Italy's 10 most exciting wine styles

  • Wednesday 13 April 2011

The styles, regions and vintages every wine lover should know about

Vineyard
Vineyard Italian Wine bottles Borgo del Tiglio, Collio 2008 Elio Altare, Vigneto Arborina Giovanna Tantini

Native whites

Yes, whites. Compared to their red counterparts, Italy’s most representative white varieties tend to be restrained and understated, with delicate floral aromas and nervy acidity.

They are also subject to periodical identity crises, prompted by the ambition to compete in the global arena with the Chardonnays and Sauvignons of this world.

All the native white varieties, from Ribolla in Friuli to Cortese in Gavi, Garganega in Soave, Procanico in Orvieto, Marche’s Verdicchio and the Tuscan Vernaccia have, at one time or another and to a greater or lesser degree, suffered efforts to crank them up through blending with international varieties, late harvesting, new oak treatment or arcane vinification methods.

But a major re-think is underway. The current trend is towards a much more essentialist approach to white winemaking which, rather than forcing native varieties into moulds that do not fit, seeks to bring out their intrinsic character.

The models are the classic wines of the traditional DOCs. The buzz words, from Nosiola in Trentino down to the Fianos of Campania, are ‘terroir’, ‘minerality’ and ‘vineyard’.

The results are unoaked, 100% varietals with unique, unequivocal Italian-ness.

Three to try:

Il Palazzone, Campo Guardiano, Orvieto Classico Superiore 2008
POA Justerini and Brooks
Intense, herby nose, with notes of bay and sage and a distinctive salty note. Bone-dry palate, intense and minerally with a return of fresh herbs, huge length and concentration on the finish. Drink: 2011–2018. Alc: 13%

Suavia, Monte Carbonare,
Soave Classico 2008
£13.30–£17.50 Bibendum, Everywine, Flying Corkscrew
Citrus nose with hints of sweet almond and a touch of smokiness. Fresh, agile and tasty with white currants and amazing length and purity. Drink 2011-2018. Alc: 13%

La Monacesca, Mirum,
Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva 2008
£18.50 Winetraders
Nose opens slowly with honey then mint and rosemary and a vague hint of inkiness. The palate has concentrated candied peel, apricot and nectarine and huge length. Drink: 2011–2018. Alc: 14%


Brunello di Montalcino 2006

The much-awaited 2006 vintage at Montalcino is not one for the faint-hearted. There is none of the immediate fruit of the 2005s, nor the elegance of the 2004s.

The baking hot summer gave enormously powerful Brunellos which show the austere, savoury side of Sangiovese.

Do they live up to their official 5-star rating? The answer is a qualified "yes".

The least successful wines have cooked fruit and a Porty, alcoholic quality which takes away from their appeal, but the best are vibrant terroir wines, bursting with energy.

The 2006s are phenolic on the nose, sometimes with wild herbs, sometimes inky, sometimes with notes of iodine.

On the palate they are concentrated and very dry with an intense minerally tang. Big as they are, they have two features which save them from simple blockbuster dumbness: quality tannins and an acidity which carries the abundant alcohol.

Raw and raunchy now, they need time to come together, but they should provide some memorable bottles, worthy of Brunello’s reputation for longevity.

The single-vineyard and special-selection wines look particularly good. Estates to seek out, besides those below, include Livio Sassetti, Sesti, Siro Pacenti, Villa I Cipressi, Tenuta di Sesta, Tenuta Le Potazzine, Tenuta Oliveto, Casanuova delle Cerbaie, Corte Pavone, Lisini, Franco Pacenti, Podere Canalino, Silvio Nardi, Tiezzi, Piccolomini d’Aragona and the best-ever Prime Donne from Donatella Cinelli Colombini.

Three to try:

Castello di Romitorio, XXV Vendemmia
N/A UK www.castelloromitorio.com
Spectacular nose, with wild berries, iodine and black tea. Great energy, breadth and depth on the palate, with very fine tannins and intriguing complexity in the finish. Still very raw, but will be great. Drink: 2014–2030. Alc: 14%

Salvioni
£69.50 Bordeaux Index
Leafy, herby nose with delicate floral underlay and a lovely vein of fresh cherry fruit. Very tight and concentrated on the palate with exceptional finesse for the vintage. Deceptively understated; will be great.
Drink: 2012–2030. Alc: 14.5%

Gaja, Pieve Santa Restituta, Rennina
£51.34 Everywine
Earthy nose, with notes of moss, peat and violets in the background. Massive palate but also great freshness. Long and punchy on the finish with notes of cherry brandy and minerals. Drink: 2012–2030. Alc: 15%


Barolo 2004

There is no question about the longevity of the 2004 Barolos, but the good news is that these marvellous wines are also starting to drink beautifully now.

This might seem early – in the past, to suggest opening a Barolo from a great vintage before its 10th birthday was viewed in the Langhe as subversive in the extreme.

Today it is permissible. In the specific case of the 2004s, the justification lies in the quality of the vintage, with its near-perfect tannins, balance and aroma.

More generally, it’s the consequence of a winemaking style that brings drinking significantly forward. This is not a new development. Pioneers such as Elio Altare launched the manifesto in favour of a more accessible, earlier drinking Barolo more than 20 years ago.

What the 2004s perhaps confirm is a definitive change in the mindset in the Langhe which has made the term ‘modernist’, much bandied about in the past, redundant.

These days, it is the ‘traditionalist’ who gets flagged as the odd man out. (NB: If you are lucky enough to have 2004s from the great Bruno Giacosa, Beppe Rinaldi, Mascarello, Giovanni Conterno or Cavalotto in your cellar, then disregard everything I have just written – the 10-year rule holds for these greats).

Three to try:

Sandrone, Cannubi Boschis
£80–£100 Berry Bros & Rudd, Slurp, Winetraders
Elegant, fresh and complex nose of violets, redcurrants, bay and cinnamon. Great purity and focus on the palate, which starts dry and intense and opens broad and long with powdery tannins and infinite length. Sublime. Drink: 2011–2020. Alc: 14.5%

Elio Altare, Vigneto Arborina
£90–£146 Fine & Rare, Nichols & Perks
Intense, fresh Nebbiolo nose, with a vast spectrum of aromas from billberry, black cherry and violets through fresh mushroom to sweet fennel. Fluid palate, with super-fine tannins and a very long, vigorous finish. Drink: 2011–2020. Alc: 14.5%

Paolo Scavino, Bric del Fiasc
£55–£62 Albany Vintners, Berry Bros & Rudd, Christopher Keiler, Everywine, Fine & Rare, Nichols & Perks
Ripe, sweet, mature nose with notes of new leather, tar, liquorice and nutmeg. Big, smooth, soft palate with very fine, dense tannins and an austere, dry, savoury finish with weighty concentration. Drink: 2011–2015. Alc: 14.5%


Malvasia Istriana

As the name suggests, this particular member of the Malvasia family (left) originated in Istria, from where it spread up the coast to what is now Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the 14th century.

Friuli is the only Italian region which grows the variety today. Traditionally it has been considered a minor grape, used mainly in blends rather than alone, but it is starting to find its own voice.

Left to its own devices, Malvasia tends to make rather simple, dilute wines, but if yields are kept in check it is capable of whites with a personal, floral character, peachy fruit and great sensitivity to terroir.

On the limestone plateau above the bay of Trieste, Carso Malvasia is all tangy intensity. In the Collio and the upper Isonzo on the other hand, the wines are rich and round with impressive depth of fruit and often a distinctive spicy nuance.

‘Feminine’, says Nicòla Manferrari, who is one of the variety’s greatest supporters. ‘Mediterranean’, says Gianfranco Gallo, who has recently started bottling a special selection.

More elegant than Friulano (ex-Tocai) and more complete than Ribolla, and yet mysteriously less planted than either, Malvasia is – hopefully – heading for a revival.

Three to try:

Borgo del Tiglio, Collio 2008
£27–£42 Astrum, Bordeaux Index, Ten Acre Wine
Elegant, complex, scented with aromas of pressed flowers, honeydew melon and a hint of walnut oil. Glossy, concentrated ripe fruit palate with white pepper on the finish. Very personal. Drink: 2011–2016. Alc: 14%

Skerk, Carso 2008
£25 Bat & Bottle
Intense citrus and white blossoms on the nose, mouthwatering freshness on the palate filled out by masterfully handled lees ageing. Subtle fruit and a long, minerally finish. Drink: 2011–2015. Alc: 12.5%

Vie de Romans, Isonzo, Dis Cumieris 2008
N/A UK www.viediromans.it
Sweet, floral nose, with hints of tropical fruit and cinnamon in the background. Soft, round and full-bodied palate with suave complexity and length on the finish. Drink: 2011–2018. Alc: 14%


Pink fizz

Over the past five years, Italy has witnessed a demonstration of one of the basic laws of commerce that, if demand exceeds offer, then production must expand to meet it.

Demand in this case is for pink sparkling wine. The response has come from all quarters. The quick fix is to put bubbles into existing rosés, as in the case of the pleasantly undemanding Bardolino Chiaretto Spumante (look for the excellent Monte Saline’s Metodo Classico).

This idea is also catching on in Puglia, where noted wine consultant Riccardo Cotarella has been involved in a new Metodo Classico for the historic Five Roses producer Leone de Castris.

Other examples look slightly more improvised, such as a Frappato-based fizz from Sicily or another made from Aglianico in Basilicata.

The more serious stuff comes from the DOC or DOCG zones with a spumante tradition and their own Pinot Noir grapes.

The producers’ consorzio in the Oltrepò, which has more than 3,000ha of Pinot, has just launched a new brand of Metodo Classico Rosé called Cruasé – watch this space.

The top wines come from Trentino and in Franciacorta, where Cà del Bosco has made a big splash with the first vintage of a luxury cuvée made from 100% Pinot Noir, aged for seven years on the lees.

Three to try:

Cà del Bosco, Cuvée Anna Maria Clementi,
Extra Brut Rosé, Franciacorta 2003
£65 (2002) Christopher Keiler
Great freshness on the nose with suggestions of cherry pie, rose hip jelly and delicate floral nuances, great intensity on the palate, minuscule perlage, long,
savoury finish with underlying notes of cherry liqueur. Drink: 2011–2025. Alc: 12.5%

Cavalleri, Rosé Collezione,
Franciacorta 2005
£37.25 (2004) Everywine
Fresh, crusty nose. Palate of substance and energy, with firm acid structure and a long, salty finish with a very good return of pinot noir fruit.
Drink: 2011–2015. Alc: 12.5%

Ferrari, Perlé Rosé Metodo Classico, Trentino 2005
£22–£52 Bat & Bottle, Vinum
Delicate red fruit nose with a touch of floral-spicy nuances. Palate firm and dry with good body, fine perlage and a return of red currant fruit at the end. Drink: 2011–2015.
Alc: 12.5%


Taurasi 2007

Taurasi is a hilltop village in Campania’s Irpinia region, high in the Apennine mountains. The red wine that grows here is made from Aglianico, and belongs to that category of full-bodied, austerely tannic reds at the most serious end of the Italian wine spectrum.

Despite its ‘Barolo of the south’ tag, Taurasi is not one of the country’s better known wines. Its reputation among specialists has long been assured by Mastroberardino's spectacularly long-lived reserves, but for decades this historic winery was a flagship without a fleet.

Wider recognition of Taurasi’s potential has only come more recently, with the increase in the number of producers and the upgrading of what used to be very uneven quality standards.

The 2007s, which are coming out this year, are evidence of the new credibility of the denomination. They have ripe but not overextracted tannins, good freshness and oak which leaves lots of space for the expression of the Aglianco grape.

The DOCG has a good co-op and an increasing nucleus of high quality grower-producers which includes, besides the three below, Colle San Domenico, Contrade di Taurasi, Di Prisco, Molettieri, Tecce, Perillo and Tenuta Cavallier Pepe.

Three to try:

Feudi di San Gregorio 2007
£28.50 Slurp
Fresh and complex with wild berries and liquorice on the nose and delicate spicy notes in the background. Very firm, dry palate with refined tannins and elegant length. Drink: 2012–2017. Alc: 13%

Mastroberardino, Radici 2007
£29.50–£32 (2005) Amordivino, Wine Circle
Nicely defined floral-herby nose with sweet ripe fruit at the back. Quite soft on the palate with classy tannic weave and good freshness on the finish. Needs time to absorb the oak. Drink: 2013–2017. Alc: 13.5%

Villa Raiano, Raiano 2007
N/A UK www.villaraiano.com
Ripe, concentrated oaky fruit on the nose with suggestions of wild herbs. Juicy berry fruit on the palate with lots of smoothed out tannin and a big, round, velvety finish. Drink: 2012–2017. Alc: 14%


Bardolino

Bardolino, from Lake Garda in the Veneto, has been one of the victims of the opinion that held sway in Italy over the past 20 years that ‘light’ and ‘red’ were contradictions in terms.

The unpopularity of its traditional character prompted attempts at restyling, which went from the Beaujolais Nouveau-model Novello through the oaked-up Bardolino Superiore, to the sparkling pink Chiaretto.

Now, after the string of mutations, which did more to cover up the real issues (chronic over-cropping and casual winemaking) than resolve them, Bardolino is returning to the pale, juicy reds with the cherry and almond aromas that it does best. Except that today, it is making them much, much better.

Lake Garda looks set to play a strategic role in the reds of the Veneto in the future. With production of the fresh style of Valpolicella rapidly declining, it is Bardolino that has picked up the standard of the dry, tangy Corvina-based wines which used to be the stock in trade of the hills of Verona.

Unoaked and not more than 12.5% alcohol, these delicious reds prove that personality depends on varietal integrity and sense of place, rather than huge concentration, and that ‘light’ and ‘red’ can after all be complementary.

Three to try:

Le Fraghe 2009
£8.95 The Wine Society
Natural grapey nose, with red cherry fruit and sweet almond aromas. Fresh, juicy palate, fine dry tannins at the back and a long finish with hints of mint and fennel. Drink: 2011–2012. Alc: 12%

Giovanna Tantini 2009
£12.50–£13.50 Bat & Bottle, Wine Library, Winetraders
Delicate, very personal nose with aromas of pressed flowers, cherry and liquorice. Ripe fruit, smooth tannins and a bone dry, savoury finish with lots of length.
Drink: 2011–2013. Alc: 12%

Raval, Classico 2010
N/A UK +39 (0)4 57 23 65 69
Lovely, fresh maraschino and almonds on the nose with floral notes at the side. Zippy palate with crisp acidity, good tannic presence and tight-packed fruit concentration in the finish. Drink: 2011–2012. Alc: 12.5%


Marsala

Until a very short time ago, Marsala had been given up for dead. Today, in the wake of the general interest created by the Sicilian wine boom, it is slowly making a comeback.

This timid revival needs to be put in perspective. Sadly, if you Google the word ‘Marsala’, you still get pages and pages of cookery sites. It will be a long time before Sicily’s historic fortified wine liberates itself from its image as a cheap ingredient for sauces.

But today it is possible to drink Marsalas of quality and character, either in the searingly intense salty-dry style or the more accommodating grapey semi-secco.

The interest starts at the Superiore Riserva level, which must be at least four years old, and increases with the age of the wine through the categories of vergine (or soleras) to vergine/soleras stravecchio and riserva.

For the ultimate experience, get your hands on one of the rare, very old vintage riservas from Florio, Rallo or Pellegrino – wines of extraordinary intensity for enthralled sipping.

But do not disdain the more readily available wines from these producers’ wide ranges. There are intentionally no drink dates here: Marsala lasts indefinitely

Three to try:

De Bartoli, Oro Vigna La Miccia, Superiore
N/A UK www.marcodebartoli.com
Sweet hazelnut and date aromas, with sultana and a hint of saltiness. Lovely round, sweet fruit palate, with great freshness and zippy mineral finish. Alc: 18%Florio, Ambra Donna Franca, Semisecco 15 Years,

Superiore Riserva
N/A UK www.cantineflorio.it
Rich nose of sultana, walnuts and figs with a distinctive salty nuance. Well-knit palate with bright acidity to contrast the spirit and an elegant sweetness to underline the fruit and green walnut finish. Alc: 19%

Pellegrino, Vergine Riserva 1981
N/A UK www.carlopellegrino.it
Mature, austere nose with great mineral intensity and subtle dried fruit and nut aromas. Bone-dry palate, with mouthwatering acidity and an intense, slightly spirity finish. Alc: 19%


Sub-14% alcohol wines

Perhaps it is the implosion of the market for hyper-concentrated show wines, perhaps a response to society’s slightly edgy awareness of the health issues associated with alcohol, or just the basic realisation that the opportunities for drinking blockbuster wines, however theoretically well-balanced, are limited in everyday life.

Whatever the reason, there is growing consensus in Italy that it is time to throttle back on the alcohol. This does not mean stripping down Barolo, Brunello or Amarone, but simply not pumping up the alcohol where it does not belong – in wines made for pleasurable, everyday drinking with a meal.

This implies a greater focus on what used to be Italy’s core business before the advent of the attention-grabbing ‘SuperTuscans’: food-friendly, medium-bodied wines from native grapes.

The country has a whole raft of varietal wines which deliver their best at under 14% and even better between 12% and 13%: Schiava from Alto Adige, Dolcetto, Lambrusco, young Chianti from theColli Fiorentini, Frappato from Sicily, Cerasuolo from Abruzzo, Lake Garda reds, Vermentino from Tuscany. All this without chasing after rarities like Blanc de Morgex from Val d’Aosta, Pigato from Liguria or Ribolla from Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

They might not all be in your supermarket yet, but keep a look out, because a lot of people believe this is where the future of wine Italian exports lie.

Three to try:

Cavicchioli, Vigna del Cristo,
Lambrusco di Sorbara 2009
N/A UK www.cavicchioli.it
Light mousse, delicate rose petal and red cherry nose. Savoury, bone-dry, mouthwatering palate with a long floral-almond finish. Drink: 2011. Alc: 11%

Glögglhof, Santa Maddalena,
Alto Adige 2009
N/A UK www.gojer.it
Irresistible cherry and spice nose. Soft, smooth, medium-weight palate with a return of red fruit and then a touch of sweet almonds on the finish. Drink: 2011. Alc: 12.5%

Malenchini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2009
£6.75–£9.99 The Wine Society, Valvona & Crolla
Dark berry fruit and violets on the nose. Fresh, dry and juicy palate, good firm finish with earthy fruit and a hint of almonds. Classic Chianti. Drink: 2011-2014. Alc: 13%


Recioto della Valpolicella

Sadly, this is a case of a reverse trend. As Amarone production continues to bulge (the 2010 grape harvest will yield more than 13 million bottles – an increase of about 4.5 million bottles on the average for the previous four years) its alter ego, the sweet Recioto, shrinks in proportion.

The percentage of the grape harvest which producers are allowed to use for dried grape wines is fixed by law, which means they have to decide whether to allot their quota to Amarone or Recioto.

With exports of the former up 40% on last year, there is no contest. Most producers continue to make at least token quantities of Recioto, but the commercial pressures are such that there is a serious risk of Verona’s sumptuous sweet red disappearing off the radar altogether in the future.

If you are one of those wine drinkers who associate rich, raisiny flavours with Christmas pudding rather than beef stew, and therefore with Recioto as opposed to Amarone, this would be a great shame.

It would also be a terrible irony, since the dried grape wines of Valpolicella were, from their Byzantine origins to the modern advent of Amarone, exclusively, lusciously sweet.

Three to try:

Monte dell’Ora, Sant’ Ulderico 2006
N/A UK www.montedallora.com
Rich and complex on the nose, with black cherry, plum and wisteria, newsprint and nutmeg. Pure dense fruit on the palate, with a distinctive raisiny follow through, bursting with flavour. Drink: 2011–2020. Alc: 14.5%

Tommaso, Bussola 2008
£31/500ml (2004) Ballantynes
Intense crushed berry nose with notes of hibiscus and nutmeg. Lovely pure blackberry on the palate, with
juicy acidity and fruity sugars in perfect balance.
Drink: 2011–2015. Alc: 12.5%

Allegrini, Giovanni Allegrini 2007
£22.50–£35/500ml Corks Out, Christopher Piper, Harvey Nichols, Imbibros, Liberty, Philglas & Swiggot, Secret Cellar, Slurp, Valvona & Crolla, Wine Direct, WoodWinters
Black cherry, plum and almond nose, with a hint of vanilla. Smooth, round palate with mellow fruit and lovely freshness to balance a substantial finish. Drink: 2011–2015. Alc: 14

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