What sets apart some of the most exhilarating Italian wines today? New benchmarks for complexity and longevity have one thing in common: volcanic soils.
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.
Alcuni dei vini Italiani più interessanti e intriganti hanno una cosa in comune: le origini vulcaniche dei loro terreni. Mentre i vini dell’Etna vengono subito in mente, un numero sorprendente di grandi vini, dal Veneto alla Sicilia, provengono da terroir vulcanici.
E mentre la mineralità è uno dei soggetti più dibattuti nel mondo del vino, i terreni vulcanici d’Italia conferiscono innegabili sensazioni minerali che includono pietra focaia, grafite, ardesia e sentori salmastri, conferendo profondità e complessità ai vini che ne derivano.
Inoltre, molte di queste aree viticole hanno viti estremamente vecchie, alcune più di 100 anni in parti della Campania e della Sicilia, in molti casi a “piede franco”, in quanto i terreni vulcanici rendono le viti meno suscettibili agli attacchi delle fillossera. E quasi tutte le denominazioni “vulcaniche” si basano su varietà autoctone che hanno avuto secoli per adattarsi alle loro condizioni di crescita.
L’altitudine del vigneto, la tipologia dei vitigni e le pratiche di cantina giocano tutti un ruolo cruciale nel prodotto finale, ma i terreni vulcanici conferiscono struttura, longevità e un ulteriore livello di qualità ai vini. Ecco una selezione di alcuni di questi vini complessi e affascinanti.
L’articolo completo in inglese sarà pubblicato sul numero di Febbraio 2018, ma è già disponibile online qui: The Volcanic Wines of Italy
About 30 miles south of Siena and stretching to Monte Amiata, the spectacular, unspoiled countryside of Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia,
a UNESCO World Heritage Site, looks like it’s been lifted out of a Renaissance painting. Dotted with farms, cypress trees, olive groves and vineyards, the gently rolling hills and fields offer the quintessential Italian landscape.
The area is home to Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most lauded wines, as well as the Orcia Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. On top of fantastic wines and scenery, the picturesque towns of Castiglione d’Orcia, Montalcino, Pienza, Radicofani and San Quirico d’Orcia boast artistic and cultural gems, making this destination a wine lover’s paradise.
On November 18th, I traveled in a virtual time machine: a vertical tasting of 8 Nebbiolo-based wines from Alto Piemonte from 1842 to 1970.
The tasting, called Assaggio a nordovest (a tasting of northwest) – was organized by the Associazione Vignaioli Colline Biellesi and took place at the stunning Villa Era on the outskirts of Biella in northern Piedmont. I was also honored to participate in the tasting by providing historical background on the area’s long winemaking tradition for the other attendees.
Besides the sheer wonder of trying such old wines, the tasting offered a potent reminder that wines – especially fine wines destined to age and develop for years if not decades – are undeniably alive. It also offered a rare glimpse into how Piedmont’s winemaking has evolved over the last 175 years.
Most importantly, the tasting demonstrated the greatness of Nebbiolo from this unique growing area. The wines all hailed from the Biella hills, where ancient, yellow marine sands, and the vicinity to Alpine foothills – where marked day and night temperature swings prolong the growing season – yield intense, fragrant and mineral-driven Nebbiolos boasting vibrant acidity and firm, refined tannins.
Looking for a dry, crisp and savory wine that pairs with just about any dish on the planet or makes an excellent aperitif? Then look for Lambrusco. Yes, Lambrusco. Once known as the cheap and cheerful, fizzy plonk served with ice cubes, today’s top Lambruscos are a far cry from the industrially made, cloyingly sweet versions that flooded into the US in the 1980s.
Hailing from the Emilia-Romagna region, Lambrusco is made from the eponymous red grape. Or to be exact, from the extended family of varieties grouped together under the Lambrusco category, although only a handful of the individual vines yield quality wines.
Formerly loved and then scorned for its candied sweetness, these days a number of producers make distinct, slightly sparkling Lambruscos that should be on every wine lover’s radar. But buyer beware: styles vary tremendously and include lightweight, sweet and semi-sweet wines, but the best Lambruscos are dry, crisp, polished and incredibly delicious. They are also extremely well priced. Here are the ones to look for.
If you’re a fan of Nebbiolo – the sole grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco – you’ll love the radiant, mineral-driven Nebbiolos and Nebbiolo-based offerings from Alto Piemonte.
Vibrant and loaded with finesse, the best are drop-dead gorgeous, possessing age-worthy structures and impeccable balance. And if warmer temperatures and drier summers are pushing alcohol levels to the extreme in other areas, vineyard altitudes, cooler temperatures and highly acidic soils in Alto Piemonte make it rare to find wines above 14% abv.
Located at the foothills of the northern Piedmont Alps, the most exciting wines come from five small growing areas: Lessona, Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca and Bramaterra that lend their names to the wines.
The wines are steeped in history: in the late 1800s, Alto Piemonte boasted almost 45,000 hectares (111,197 acres) of vineyards, most of them now long gone. Reds made with Nebbiolo (locally called Spanna) – often blended with other local grapes, like Vespolina and Uva Rara – were already imported to the US in the latter half of the 19th century, decades before anyone had heard of Barolo or Barbaresco.
Then, in the early 1900s, after outbreaks of devastating vine diseases and a catastrophic hailstorm in 1905 destroyed entire vineyards, growers abandoned agriculture en masse to work in the booming textile mills in the nearby city of Biella.
Thanks to a few brave producers, Alto Piemonte is now undergoing a full-blown Renaissance.
After years of challenges Vino Nobile is finally regaining its lofty reputation.
If you haven’t tried Vino Nobile di Montepulciano lately, you’re missing out on the return of an Italian classic. While it’s still a work in progress, the last few vintages have revealed a steady rise throughout the denomination of more polished, terroir-driven wines that boast aging potential and pedigree. And the best part? With few exceptions, Vino Nobile still costs way less than most other Tuscan wines at this quality level.
As the latest releases prove, Vino Nobile estates are finding their groove. Many producers have cut back on or abandoned Cabernet and Merlot and are returning to native grapes Canaiolo, Colorino and Mammolo to blend in with Sangiovese. Still others are using exclusively Sangiovese, known locally as Prugnolo Gentile. Better Sangiovese clones and more sustainable viticulture have had a big impact on quality while producers who have stepped back from less invasive cellar techniques are generating wines with more character and elegance.
If you love wines with elegance, fragrance and longevity, then you’ll love the just-released 2012 Brunellos. And even though I’m one of the biggest critics of the Consorzio’s Brunello vintage classifications (I find most vintages have been overrated), when it comes to 2012’s five-star rating, I completely I agree.
Defying the intense heat of the growing season, many 2012s have the vibrancy usually found in cooler vintages. They boast juicy red berry fruit, noble tannins and impeccable balance that will allow them to age well for years. Out of the 140 Brunello 2012s I tasted so far, I rated 88 wines 90 points or more, with 20 of these getting 94 points or higher. I was pleasantly surprised to see a return to finesse, enticing aromas and generally lower alcohol levels when compared to other recent releases.
The 2012s even have more consistent quality across the denomination than the highly acclaimed 2010s. The latter were a mixed bag divided between majestic wines boasting structure and finesse, and subpar wines marred by low acidity, cooked fruit and alcohol of 15% abv or more.
Quality is more uniform in 2012, but in terms of weather, 2012 was an undeniably difficult year. Unstable conditions included a cold, wet winter and an extremely hot, dry summer marked by late rains. But the extended heat wave was gentler on the grapes than the turbulent temperature changes of other past vintages.
Sunny Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, sits just off the tip of the boot-shaped peninsula of Italy. Dotted with ancient Greek temples and Norman cathedrals built by former invaders, the island has a rich history and multifaceted cultural legacy.
It also boasts miles of pristine beaches, breathtaking scenery and the highest active volcano in Europe, Mount Etna.
On top of those wonders, Sicily makes fantastic wines from native and international grapes. It produces everything from full-bodied reds to vibrant, mineral-driven whites. Pair them with the fantastic local cuisine, and you understand why this is a wine-lover’s paradise.
Terroir isn’t just about wine. Chefs in Italy are looking local for their ingredients, from Caffè Cibrèo in Florence to Osteria Disguido in Piedmont.
“Terroir-driven wine” has become synonymous with a high-quality product loaded with the personality of the place (or soil) in which it’s made/grown. But in Italy, terroir is also a key concept behind much of the country’s best cuisine.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, winemakers focused efforts on new techniques and cellar technology to improve their wines. Since then, producers have turned their focus to the vineyards. How and where grapes are grown are now seen as the most important factors in quality winemaking.
The same emphasis on terroir can be said for today’s best Italian cuisine. It starts with select ingredients from distinct areas of the country.