Italian wines have long been my nemesis.
It’s not just that there’s more than 1000 grape varieties grown in Italy. Or that the vast majority of these varieties are not seen anywhere outside of Italy, with their unfamiliar names and styles. It’s all of these things, along with the unwieldy naming convention used for the Italian DOC and DOCGs, which conform to one of three models: locale (where the appellations take their name from a place, like Barolo); grape + locale (where appellations combine the grape variety with a place name, as is seen in Brunello di Montalcino); or historical (where appellations retain their original Roman or Greek name, such as Chianti).
Not one to go down without a fight, I’ve invested considerable time in trying to get to know Italian wines. The knowledge still doesn’t come easily, but it is getting better. I took a trip to a few Wellington wine bars to study all things Italian. As I looked back on my notes, I was shocked to see that I had missed out on the wines from North West Italy all together. I suppose that’s just cause for further study.
North East Italy
Here you’ll find two of Italy’s best-known appellations: Soave DOC and Valpolicella DOC, the sparkling Glera grape found in Prosecco DOC and Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG and a handful of lesser-internationally-known appellations that rarely leave Italy.
Pra Soave Classico 2010, Veneto Italy
Made from the Garganega grape and known for producing wines with acidity and pronounced white floral notes when yields are controlled. The Pra Soave Classico is a clear, pale lemon colour with a low aromatic intensity of simple, youthful camomile and iris aromas. The wine is dry with a medium body highlighting a rich texture, fairly-balanced with a smooth acidity. There’s a more flavourful intensity on the palate with a nice minerality and a hint of seafood shells on the medium finish. Overall there’s an element of neutrality, but the pleasant, food-friendly palate helps lift the wine.
Tinazzi Valpolicella Ripasso 2009, Veneto Italy
Within the Valpolicella family of wines there is the basic Valpolicella, with its sappy, herbal notes and black fruit. Amarone della Valpolicella employs the passito tradition of drying grapes on mats prior to fermentation to concentrate their natural sugars and flavours with an unmistakable nose of chocolate, dark rum and leather, and high alcohol. The Tinazzi Valpolicella Ripasso uses the hybrid ripasso technique mixing the unpressed skins from the Amarone with basic Valpolicella to re-ferment the wine and create a deeper, more complex wine with added tannins and alcohol. Like all Valpolicella the principal grape is Corvina, which gives the herbal quality along with Rondinella and Molinara. This wine is a clear, deep garnet colour, it’s bone dry and full-bodied with low tannins, smooth acidity a fair balance and a very powerful flavour profile of red and black fruits, chocolate, pine needles and smooth, silky leather and tobacco. The high alcohol is nearly overwhelming on the nose and the palate, but leaving the wine to sit in the glass smooths it considerably. Once the wine softened the more complex nature of the wine extends beyond the alcohol to the more interesting aromas and flavours. I really rather liked it.
Col de Salici Prosecco NV, Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG, Veneto Italy
The sparkling wines of Veneto are made from the Glera grape, so named to protect the integrity of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG, as it was previously known as Prosecco, after the other sparkling region, Prosecco DOC. Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, the home of Col de Salici Prosecco, has the reputation for higher quality. Both delimited regions use the tank method to create the sparkling component of the wine, where the second fermentation takes place in a sealed tank, rather than in the bottle resulting in a significantly reduced production cost, but also, robbing the wine of any autolytic character. The Col de Salici is a clear, pale lemon hue with a moderate aromatic intensity of white, fleshy fruits like peach, nectarine and apple, persistent bubbles and a tart, crisp acidity. The wine comes off as dry, although most Prosecchi have slightly higher residual sugar, it’s full-bodied with a long-ish finish.
With an abundance of natural beauty, Central Italy is blessed with the finances to remain at the cutting edge of Italian winemaking. But even here the quality can vary greatly. Tuscany is particularly blessed and makes popular international wines made from the Sangiovese grape. It’s here that you’ll also find Super-Tuscans, which blends the local Sangiovese with international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. These wines sell under the ‘lesser’ Toscana IGT appellation but can sell for as much as or more than their more traditional appellations. Central Italy isn’t just Tuscany, here you’ll also find the high tannins, alcohol and acidity of the Montepulciano variety in Abbruzzo and Marche, as well as a spattering of inexpensive whites made from Malvasia, Trebbiano or Verdicchio.
San Lorenzo ‘di Gino’ Verdicchio 2012, Marche Italy
Marche is synonymous with Verdicchio, most notably Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC where the wines range dramatically from dilute and characterless to age-worthy with notes of fennel, candied fruit and a touch of minerality. The San Lorenzo is clear and pale gold, the colour is really quite spectacular. The wine is perfumed with a youthful, aromatic intensity of candied fruit, dried fruit and a nutty oakiness. Off-dry and smooth, full-bodied texture, a fresh acidity and the flavourful intensity of barley flower, fennel, potpourri and a very long, creamy finish. This is a rather interesting wine with something quite different that I really like.
Fattoria Castellina Chianti Montalbano 2011, Tuscany Italy
Chianti Montalbano DOCG is one of the seven Chianti satellite regions that exists alongside the Chianti DOCG and Chianti Classico DOCG. With all the Chianti appellations there is huge variation in quality and style as up to 20% of other varieties can be added to the blend with the primary grape, Sangiovese. The Fattoria Castellina is a clear, medium ruby colour with a powerful aromatic intensity showing some age with notes of oak, youthful sour cherry notes and a slight quality of green capsicum indicating grapes that weren’t quite ripe being used in the blend. Bone dry with smooth acidity and full-bodied, there’s high, drying tannins and a good balance. Equally powerful flavours of walnut dust and a hint of vanilla. This is a very big wine, intense – it’s almost overwhelming. A good classic example with a very long finish.
South of Rome the Italian peninsula turns towards a warmer, more Mediterranean climate. Grapes grow here with little annual variation. Much of the south is starting to show its enormous potential, apart from Puglia, which continues to underachieve producing low-quality, inexpensive wines. The grand red variety of the south is Aglianico found in both Campania and Basilicata. With its high acidity and tannin Aglianico is often compared with Barolo and both are known to produce full-bodied wines. Unlike Barolo, Aglianico is one of the few Italian red grapes that is overtly floral and is able to mix nicely with new oak flavours.
Azienda Monaci ‘Sine Die’ Aglianico del Vulture 2010, Basilicata Italy
Aglianico del Vulture DOC in Basilicata rivals Taurasi DOCG in Campania as the finest red in the south. In Aglianico del Vulture the vineyards can reach 900m on the volcanic slopes of Monte Vulture. The Azienda Monaci ‘Sine Die’ Aglianico is a clear, deep garnet colour, verging on brown with high tannins and noticeably high alcohol. There’s a moderate aromatic intensity with aged notes of dried fruit, sweet spice and leather paired with more primary blackberry and black cherry flavours. The wine is rich, sweet, complex and very enticing.
There are two versions of nearly all Italian wines, there are the oxidised wines, the neutrality of high yields that damaged the reputation of Italian wines. And there are the modern, higher-quality examples that have embraced anaerobic techniques and are bringing Italian wines back into favour. Those wines that suffer from overproduction are seldom seen outside of Italy, meaning the ones I’ve tasted here are, thankfully, from the more appealing ends of the spectrum.
All of these wines can be found at Vivo Wine Bar at 19 Edward St in Wellington.