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.
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.
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.
When should you drink those fine Italian reds sitting in your cellar?
So you just invested in a bottle of 2010 Barolo, one of the greatest vintages in the last decade for one the world’s most celebrated—and age worthy— reds.
Now what? Do you take it home and pop it open that same night, or do you carefully lay it down in your cellar (or Eurocave, as the case may be) and wait….years? But how long? And why is this aging fine wine business so complicated anyway?
The best wine writers are willing to offend if it means telling the truth. That’s easier said than done. When a writer publishes an article or a book that is likely to offend the producers that he or she covers, that can make future work more difficult. Doors close. Phone calls or emails are not returned.
Fortunately for us, Kerin O’Keefe is willing to offend if she has to. That’s not her mission. As the Italian Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, she has delineated her values. If producers don’t agree, she doesn’t allow that to alter her writing.
Her 2012 book Brunello di Montalcino staked out clear lines in the growing debate over a region’s sense of place. Her newest book, Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine, offers a similarly valuable perspective on a wine region’s evolution.
Forget about arguments for or against trendy topics like Natural Wines and the existence of terroir, because nothing causes more debate among lovers of fine wine than decanting. And most people have a love-hate relationship with those transparent glass containers.
When it comes to decanting great Italian wines, I happily adhere to the ancient adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, which generally means forgoing the decanter. Case in point: on my recent rip to Piedmont to taste the latest vintages of Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero at the annual press tastings, followed by visits to producers who opened up numerous vintages – including a 1971 Barolo Monfalletto at Cordero Montezemolo and a 1978 Barolo Bussia at Giacomo Fenocchio – most winemakers shied away from decanting. Instead, they opened the bottles at the beginning of the visit to let the wines breathe before pouring. Local restaurants rarely recommended decanting either, not even for a 1997 Gigi Rosso Barolo Arione, which the beverage director opened as soon as we ordered and left it to breathe for an hour while sipped on a young white with our starters. All of the wines showed beautifully.
Vineyard practices and climate change have yielded wines with high alcohol levels that used to be seen only in New World bottlings. Italian Editor Kerin O’Keefe asks, is this the new normal?
No one can deny that Italian wine has benefited from a string of great vintages over the last 15 years. Hot, dry summers that extend into September and shorten the growing cycle have, with few exceptions, like 2013 and 2014, replaced the cooler, wetter harvests that plagued much of the country until the late 1990s.
For decades, reaching ideal grape ripening was a major concern for growers, particularly in northern and central Italy. But this once all-consuming challenge has almost become passé.
While quality across Italy is generally higher than ever before, there’s a caveat: rising alcohol levels. And climate change isn’t the only culprit.
It’s generally assumed that Italian white wines are cheap, cheerful and made to be consumed during the first year after the harvest. And while this may be the case for most Italian whites, and for the majority of white wines made around the globe, Italy produces some stunning whites that break the drink-now stereotype by developing depth and complexity as they age.
Wine drinkers in the United States have long been pigeonholed as obsessed with dark, oaky, powerful wines, and this perceived preference has impacted international winemaking for more than two decades. But as more and more wine lovers there and elsewhere turn away from this heavy-handed style, many winemakers around the world, and particularly in Italy, are taking notice, as Kerin O’Keefe reports.
For years now, many wine writers and winemakers in the Old World, and even some in the New, have blamed the existence of excessively ripe, oaky, alcoholic wines squarely on American wine drinkers. Just look at the justifications given by the Italian wine press for Montalcino’s infamous 2008 grape-blending scandal, “Brunellogate.” In a rare show of unity, Italian wine blogs, websites, and even mainstream newspapers covering the scandal surmised that any alleged blending of Sangiovese with other grapes such as Merlot was done to soften the wine and make it easier for “inexperienced American palates.” Critics continue to point to the US market as the raison d’être for this more muscular and obvious style. In his column in the May 2012 issue of Decanter, Hugh Johnson delightfully describes these concentrated, tannic wines as “wrist sprainers” that are “offered to us in their thickly-muffled youth, coffeed up with oak, their dense flavors, sweetness, tannins, and alcohol clogging up our palates.” He adds, “I know it’s the style favored in the US.”
From the shadows of Italy’s famous consultant winemakers, who drove the country into the spotlight with cult bottlings from international grapes, a band of less starry names is finally emerging. Kerin O’Keefe profiles six oenologists working with native grapes who are reluctantly getting the attention their efforts deserve.