off what the Italians call ‘un capolavoro’.

Addio Beppe.

2013: Radiant, cool climate Brunellos for the cellar

If you want to experience the energy, elegance and age-worthy structure that first drew wine lovers and collectors to Brunello di Montalcino decades ago, then 2013 is your vintage.

Olmo vineyard at Gianni Brunelli winery
© Paolo Tenti | Olmo vineyard at Gianni Brunelli winery

A classic vintage, the best 2013s boast remarkable aging potential, the likes of which I haven’t seen in years. I tasted 181 of the just-released Brunellos, and rated 112 wines 90 points or higher, with 21 receiving 95 points or more, including one perfect score of 100. The top wines are stunning, with a radiance that has been missing in many of the muscular, more approachable and higher alcohol Brunellos that we’ve become accustomed to from recent vintages. The 2013s will require patience to reach their maximum potential.

Unlike the extremely warm, dry years that have become the norm in Montalcino since the mid-1990s, (with a few exceptions, like 2002, 2005 and 1998 for example) 2013 was a blast from the past: a cool year, with abundant rainfall in spring and the first part of the summer. Vineyard management to keep grapes free of disease proved critical. The vintage was pretty much decided in September and the first half of October: while cooler temperatures prevailed, grapes benefitted from ample sunshine and breezy conditions.

2013 proved to be an incredibly long, slow growing season. Growers who made it to September with healthy grapes – and thankfully many did – were able to enjoy the mild, sunny weather, and produced fragrant, medium-bodied wines loaded with finesse. The best are impeccably balanced, with vibrant acidity and firm but noble tannins. Overall, alcohol levels in the 2013s also ring of the past, with many wines declaring 13.5% and 14% abv on labels, a stark contrast to 14.5% and 15% that have become increasingly common every year since the start of the 2000s.

“2013 is a classic vintage in every sense, and produced wines with intensity, elegance, energy and firm but well-integrated tannins. Unlike other cooler vintages in recent memory, like 2005 and 2008 that had more rain, especially toward the end of the growing season, in 2013, sunny weather in September and the first part of October significantly pushed back the harvest. We started picking our Sangiovese for Brunello on October 18, about twenty days later than usual. Picking this late hasn’t happened since the 1980s,” says Lorenzo Magnelli, winemaker at his family’s Le Chiuse estate. Located just north of Montalcino, the small estate has an impressive pedigree: it used to supply grapes for Biondi Santi’s lauded Riservas before Lorenzo, his father and his mother, Simonetta Valiani – who inherited the property from her mother, daughter to the legendary Tancredi Biondi Santi – began making and bottling their own wines in the early 1990s. The firm’s radiant 2013 is breathtakingly gorgeous.

Francesco Buffi, who runs the boutique Baricci winery along with his brother Federico and his parents, is also enthusiastic about the 2013 vintage, saying, “It’s a textbook Brunello, the kind of vintage we greet with open arms here at Baricci.” Founded by Francesco’s grandfather Nello Baricci in 1955, the tiny estate is located on the Montosoli hill, one of the most famous vineyard sites in Montalcino. “When compared to warmer vintages, 2013 shows another side of Sangiovese that’s all about finesse, freshness and vibrancy, characteristics that we now see less and less of due to climate change.” He points out that the vintage was far from easy. “2013 was challenging and tested our nerves, especially when unsettled weather threatened toward the end of September. But those who didn’t panic and waited until the first week of October were rewarded,” explains Buffi.

While overall the vintage is superb, there were some underperformers. While some growers evidently harvested before the grapes were fully ripened and made lean wines showing raw fruit, others apparently left the grapes on the vine for too long, and produced wines with sensations of stewed fruit and evident alcohol. Although there were less than in previous years, I was more than a little surprised to see a number of wines with 15% abv, and in 2013s, the alcohol was more often evident when compared to other years.

Given the wildly varied growing zone and sharply different vineyard altitudes in Montalcino, it’s almost impossible to judge vintages for the entire denomination. The experience and winemaking styles of producers, and where their vineyards are located, will always play a major role in every vintage, more so in Montalcino than in more uniform growing areas.

2013 Brunello di Montalcino: 30 Top-Rated Wines by Kerin O’Keefe

Together with the 2013 Brunellos 2012 Riservas also came out, of which a good number were oustanding, particularly two of them to which I awarded a perfect 100 points score.

2012 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Top-Rated Wines: 10 Top-Rated Wines by Kerin O’Keefe

Plus a fabulous 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva:

Here you find all my 273 reviews  (181 Brunello di Montalcino 2013, 88 Riserva 2012 and 4 Riserva 2011)

Click here to read the article and to discover my top 10 2013 Brunellos and top 5 2012 Brunello Riservas (including 3 100 points among the two vintages): https://www.winemag.com/2018/02/14/2013-brunello-vintage-wines/

The Volcanic Wines of Italy

What sets apart some of the most exhilarating Italian wines today? New benchmarks for complexity and longevity have one thing in common: volcanic soils.
© Paolo Tenti | working Ciro Biondi’s vineyard on Mt. Etna

Some of the most exciting and intriguing wines coming out of Italy have one thing in common: the volcanic origins of their soils. While the wines of Mount Etna immediately pop to mind, a surprising number of great wines, from the Veneto down to Sicily, hail from volcanic terroirs.

And while minerality is one of the most debated subjects in the wine world, Italy’s volcanic soils impart undeniable mineral sensations that include flint, crushed rock and saline, lending depth and complexity to the resulting wines.

Additionally, many of these grape-growing areas have extremely old vines, some more than 100 years old in parts of Campania and Sicily. And nearly all of the “volcanic” denominations rely on native varietals that have had centuries to adapt to their growing conditions.

The vineyard altitude, grape varieties and cellar practices all play crucial roles in the final product, but volcanic soils lend structure, longevity and an extra layer of dimension to the final wines. Here’s where to find these complex beauties.

The full article will be published in the February 2018 issue, but it is already available online: The Volcanic Wines of Italy

Campania

From left to right: Feudi di San Gregorio 2016 Fiano di Avellino; Cantine di Marzo 2015 Franciscus (Greco di Tufo); Contrade di Taurasi–­Cantine Lonardo 2011 Vigne d’Alto (Taurasi); La Sibilla 2015 Falanghina (Campi Flegrei); Mastroberardino 2009 Naturalis Historia (Tau­rasi) / Photo by Con Poulos

Veneto

From left to right: Palazzone 2015 Campo del Guardiano (Orvieto Classico Superiore); Sergio Mottura 2016 Tragugnano (Orvieto); Marchesi Antinori 2016 Castello della Sala San Giovanni della Sala (Orvieto Classico) / Photo by Con Poulos

Etna

Italian wine reviews (tasted through December 2016)

Check out my latest reviews (367 wines): Bolgheri, Toscana IGT, Morellino di Scansano, Montecucco and more

Top 12 Wines of the Month

Tenuta San Guido 2013 Bolgheri Sassicaia 98 Points Cellar Selection

Castello dei Rampolla 2012 Vigna d’Alceo (Toscana) 95 Points Cellar Selection

Italian wine reviews (tasted through November 2016)

Check out my latest reviews (167 wines): Lessona, Boca, Gattinara, Bramaterra, Ghemme, Valtellina and more

Top 10 Wines of the Month

Proprietà Sperino 2011 Lessona, 96 Points, Cellar Selection

Arpepe 2007 Sassella Vigna Regina Riserva Valtellina Superiore, 96 Points, Cellar Selection

Colombera & Garella 2013 Lessona, 96 Points, Editors’ Choice

Gaja 2013 Barbaresco, 96 Points, Cellar Selection

Le Piane 2009 Boca, 95 Points, Editors’ Choice

Gaja 2013 Costa Russi Barbaresco, 95 Points, Cellar Selection

Nino Negri 2013 5 Stelle Sforzato di Valtellina, 95 Points, Cellar Selection

Germano Ettore 2012 Prapò Barolo, 94 Points

Germano Ettore 2010 Lazzarito Riserva Barolo, 94 Points, Cellar Selection

Anzivino 2010 Gattinara, 93 Points, Cellar Selection

Italy’s Amphora Wines: Back to the Future

Searching for the best way to make pure, terroir-driven wines, a few brave producers in Italy have traded in their temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks and wooden vats for clay amphorae. For thousands of years, terracotta containers – called by various names in Italian including anfore, orci and giare – were the only option available to early winemakers when they transformed grape juice into wine. Originating in the Caucasus in Georgia – the area credited as the birthplace of wine some 6,000 years ago – these large ceramic jars are still used in the region today.

© Paolo Tenti | Gravner cellar

Due to politics (it was part of the Soviet Union until 1991) and years of civil unrest, Georgia’s amphora wines remained virtually unknown to the rest of the world until the turn of the new century, when Italian winemaker Josko Gravner visited the area and brought some of clay vessels, known as qvevri back to Italy.

© Paolo Tenti | Mateja and Josko Gravner

Today a small but growing number of producers from Italy and around the world have adopted amphorae of varying sizes and origins. For most converts, amphorae are the natural progression of a holistic approach to winemaking that includes eschewing harsh chemicals in the vineyards and a non-interventionist approach in the cellars. Winemakers who have switched to amphorae say the vessels allow them to produce the purest expression of their grapes and vineyard areas.

From beguiling honeyed whites to earthy reds boasting radiant fruit purity, you’ll never forget a wine vinified in amphorae.

Read the article: Italy’s Amphora Wines: Back to the Future

Discover Italy’s Old Vine Wines

You’ve no doubt seen the term “old vines” on many wine labels (think Old Vine Zinfandel) but in Italy, the term takes on a whole meaning.

Readers often ask me: what’s your favorite wine? That’s a tough question, because I love so many, from full-bodied Barolos to the elegant, almost ethereal reds from Mt. Etna, from mineral-driven Soaves to complex, savory Verdicchios. But one thing many of my top picks have in common is vine age, with wines made from old vines leading the way.

Read the article: Discover Italy’s Old Vine Wines

My favorite wines of 2015

Italian wines have never been more exciting. Here are some of the best that I tried over the last 12 months.
One of the best aspects of my job is the number of fantastic, diverse wines that I get to try every year, and 2015 was no exception. Boasting more native grapes than any other country in the world as well as international varieties, grown in both lauded and emerging wine growing areas, Italian wines have never been more exciting. Here are some of the best that I tried over the last 12 months.

Read the article: My favorite wines of 2015

Italy’s Most Collectible Wines

Thanks to a string of outstanding vintages over the last two decades, Italy’s most celebrated wine regions are on a roll.

Even though years like 1964, 1971 and 1978 are legendary in Piedmont, and 1955, 1970 and 1975 evoke similar feelings in Tuscany, stellar vintages used to be few and far between. But toward the late 1990s, things began to change. Better vineyard management — better clones, lower yields and gentler/fewer chemical treatments — coupled with drier, warmer growing seasons throughout the peninsula have regularly produced wines that can age gracefully for decades.

Producers point out that until the mid-1990s, they used to have two, occasionally three, outstanding vintages every decade. The other years were mediocre, if not downright dismal. Now, it’s the opposite. Each of the last few decades have boasted seven or eight very good to outstanding vintages.

Here’s a summary of Italy’s most collectible wines, and some of the greatest vintages of the past two decades.

Read the article: Italy’s Most Collectible Wines