It’s that time of year again- the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting is back in the United States. The tasting, held in four cities: Miami, (February 3), New York City (February 5), Chicago (February 10) and San Francisco (February 12), is arguably the most important Italian wine tasting of the year in this country.
Gambero Rosso is considered the wine Bible of Italy and for several decades, they have published an annual guide to the year’s best Italian wines; the highest rating is tre bicchieri (three glasses). More than 20,000 wines are tasted for the guide each year, with just 400 or so being awarded the highest rating – that’s pretty tough judging.
Image from a previous year’s Tre Bicchieri tasting in Chicago (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
What I love about this tasting is the wide array of Tre Bicchieri winning wines that can be tasted. That means not only the iconic reds such as Barolo, Brunello and Amarone, but also lesser-known whites and numerous first-rate sparkling wines. For example the latter category this year includes several outstanding examples of Franciacorta from Lombardia, including wines from producers such as Ca’del Bosco, il Mosnel, Ferghettina and Bellavista. Of course, there are some marvelous bottles of Prosecco to be tasted (Ruggieri, Nino Franco) and don’t overlook the beautiful versions of Oltrepo Pavese (Mazzolino, Zonin) or the amazing sparkling wines of Ferrari from Trentino!
There are so many great whites that are showcased in this tasting, wines that rarely get the attention they deserve. This means wines ranging from Campania in the south (Falanghina from Terre Stregate and Fontanavecchia) to Gewurztraminer from Alto Adige (Cantina Tramin and Elena Walch) and also Vermentino from Liguria (Lunae Bosoni), to name just a few. These are striking wines, evidence of the greatness of Italian white wines in today’s market. Don’t miss them.
Here are the details on the final two Tre Bicchieri tastings on this tour:
Chicago – February 10 – Union Station (Grand Hall)
Media 2-3 / Trade 3-6
San Francisco – February 12 – Fort Mason Center
Media 2-3/ Trade 3-6
Wine journalism, as we know it, is a dying art. The reason is simple; most wine publications these days specialize in points – the ultimate sound bite – as a way to attract readers. They’re easy to understand and much quicker to peruse. The editors of these publications – in print and online – have clearly decided to limit traditional articles about wine regions and grape types, as they sense that readers prefer a quick fix.
That’s why it’s a true pleasure to read Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine by Kerin O’Keefe. It’s clear from the first chapter that O’Keefe knows her subject well and is passionate about these wines. While other authors have also contributed notable works on these iconic red wines of Piemonte, O’Keefe takes the extra steps necessary to inform the reader about the DNA of these wines, from their history to their soils to their styles, as crafted by dozens of the finest producers. The fact that she does so in such a well-written, well-documented and opinionated manner is all the more reason to acquire this book.
First things first – full disclosure. I have known Kerin O’Keefe for about ten years as I tend to see her at special events in Italy; we have tasted together not only in Alba for Barolo and Barbaresco anteprime, but also in Montalcino as well as Sicily. She has an excellent palate, is a first-rate writer and is professional in her discipline. For all the wine gurus out there who tend to gloss over too many wines, they could learn a lot from O’Keefe’s common sense approach to the great wines of Italy. (I’ll also note that O’Keefe and I also have very similar palates, as we tend to favor the more traditional, terroir-driven wines and not the splashy, overripe offerings made by some producers if only in hopes of gaining a big score for a wine publication.)
Last year, O’Keefe wrote an outstanding book titled Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines that was among the finest wine books I have ever read. She takes a similar approach in this new work, first giving us an examination of a history of these wines along with a detailed analysis of local terroir. To my way of thinking, this is the best part of this new book.
I mentioned that the author is a talented wine journalist and it is in this section that her talent shines, especially in the chapters “Noble Nebbiolo” and “The Barolo Wars and their Effects in Both Denominations.” In the former chapter, the author deals with several aspects of this grape that is the sole variety used to produce both Barolo and Barbaresco. How it was named, DNA analysis and several statistics on planting are detailed and there is an interesting fact about the Nebbiolo Rosé clone not being a clone at all, but rather a separate variety. I’ve never read that anywhere else; kudos to the author for doing her research and uncovering that piece of information.
Besides being remarkably well-informed about these wines, O’Keefe is opinionated, but in a professional manner (unlike certain famous wine critics). She was and remains opposed to too much oak (especially new) in these wines, believing that small barrels too often yield wines that are not representative. She writes of “mundane and ubiquitous sensations of toasted oak, vanilla and chocolate” in these wines. She also takes a jab at certain wine gurus who were only recently discovering Barolo and Barbaresco (especially with the warm 1990 growing season), writing that the flavors she mentioned above “put many influential critics in their comfort zone. Before this, these same celebrated palates either ignored Barolo and Barbaresco or slammed it.” Great insight here by the author!
I love her take on this subject, as she goes into great detail about the Modernist producers who made Barolo in a very different manner than the previous generations; she also notes that many producers, whom she labels Traditionalists, continued to produce wine in the tried and true manner of their parents. The various production methodology is an important theme of this book and it carries over into the descriptions of the producers in the second half of the book.
The latter half of this book consists of producer profiles in which the author gives us the necessary contact information (location, website, email – all very helpful) as well as her take on each vintner’s style – if they age in large casks or small, what are the specific vineyards they work with, etc. She organizes each chapter into communes, which is a very smart approach, as the Barolos from Serralunga and Monforte with their assertive tannins and muscular frame are much more tightly wound and need more time to settle down that their counterparts from La Morra, which are much more approachable wines upon release. Again, her insight into these wines is very impressive, almost encyclopedic.
There are tasting notes, including a vertical of eighteen examples of Gaja Barbaresco. Her section on this world-famous producer is quite illuminating, nicely communicating the tremendous influence Angelo Gaja has had on Barbaresco. O’Keefe’s work over the years earned her the right to be able to taste these wines with the producer – where else can you find such detailed notes about these famed wines?
This section of producer profiles is extremely well done, as the reader learns the names and styles of the finest vintners working today in Barolo and Barbaresco. One thing that is unavoidable about listing producers in a work such as this is that you can’t include everyone. In a private email about this book, O’Keefe admitted that she was given a page limit by her publisher, the University of California Press. This meant that she had no opportunity to feature every producer she wanted to. So while I would have loved to read about the Barolos of Giovanni Rosso and Luigi Baudana as well as Barbaresco from Serafino Rivella or Pasquale Pelissero (all traditional producers, incidentally), there are no descriptions or mention of these estates and their wines.
Well, you can’t have everything, but the author more than makes up for a few omissions by including text on numerous underrated producers that have not revived much attention elsewhere. This is especially true in the chapters about Barbaresco, where O’Keefe writes about the wines of Pier and Socré; I’ve not had the opportunity to taste the wines of these producers, so I was delighted to learn about them. Barolo and Barbaresco in general have never received as much attention as other renowned red wines of the world (such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons), so the very fact that the author has included several unheralded estates is another strong recommendation for the book.
A couple things to add: while there wasn’t enough room for every producer, there are a few that are missing from the book, namely Vietti (Barolo) and Marchesi di Gresy (Barbaresco). O’Keefe does mention their names at the end of their respective chapters (“other firms of note”). Yet even with this, there is no mention of the Barolos of Roberto Voerzio in La Morra. Perhaps the style of his wines is not what the author favors; regardless, it’s a strange omission.
Also, and this may be a personal thing, but after reading all the detailed tasting notes as well as information about how each producer makes their wines, I wanted a bit more. I don’t mean more in the sense of quantity – there is a wealth of information in this book and I can only imagine how many hours went into this book – but I mean more in the sense of a broad look at the subject. I would have loved to read a few quotes from the producers about what makes them tick. There is information such as this with a few important producers, but not as much as was possible (again, perhaps space limitation was a reason for this).
I think the reader would like to know how these producers view Barolo and Barbaresco in the larger world of wine – are the wines marketed well, are they priced fairly, how have the wines improved over the past thirty or forty years? Again, this is touched upon from time to time in the book, but not as much as could have been. The tasting notes are detailed as are the estate profiles, so clearly that is what O’Keefe wanted to write and has written. I have to review the book that’s been written and not what I want, of course. To that end, someone looking for an up-to-date analysis of what’s happening in Barolo and Barbaresco today will find a book that is as thorough and as informative – and as engaging – as anyone could want.
I would think that anyone who reads this book would want to taste many of these wines and perhaps make a visit to these marvelous wine districts. That is about as great a situation as could be possible for this subject. It’s one thing to write facts, but it’s another thing to make them come alive. Kerin O’Keefe has done just that and has written a memorable book.
Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine
Written by Kerin O’Keefe
Hardcover, 386 pages
University of California Press
Montalcino (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
The 2009 Brunello di Montalcinos were released a few months ago and while a new vintage of this iconic Tuscan red should be great news for wine lovers, the results in this vintage reveal a year that while offering some very good, even excellent wines was one that was frankly a bit of a disappointment.
2009 was a very warm year in Montalcino. One of the blessings of this zone is that they do not get as much rain as in most of the Chianti districts; this is a warmer and drier area. So ripening is more consistent, although there are big years – such as 2006 – and more subdued years, such as 2008. 2009 was a year in which the warn to hot conditions ripened grapes quite well, but perhaps too well, as overall the wines do not have the pronounced perfumes of recent vintages such as 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007 or 2008. Also, the wines have a little extra alcohol – 14.5% is routine for the 2009 Brunellos, but I tasted a few with 15% alcohol. I realize that alcohol is just a number to some people, but I find these higher percentages a bit alarming, as the wines just do not have the balance of the finest years, as with 2004 or 2006-2008. Even the best producers made wines that, while flavorful, lack the complexity and above all, the finesse of the best examples of Brunello. Yes, Brunello can be a “big” wine, but bigness does not often equate to roundness and elegance.
Le Chiuse Estate
Here are brief notes on several of the best examples of 2009 Brunello di Montalcino I have recently tasted. These are among the best, but none of these wines represent their estates at their absolute best. A few are disappointing, while others are excellent, so keep in mind that 2009 is not a great vintage in Montalcino (as was 2004, 2006 and perhaps 2010; these last wines will be released in 2015). As with any well-made Brunello, these wines will drink well for another 10-12 years; it’s just that for 2009, the wines are not at the highest level.
Le Chiuse – The very fact that this great estate is relatively unknown is a tremendous shame, as this acreage was once part of the famed Biondi-Santi holdings. Proprietors Simonetta Valiani and her husband Nicolo Magnelli have performed brilliantly over the past decade; in my opinion, Le Chiuse is not only one of the most consistent of all Brunello producers, but also one of the finest, period. The wines are made in a traditional style and reflect a great sense of place as well as displaying beautiful varietal purity.
The 2009 has beautiful aromas of marasca cherry, a hint of tar, thyme and dried red flowers. Medium-full with very good concentration, this is a lovely wine with impressive harmony, ideal ripeness and, as always, subdued oak. There is good acidity along with balanced tannins and impressive persistence. Although not as magnificently styled as their best offerings, this is nonetheless, a lovely wine that will be at its best in 10-12 years. Excellent (4 stars)
Maté “Campo Alto” - Husband and wife Ferenc and Candace Maté have been quietly producing some very fine examples of Brunello di Montalcino at their lovely estate near that of Gianfranco Soldera and Angelo Gaja for the past several years. This 2009 “Campo Alto” is a new bottling and for my thoughts, the best wine they have produced to date. Displaying rich aromas of morel cherry, tar, Damson plum and a hint of coffee, this is medium-full with a rich mid-palate. I am a bit concerned about the 15% alcohol (again, 2009 was quite warm), but the wine seems well balanced. it certainly is flavorful with very good varietal focus and the persistence is more pronounced in this wine as compared with previous efforts from this producer. Best in 12-15 years. Excellent (4 stars)
Sesta di Sopra – Another ultratraditional Brunello producer, this is a tiny estate, so these wines are limited to only a few large markets in America; they are, however, well worth the search. The 2009 has aromas of sage, wild cherry, tar and tree bark. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Good acidity, medium weight tannins, impressive persistence. Very good varietal character, but not as focused or as pure as the best releases from this producer. Best in 10-12 years. Very Good to Excellent (3 and 1/2 stars)
Poggio di Sotto – Beautiful youthful garnet; fragrant aromas of red cherry, wild strawberry, carnation and cedar. Medium-full, this has good acidity and persistence along with very fine typicity. Well balanced wine with subdued wood notes. This is not as refined or as complex as the best vintages such as 2004, 2006 and 2008, but it is an impressive wine. Best in 12-15 years. Very Good to Excellent (3 and 1/2 stars)
Terralsole – Aromas of cedar, dried cherry, dried brown herbs and a hint of green olive. Medium-full with very good concentration. Good richness in the mid-palate, good acidity, youthful tannins and nicely integrated wood notes. Not as ripe as some 2009s (which frankly, is a good thing), nor as rich as previous years with this wine. Well made with good harmony. Best in 10-12 years – perhaps longer. Very Good to Excellent (3 and 1/2 stars)
Il Poggione – Deep garnet; aromas of red cherry, red plum, clove and cedar. Medium-full with very good concentration. Nice ripeness, slightly high tone fruit, but not overripe. Elegant tannins, good acidity and overall, nicely balanced. 14.5% alcohol, but not overpowering like some other examples of Brunello this year. Not a great Il Poggione Brunello, but a well made wine from a less than accomplished vintage. Best in 10-12 years. Very Good to Excellent (3 and 1/2 stars)
Col d’Orcia – Beautiful garnet; dried cherry, cedar and thyme aromas. Traditionally made with elegant tannins; good acidity, very good typicity. Medium-full with very good concentration. The alcohol (14.5%) shows through in the nose and in the finish, so the charms of this wine are somewhat dissipated. Best in 7-10 years. Very Good (3 stars)
Gianni Brunelli – Good (2 stars)
Eredi Fuligni – Good (2 stars)
Talenti – Good (2 stars)
The Tre Bicchieri awards of Gambero Rosso have been announced for 2015 and as usual, there are many familiar names on the list along with some welcome new ones. It’s a well thought out list, one that honors Italy’s most famous wine types such as Barolo, Brunello and Amarone along with many excellent wines that normally don’t get the attention they deserve, be it a Muller Thurgau from Trentino or a Falanghina from Campania.
There are now as many as eight major wine guides in Italy and while all of them have their particular merits, Gambero Rosso is still considered the so-called Bible of these. There’s been a lot of discussion about the guide, especially with some internal changes a few years ago, but the tasting panel at the publication continues to do an excellent job. Change is inevitable and sometimes change angers certain people, but the goal of discovering the best Italian wines of the year is still that of Gambero Rosso and their results are always newsworthy and valuable.
Once again, the Enrico Serafino Alta Langa “Zero” is a Tre Bicchieri winner (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Piemonte is the region that leads this year’s results with a total of 79 Tre Bicchieri-winning wines; Toscana follows with 72 and then Veneto with 36, Alto Adige with 28, Friuli with 27, Lombardia with 23, and then Campania with 20. Every region has at least two wines on the list; as you might expect, Molise, the smallest Italian region, has the fewest winners (2).
Piemonte is a deserved number one on the list; of course Barolo and Barbaresco lead the list, but there are also some beautiful whites as well as one excellent sparkling wine. That is the 2008 Enrico Serafino Alta Langa “Sboccatura Tardiva” (late disgorged) Cantina Maestra “Brut Zero.” I’ve had this wine for the last several vintages and have always been impressed with its purity, balance, acidity and complexity; it’s a marvelous Brut, very dry with a long, satisfying finish; it’s also got a lot of finesse. It’s a great example of how good Alta Langa can be and while it’s a shame that there isn’t at least one more Alta Langa on this year’s list, it’s nice to see this wine awarded with the highest honors again (in last year’s guide, it was named the sparking wine of the year).
Mariacristina Oddero (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Of course, numerous examples of Barolo were on this year’s list; this was not unexpected, given the quality of Barolo from today’s finest producers, but this year the new releases were from the outstanding 2010 vintage. Such examples from 2010 as the Bartolo Mascarello, Michele Chiarlo “Cerequio” and the Aldo Conterno “Romirasco” are brilliant, world-class wines, one that exemplify the amazing quality in this territory.
It was also nice to see a few examples from the great 2008 vintage on the list. 2008 is a classic Piemontese vintage, one that resulted in wines of ideal structure; this was not a vintage for flashy wines, but instead wines that have impressive balance as well as offering their terroirs in great fashion; look for the best 2008 Barolos to drink well for 20-25 years, with a few able to cellar for as long as 35-40 years. Among three of the finest 2008 Barolos that received Tre Bicchieri in the 2015 guide are the Paolo Scavino Rocche dell’Annunziata “Riserva” from La Morra, the Ettore Germano Lazzarito “Riserva” from Serralunga and the Poderi e Cantine Oddero Bussia Vigna Mondoca Riserva. The Scavino has become a classic and the 2008 is an outstanding wine – a well deserved Tre Bicchieri winner. The Germano is a relatively new release for this producer and the wine displays the characteristic spice from this noted Serralunga vineyard – this is also a notable Barolo. The Oddero “Vigna Mondoca” has been on the top of my list of underrated Barolos for years; this has typical Monforte weight and tannins, yet it is not as forceful as many other Barolos from this commune. The 2008 is particularly elegant with the grip and weight to age well for 25 years or more.
I was thrilled to read that 11 examples of Verdicchio were awarded Tre Bicchieri this year. Eleven! I would have expected perhaps five or six, so it’s a positive sign that the tasting panel found so many exemplary example of this marvelous white wines from Marche this year. Famed estates such as Bucci, Garofoli and Umani Ronchi were once again awarded top honors, but it was also nice to see artisan producers such as Collestefano (Verdicchio di Matelica) and Andrea Felici also receive such recognition. The latter estate was honored for its 2011 Riserva, named “Il Cantico della Figura.” It’s an amazing Verdicchio with superb focus and stunning varietal character. It was one of the three or four finest Italian white wines I tasted this year!
Other estates that received Tre Bicchieri for their Verdicchio included a few that I am not familiar with, such as Tenuta di Tavignano and La Marca di San Michele (Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi) and Borgo Paglianetto (Verdicchio di Matelica), so I will have to get busy and try and acquire these wines. Bravo to the tasting panel at Gambero Rosso for recognizing the amazing quality of Verdicchio – no other white wine type in Italy received as many Tre Bicchieri awards this year!
I could go on about how many different wines were honored this year, but there isn’t enough room for all my thoughts. Let me say however, that it’s nice to see Gambero Rosso (as well as other Italian wine guides) honor the beautiful sparkling and white wines from across the country. Yes, Italy is known for its big reds and while they grab a lot of international attention, the sparkling and white wines from the country are just as notable in terms of qualiyt and distinctiveness. Sparkling wines that won top honors this year include several examples of Franciacorta (Bellavista “Cuvée Alma”, Ca’ del Bosco “Annamaria Clementi” Rosé, Ferghettina “Pas Dosé 33″ and Guido Berlucchi “Palazzo della Lana” Satén – a superb wine!). From Trentino, there were also several examples of Trento DOC, including Letrari “Riserva”, Dorigati “Methius Riserva” and to no one’s surprise, the Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore, always one of Italy’s finest sparkling wines, one that is world class!
I was particularly delighted to see that the 2013 La Vis Müller Thurgau “Vigna delle Forche” was awarded a Tre Bicchieri rating. Here is a wine that so defines what Italian viticulture is all about – a distinctive wine of excellent quality produced from a variety that works beautifully in a limited area. Think about
Müller Thurgau elsewhere in the world- it’s clearly a third rate grape in Germany (at least in terms of respect – there are some fine versions from Germany) and in New Zealand, they’re ripping out as much as possible to plant more Sauvignon Blanc. Yet in the Cembra Valley of Trentino, a few growers and producers have found this small zone to be an ideal spot for exemplary Müller Thurgau; my friend Fabio Piccoli, an Italian journalist, believes this small valley may be the finest place in the world to grow this variety.
2013 was an outstanding vintage, as it was cool, resulting in wines of striking aromatics, lively acidity and beautiful structure. This is not a big wine – enjoy this by its fifth birthday, but what a marvelous wine with dazzling aromatics of elderflowers, white peach and jasmine! I love this wine with Thai food and how wonderful that the panel at Gambero Rosso can give a wine such as this the same rating as a great Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino or Amarone! (For the record, another Müller-Thurgau, the 2012 “Feldmarschall” from Tiefenbrunner, an excellent Alto Adige producer, also received a Tre Bicchieri rating this year.)
I’ll comment a bit more on a few of the Tre Bicchieri wines in a future post.
Vineyards at Serralunga d’Alba in the heart of the Barolo zone with the snow-covered Alps in the background (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, penned an excellent column on October 17 about the 2010 Barolos. (read here). I almost don’t even have to use the word “excellent” for Asimov’s work, as he is a first-rate wine writer, not only a good journalist, but someone who can write about wine – famous or entry level- with equal focus; he writes intelligently and never talks down to the reader. We need more people like him.
In this article, he praises the 2010 Barolos; his panel of tasters sampled 20 wines, ranging from $43 retail up to $95 (the limit for this tasting was $100 retail). The tasting included such renowned Barolo producers such as Vietti, Renato Ratti, Giacomo Fenocchio and Elio Altare among others. Asimov and his team were generally pleased with the wines; he wrote that “2010 was an outstanding year for Barolo.” This statement is something I am in total agreement with; having sampled more than 125 this past May at a special tasting for journalists in the city of Alba in Piemonte, only a few miles from vineyards in the Barolo zone. You can read my post about these wines here.
Asimov and I agree on the quality of the 2010 Barolos. We also agree that the best examples will need time; this is true for any Barolo vintage, as Nebbiolo, the grape which is used exclusively in the production of this wine, has high levels of tannins. Barolo is just meant for enjoyment down the road in most instances; that may be five to seven years, it may be 10-20 years, the finest examples may even be at their best in 35-50 years. To me, the absolute best offerings of 2010 Barolo that I have sampled, such as Bartolo Mascarello, Vietti “Rocche di Castiglione, Umberto Fracassi and Francesco Rinaldi “Cannubi” will peak sometime between 30-35 years in my estimate (this is never an exact science, but after tasting several thousand Barolos for the past fifteen years in the production zone, I can start to make an honest prediction, based on experience).
So I agree with Asimov that the best of the 2010s need time. However, I disagree with him regarding one point. He writes that these wines “are not nearly ready for drinking.” He later writes in the same paragraph, “How will restaurants handle such a vintage?”, noting that most restaurants are not able to store Barolo for the years it will take for the wines to be approachable for service.
However, if one were putting together a wine list with Barolo and did not select a 2010 Barolo, because they believed the wines would not be approachable now, would be doing somewhat of a disservice. In the post I wrote back in June, I singled out some examples of 2010 Barolos that can be enjoyed relatively soon; these include Batasiolo and Giovanni Viberti “Il Buon Padre”; other 2010 Barolos that are enjoyable now include Fontanafredda “Serralunga d’Alba” and the Poderi Ruggeri Corsini “Corsini Bussia”.
It’s important to note that all of the wines mentioned in the above paragraph will be better with time; Barolo shows greater complexity a few years after release (which is generally four years after the vintage). Some examples of Barolo drink well at 7-10 years of age; some of these will peak in 20 years. But while the most famous (and often the most expensive) examples of Barolo do need at least a decade to soften their youthful tannic grip and round out, the wines listed above can be enjoyed tonight, as the tannins are quite round and beautifully balanced.
So if a wine director at a restaurant wants to include 2010 Barolos on his or her list, go right ahead! This is the beauty of 2010, which is a classic Piemontese vintage – you will have Barolos that will drink well in 30-40 years, while you have some very fine examples that while nowhere near their peak, can be enjoyed tonight. Add to that the fact that virtually every producer in the zone crafted a noteworthy Barolo from 2010 and you have the rarest of all vintages – one in which you can’t go wrong!
Tom Hyland is the author of Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines (published in 2013) and is currently writing a book titled The Wines and Foods of Piemonte, to be published in 2015.
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)
I’ve recently returned from a two week trip to Italy – my 63rd trip – finishing up in Piemonte. I’ll write about my time there soon, but for today’s post, I’d like to share some thoughts on the beginning of my trip, which was spent in the Sulcis area of Sardinia.
Sardinia is probably more famous for its beaches than its wines, but given the beauty of its seascape, that’s not a surprise. There are several marvelous wine types made on this island; proof of that is the fact that 13 Sardinian wines just received a Tre Bicchieri designation from Gambero Rosso, arguably the most important Italian publication on the country’s wines.
Carignano del Sulcis is a wine made primarily from the Carginano grape; Sulcis is an area in southwestern Sardinia. The grape is thought to have arrived on the island from settlers from Spain. It has found a great home here, as the grape thrives in the hot climes. It also works well here, as this area has very little rainfall; in fact when it rained on October 24 during my visit, I was told that this was the first day of rain in five months!
I visited five producers: Cantina Santadi, Agricola Punica, Cantina Mesa, Sardus Pater and Calasetta. Santadi, Sardus Pater and Calasetta are cooperative wineries, meaning they have member growers that supply grapes. Punica is a joint venture between Santadi and Tenuta San Guido, the famed Tuscan estate that produces Sassicaia, while Cantina Mesa is a privately held firm.
Cantina Mesa (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Carignano del Sulcis takes on an identity based on where the grapes are grown and the philosophy of the producer. There are some examples that are light to medium-bodied, while others are full-bodied, meant for peak drinking some seven to twelve years (or more) after the vintage. Some are aged only in steel or cement tanks, while some are aged in barriques, thus resembling a more international style of wine.
One of my favorite wines was the Cantina Mesa “Buio” (Buio is local dialect for “dark”). The 2013 is the current release, aged only in stainless steel, this has appealing cranberry and red plum flavors and modest tannins; in this way, the wine is not unlike a Dolcetto from Piemonte. This is an uncomplicated wine, but I mean that as a compliment, as it is straightforward and quite delicious! You could almost serve this chilled and to my way of thinking, this would be a great introduction to consumers who’ve never tried a Carignano del Sulcis. Vegetarians would love this wine at meals, while it would also be an ideal match with lighter poultry or simple pastas.
Another lighter-styled Carignano is the Grotta Rossa” bottling from Santadi, while their “Rocca Rubia” is a Carignano riserva, aged a bit longer before release. The latter is a richer wine with a bit more wood aging, but it is an elegant, delightful offering that is medium-bodied and never overpowering. The 2011 is meant for consumption now and over the next 5-7 years.
If you’re interested in a more powerful style of Carignano, Santadi offers a riserva known as “Terre Brune.” This is a true showcase wine for the territory and is aged in barrique and meant for consumption in 10-12 years. Enthused with ripe black cherry and black plum fruit flavors, this demands serious red meats or aged cheeses. The newly released 2010, incidentally, is one of the Tre Bicchieri winners for the 2015 Gambero Rosso guide.
Another signature example of Carignano del Sulcis is the “Barrua” bottling from Agricola Punica. Produced from 85% Carignano, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot, this is beautifully made, as the wood aging is perfectly integrated with the blackberry and bramble fruit (the wood aging is 50% new barriques and 50% second passage). Expect this to be at its peak in 12-15 years. (This is the 2011 that is the new release; you may be able to find the 2010, which is an outstanding wine and was awarded Tre Bicchieri last year.)
Alberello vines on the island of Sant’Antioco (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
It’s always a challenge to teach consumers about little-known Italian wines and to some degree, Carignano del Sulcis is one of those wines. So perhaps the best way to educate others is not to tell them that it tastes like other famous red wines of the world. That being the case, the examples of Carignano del Sulcis from the island of Sant’Antioco are glorious wines that taste like nothing else. This is an island that can be reached by automobile and there are two excellent cooperatives here – Sardus Pater and Calasetta – that produce wines from alberello vines. These are bush vines (also known as head-trained) that are only seen in a few areas of the world (Sicily has numerous alberello platntings as well). The reason for this system is easy to understand, as the climate is so hot (it was 95 and 96 degrees the first two days of my visit), that the fruit needs to be sheltered from as much sunshine as possible; thus these vines only reach heights of a few feet off the ground, with the bunches being only about a foot off the ground.
The vineyard in this photo is planted on pure sand; sand so fine, you think you were at the beach (yes, there’s that reference to beaches in Sardinia again). The vines in this photo are between 60 and 70 years of age, which limits production, but what quality they produce! The style of wines from these vineyards is quite different as well, as these are rustic wines, ones with a bit of a wild or sauvage character to them. It’s quite a change from the examples from the vineyards with today’s modern cordon spur system; That’s not to say that one wine style is better than another, it’s just to point out the differences. It’s clear that it is much more economical and productive for a producer in the Sulcis area to plant with modern training systems, so it’s unlikely there will be many new planting of alberello vineyards in Sardinia, but not to worry, as these vines last a long, long time.
Sardus Pater produces an excellent riserva offering from these vines; named “Is Arenas” (the name means “the sands”), the 2009 has very good acidity, rich maraschino cherry fruit and even a note of truffle. It’s a very classy wine – enjoy over the next 5-7 years. From Calasetta, the 2008 riserva “Aina” has beautiful structure, a touch more oak than the “Is Arenas” and will drink well for 5-7 years. Both of these wines are a tribute to times past, given their rustic edge, but make no mistake, these are wines of beautiful freshness and balance. They’re a pleasure to drink!
The past meets the present in Sulcis and these five producers are carrying Carignano del Sulcis to new heights. As these wines are relatively unknown, prices are reasonable, so grab a few bottles now – you will discover some distinctive wines that speak of their origins.
Note: I was invited by the Consorzio Carignano del Sulcis for this trip. My thanks to them for thinking of me and for their excellent job in organizing this event.
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)
A few thoughts today about some very tasty Italian wines I’ve enjoyed recently. Some of these are quite famous, a few not so famous, but they’re all extremely well made wines that offer a great deal of pleasure, both on their own and at the dinner table.
2012 Livio Felluga Sauvignon - I’m guessing that almost everyone who is an Italian wine lover has enjoyed a wine from the Livio Felluga estate at some point. Certainly the Pinot Grigio is one of the most famous examples in Italy and it’s also on my list as one of the most delicious. But the entire lineup is a brilliant array of vibrant whites and edgy reds that are evidence of the excellence of this estate, located in the Colli Orientali district of the Friuli region in far northeastern Italy.
Particularly memorable is the Sauvignon. This is the same Sauvignon Blanc grape that is grown throughout the world; however in Italy, it is known simply as Sauvignon. The examples from Friuli and Alto Adige, another cool climate northern Italian region, offer very good acidity as well as strong aromas and flavors; the 2012 offering from Livio Felluga displays attractive aromas of Bosc pear, freshly cut hay, spearmint and chervil. These aromas are textbook for this variety and it’s nice to find such complexity in the nose and on the palate. However, lest you think this is an intense wine, think again, as this is a harmonious wine with beautiful balance, excellent persistence, precise acidity and ideal varietal character. This is a delicious Sauvignon and while that term is often used for Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco or other lighter Italian whites, it’s not often applied to Sauvignon. But here it is and it’s very enjoyable on its own, although the subtle herbal characteristics of this wine deem it an appropriate partner for sautéed scallops or shrimp with lemon or ginger, while grouper or tilapia would also be ideal with this excellent white. Enjoy it tonight or over the next 3-5 years. (Suggested US retail of $26)
2013 Attems Pinot Grigio - I don’t drink much Pinot Grigio, as I find too many examples to be too simple for my tastes. This doesn’t mean they’re bad wines, it’s just that the wines are made as crowd pleasers, aimed at offending no one instead of trying to please with specific characteristics. One Pinot Grigio I did taste recently that offered a little more complexity- as well as richness on the palate – is the 2013 Attems Pinot Grigio. This wine is also from Friuli and it’s from the splendid 2013 vintage, one that was cool and ideal for whites with expressive aromatics and wines with admirable structure, given their beautiful acidity levels. This has aromas of yellow apples and lilacs, is medium-bodied and is quite dry. This is a must with food – pair it with risotto with seafood or chicken with vegetables. (SPR -$19)
2013 Cantina di Soave “Rocca Sveva” Soave Classico – I don’t have as much space as I’d like to discuss my love of Soave, a wine that’s remarkably misunderstood in this country. It’s too often thought of as a summer white, a term I dislike, as it equates to saying the wine is a simple quaffer with little to offer. Yes, there are some examples of Soave that are a bit one-dimensional, but price will often give you a clue to the identity of those wines.
The Soave district in the Veneto region – about a 30-minute drive from the lovely town of Verona – is actually home to at least three extinct volcanoes, so yes, the soils in much of this district are volcanic, which means the best examples of Soave Classico have a distinct minerality to them as well as excellent complexity. This isn’t to say that these are weighty, “ultra serious” wines, as they are very appealing in their youth; it’s just that the best examples of Soave are multi-dimensional wines that can age for anywhere from five to fifteen to even twenty years in a few instances.
All of this is a preface to let you know how much I enjoyed the 2013 Rocca Sveva Soave Classico from Cantina di Soave. This is a large cooperative, located just behind the famous castello in the town of Soave. You can bring in demi-johns and fill them up with the basic Soave for a very inexpensive price or you can enjoy their finest selection of Soave under the Rocca Sveva label. This 2013 is a beautiful wine with enticing aromas of honeydew melon, honey and magnolia – just textbook. Medium-full with a rich mid-palate and a lengthy finish, this is especially nice this year, as it’s from the excellent 2013 vintage, which as mentioned above, was outstanding for white wines. In fact, this is the finest version of this wine I have tasted! This is so delicious on its own, but even better with vegetable risotto, sole or roast chicken. (SRP $15 – a great value. I can’t say I’ve had even one or two other $15 whites that are this good!)
By the way, the three white wines I mentioned above are fermented and aged in stainless steel – no oak on these! I prefer this approach more often than not (although there are numerous oak-aged whites I think are first-rate). It all depends on the wine, but my point here is that there are so many brilliant whites wines that never see oak.
Mionetto Prosecco “Valdobbiadene Superiore” DOCG - Finally, a note on a very charming sparkling wine. Everyone knows about Prosecco, especially given its proliferation on the shelves of not only wine stores, but also supermarkets. It seems as there are dozens of $12 Proseccos everywhere and while these are pleasant, if undistinguished wines, spend a few dollars more – as little as $15 – and you can find a Prosecco that will interest you and your friends. In other words, these are Proseccos you wouldn’t dream of mixing with peach juice!
For just under $20 you can find an excellent Prosecco that’s one of the most elegant and flavorful I’ve tasted in a while. That’s the Mionetto Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG, labeled as Extra Dry. In order to identify the finest examples of Prosecco, the regulations were changed a few years ago to let consumers know that the true home of Prosecco are the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene; this is important to know as the term Prosecco by itself has become somewhat generic as inexpensive sparkling wines from Friuli can be called Prosecco. Pleasant wines, perhaps, but not wines with much complexity.
Mionetto has been one of the leading producers of true Prosecco for some time now and their products are quite good and very representative of the heart of the real Prosecco zone. They’ve recently introduced their line of luxury cuvées of specialty Prosecco. This DOCG is well made with appealing lemon peel, chamomile and peony aromas, an off-dry finish (though dry enough for food) and an elegant finish. This is very refreshing and enjoyable on its own- I’ve enjoyed it with take-out Chinese food as well as seafood salad and I’m sure it would also be fine with lighter white meats. I can’t imagine a fan of Prosecco not loving this and wanting to find a few bottles for themselves.