If rocky cliffs, soaring heights, snow-capped mountains and gusts of wind don’t immediately come to mind when conjuring up images of Italian vineyards, think again.
Some of the country’s most exciting wines hail from these extreme conditions. And while brave winemakers have utilized high-altitude vineyards for centuries, climate change has generated welcome benefits in these mountainous growing zones.
After the wild success of the 2010 vintage in Barolo and Barbaresco, Bolgheri and Chianti Classico, all eyes are on Montalcino. Although the Brunello 2010s will officially debut at the annual press tastings in late February – along with the 2009 Riservas, I was fortunate to preview almost 200 of the new release in early January at the Brunello Consorzio’s headquarters in Montalcino.
While quality wine is the new normal across Sicily, the most exciting areas of the island right now are located in the east, namely Mount Etna, Vittoria, Noto, and Faro. Boasting ideal growing conditions where native grapes excel, these four growing zones produce some of the finest wines on the island, and the best are among the most compelling bottlings coming out of Italy.
Located in northwest Italy and bordering Switzerland and France, Piedmont is Italy’s second-largest region, and the most mountainous. The majestic, snow-capped Alps make a stunning backdrop to the rolling, vine-covered hills. And these aren’t just any vineyards.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014, vineyards in the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato areas are amongst the most celebrated in Italy. They’re home to famed reds made from Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto, as well as Moscato d’Asti, a lightly frothy dessert wine. Piedmont, which means “foot of the mountain,” is also a culinary paradise, famed for its rare white truffles. Throw in outstanding lodgings, and you have a wine lover’s dream destination.
Delicious, affordable and ideal for the holidays, here’s your guide to Soave, one of Italy’s greatest whites.
Today, the region’s top producers have gone back to the old ways: they only use the two original grapes, and are focused on quality, not quantity—the same tenets that helped seduce drinkers some 40 years ago.
The best bottles hail from Soave Classico, the original hillside vinyards. Here, the volcanic soil, high altitude and old vines all conspire to create rich, deep wines with floral aromas, creamy white-fruit flavors and mineral notes.
The best part: These top-shelf wines are a downright steal, at least for now.
Italy is a land of contradictions, and as Italians love to declare, this is part of the country’s fascino, or charm. The country’s new breed of white wines is a perfect example.
At first glance, you’d expect whites from the country’s deep south, known for its Mediterranean climate and constant sunshine, to be powerfully structured, with superripe fruit, high alcohol levels and low acidity. While this used to be true of many bottlings, today the whites from select denominations in Campania and Sicily boast the complexity and minerality often associated with cool climates.
How? Winemakers now focus on indigenous grapes, which have adapted to the region’s climate over hundreds or thousands of years. “Rather than make wines geared for international palates that taste like they could be made anywhere, we want to make wines that express Campania’s native grapes and our unique terroir by identifying the best vineyard sites, harvesting at the right moment and using less invasive cellar techniques,” says Antonio Capaldo, president of leading Campania firm Feudi di San Gregorio. Here’s a breakdown of Italy’s southern whites that should be on your table this summer.
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.
This hard-to-find Valpolicella estate is worth discovering, explains Paolo Tenti.
When wine lovers hear the name “Quintarelli,” they immediately think of Amarone. The association is understandable: Quintarelli’s famed bottlings are among Italy’s most sought-after wines, even if the family firm has never done any marketing or promotion. There’s not even a sign at the entrance to the estate. Yet the wines have attained cult status.
Le Marche is a microcosm of everything tourists love about Italy—breathtaking landscapes, medieval architecture and terrific wine and food—minus the crowds.
Sandwiched between Emilia Romagna and a sliver of Tuscany to the north, and Abruzzo and Lazio to the south, Le Marche, (pronounced lay MAR-kay) shares the Apennines with Umbria on its west and stretches east to the Adriatic Sea.
Often translated as “the Marches,” this Central Italian region has it all. Pristine beaches and rugged shorelines hug the sapphire-blue Adriatic. Rolling hills lie covered with vines and olive groves. There are well-preserved medieval towns and cultural centers, wonderful cuisine and great wines.
What you won’t find are the throngs of tourists that descend regularly on Tuscany, situated on the opposite coast, although crowds do show up at the main beaches in peak season.
My tasting of the 2009 vintage revealed that it was another challenging year in Montalcino, and the main problem was the weather. Scorching summer temperatures and a lack of rain dominated crucial phases of the growing season. As a result, most wines are prematurely evolved, and while this makes the best wines enjoyable now, many ’09s deliver sensations of cooked fruit, evident alcohol, low acidity and fleeting tannins. Others have more acidity, but dried-up fruit and aggressive, astringent tannins. And there are many styles in between, ranging from soft and sexy to lean and mean. The one trait that distinguishes almost all the 2009s is a lack of ageworthy structure—unusual for wines that are famous for racy acidity and bracing tannins that need years to tame.
Antonio Mastroberardino, the visionary behind the successful wines from southern Italy’s Campania region, died on January 28 from natural causes. He was 86 years old.
For more than 130 years, the Mastroberardino family has made fine wines from native grapes grown in the celebrated Irpinia hills near Avellino, and for more than a century they were the only ray of light in a region once dominated by bulk-wine production. But after World War II, when the phylloxera pest ravaged vineyards and war laid waste to the countryside, Antonio Mastroberardino and his brothers took over the family winery with the hopes of reviving it.
Paolo Tenti catches up with the Brunello di Montalcino producer who lost most of six vintages when his cellar was vandalized.
Gianfranco Soldera established his Case Basse estate in 1972, leaving behind a successful career as an insurance broker. He’d looked for years for a Barolo estate, but as owners of good vineyards were not willing to sell, he searched elsewhere and found the perfect estate in Montalcino. Although the land was abandoned, with no vineyards, he had a strong feeling it would be perfect and his intuition proved right.
Soldera’s Brunello di Montalcino, almost always designated as riserva after five or six years’ aging, is among the most sought-after and expensive wines in the denomination.
Featuring rolling hills blanketed with vineyards and medieval hill towns topped with castles, Tuscany looks as if it’s been lifted straight out of a Renaissance painting. Add to its natural beauty delicious food, fantastic wines and a new wave of luxury hotels, and you have yourself your next must-book vacation. The best time to visit is during Fall season, when crowds have dispersed and the local wineries—many among the most lauded in Italy—are harvesting their grapes. Here’s where to sip, sup and stay—and smell the sweet scent of fermenting juice—while on your Tuscan getaway.
No discussion of Barolo and Barbaresco would be complete without mention of Bruno Giacosa, one of Italy’s most esteemed producers. Paolo Tenti reports on “the genius of Neive.”
He’s the producer who inspired a generation of winemakers. A pioneer in introducing single-vineyard bottlings of Barolo and Barbaresco. And a man who’s not afraid to say no to a vintage if he thinks the grapes are not good enough.
Born into the family wine firm, Bruno Giacosa started his career at the tender age of 15 as a grape buyer, sourcing fruit for his father and grandfather, and then for many of Barolo’s large houses. In 1960, he started his own company and soon became famous for both his golden palate and his ability to recognize the best vineyards in the Langhe.
Thanks to his vast hands-on experience with growers – and his years spent seeking out the best grapes – he was among the first producers in the area to bottle single-vineyard wines. They included the now legendary Barolo Collina Rionda.
The stars of Italy’s Piedmont region are Barolo, Barbaresco and white truffles, but it’s possible to get an authentic taste of the region without taking out a second mortgage.
Every year, more tourists flock to Italy’s northwest in search of the latest Barolos and Barbarescos—two of the country’s most famous and expensive wines—and to enjoy the area’s upscale dining, especially in the fall when rare white truffles make an appearance.
Alba and the nearby Langhe hills are the undisputed epicenter of Piedmont’s fine wine and dining scene, boasting 12 Michelin-starred restaurants within a 10-mile radius.
And judging by the boom of recently opened luxury hotels, spas and golf resorts, the Langhe certainly seems to cater to an upscale clientele.
Fortunately, there’s another side to these hallowed hills. For visitors who don’t want to break the bank, the region also offers simple country hotels in the vineyards and informal restaurants that specialize in local cuisine.
Best of all for wine lovers, Piedmont’s famed Barolo and Barbaresco producers also make delicious, affordable wines that can be served with a variety of dishes and offer sheer drinkability—Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto.
These wines are growing in popularity, and with an increasing number of labels imported to the U.S., they offer a little taste of Piedmont here at home.
The technique already divides growers in Burgundy, and now producers in Barolo and Barbaresco are arguing over it, too.
While the debate over whether to de-stem or not has spread across the globe into New World pinot noir strongholds such as New Zealand, another celebrated Old World region is also experimenting with the technique. In Italy’s Barolo and Barbaresco denominations in the Langhe hills of Piedmont, producers are testing out whole-cluster fermentation.
Moscato’s rapid accession to the drink of choice for the hip hop crowd has propelled this delicate light sparkler into the spotlight. Despite the appearance of numerous me-too imitations, Kerin O’Keefe finds the original is still the best as she heads to the hills of Asti.
The classically crafted Barolos of Bartolo Mascarello are cult favorites of Barolophiles around the world.
Unlike many of today’s top Barolo producers – growers who started making their own wines in the late 1970’s and 1980’s – the Mascarello family have been making and bottling their own wines for generations.
Maria Teresa Mascarello, who runs the firm today, learned to make wine from her father Bartolo, an iconic producer who died in 2005. Bartolo joined the firm in 1945 and learned winemaking from his father, Giulio, who in turn had been trained by his own father, Bartolomeo.
This year’s annual Nebbiolo Prima tastings in Alba showcased Barbaresco 2010, Barolo 2009, and the denominations’ Riservas – 2008 and 2007 respectively. A selection of Roero 2010 and Riserva 2009 were also displayed.
Clearly the media, representing the top publications from key international markets from around the world, were most interested in Barbaresco 2010, and – even more so – Barolo 2009.
The Barbarescos showed well overall, and 2010 – distinguished by a cool, wet summer followed by a warm, dry September that allowed nebbiolo a long ripening season – is living up to its reputation of being a classic vintage with the structure for laying down and mellowing.
The 2009 Barolos are a different story altogether. They represent a mixed bag of qualities and styles that depend not only the individual villages and vineyard areas, but also on the ability of the growers and winemakers to handle the difficult climatic conditions. Of all the recent vintages, 2009 is going to pose the most serious challenges for Barolo lovers – due to the irregular performance even among the usually most reliable estates.
A young trio who started making wine during a long summer break, spurred a viticultural renaissance in southeastern Sicily. Kerin O’Keefe reports.
Hanging around waiting for the university term to commence in 1980, friends Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Cirino Strano came up with an unusual project to fill their vacation: using a small vineyard and abandoned cellars owned by Cilia’s father on the island of Sicily, they decided to resurrect a local winemaking tradition.
At the time, they had no idea they were embarking on an adventure that would not only change their lives, but also the destiny of an entire denomination.
The Italian wine world lost an icon when Brunello legend Franco Biondi Santi, dubbed “The Gentleman of Brunello,” died over the weekend. He was 91 years old.
Franco—whose grandfather, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, invented Brunello in the late 1800s—learned the winemaking craft from his father, Tancredi, one of Italy’s most celebrated enologists. When Franco inherited the family’s Greppo estate in 1970, he remained true to his father’s traditions while also improving quality, starting with a lengthy collaboration with the University of Florence that allowed him to isolate the best Sangiovese clones on the estate.
Franco was an avid defender of traditional Brunello, and refused to rely on any winemaking techniques that could potentially change the quintessential characteristics of his wines.
Drunk by the Queen, hidden from view during WWII: the wines of Biondi Santi. (The head of the renowned estate, Franco Biondi Santi, died suddenly at the weekend. This interview by Kerin O’Keefe was one of his last.)
There was little sign of the celebrated Tuscan sun in late February as I made my way through the rain-swept narrow streets of Florence towards Palazzo Antinori, to meet Italian wine scion Piero Antinori.
Not only was I going to taste the latest vintages of Antinori’s famed Super Tuscans – Tignanello and Solaia – I was also going to ask him his views on the latest happenings in Chianti Classico.
What, you may wonder, do much-sought-after Tignanello and Solaia have to do with generic Chianti Classicos? Absolutely everything is the answer.
The latest releases from Montalcino’s cellars have had their first outing and they’re a mixed bag. The 2008 Brunellos and 2007 riservas shown at the annual Benvenuto Brunello tasting ranged from outstanding to unpleasant, and the two vintages could pose serious challenges for Brunello fans.
Gaia Gaja oversees the day-to-day running of her family’s prestigious 154-year old estate in Piedmont.
Are you adjusting your winemaking practices because of climate change?
Absolutely. But more than in the cellar, the real changes are being made in the vineyards. If in the 1970s and 1980s, vineyard management was geared towards achieving better ripening and eliminating humidity from the vineyards, we’re now doing just the opposite. So, we no longer top off the leaf canopy to help the sun ripen the grapes.
Twenty years ago, we planted grass between the rows to absorb water, and we cut it constantly to stimulate new growth. Now, we leave the grass but never cut it. We let it die, then press it down so that it covers the soil to keep it cool and moist. Since 2003, we’ve also been identifying those clones on our estate that perform best in dry, hot vintages. It’s a long process but we’re starting to see interesting results that should help us in the future.
Who or what inspired you to make wine?
Both my grandfather and my father. My grandfather, because he believed wholeheartedly in Barbaresco at a time when almost no one else did, and my father because of his great courage to make daring changes that revolutionized vineyard management and winemaking.
Has your winemaking style changed over time? If so, how?
The style itself has not really changed, but each vintage is approached differently in order to make the best wines possible. Changes are subtle but include adapting maceration times and how long the wines age in oak, for example. Also, my father used to make all the decisions on his own, but now we have a team; together we make all the strategic decisions after careful tastings.
The first thing to do was to pull up tobacco and wheat; after that it was years of studying Sangiovese. All that work has paid off, says Kerin O’Keefe, and Col d’Orcia continues to set ever higher standards in Montalcino.
Perhaps one of Francesco Marone Cinzano’s most significant contributions to Montalcino was choosing the right areas to plant Sangiovese.
Kerin O’Keefe delves into the background of the famed Italian wines Ornellaia and Masseto.
When Lodovico Antinori founded his estate in 1981 on land his mother had given him from her holdings in Bolgheri, he was confident that he was going to make quality Bordeaux-styled wines. This scion of the famed Tuscan winemaking family can hardly have realized, however, that he was on the path to creating two of Italy’s most celebrated labels: Ornellaia and Masseto.