Italy's Classed Growths

  • Tuesday 13 March 2007

Which are Italy’s best wines, its own crus classés? Our chief Italian critic Richard Baudains apes the structure of the Médoc as he nominates his first growth dream team – five wines at the top of their game – plus 15 just a whisker behind – Italy’s super-seconds

Which are Italy’s best wines, its own crus classés? Our chief Italian critic Richard Baudains apes the structure of the Médoc as he nominates his first growth dream team – five wines at the top of their game – plus 15 just a whisker behind – Italy’s super-seconds.

With space for only 20 top growths, the problem with selecting the dream team is not who to put in, but who to drop. I have profiled my top five first growths and 15 second growths, none of whom could possibly be left out, and I have listed another 15 with all the credentials for inclusion at the end of the piece.

I started with a very long shortlist based on consistent quality and prestige, which I then whittled away by giving preference to producers of local varieties and by trying to eleminate duplication of wine types, in order to represent the amazing diversity of the country as a whole. I have tried not to be swayed by preconceptions about styles of winemaking. The list includes modernists and traditionalists and glorious one-offs who defy categorisation. The result is a group of producers of outstanding personality who have helped to shape – and continue to shape – the course of modern Italian wine.

The First Growths

Angelo Gaja, Barbaresco, Piedmont

Angelo Gaja has that high-octane mix of flair, dynamism and self-belief that you associate with Italy’s top designer firms, and which gives his labels a lifestyle aura comparable to those of the leading Italian fashion brands. Behind the brand there is a great wine estate. The epicentre of production is Barbaresco, where the Gaja family has operated for three generations. The DOCG Barbaresco has an enticing, silky elegance, but underneath the fruit there is a structure that only the very best producers of the denomination achieve. Of the three single-vineyard selections, Costa Russi, least often cited, is perhaps the most elegant. Sorì Tilding is the fleshiest and most immediate, while the legendary San Lorenzo is the most rigorous. Generally tight and closed when young, with bottle age it opens out into a wonderfully expressive wine with the fragrance and complexity of top-class Nebbiolo.

Standout wine: Sorì San Lorenzo, Nebbiolo, Langhe 2003 HHHHH

Immediate ripe fruit with touches of sweet spice and, underneath, the classic liquorice-camphor-white pepper character of Nebbiolo. Lots of power on the palate. Uncharacteristically forward, but nevertheless delivers the goods in a very difficult vintage. 2008–13.

£157.20; Arm

Bruno Giacosa, Barbaresco, Piedmont

If there were an Oscar for careers in wine, Bruno Giacosa would be first in line for the Piedmontese nomination. Giacosa is a living archive of the terroir of the Langhe. He started out as a négociant, then through the 1990s began to acquire vineyards of his own to add estate productions to a range of impeccably high standards. In recent years his wines have become a little less uncompromisingly rugged in their youth, but the style remains very much Giacosa – big, deep and austere with prodigious ageing potential. The legendary red label riservas come from some of the greatest crus in the Langhe: Falletto di Serralunga and Le Rocche di Falletto for Barolo and Asili, Rabajà and Santo Stefano for Barbaresco. When it comes to selection, Giacosa is a perfectionist. If he has the slightest reservations about a vintage, he will not bottle a cru. If he does bottle it, you can guarantee it is great.

Barbaresco Rabajà Riserva 2001 HHHHH

Transparent ruby shade, initially closed on the nose then gradually releasing wild herbs and savoury spices followed by intriguing berry fruits. Dry, tightly packed palate with concentrated but very fine extract and extraordinary length. 2008–20/30/40. £22.17 (in bond); F&R

Romano Dal Forno, Valpolicella, Veneto

Deeply attached to his roots but also a radical innovator, Romano Dal Forno has turned the traditional winemaking of Valpolicella on its head, both in the vineyard and the cellar, to take Amarone to places no producer has ever been before. In the place of the wide-spaced Veronese pergola, Dal Forno has guyot-trained vineyards with an unheard of 10-12,000 plants per hectare. He picks late, dries the grapes naturally but for a shorter period than the local norm, and ages in 100% new oak. The resulting wines have extaordinary concentration (it takes five vines to make a single bottle of Amarone) but magnificent intensity and definition of fruit, and despite the massive scale of the wine, wonderful balance. The newly redesigned Valpolicella Superiore, now made purely from partially dried grapes, is a superb introduction to this unique producer. (For more on Dal Forno, see In Focus on Valpolicella, p38.)

Valpolicella Superiore 2002 HHHHH

Deep plummy look, fresh, intriguing complexity on the nose with the gamut of dark fruits mingling with earthy bracken and undergrowth. Deep velvety texture with soft tannins supported by excellent acidity, this is in effect Dal Forno’s second-label Amarone. Captivating now, but with a great future ahead of it. 2007–15. Agents: BBR, F&R. N/A UK; +39 045 783 4923

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Bolgheri, Tuscany

Created by Marchese Ludovico Antinori in 1981, Ornellaia was always groomed for stardom, with its 90ha (hectares) of Cabernet and Merlot, and spectacular, Napa-style cellars. Massive new investment by current owner Frescobaldi will ensure Ornellaia’s status as the other great Bolgheri first growth, alongside Tenuta San Guido, for the foreseeable future. Ornellaia has always had an international feel – Andre Tchelistcheff, Michel Rolland and Tibor Gal are among the winemakers who have left their mark – and the new Swiss oenologist with a Bordeaux background, Axel Heinz, maintains the tradition. Production is structured along Bordeaux lines with a top-selection estate wine (Ornellaia) and a second label (Le Serre Nuove). An isolated plot of deep clay soils, unusual for Bolgheri, is the source of the single-vineyard Masseto, arguably Italy’s greatest monovarietal Merlot.

Ornellaia, Bolgheri Rosso Superiore 2004 HHHHH

Lovely shade of bright ruby. Young and fresh on the nose, but already very well defined with crushed berries on a background of cherry-brandy and hints of typically Bolgheri eucalyptus. Very fine, elegant extraction, very well balanced with freshness and length and great potential. 2008–20. £53.33 IB (2003); F&R

Tenuta San Guido, Bolgheri, Tuscany

Sassicaia’s latest auction prices tend to attract more attention these days than the wine itself. In fact, there is not a lot to report about Italy’s one true icon wine except its continuing greatness. To quote technical director Sebastiano Rosa, ‘We have made it in basically the same way for the last 40 years, and we are not planning any major changes.’ Even the arrival of the latest release is barely newsworthy, given the wine’s consistency in even the trickiest of vintages, which the 2002 amply demonstrates. The truth is that, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Sassicaia really is as good as it is cracked up to be. The all-Cabernet top wine is now flanked by an increasingly convincing second label Bordeaux blend called Guidalberto.

Sassicaia, Bolgheri 2004 HHHHH

Enticing wild berries on the nose. The palate has the midweight racy elegance that is the hallmark of Sassicaia, with fine, tight tannins, and great length and concentration. Needs time, but a classic Sassicaia. 2009–24. £60.58 IB; F&R

Azienda Agricola Altare, Barolo, Piedmont

Elio Altare (above) is the inspirational figure of a generation of winemakers who put fruit and fragrance into Barolo in the1980s. In a region where traditional wisdom held that the longer a wine is soaked on the skins, the better it must be, Altare launched the heretical idea that the opposite was true. The racy elegance of his Arborina is one of the benchmark definitions of the terroir of La Morra.

Barolo Arborina 2001 HHHHH

£63.83 IB; F&R

Castello di Ama, Chianti Classico, Tuscany

Director Marco Pallanti believes Chianti Classico must look inwards for its identity, rather than outwards towards international models. His refined winemaking emphasises nuance and finesse, producing wines with suave drinkability when young that acquire depth and complexity with age. Owner Lorenza Sebasti rates the 2004 Classico as the best wine ever made at Ama.

Castello di Ama, Chianti Classico 2004 HHHHH £9.33 (half)–22.85; Arm, WTr

Azienda Agricola Fratelli Bucci, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, Marches

In the days when Verdicchio passed as the Muscadet of Italy, Bucci was the first to demonstrate the quality of the Marches’ native white variety. Aged in traditional barrels and blended by veteran winemaker Giorgio Grai, the Villa Bucci Riserva begins life taut and intense, and hits its peak at five years onwards.

Villa Bucci, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva 2004 HHHHH £24.70; Evy

Ca’ del Bosco, Franciacorta, Lombardia

Label for label, Ca’ del Bosco makes Italy’s best range of metodo classico sparkling wines. From the stunningly fresh non-vintage, through the rapier-dry Zero Dosage and creamy Satèn, to the luxurious elegance of the Cuvée Annamaria Clementi and austerely classic Riserva Decennale, the wines are the product of impeccable fruit supply and a great winemaking approach.

Cuvée Annamaria Clementi, Franciacorta Brut 1999 HHHHH £64.74; Evy

Casanova di Neri, Montalcino, Tuscany

Casanova is the hottest property at Montalcino today, a status based on extensive vineyards in top sites and the winemaking skills of consultant Carlo Ferrini. The house style accentuates the power of Sangiovese from Montalcino, in wines with upfront aromas of fresh berries and lush, oak-influenced textures.

Tenuta Nuova, Brunello di Montalcino, 2001 HHHHH £20.42 IB; F&R

Azienda Agricola Domenico Clerico, Barolo, Piedmont

Eccentric grower-producer Domenico Clerico makes Barolos that combine the fruit and elegance of aroma associated with modern styles with the power and depth of extract sought by traditionalists. Stylish cru Pajana drinks earliest, followed by the gutsy Ciabot Mentin Ginestra and finally the old vines selection, Per Cristina, a riserva in all but name.

Barolo Per Cristina 2001 HHHHH £56 (2000); J&B

Azienda Vitivinicola Giacomo Conterno, Barolo, Piedmont

Young Roberto Conterno is the custodian of one of the most highly respected family winemaking traditions in the Langhe. Conterno’s Riserva Monfortino, which macerates on the skins for up to five weeks and ages for at least seven years in traditional oak barrels, keeps alive a style of Barolo that may appear archaic, but demonstrates that true quality never goes out of style.

Barolo Riserva Monfortino 1999 HHHHH £209 IB; F&R

Ferrari, Trentino

Ferrari has become an Italian leader for Champagne-method winemaking. The house style shows a little extra stucture and ripeness of fruit without losing the nervy intensity which distinguishes Trentino Chardonnay. The outstanding Riserva del Fondatore is a single-vintage, single-vineyard selection of exceptional richness, penetration and length.

Giulio Ferrari, Riserva del Fondatore Trento Brut 1997 HHHHH £61.59; Evy

Josko Gravner, Collio,

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Gravner’s quest for the ultimate natural wine led him to put his reputation as Italy’s top white wine grower on the line in the late 1990s as he espoused millennia-old Caucasian methods of vinification in buried amphorae. This might sound like folklore but make no mistake, Gravner’s wines are for real. They are challenging, controversial and uncategorisable but they are immensely satisfying to drink.

Ribolla Anfora Venezia Giulia 2002 HHHHH N/A UK; +39 048 130 882

Azienda Agricola Isola e Olena, Chianti Classico, Tuscany

Paolo de Marchi is one of the most highly regarded figures in Tuscan winemaking. His Cepparello is the creation of a grower of exceptional sensitivity, impervious to fluctuations of style since its first release in 1980, faithful to terroir and vintage. Drink 1999 or 2002 now, keep 2001 and 2003 and book the outstanding 2004.

Cepparello, Toscana 2003 HHHHH £34.95; Lib

Mastroberardino, Campania

This family firm continues to position itself at the cutting edge of the quality revolution in Campania. They work only with local varieties, especially the white Fiano, and Aglianico, the source of southern Italy’s greatest red, the multi-faceted Taurasi.

Taurasi, Radici Riserva 2000 HHHHH £24.25; GvE

Azienda Agricola Pieropan,

Soave, Veneto

Leonildo Pieropan pursued the Burgundian model of the grower-producer through the 1970s and 1980s when industrialisation held sway in Soave, then remained faithful to a style of refined elegance when fashion swung towards over-ripe and oaky caricatures of Italy’s most famous white.

Calvarino, Soave Classico 2004 HHHHH £11.55–12.50; ACh, WSo

Castello della Sala, Umbria

Cervaro della Sala is a genial cuvée of Chardonnay and Grechetto from Antinori’s Castello della Sala estate in Umbria. Often oaky on release, the wood is absorbed with a little bottle age, making way for vibrant fruit. The 2004 is possibly the best of an impeccable series of recent vintages.

Cervaro della Sala, Umbria 2004 HHHHH £22.34; GvE

Cantina Produttori Terlano, Terlano, Alto Adige

The young winemaking team at this coop creates a range of whites that combine ripeness of fruit with minerally intensity and unrivalled ageing capacity. It also has a treasure trove of vatted reserves from which every year they bottle a special selection. The current release is a 10-year-old Chardonnay of vitality and complexity.

Terlaner Chardonnay Alto Adige 1995 HHHHH N/A UK; +39 047 125 7135

Valentini, Abruzzo

Edoardo Valentini, who died in spring 2006, created artisan wines with energy, richness and longevity. His son, Francesco, now runs the 60ha estate, making limited quantities of barrel-aged, unfiltered Trebbiano and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which are released when deemed ready.

Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2003 HHHHH

£34 IB; F&R

Other Second Growths I Could Have Chosen

Allegrini (Veneto); Biondi Santi (Tuscany); Castello di Brolio (Tuscany); Caprai-Val di Maggio (Umbria); Aldo Conterno (Piedmont); Castello di Fonteruroli (Tuscany); Felsina (Tuscany); Fontodi (Tuscany); Masciarelli (Abruzzo); Luciano Sandrone (Piedmont); Enrico Scavino (Piedmont); Schioppetto (Friuli-Venezia Giulia); GD Vajra (Piedmont); Vie di Romans (Friuli-Venezia Giulia);Roberto Voerzio (Piedmont)

For a full list of UK stockist codes see p124.

Richard Baudains is the regional chair for Italy at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Do you agree with his choices? Are you outraged by who he left out? email your views to editorial@decanter.com

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