In Italy, wines are small and personal, big and commercial
By Ruby Gao
Alois Lageder, a winery in northern Italy, is practicing biodynamic agriculture in its vineyard. — Ruby Gao
HIGH-QUALITY wines can be found everywhere in an increasingly competitive global market, though at times those with personality seem to get lost among the big commercial successes.
Italy, one of the world’s largest makers of wine, produces everything from blockbuster successes to small, homespun wines that reflect the local terroir.
In China, where wine consumption is quickly increasing, Italy is fifth among importers, behind France, Australia, Chile and Spain, according to a recent report by Unione Italiana Vini.
Italy’s confusing appellation system, complicated labeling and commitment to local grape varieties, especially Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, leaves its wines cloaked somewhat in mystery.
It wasn’t until 1961 that Italy establishing its DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) system, modeled after the French AOC, specifying the geographical area, grape variety and alcohol content, and regulating the production method such as minimum aging.
Above it is DOCG (Controlled Designation of Origin Guaranteed), a more restrictive set of regulations where each bottle in the production area is tested by the government. Terms used for the appellation are confusing: Some are the names of producing towns such as Barolo DOC while others are grape variety together with the wine region, as in Barbera d’Asti DOCG. Some terms represented by Chianti follow the original Roman or Greek nomenclature.
In 1992, Italy established its much looser IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) classification equivalent to the French Vin de Pays (country wines), allowing grapes to be sourced from a larger area.
However, higher classification doesn’t mean higher price and quality. For example, Angelo Gaja, arguably the most powerful vintner in Italy, adds some Barbera into wines to give it more acidity, and in that process reclassifies some of his wines from DOCG Barolo and Barbaresco to DOC Langhe. Some of Italy’s most expensive wines represented by Super Tuscans are labeled IGT.
As the regulatory standards have changed relatively recently, Italian wines tend to vary considerably in quality, which can make worldwide marketing difficult. But it does help preserve the variety and personality in wine, which is an asset in a modern wine world colonized by popular varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Alois Lageder, a winery in northern Italy, is practicing biodynamic agriculture in its vineyard. It has established a closed system featuring an interaction between plant and animal. The proprietor, Lageder, experiments by playing the music of Bach in its cellar, believing that melody will complement aging.
Lungarotti, a winery in Umbria, central Italy, uses vine cuttings left by winter pruning to heat and cool water used for making wine.
Biondi-Santi in Tuscany still insists on using the most traditional and local characteristic aging method — large casks made from Slavonian oak, adding little flavor into wine when whites and reds aged in barrels with oaky flavor are probably the most popular style in the world.
Thanks to Italy’s diverse geography, the vineyards have various soils and climates, from alpine to Mediterranean, marine (clay over limestone) to volcanic.
I visited some of their most impressive wineries and observed that many hover between pushing for commercial success and striving to produce a wine with local charm, adhering to the vineyard’s natural characteristics.
The region, meaning “foot of the mountain,” lies in northwestern Italy and is the home to the country’s finest wines — Barolo and Barbaresco.
“It has the most DOC and DOCG appellations,” says Alessandro Torcoli, editor of Civilta del Bere.
Barolo DOCG is made from 100-percent Nebbiolo and is aged for at least three years, including 18 months in oak. It features a complex and structured taste and great aging potential.
Barbaresco DOCG, also made purely from Nebbiolo, is aged for at least two years, including one year in oak.
Jancis Robinson, an influential wine critic, says Nebbiolo is one of a few grapes “full of extract and high sugar levels, balanced by great acidity.”
Two wine areas, although adjacent to each other and planting the same grape variety, produce wines differently. A popular saying is that Barolo tastes more complex and masculine while Barbaresco is more feminine and fine.
Another red, Barbera d’Asti DOC, features high acidity and low tannin, has a typical note mixing sour cherry and savory spices. It’s also a regional highlight.
The west side of the region is dominated by red while the east side is known for whites, represented by Gavi DOC. It’s made from 100-percent Cortese, a local variety, featuring light freshness and note of fruit candy.
• Michele Chiarlo
The Asti-based winery founded in 1956 by current proprietor Michele Chiarlo is known for its complex, elegant and concentrated Barolo and Barbera wines. Chiarlo is known for an innovation where he took Barbera grapes through malolactic fermentation in the 1970s.
Their highlighted white wine is Moscato d’Asti Nivole DOCG, a sweet wine featuring a straw color with greenish hint, fruity aroma mixing peach and grapefruit and refreshing acidity. The winery established a wine-themed inn named Palas Cerequio in the heart of Barolo vineyards, where most of the rooms have breathtaking views of rolling vineyards.
During next year’s World Expo in Milan, the winery will light up La Court, one of its Barbera vineyards, on summer evenings, and organize a food and wine carnival to show the beauty of Piedmont, Chiarlo says.
• Pio Cesare
The winery founded in 1881 by Cesare Pio in the center of Alba, home to white truffle, is the only one left in town. It became world famous in 2008, when its Barolo 2004 appeared as the only Italian wine on Wine Spectator’s top 10 list.
Grapes are sourced from their own vineyards in Piedmont, especially Barolo and Barbaresco areas, with more than 65 hectares. They are made into wine in its ancient cellar, with its walls traced back to the Roman Empire (50 BC). Some antique winemaking tools such as a platform scale to weigh grapes are still there.
The winery combines modern techniques with Italian traditional viticulture through aging wine both in large casks and French oak barrels, which makes their wine more elegant and balanced.
Their flagship wine is Ornato Barolo DOCG made from a single vineyard and produced only in good vintages, tasting rich and dense, with concentrated fruitiness and a long shelf life.
Veneto in northeastern Italy is the nation’s largest wine-producing area, although it’s better known as the birthplace of Romeo and Juliet. A regional distinctive pastry named Juliet Kisses is probably the most romantic taste in Italy and also a marriage to regional sweet wine Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG.
The area distinguishes itself through use of historical viticulture, appassimento, to produce Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, one of Italy’s most intensely flavored wines.
Appassimento refers to harvesting grapes early to ensure certain acidity and drying them in a ventilated room, which helps the wine gain concentration in aroma and flavor.
Valpolicella DOC is also their signature red, which is made from the local grape variety Corvina, featuring notes of black fruit and herb. The area also produces Italy’s most famous exported white wine, Soave DOC, made from the local variety Garganega growing on volcanic hills, featuring fresh acidity and floral scent.
• Masi Agricola
Masi is generally considered as an interpreter of Venetian wines. The history of this old winery can be traced to the early 18th century, when the Boscaini family bought vineyards in Vaio dei Masi, a small valley in the heart of Valpolicella, where its name comes from.
The best of its wines, Amarone, is from a single vineyard and can be identified by traditional writing by hand on the wine labels. Based on the traditional appassimento technique, they practice ripasso technique, adding skins taken from the grapes used to make Amarone to the Valpolicella wines, which results a second fermentation to add complexity, tannin and alcohol strength.
This gives the Amarone a distinctive illusional sweetness, smelling sweet, with pronounced chocolate and raisin note while tasting dry.
Amarone’s good aging potential makes Masi’s old vintage a highlight, showing the wine’s two different stages. For its first ten to 13 years, the wine shows rich, ripe fruitiness on the palate but after that it turns refined, with less fruitiness but more perfumes of coffee, chocolate and spices.
The most impressive Amarone tasted in their winery is Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2007, from a single vineyard on the top of a mountain.
Tuscany, in central Italy, is the birthplace of the Renaissance. Its villages and towns seem to have escaped the passage of time and are always flooded with foreign travelers.
Being both historical and attractive to foreigners, Tuscany’s viticulture is filled with contradiction. On one hand, Tuscany produces the most traditional and regionally distinctive wines such as Chianti Classico DOCG and Brunello di Montalcina DOCG, both exclusively made from Sangiovese. Sangiovese wines are generally fruity, high in acidity and with low tannin.
On the other hand, Tuscany has probably the most ambitious winemakers producing Super Tuscans, betraying Italian tradition. Super Tuscan is an unofficial wine category not recognized by the Italian wine appellation system. It was born in the 1970s when Piero Antinori, one of the biggest wine companies in Italy, ignored the Chianti DOC regulation, blending Sangiovese with foreign grape variety Cabernet Sauvignon. The category became more famous when Sassicaia practiced a Bordeaux-blend, not using a local variety.
The winery below the hilltop village of Montalcino founded in the mid-18th century is the creator of Brunello wine, a kind of red made from 100 percent Sangiovese, with more longevity than Chianti.
Biondi-Santi today insists on using the generations-old way to make Brunello. Wines are fermented on ambient yeasts, regular wines in vats and the reserve wines in wood casks and aged in Slavonian oak.
They don’t need any seasoning from the oak. Aging potential doesn’t come from the oak but from the grapes, says Jacopo Biondi-Santi, the fifth-generation owner.
Their winemakers are one a few who collect climate data every day to monitor the sugar, extracts and acidity in grapes.
Their Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2007 Reserva is recommended. In 2007, Montalcino experienced a cold winter, warm and dry summer with rainfall at regular intervals, giving the wine an intense ruby red color, bouquets of vanilla and rose petal.
The wine region in central Italy, although not as famous as its neighbor Tuscany, has one of the most impressive wine-themed destinations.
Lungarotti, one of the biggest wine producers in Umbria, is known for its Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG, featuring a balance of acidity, tannin and body.
It opened one of Italy’s first wine museums, MUVIT, displaying the history of Italian viticulture and vinification back to 800 BC. Highlighted collections include ceramics of the Renaissance, Medieval and Baroque periods used for serving wine. A room in the museum displays the use of wine in medicine.
An art piece by Geiorgio da Gubbio named shining plate, inspired by a painting of Dionysus by Raphael, is winery CEO Chiara Lungarotti’s favorite work in the collection.
Beside the museum is the winery’s 5-star spa resort, where customers can enjoy a wine spa, including a grape seed oil massage and bathing in wine.