Through my travels as well as my everyday work, I am able to taste a varied cross-section of Italian wines. But there’s nothing quite like attending the annual Tre Bicchieri tasting to get a feel for what’s going on in the world of Italian viticulture these days. Naturally, the tasting, organized by Gambero Rosso, features numerous examples of famous red wines, such as Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino and Amarone, but what’s most impressive about this tasting and these awards, is that wines such as Soave, Greco di Tufo, Franciacorta and Barbera Monferrato also get equal treatment. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see that Gambero Rosso honors many different types of Italian wines, be they expensive or not, no matter if they’re red, white or sparkling; this is a refreshing and professional attitude regarding coverage of Italian wines, unlike some other well known wine publications, the names of which I will not list at this time.
I’ll begin this article writing about the Red Wine of the Year, as per Gambero Rosso, the 2012 Pietradolce Etna Rosso “Vigna Barbagalli.” Etna Rosso has been a much-discussed category over the past five to ten years, as much for the difficulty of producing wines from the lava soils in this zone, as for the similarity many of these offerings have with Burgundy. The primary grape here is Nerello Mascalese; some examples are 100% while others contain small amounts of Nerello Cappuccio. The Pietradolce is Nerello Mascalese in purezza; the grapes are sourced from a pre-phylloxera vineyard situated 900 meters above sea level on the north side of Mount Etna (most of the finest examples of Etna Rosso are from the north side of the volcano).
The wine is outstanding with excellent weight on the palate, very good acidity and young, firm tannins. Yes, there is a some resemblance here to a cru Burgundy, but there’s also some distinct spiciness and smokiness in the wine that might also make you think of a Rhone red. What may surprise you about this wine, especially if you have not tasted many Etna Rossos, is how tightly wrapped this wine is; it needs at least a decade to display its best and it will most assuredly drink well for another five or more years after that. It is a beautifully made wine with superb varietal character as well as a strong sense of terroir. A worthy choice by Gambero Rosso as wine of the year!
As for other reds, there were dozens of dazzling selections, especially from Tuscany, most notably the 2010 Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino. 2010 was an outstanding vintage for Brunello, and Fuligni delivered a wine of superb texture, with perfect ripeness, impressive weight on the palate, subdued wood notes and very good acidity. This is one of my go-to producers of Brunello di Montalcino, as the wine is made in a traditional style that focues on the purity of Sangiovese, all the while displaying a richness and potential for long-term aging. The 2010 Fuligni is ultra-impressive and one of the two or three finest examples of Brunello di Montalcino I have tasted from the 2010 vintage.
Other notable Tuscan reds at this tasting included the 2012 Tenuta di Valgiano, a vibrant blend of Sangiovese, Syrah and Merlot that beautifully communicates the warmth of the Tuscan countryside, and the 2012 Guado al Melo Bolgheri Superiore “Atis”, a brilliant melange of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, that is an excellent representation of what a contemporary Bolgheri red is all about- what great harmony in this wine!
2012 was a marvelous vintage in Bolgheri, as evidenced by two other wines I sampled at this tasting. One, the Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore, is what I expect from this great producer- a deeply concentrated blend that has the stuffing and harmony to age for 12-15 or more years. True students of Italian wines know this estate and grab this wine every vintage, but it has not become as celebrated as a few other Bolgheri estates, which is a shame, as I believe it is one of the three finest wines produced in this zone today.
One of the other wines I put in this category is Ornellaia; here is a wine and an estate that is synonymous with the beauty and class of Bolgheri. I’ve enjoyed numerous vintages of Ornellaia over the years and I can tell you that the current 2012 release is as seamless a wine as this estate has ever produced. Incredible focus, harmony and typicity, here is a great Ornellaia, which is saying something! There will be some who will quibble about whether the 2012 will be the longest-lived example of Ornellaia; for my thinking, this is a bit trivial, as the overall balance and pleasure of this release makes this a stunning wine experience.
From Piemonte, my favorite red wine at the tasting was the 2012 Accornero Barbera Monferrato Superiore “Bricco Battista”. This is a rich, ripe, deeply concentrated, tightly wound Barbera that is somewhat modern, but it is not international in style, as it has excellent varietal character as well as a distinct sense of terroir. Too many examples of Barbera these days are over-oaked, but not so with this wine, as the blackberry, tar and floral notes come through in the aromas; the finish is quite long and pleasing with very good acidity.
On to a few whites now, and once again the Marisa Cuomo “Fiorduva” from the Amalfi Coast is a stunning wine, clearly one of Italy’s finest white wines. The current 2014 release, a blend of local indigenous varieties Fenile, Ginestra and Ripoli, has expressive perfumes of melon, spearmint and honeysuckle that simply charm you; you may not want to stop smelling the wine in order to taste it! The 2014 is not as intense as some recent vintages, which is a natural expression of that growing season, but instead of power, you are rewarded with finesse and an ultra delicious character. This is such a pretty wine, so you may not realize that this wine will display new flavors after another year in the bottle and should drink well for seven to ten years.
Pretty is also an excellent descriptor for the 2013 Pieropan Soave Classic “Calvarino”. Soave is slowly making a comeback in the United States, thanks to Pieropan and a few dozen other artisan estates that take this wine very seriously. The entry-level Soave Classico from Pieropan is a great introduction to Soave and is a notable value as well. But with the Calvarino, a blend of 70% Garganega and 30% Trebbiano di Soave (assembled in this manner by Pieropan, as this was the traditional blend in the area), we have a Soave of great breeding as well as impressive weight on the palate. Classic perfumes of honeydew melon, pear and lilacs offer a beautiful invitation to this wine; there is very good acidity and the finish seems to go on forever! This is one of the finest releases of Calvarino I have had, and I’ve tasted some extraordinary examples (such as 2004, 2008 and the 1989, this last, drinking beautifully when I tasted it at the winery in 2008). Look for this wine to drink well for 10-15 years minimum, perhaps as long as 20-25 years!
The 2014 Agostino Vicentini Soave “Il Casale” is another very impressive Soave; this sourced from the owner’s estate, situated outside the Classico zone. I don’t know of another Soave from outside the Classico area that regularly features this sort of floral perfumes as well as notes of melon and apple backed by an exquisite palate and a lengthy finish. This is simply delicious – I’ve had this wine for the past six or seven vintages and have always been delighted!
Two other impressive whites include the 2012 Luigi Boveri Filari di Timorasso and the 2014 Nicola Bergaglio Gavi “Minaia.” The former is a richly textured example of Timorasso, the most prominent white variety of the Colli Tortonesi district in southern Piemonte. As with most examples of Timorasso, this needs a bit of time; for now, there are attractive lime and tarragon notes, while the minerality will emerge with another year or two in the bottle. Fermented and matured entirely in stainless steel, this has excellent varietal focus, while the balance is impeccable; optimal drinking pleasure on this wine should be in another 5-7 years.
Meanwhile, the Bergaglio Gavi is simply stunning! This has such lovely fruit flavors, with notes of golden apple, melon and kiwi, while the finish seems to go on forever. There is a distinct sense of minerality, and the complexity of this wine is remarkable. Gavi never gets the attention it deserves; this is a shame as there are a handful of artisan producers that are elevating Gavi to a higher level. Nicola Bergaglio is one of the finest of these craftsmen; I’ve tasted seven and ten year-old examples of this wine that are in remarkable shape. Best yet, as this is Gavi, it’s not expensive. Not only is this one of the best Italian white wines of the vintage, this is also one of the best values in Italian wine – white or red!
Regarding sparkling, by now any lover of Franciacorta knows of Ca’ del Bosco and how proprietor Maurizio Zanella has made this into one of Italy’s greatest wine firms. It constantly amazes me how Zanella never rests on his laurels, as evidenced by the 2006 Vintage Collection Zéro Dosage Noir, which was named by Gambero Rosso as the sparkling wine of the year. This is 100% Pinot Noir, which is a bit unusual for Franciacorta, as Chardonnay is the dominant variety in this zone.
Many things make this wine extraordinary, including the fact that the wine was aged on its lees for seven years and eight months! That does wonders for the aromatic complexity of the wine, which offers rich dark cherry and berry notes along with a subtle yeastiness. What really drives this wine however, is the richness and weight on the palate – this is a powerhouse of a sparkling wine! Yet the acidity keeps everything in check, so despite the intensity of the wine, it never comes across as heavy or tiresome. Rather, this is a wine of exquisite balance, class, breeding and refinement. A great Franciacorta – bravo, Maurizio!
A final note on an historic wine I was finally able to taste at this event – Fioriano, both the white and red versions. This is an historic estate, located on the Appian Way on the outskirts of Rome, that produced a glorious, long-lived red wine and a charming white wine for years. Unfortunately when proprietor Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi passed away, the vineyards fell into disrepair. Fortunately, Ludovisi’s cousin Alessandrojacopo inherited the estate, and in 1999, he started to replant the vineyard; soon after he produced new vintages of white and red Fiorano.
The 2013 Fiorano Bianco is a blend of Grechetto and Viognier (a different assemblage than the original bianco) that was aged sur lies in chestnut barrels. It is a lovely white, with delightful aromas of honeysuckle and pineapple, and has marvelous complexity and finesse. In short, it is a sexy white wine! This is ideal now, but give this 3-5 years and you will have a classic!
The 2010 Fiorano Rosso is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that was aged in large Slavonian casks; medium-full with optimum ripeness, very good acidity and medium-weight, refined tannins, this is a Bordeaux blend of great subtlety, one with perfect harmony and excellent complexity. The operative word here is not power, but restraint. Tasting this wine now is really a tease, as it only hints at what is to come, some 12-15 years down the road. How nice to finally enjoy this wine and how wonderful that Alessandrojacopo has continued the magnificent work of his cousin at this celebrated Lazio estate!