Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Favorite Italian Red Wines of the Year

Detail of the Sorano Vineyard of Ascheri in Serralunga d'Alba, source of one of the author's best bottlings of Barolo from this past year. (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

This year many of my top Italian reds centered on a common theme – they were from the glorious 2004 vintage. The Barolos from that year are stunning, the Amarones are polished and the bottlings of Taurasi are wonderfully concentrated with their typical charm. Throughout the country, 2004 was a remarkable success for Italian reds.

Here are my favorites (listed from north to south in Italy):

Rarely has there been a collection of Barolos with such deep fruit aromas, concentration of fruit and gorgeous acidity. There are so many great 2004 Barolos that I can’t list them all, but here are a few favorites: Fontanafredda “La Villa”, the least known, but most elegant of the three cru Barolos produced by this historic estate; Cascina Cucco “Vigna Cucco” and “Cerrati”, two beautifully supple bottlings from this small estate in Serralunga d’Alba; Ascheri “Sorano Coste e Bricco”, one of the most finesseful of all the 2004 Barolos and the Ettore Germano “Prapo”, a wine with vibrant spice backed by graceful tannins.

Also, the Elio Grasso “Vigna Chiniera”, a traditionally produced beauty from Monforte d’Alba; the powerful Aldo Conterno “Romirasco”, that displayed remarkable concentration and two beautifully structured offererings from Roberto Voerzio“Rocche dell’Annunziata Torriglione” and "Sarmassa". These wines are ultramodern in style as they are aged in barriques, yet the layers of fruit are the story and not the oak.

Finally, other top Barolos include Vietti “Rocche”; Rocche Costamagna “Bricco Francesco”, the finest bottling of this wine I’ve tasted to date; Luigi Baudana “Baudana”; Cogno “Ravera” from the commune of Novello and the Damilano “Liste” from the commune of Barolo.

Bruno Nada, winemaker at Fiorenzo Nada. He produced one of the author's top bottlings of Barbaresco from this past year. (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Though less powerful than the bottlings from 2004, the Barbarescos from 2005 are equally impressive, at least for the best producers. Three wines take the top spots on my list: Fontanabianca “Sori Burdin” with its distinctive aromas of rose petals, cumin, allspice and dried orange peel; Fiorenzo Nada “Rombone” with its excellent fruit persistence, nicely styled tannins and lively acidity and finally the elegantly styled Rizzi “Boito” that offers plush aromas of red cherry, strawberry and red spice along with big fruit persistence and lively acidity. This is one of the most underrated producers in Piemonte and all of Italy!

This is a gorgeous Amarone that takes you back to the days when local producers concentrated more on elegance than power. This offers beautifully perfumed aromas of violets, black raspberry, a hint of chocolate, molasses and rum, is balanced throughout and has lovely acidity and subtle oak. I wish more producers made their Amarone in this style!

Although this is a bit more modern in style than the Antolini, this is still a lovely Amarone with great finesse. Big aromas of red cherry, coriander and tobacco and a lengthy finish- this is beautifully made. I prefer this wine to the riper, more powerful “Campo dei Gigli” bottling from this producer.


You might expect these selections from Bolgheri to be no-brainers and to some extent they are, but these are more impressive to me than their respective 2004 bottlings, as they offer more lively acidity and backbone. Some will prefer the 2004s for their power, but the 2005s aren’t exactly lighweights and I admire the overall balance of these wines from start to finish. Look for these wines to be at their peak in 15-20 years.

Another Bolgheri red from a relatively new estate headed by Lodovico Antinori (formerly of Ornellaia) along with his brother Piero. This blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot has explosive aromas, excellent fruit persistence and lively acidity and should be at its best in 10-12 years.

I listed this producer’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo as one of my favorite whites of the year and this glorious red made by the Gianni Masciarelli (Marina’s husband who recently passed away) is one of my top reds. This is a flavorful wine with notes of tobacco and myrtle with lively acidity and a long finish- it’s simply delicious!

Is there another producer of Taurasi that makes as flavorful – and at the same time – elegantly styled bottling than Mastroberardino? The winery’s approach with this 100% Aglianico really shines in a great vintage such as 2004. You get the textbook chocolate and cherry flavors, great fruit persistence and young, but balanced tannins. Look for this to be at its best in 15-20 years.

Here is another winery that I included in my list of best whites of the year for its 2007 Furore Bianco “Fiorduva”; this lesser known wine also makes the list for best reds. A blend of 50% Aglianico and 50% Piedirosso aged in barriques, this is quite stylish with flavors of black cherry, licorice and tobacco backed by tart acidity. It’s not a powerhouse – it will be at its best in 5-7 years - but it is quite impressive!

For some time now, this has been one of Sicily’s most complex and beautifully structured reds. Winemaker Carlo Casavecchia has produced one of his finest efforts to date with this gorgeous effort from 2004. 100% Nero d’Avola from vineyards near Gela in southeastern Sicily, this has inviting aromas of marascino cherry and fig backed by subtle oak, lively acidity and velvety tannins. This is an oustanding bottling of Duca Enrico; look for this to be at its peak in 12-15 years.

Please note that I did not list any bottlings of Brunello di Montalcino. This has nothing to do with the current situation in Montalcino, rather it has to do with the quality of the current releases from the 2003 vintage. Though there were some successes, overall the wines offer bitter tannins, robbing these wines of their usual elegance and finesse. Given that the 2004 bottlings of Brunello will be released in 2009, I expect several of these wines to be on my list of the Best Italian Reds next year.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Favorite Italian White Wines of the Year

Cantina Tramin in Alto Adige. Three of my top Italian white wines I tasted this year were from this great estate. (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

White wines just don’t get the proper due in this world, especially when compared to red wines. If you think the situation is this way in California and France, imagine how it is for Italian white wines. Hey, everybody knows about the great reds, such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino and Amarone, but who reads much about the country’s whites?

Well I love Italian white wines and today I’m going to celebrate all their glories (especially the aromatic whites) and share my list of my favorites I tasted in 2008. This was an especially good year for Italian whites, as most producers released their 2007s, a brilliant vintage, with excellent concentration and beautiful acidity. (The wines are arranged from north to south in Italy):

This is always one of the great Italian wines each vintage. Produced from the finest lots of Gewurztraminer grown in Tramin in Alto Aidge, winemaker Willi Sturz brilliantly captures the classic flavors of this grape: lychee, grapefruit and aromas of rose petals. There is beautiful spice, vibrant acidity and remarkable concentration. This will need another 6 months to show all its beauty, but it will drink well for 3-5 years. Magninificent!

This is a beautiful blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon and Gewurztraminer that offers gorgeous aromas of quince, golden apple, lime and yellow roses. Medium-full with typical Alto Adige vibrant acidity. Impressive now, it will only improve over the next 5-7 years.

Willi Sturz hit the trifecta with this brilliantly realized Sauvignon that has aromas of yellow pepper, freshly mown hay and chicory. Excellent concentration, great fruit persistence and a lengthy finish. Lovely texture on the palate and great balance throughout. This is the second vintage of this wine- In my opinion, this is one of the great Sauvignons of Italy! Enjoy over the next 3-5 years.

Elena Walch is a dynamic woman who along with her husband Werner produces brilliant wines from their estate vineyards in Tramin. This is primarily Chardonnay with a small percentage (less than 10%) of local varieties. This is a Chardonnay that is meant for people that prefer fruit and aromatics to oak. There are aromas of golden apple, geraniums and a hint of caramel. Very rich, this is a mouthful of wine!

Over the past decade, this blend of Sauvignon, Friulano and Pinot Bianco has become one of Italy’s most famous white wines. Gorgeous aromas of Bosc pear, rose petals, geranium and freshly mown hay. Lengthy finish, excellent concentration and fruit persistence backed by lively acidity. This should drink well for 5-7 years.

This small Friulian estate outdid itself in 2007 with some of their finest wines to date. Their Friulano (formerly labeled as Tocai Friulano) sports lovely aromas of ripe pear, sweet pea and yellow pepper backed by excellent concentration and lovely acidity. Rich, very flavorful and subtle, this is a great display of how good Friulano can be.

Another outstanding white from this producer, this is an aggressive style of Sauvignon with aromas of bell pepper and fennel. Medium-full, this has excellent concentration and a long, elegant finish with vibrant acidity. Enjoy this over the next 3-5 years.

I will admit I am not a big fan of new oak in most white wines, especially with the Trebbiano grape. But I have to tip my cap to Gianni Masciarelli (Cvetic’s husband) for this outstanding white. This is a big, complex wine with aromas of pear, baked apple, hyacinth and vanilla with excellent concentration and great fruit persistence. This is quite impressive, especially for the humble Trebbiano grape.

A sad note: Gianni Masciarelli, one of Italy’s most talented winemakers and one of the kindest men I’ve ever met, passed away this year. He will be sorely missed.

This excellent Campanian estate has really been on a roll lately, as evidenced by this gorgeous Fiano di Avellino. Aromas of Meyer lemon, magnolia and kiwi- just lovely! There’s lively acidity and a lengthy finish with a touch of minerality. Wonderful variety purity! This is just great with crab or clams.

Feudi di San Gregorio Winery in Campania (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

This is the showcase Fiano di Avellino from Feudi di San Gregorio and it’s not for the shy! Produced from late harvest grapes, but fermented dry, this has sexy flavors of apricot, white peach and honey and offers layers of flavor on the palate. Enjoyable now, but this has the concentration and structure to drink well for 7-10 years.

At their estate in the stunningly beauitful town of Furore on the Amalfi Coast, Marisa Cuomo and her husband, Andrea Ferraioli (who also serves as winemaker) have been producing some remarkable wines over the past decade. The Fiorduva is a full-bodied blend of three indigenous grapes - Fenile, Ginestra and Ripoli - that displays exotic aromas of white peach, lemon oil, magnolia, fennel and a note of almond. It’s got great fruit persistence, vibrant acidity and distinct minerality. This is the most celebrated wine from this estate and one of the most distinguished in all of Italy.

There are some great Italian whites I didn't get a chance to try this year. Are there some that you tasted you think are among the best of the year? Leave a comment.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Best Italian Importers - Part two

Sergio Germano, winemaker at Ettore Germano estate in Serralunga d'Alba, Piemonte. These wines are represented by Oliver McCrum (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Best Italian Importers – Part Two

In my last post, I listed three importers of Italian wines that have put together an impressive porfolio of producers that honestly represent the spirit of that country’s wine landscape. Here is part two.

Oliver McCrum – Oliver McCrum Wines
Working in the wine business for thirty years, Oliver decided to focus solely on Italian wines a few years ago. Together with his assistant Michele Boscia at his office in Oakland, he has put together a book that is small, but well thought out. He represents about two-dozen producers from eleven different regions and is particularly strong with Trentino-Alto Adige, Campania and Piemonte.

His Piemonte selection is quite varied, with everything from brilliant Barolos from Elio Grasso and Ettore Germano to first-rate Barbaresco from Castello di Verduno to one of the finest producers of Moscato d’Asti, Caudrina. I’ve recently tried a few wines from his Campania producers and am quite impressed, especially with the Falanghina from La Sibilla, the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio from Villa Dora and the Taurasi from Contrade di Taurasi.

It’s really nice to see someone so dedicated to representing such authentic, terroir-driven wines from Italy. Keep up the great work, Oliver!

Romigberg Vineyard of Alois Lageder, whose wines are imported into the United States by Brian Larky at Dalla Terra (Photo ©tom Hyland)

Brian Larky – Dalla Terra
Brian Larky has had a long time love affair with Italian wines and it shows in his portfolio. He worked at a winery in Italy in the late 1980s and soon afterwards founded Dalla Terra. He’s built his company into one of the most resepcted importers of Italian wines in this country, not only through his selection, but reasonable pricing as well.

His portfolio is a nice mix of tiny, underrated estates along with a few of Italy’s best-known producers, such as Badia a Coltibuono from Chianti Classico and Alois Lageder from Alto Adige. A few of his gems include Inama, one of the true artisan producers of Soave; La Valentina, an excellent estate in Abruzzo and Adami, one of the top producers of Prosecco, especially given the price/quality ratio.

Dalla Terra may be one of the biggest importers of premium Italian wine in the states, but the focus is always on quality and never on quantity, as you won’t find offerings of cheap Pinot Grigio or Primitivo with this book. Let’s hope that Brian Larky will add some new producers, but continue to represent estates that express the soul of Italian viticulture.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Importers of Authentic Italian Wines - Part 1

Fontanafredda Estate in Serralunga d'Alba, one of the great Italian wine producers whose wines are imported by Domiane Select (Photo by Tom Hyland)

I can think of hundreds of ways that are easier to make money than importing Italian wines. Thank goodness there are enough dedicated individuals who do this work year in and year out, so we can taste the distinctiveness of what Italian wine producers have to offer.

It’s one thing to import a few trophy wines such as Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino or Amarone, but along with those selections, importers must also carry Dolcetto, Barbera and Chianti Classico along with speciality wines such as Rosso Conero, Aglianico del Vulture and Vermentino. These three wines – along with dozens of other unique offerings – are wonderful, but in reality, how often do you see these wines on restaurant lists or on retail shelves? Clearly someone who brings in these wines is a believer in the quality of Italian wines from across the country.

Add to this the fact of the relationship of the US dollar versus the Euro and you can understand the difficulty in making the importing of Italian wines your business. Thankfully, the dollar has become stronger over the past six months, so prices are not as unreasonable as they were over the past few years, but it is still a difficult proposition.

So in this post and the next, I want to single out a few importers of small estate Italian wines. These businessmen are committed to offering wines that are based on indigenous and not international grapes and for that, we should all be thankful.

Paolo Domeneghetti – Domaine Select
Paolo Domeneghetti, a native of Italy, founded Domaine Select in 1999 and today this Manhatttan-based company is one of the key importers of Italian wines in the United States. While he imports wines from small estates from other countries as well (including France, Germany, Austria and Chile), Italian wines are his specialty.

Domeneghetti’s portfolio is one of the most impressive collections of Italian wines you’ll find anywhere. There is a nice mix of estates from virually every region in Italy and while he has a number of famous estates that are well known to Italian wine lovers (such as Fontanafredda, J. Hofstatter and Edoardo Valentini), his book is filled with small estates that produce wines of the highest quality, yet are terribly unknown. These include Vinosia from Campania (the most recent estate of the Ercolino brothers who founded Feudi di San Gregorio), Villa Sparina, a highly original producer of Gavi and Tenuta Olveto and Il Palazzone, two producers of Brunello di Montalcino that release balanced and subtle bottlings of this iconic red.

On a personal note, Domeneghetti features reviews on his website from numerous publications, big and small. He has included some of my reviews from my newsletter (Guide to Italian Wines) as well as from some of the top wine blogs. This is typical of the vision he has; too many importers are only willing to print reviews from the Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate, as they believe those are the only two wine publications that matter. Clearly, Domeneghetti believes otherwise.

Domeneghetti’s book is constantly changing, a sign that Paolo is always looking for the best Italian wines estates. I’ve seen him in action in Italy- he truly is tireless!

Bruno Nada, a Barbaresco producer, whose wines are imported by Premium Brands (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Paolo Boselli – Premium Brands
Paolo Boselli is one of the true gentlemen in the importing business. In his early 70s, he continues to build a remarkable portfolio of Italian wines at his company based in Forest Hills, NY.

You won’t find too many big names in his book, but if you are looking for wines from small estates that echo the local terroir, this is the place. He’s done a wonderful job with producers from Barbaresco, for example, with the wines from Fiorenzo Nada and Fontanabianca (both of whom received a coveted Tre Bicchieri rating from Gambero Rosso in their 2009 guide). He also represents a great grappa producer from Piemonte, Marolo, whose bottlings, from nebbiolo and moscato grappa to camomile liquor, are truly amazing. He also represents small Barolo estates, such as Bruna Grimaldi and Bel Colle.

Casa Emma, San Felice and Lilliano are three of his excellent estates in Chianti Classico; other producers worth noting include Guado al Melo from Bolgheri; Panizzi, an outstanding producer of Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Isoidoro Polencic from Friuli (another Tre Bicchieri winner for 2009). You’ll also find producers from just about every region in Italy, including Valle d’Aosta, Emilia-Romagna and Liguria.

Paolo’s son Alessandro ably assists his father in day-to-day operations and together they continue to build one of the most notable collections of Italian wines in America today.

Ancient Vine at Giuseppe Apicella Estate near Amalfi Coast, Campania. Apicella's wines are imported by Wine Emporium
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Franco Bengasi – Wine Emporium
Franco Bengasi is typical of many importers of Italian wines in this country in that he does a lot of work himself, from visiting Italy and finding new and/or unrepresented producers to going out in New York City (his offices are in Brooklyn) and tasting the wines with customers. Franco does have Agnes in his office to help, but it’s up to him to make his business work- there’s no team of 25 salespeople here!

Bengasi, a native of Campania, does not have a huge portfolio; rather it’s a small, well thought out selection with some real gems. He represents the wines of Sergio Barale of Barolo, a vastly underrated producer, who also happens to craft a lovely, non-oak aged Chardonnay (I rarely care much for Chardonnay from Piemonte, but I love this one). He also has the wines of Tiburzi, a relatively new producer of Sagrantino di Montefalco wines; they are modern is style, but offer gorgeous fruit and aren’t overwhelming in their tannins.

From his home region, Bengasi has the wines of Giuseppe Apicella from the Amalfi Coast, I Borboni from Caserta (a gorgeous passito offering of Aspirinio di Aversa) and from the Taburno area, the wines of Fontanavecchia, which produces first-rate bottlings of Aglianico (their regular 2004 Aglianico del Taburno is a steal at less than $20). This is a nice mix of Campanian producers; it’s nice to see that there is an importer that understands there is more to this region than Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino and Taurasi.

Then there is the excellent Franciacorta brand Monte Rossa as well as Gradiscuitta, a producer from Friuli that should be better known. You get the idea – Franco Bengasi has done his homework and represents the true spirit of Italian wine.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Italian Grape Names

Nebbiolo grapes in Serralunga d'Alba (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

There are so many indigenous grapes in use throughout Italy and many of them have rather unique names. Here is a rundown of just a few:

Grown primarily in Piemonte, Nebbiolo is the single grape used in the production of Barolo and Barbaresco. Nebbiolo comes from the word nebbia, meaning “fog,” an apt descriptor, as this is a late ripening grape that is harvested from late October-early November, as fog starts to creep into the Langhe district.

This name is a derivation of the word “Hellenico,” a term meaning Greece. It was the Greeks who first planted this red variety in Campania some 2000 years ago.

A red variety of Campania, this literally means “red feet,” which may be a reference to the color of the feet of the birds who sit on the clusters while they munch these berries.

One of the principal red grapes of Puglia, Negroamaro literally means “black” and “bitter”.

Literally “little sweet one,” Dolcetto is grown throughout Piemonte and offers a lovely sweetness of black raspberry and cranberry fruit in its youth.

Literally “tail of the fox,” for the shape of the cluster, this is a white variety grown primarily along the coasts of Camapania.

Roughly translated as “rascal” or “crazy one”, this white variety got its name from the fact that some vintners in Piemonte thought that any producer who made Arneis in areas where red varieties were better known was a little crazy.

Perhaps my favorite name, this is a red variety that means, “cut the tongue,” a reference to the sharp tannins of this red variety of Friuli.

The name of Tuscany’s most famous red variety comes from the words sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jove” who was a pretty important guy, especially considering he was the King of the Gods.

This is the Moscato d’Alessandria grape grown in Sicily (primarily on the island of Pantelleria); the name comes from the Arabic word zibibb, meaning “raisin.” These grapes are indeed like raisins after they are dried on open-air mats under the intense local sun.