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Exploring the complexities of Italian wine.

ITALY DOESN’T have a wine country; it is a wine country. Look at a map: Italy is divided into 20 administrative regions – states or counties, you could say-from the Valle d’Aosta in the far northwest to Puglia (which extends down into the stiletto heel of the Italian boot) in the far southeast, to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Every one of these regions produces wine, and plenty of it.

The heart of the official Italian government system for the regulation of wine origin and production techniques-the Italian version of France’s appellation controlée- is the DOC, or Denomina-zione di Origine Controllata. It isn’t particularly easy for a wine-growing area to qualify for a DOC, but there are already well over 200 of them, representing about 500 different kinds of wine. (Colli Orien-tali del Friuli is a single DOC, for instance, but it encompasses 12 different varietal wines.) There are also, needless to say, individual producers making wine in each DOC zone – scores of them in some of the more popular and prolific regions.

If that sounds like it adds up to a rather substantial and confusing quantity of wines, consider this: DOC wines account for only 10 or 12 per cent of the total Italian production. You could learn every DOC by heart, and still hardly have scratched the surface. And non-DOC wines should not necessarily be sneezed at; some of Italy’s best vintages haven’t yet won DOC approval for various technical or administrative reasons, and some of them never will-one-of-a-kind wines from a single producer, for instance, like Guer-rieri-Rizzardi’s elegant Bianco S. Pietro or Boncompagni Ludovisi’s superb Fiorano.

Italian wine terminology complicates things further. For example, Montepul-ciano D’Abruzzo is a pleasant, sturdy, minor red wine from east-central Italy, made mostly from the Montepulciano grape; Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a complex, delicate, highly regarded red wine (related to Chianti) from the northwest-central part of the country, and isn’t made from Montepulciano grapes at all. There are even Italian wines with French names (Blanc de la Salle and Enfer d’Ar-vier from the Valle d’Aosta) and Italian wines with German names (permitted on many of the wines of Trentino/Alto Adige as alternatives to the Italian names -Kal-terersee for Lago di Caldaro, Bozner Leiten for Colli di Bolzano, etc.). There is even a wine named for an obscure Eastern American grape variety-Clinton.

As that most articulate of wine writers, Hugh Johnson, puts it, “By and large Italian wines have names, which may be that of the grape, or a place, or both, or pure fantasy, or pure poetry, or a historical reference, or a brand.” In other words, if you’re trying to figure out the logic of Italian wine nomenclature, good luck.

The point here is that Italian wine is a subject of almost overwhelming size and complexity. It’s simply too big and too varied for any one human being to ever get a grip on. Lord knows, though, that some of us try.

I spent early April in Italy this year doing just that. The focus of my trip was Vinitaly, one of the world’s largest wine fairs, held annually in the northeastern Italian city of Verona (a beautiful place, perhaps best known as the setting for Romeo and Juliet) – a week-long festival of winemaking and wine marketing, at which something like 1000 producers from all over the country showed their wares. I had attended Vinitaly once before, in 1978, and I hope to attend it again. There is simply no better opportunity to taste Italian wines of every sort in such profusion, and to meet the folks who make them – and to catch imperfect but enlightening glimpses of the spirit, calculation, and intuition that goes into making Italian wine.

I didn’t spend all my time at the fair, though. Verona is the center of one of Italy’s most famous and important winegrowing areas-the part of the Veneto region that produces Soave, Valpolicella, and Bardolino. It is also neatly situated within striking distance of the regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Trentino/ Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and, of course, the rest of the Veneto-all of them major wine centers.

I didn’t travel too far afield during my stay in Verona (why seek out scattered producers when so many of them had come to Vinitaly?), but I did visit some of the wineries and vineyards of Tren-tino/Alto Adige and the Veneto, and in Verona I tasted wines not only at the fair, but in some of the city’s excellent restaurants such as 12 Apostoli, Marconi, Ac-cademia, and Il Cenacolo, and two wonderful wine bars, Bottega dei Vini and Cantina dal Zovo.

What did I find out? Lots. Enough to prove to me yet again how pitifully little I (or almost anyone, for that matter) really know about Italian wine. But also enough to be able to pass on a few observations and suggestions:

– There’s more to Soave, Valpolicella, Bardolino, etc. than most people think. Bolla, Bertani, and such sell lots and lots of these Veronese wines in America, and most of what they sell is clean, mass-produced, rather boring stuff. But there are also Veronese wines with real character, complexity, and vinous interest. If you can find them, try: Guerrieri-Rizzardi Soave Classico 1980 (crisp, elegant); Le Ragose Valpolicella 1977 (rich and fat); Tedeschi Valpolicella Superiore 1978 (bright and fruity, nicely tannic), or the same winery’s Valpolicella Classico “Capi-tel delle Lucchine” 1980 (as lively and full of fruit as a young Beaujolais). Pieropan and Masi are two other names to watch for with these wines.

Or try Valpolicella’s big brother, Ama-rone-a thick, strong, raisiny, slightly bitter, complicated wine made from partially dried grapes. Some good ones: Tedeschi “Capitel Monte Olmi” 1973, Speri 1974, Le Ragose 1977, and Guerrieri-Rizzardi 1977 (a little more good-mannered than the others). Or, halfway between Valpolicella and Amarone: Masi Campofiorin 1977, Tedeschi “Capitel San Rocco delle Lucchine” 1977, Le Ragose Montericco 1975-Valpolicella-like wines to which Amarone grape skins have been added after fermentation, causing them to partially ferment again.

-The next big thing from Italy might well be Chardonnay. Chardonnay has been grown in Italy at least since the turn of the century, when Giulio Ferrari, founder of the thriving spumante (sparkling wine) firm that still bears his name, brought plantings from Champagne in France. But until very recently, most of the grapes have either been used exclusively in sparkling wines or as a minor constituent of some miscellaneous still white wines (like the Tuscan Galestro), or misidentified as Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc).

In the Seventies, though, a few wine-makers in the Friuli region started using Chardonnay as a varietal grape and labeling it as such. In 1979, the enological institute of San Michele in Trentino/Alto Adige made its own version of the wine, and in 1980 a number of other producers in the region followed suit. “Now the bigger producers in both regions are planting a lot of Chardonnay,” one winery representative told me, “because they know it’s a very popular grape in the U.S.” There are even government subsidies available, at least in the Trentino area, for growers who replace their Pinot Bianco with Chardonnay.

I tried eight Italian Chardonnays (not counting sparkling wines), all but one of them from Trentino/Alto Adige-the other was from Grave del Friuli-and found them to be, in general, quite enjoyable. They all had lots of true, easily recognizable Chardonnay character in both smell and taste; they were all clean, well-made, medium-bodied wines, usually with good acid and sometimes with a slight intentional carbonation. What they didn’t have was any wood age. Chardonnay with oak is apparently just not the Italian style. That’s too bad, because there wasn’t a Chardonnay I tasted that wouldn’t have benefited from just a touch of that vanilla-like roundness that oak adds to such wines; they were like good cake without frosting, good pasta without cheese. But still, they were all nice wines.

The best ones I tried, all 1980s, were: Cavit Chardonnay Atesino, Cantine S. Margherita Chardonnay Atesino (at least some of which will be sold in the U.S. under the Cantine Torresella label), In-stituto Agrario Provinciale Chardonnay di San Michele all’ Adige, Lagaria-vini Chardonnay di Pressano “I Vini del Con-cilio,” and Efka-Salorno Chardonnay “Roverè della Luna” (a second label for F. Kupelwieser). I was only slightly less impressed with the San Michele 1979, and with ’80s from Kettmeir (Chardonnay di Mezzacorona) and Plozner-this being the wine from Grave del Friuli.

– Trentino/Alto Adige is a region to watch, even beyond Chardonnay. I didn’t like everything I tasted from this area (some of the wines were rather limp; some were gracelessly sharp), but I liked almost everything. In general, the wines were clean, well-crafted, and fruity, with the pleasantly acidic overtones and intensity of varietal character that cool-climate wines often have. (Some of them, the Cabernets and Merlots especially, reminded me of their Washington State counterparts.) These wines are not particularly expensive, and many of them are labeled with familiar varietal names-not only Chardonnay, Cabernet (both Franc and Sauvignon are used), and Merlot, but also Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), Sylvaner, Riesling (Italico and Renano-Italian and Jo-hannisberg), Moscato (Muscat), Traminer Aromatico (Gewürztraminer – a grape variety said to have come from the Alto Adige originally, by the way), etc. – which makes things fairly easy for the American consumer.

A few Trentino/Alto Adige wines that I particularly liked were: Instituto Agrario Provinciale di San Michele all’Adige “Castel S. Michele” 1978 (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc with Merlot), Conti Martini Teroldego Rotliano 1979 (a big, almost nutty, ruby-red wine made from Teroldego grapes, a local variety), Tenuta San Leonardo Cabernet Trentino 1971 (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc), F. Kuperwieser Süd-tiroler Gewürztraminer 1979, Kehlburg Traminer Aromatico 1979, and Conti Martini Pinot Trentino 1980 (a blend of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris).

– Try the lesser-known Tuscan red wines. The most famous reds of Tuscany are, of course, Chianti and the legendary Brunello di Montalcino. Time and time again, though, I found myself liking their “poor relations” nearly as much-Vine Nobile di Montepulciano (the best of the lot), Rosso delle Colline Lucchesi, Morel-lino di Scansano, Carmignano, even Elba Rosso from that tiny Napoleonic island off the Tuscan coast. Because they’re not as well known as Chianti and Brunello, they’re often less expensive (less than Ri-serva Chiantis, anyway), but the best ones have the same virtues as good examples of their superiors-complex, flowery bouquets; good balance and substantial body; elegance and complexity of flavor. I’m extremely fond, for instance, of the Mario Cantucci Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1977-just a beautiful, almost mysterious wine-and I like the Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva 1975 nearly as much.

-Watch for VIDE. VIDE is an unofficial, voluntary quality rating board for Italian wines of all kinds, DOC and otherwise, from producers all over Italy. All VIDE wines are estate-bottled; and all of them are approved by a panel of expert tasters (and each must award a wine no less than 85 points on a scale of 100). The VIDE approval is given to specific wines from specific vintages only, so the list of producers changes periodically. Currently, it includes such absolutely top-notch firms as Bricco Roche (Ceretto), Sella Lessona, Podere del Pajorè, and Aldo Conterno from Piedmont; Tedeschi, Le Ragose, and Lazzarini from the Ven-eto; Marco Felluga, Mario Schiopetto, and Volpe Pasini from Friuli-Venezia Giulia; Mario Pezzi from Emilia-Ro-magna; and Altesino, Poggio al Sole, Selvapiana, Capezzana, and Monte Ver-tine from Tuscany. (There are many others of equal repute.) These and other VIDE wines might show up in this country from a number of different importers and distributors, since VIDE is not itself a commercial outfit – but you can recognize them by a small black patch on the bottle, with a large golden “V.”

– Finally, among the numerous othervery good Italian wines great and smallthat I “discovered” on this trip, most ofwhich have reached these shores in at leastsmall quantities, are these: Decugnano deiBarbi Orvieto Classico 1980 (forget whatyou think you know about Orvieto; this is real wine); COVIP. Colli del TrasimenoRosso 1978 (a hardy, fruity Umbrian red);Montanello Barolo 1971 (a sophisticatedmonster, with lots of life left in it); BriccoRoche Barolo Prap6 “Serralunga” 1977(graceful and complex); Lazzarini ColliBerici Merlot “Campo del Lago” 1978(rich with berry-like fruit); and ViscontiLugana 1980 (fragrant, crisp, as subtlylovely as its straw-like color).

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