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  • Tuesday 1 January 2002

BURTON ANDERSON, one of the world's leading authorities on Italian wine, reflects on the developments of the last two decades and highlights some of his own favourite wines.

In the 21 years since the publication of my book Vino, Italian wines have improved beyond even my expectations – which back in 1980 some readers, no doubt, considered unduly optimistic. Still, after an era of unrelenting progress, I'm not convinced that Italian winemakers as a whole have arrived at anywhere near peak levels, even if more and more wines win top ratings from the world's critics. The renaissance in Italian wine – as I've perhaps too often described it – is in its intermediate stages, promising much more in years to come.

I've long believed that Italy's geographical conditions offer the most extensive potential for quality wines than any other country, yet many producers are still struggling to get their act together, making wines that haven't yet lived up to the eminent promise of their vineyards. However, my faith in the future is brighter than ever, thanks primarily to Italy's unmatched patrimony of indigenous vines. The most prestigious are Piedmont's Nebbiolo and Tuscany's Sangiovese, though even they have been undergoing clonal selection to further enhance their nobility. The roll-call of promising varieties runs to well over 100, including dozens of previously unheralded vines that are beginning to reveal long-hidden aptitudes. A short list of vines prominently on the rise would include the following: Montepulciano in Abruzzo; Sagrantino in Umbria; Verdicchio in Marche; Aglianico, Fiano, Greco and Falanghina in Campania; Negroamaro and Primitivo in Puglia; Nero d'Avola in Sicily; Vermentino in Sardinia, Liguria and Tuscany; Lagrein and Teroldego in Trentino-Alto Adige; Tocai Friulano, Refosco, Pignolo and Schioppettino in Friuli; Barbera and Dolcetto in Piedmont; and Garganega (for Soave), Corvina and Corvinone (for Valpolicella and Amarone) in the Veneto. Throughout Italy, vine experts have been selecting superior clones of local varieties and growers are becoming increasingly committed to limiting yields, and determining ideal plant densities and maintenance methods. But these are long-term endeavours whose benefits will be noticed only gradually over the coming generation.

The wealth of native varieties gives Italy a theoretically decisive advantage in an era of globalisation of tastes that has left enlightened wine drinkers craving new sensations. However, promoting a wine that carries the name of a previously unknown grape or an obscure place is a far greater challenge than selling one labelled with any of those eight or ten varieties known around the planet. This commercial truism explains, in part, why many Italian producers favour international varieties over natives. A related factor is reliability and, for well over a century, the French have selected superior clones of Cabernet, Pinot, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, to cite the most prominent, providing a reasonable guarantee of class and character wherever they are grown.

Some of those varieties do very well in Italy. Cabernet has reached heights in Tuscany, as Sassicaia and Solaia attest, though similar feats are being recorded from the South Tyrol to Sicily; Merlot, planted in the northeast for a century, is spreading south in wines that occasionally show the splendour of ranked Pomerols; and Syrah is proving to be ideally suited to the hot, dry conditions of the centre and south.

Among whites, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio are popular and sometimes even impressive, but the outstanding foreigner is Sauvignon Blanc, which thrives in the Alpine settings of Friuli and Trentino-Alto Adige. Italians will continue to rely on these, but it is native vines that are destined to make the wines that will distinguish Italy from the rest of the world. Through the early stages of the renaissance the swiftest advances came in the cellars, as new techniques propelled Italian wine from antiquity to the computer age virtually overnight. By now winemakers everywhere have access to the ultimate tools of oenology, though it takes time, patience and talent to put them to optimum use.

Progress versus tradition is an ongoing debate in Italy, even if it might be argued that, with few exceptions, ways of making wine before the revolution might best be forgotten. Producers, like wine writers, seem to feel compelled to declare progressive or conservative leanings, though, like politicians, few ever seem to stray far from the popular currents described collectively as the 'centre'.

I've cast my lot with the progressives, while admitting that a certain few wines from the so-called 'old school' rank with the nation's elite. Still, the notion that traditional methods of making Barolo, Brunello, Vino Nobile, Valtellina, Amarone and so on, should – or could – be maintained intact is largely sentimental rubbish. Among progressives, there is still too much bumbling about with barriques by those who haven't understood that they are designed to contribute to the complex whole of a properly matured wine, not to bombard the liquid with oak. Then again, Chardonnays, Cabernets, Merlots and Syrahs (or Shiraz) samples from across the waters indicate that Italians show more discretion with new oak than many of their New World counterparts.

An increasing number of 'traditionalists' have come to realise that it's not sacrilege to use stainless steel tanks for more rapid and complete fermentation and extraction of elements from the skins. Many now use smaller, cleaner oak casks than before – I did not say new barriques – to maintain colour, round out the flavours and aromas, and exalt fruit sensations during ageing. The only simon-pure traditionalist that I know of – among producers of a certain commercial level, anyway – is Edoardo Valentini from Abruzzo.

These and other thoughts are expressed in my new book, Best Italian Wines. The volume contains profiles of 201 wines – 101 reds and 100 whites – and their producers in an honour roll based on my long experience. Red wines remain Italy's strong point, yet research that included extensive tastings of recent vintages showed me how much progress white wines have made here in the last couple of decades. Without citing wines that wouldn't have made the final cut in Best Italian Wines, I can name a few that I have recently tasted that would have done. One is the Brunello di Montalcino from Siro Pacenti, stunning in both 1996 and 1997. Certainly Masciarelli's Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Villa Gemma deserved the distinction. Among candidates from Verona, where a quality revival is in full swing, I might have singled out Amarone della Valpolicella Il Fornetto from Stefano Accordini, and a Recioto della Valpolicella from Tommaso Bussola. And Southern Italy is full of surprises, one of them the superb Taurasi Vigna Macchia dei Goti from Antonio Caggiano in Campania.

Best Italian Wines by Burton Anderson costs £18.99 (Little, Brown).

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