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Italian Wines: The Stars

RICHARD BAUDAINS picks out Italy's 10 most exciting producers of the moment, and explains why they're making headlines

There are few more exciting places in the wine world right now than Italy. Fabulous indigenous grapes, a real quality drive in all regions and a new, dynamic generation. Add to this some fantastic recent vintages and it’s obvious why Italian wines are causing such a stir. This selection of 10 stars of today includes brand new estates showing their first vintage, established ones taking a new direction and – stretching the theme a little – a rediscovered estate. Most work with Italian varieties and many look to define their wines in terms of local identity. All have a message.

Italian wines: Azienda Agricola Zuani, San Floriano (Friuli Venezia Giulia)

Two years ago Patrizia Felluga left the frenetic whirl of the family winemaking business to create her own terroir wine. She bought a property in the heart of the Collio and set about fulfilling her desire to do something completely different. In a region where a typical 7ha (hectare) winery might make up to a dozen different monovarietals, Patrizia is the first – and to date the only – producer to put everything she grows into a single white wine. She confesses: ‘I did consider making one monovarietal alongside the blend, but then I thought what’s the point of half measures?’ Her approach to winemaking is equally uncompromising but, with the growing interest in unfiltered whites in Friuli, not as unconventional as it might have been five years ago. ‘It doesn’t worry me if my wines are not star bright,’ she says. ‘What I look for is structure and complexity,’

Zuani comes from a late-harvested, cold-macerated selection of Tocai, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon. It ferments and ages in all new barriques and is bottled with a dose of its own fine lees. ‘Basically it’s made like a red wine,’ says Patrizia. She advises decanting.

Zuani, Collio Bianco 2001 ****

First vintage: 2001 Annual production: 12,000 bottles Fresh citrus nose with a touch of new oak. Full, nutty flavours with a hint of ginger and a long ripe fruit finish. Late 2003–2008. £10.99–12.99

Italian wines: Casa Vinicola Zonin, Gambellara (National Portfolio)

In 1997 Zonin hired Franco Giacosa – the former technical director of Duca di Salaparuta and one of Italy’s most experienced and respected winemakers – to supervise the upgrading of the company’s 11 estates and 1,800ha of vineyard. Giacosa admits the prospect was daunting. ‘The strategy until then had been based on high production and strict cost control. Not surprisingly the result was quite lean and ordinary wines.’

Giacosa came to the conclusion that the only way forward was a clean break from the past, with wholesale replanting and the total reorganisation of vineyard management. For anyone familiar with the former house style, the effects of the new regime jump out of the glass when you taste the current vintages of Zonin classics such as the Gambellara Superiore Il Gangio or the red Conte Bolani from Friuli.

The most dramatic evidence of the change comes from the new 300ha Feudo di Principi di Butera estate in Sicily (showing at the Great Italian Decanter Fine Wine Encounter; more details on p26). The first vintage is led by a trio of big, fleshy, Mediterranean reds which immediately position Zonin among the leaders there.

Feudi di Principi di Butera, Deliella, Sicilia Nero d’Avola 2000 ****

First vintage: 2000 Production: 13,300 btls

Big, expressive nose with complex bittersweet aromas which go from plums, tobacco and night-scented stock to liquorice and dark chocolate. Young, pulpy texture on the palate but also great length. 2004–2010. £27.50; Bel

Maso Besler, Cembra (Trentino)

The longest-awaited new releases of 2002 came from Mario Pojer and Fiorentino Sandri’s Maso Besler, an estate hidden in the wilds of the Val di Cembra north of Trento, where until 10 years ago the local micro-economy was based on wood cutting and contraband grappa. Pojer and Sandri bought the semi-abandoned property in 1990, convinced of its potential. What they hadn’t reckoned on was the intransigence of the local forestry commission when it came to approving plans to clear the crumbling dry stone walls and level the gradients on the steep eroded slopes to put in vineyards. It has taken 12 years to get the estate going.

Maso Besler is quintessential Pojer and Sandri. The deliberate choice of a challenging location, unfashionable varieties (Pinot Bianco, Riesling, Incrocio Manzoni, Sauvignon and Kerner for the blended white; Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, Pinot Nero, Gropello and Negrara for the red) and the studied and original style of winemaking are typical of the independent spirit of this eternally progressive duo. It is also a reminder that there is life in Trentino beyond the bland mid-range varietals of the regional DOC.

Rosso Besler, Vignetti delle Dolomiti 2000 ****

First vintage: 2000 Production: 5,000 btls

Complex, perfumed nose, dry, intense, long palate with a note of Pinot Nero in the finish. 2003–2006. N/A UK. +39 046 165 0342


Italian wines: Azienda Agricola Sergio Marchetti, Montalcino (Tuscany)

More bureaucracy and another long-delayed debut. It is hard to grasp the logic of a legislation that denied DOCG status to a vineyard planted in 1984 on one of the best slopes in Montalcino with the top selections of the local Sangiovese. The fact remains that until a change in the law in 1995, instead of making Brunello, Sergio Marchetti was obliged to put his grapes into a vino da tavola. He began DOCG production in 1997, and was fortunate in starting out with a great vintage, but since then he has navigated his way through much less favourable ones, including the prematurely written-off 2002, with brilliant results. The secret of the power, depth and balance which characterise Marchetti’s Italian wines are his old vines and the old-fashioned asset of being small and quality driven. As Adriano Bambagioni, the winemaker member of the family, says, ‘With 2.5ha and four people who know the job, you can keep on top of almost everything that happens in the vineyard, provided you are prepared to sacrifice quantity for quality.’

Fossacolle, Brunello di Montalcino 1998 ****

First vintage: 1997 Production: 8,000 btls

Ripe plum nose with a touch of pot pourri and liquorice at the back. Vigorous palate, full of energy with ripe tannins and good length. Late 2003–2008. £29.95–31.95; Lib, P&S


Italian wines: Fattoria di Fiano, Certaldo (Tuscany)

The last 10 years have seen Chianti Classico consolidate its position as the Chianti, at the expense of the satellite zones. The undeniable quality leap in the Classico DOCG has been accompanied, however, by a distinctive swing towards international-style red Italian wines. For the perfumed, floral style of Chianti and above all for wines with a more distinctive sense of place, you often have to look elsewhere. One alternative source is the large and heterogenous but rapidly modernising Colli Fiorentini. Exemplary of the best things happening in the region is the Fattoria di Fiano. Owner Ugo Bing is a graduate agronomist who brings cutting-edge viticultural research to the selection and growing of Sangiovese and the traditional Chianti varieties such as Cannaiolo and Colorino which have been replaced almost everywhere in the Classico zone by Cabernet and Merlot. Federico Staderini, one of Tuscany’s most sensitive winemakers and consultant to an impressive group of terroir-oriented small growers, advises here. The result is a Chianti which combines the beguiling drinkability of the Colli Fiorentini with a new depth, complexity and capacity to age.

Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2000 ****

First vintage: 1997 Production: 15,000 btls

Soft, fruity and well defined on the nose; great fruit entry, fine, ripe tannins at mid-palate and lovely aromatic/berry finish. 2003–2006. N/A UK. +39 057 166 9048

Roccolo Grassi, Mezzane di Sotto (Veneto)

Marco Sartori is a very capable young winemaker with independent views that include unfashionable reservations about the current Amarone boom: ‘The market wants Amarone at the moment, but I think as a producer you must be cautious. Of the 4.5 million bottles being turned out these days, only around 10% is of a quality that I would like to produce.’ Sartori makes a major-league Amarone, in tiny quantities. He makes four times the amount of Valpolicella Superiore, which he sees as a key product. More and more producers are treating this denomination as a kind of scaled-down Amarone, using one of the various permitted options to give Valpolicella a dried grape character. Marco has abandoned this practice. Instead he has launched a project on the new family estate aimed at creating a classic-style dry red from Valpolicella varieties which is independent of Amarone. Contrary to the Veronese practice of sourcing both Italian wines from the same plots, he planted a separate vineyard for his Valpolicella.

Valpolicella Superiore 1999 ****

First vintage: 1998 Production: 8,000 btls

Fruit, incense and a distinctive note of tobacco leaf on the nose. Round and full on the palate, a little warm, but lots of interest in the aroma. 2003–2005. N/A UK. +39 045 888 0089

Librandi, Ciru Marina (Calabria)

Nicodemo Librandi recalls that when he first started trading in the north of Italy, a client once returned an order because he realised that the wines had been made in the south. It has come a long way since then, the prejudices replaced by enthusiasm for modern Mediterranean styles. Calabria, however, has been slower to develop than other southern regions. There are several reasons for this, but a major cause is the dependence on a local variety, Gaglioppo, with a certain lack of star quality. Librandi is the first producer to scientifically explore the alternatives and apply the findings to super-premium production. It currently has 126 local varieties under observation, many of which, says vine genetics guru Attilio Scienza, have been grown in the region for more than 2,000 years.

Its big new Val di Neto estate, bought in 1998 and completely replanted, is dedicated entirely to native varieties of Italian wines. Two in particular stand out – the red Magliocco, responsible for the new top-of-the-range Magno Megonio, and a white called Mantonico (first vintage from this variety due out this year). Predictions are it will revolutionise opinion not only about Calabria but about Italian white wines in general. (Librandi is also at our May Encounter)

Val di Neto, Magno Megonio Rosso 2000 ****

First vintage: 1998 Production: 12,000 btls

Long, sweet berry fruit on the nose and a palate which begins low key then opens very full with mellow tannins and gentle herby aromas in the finish. 2003–2008. £23.50; Swg

Tenuta Le Querce, Barile (Baslicata)

It is unusual to find an estate the size of the Tenuta Le Querce which grows only one variety, and even more remarkable when the variety is indigenous. If you ask the owner Leonardo Pietrafesa whether he had ever considered planting a couple of hectares of Cabernet or Merlot to make his wines more approachable for international palates, he replies with disarming directness: ‘We believe in Aglianico.’ The Pietrafesa family bought the estate, which is situated between 400 and 450m above sea level on the side of a dead volcano, in 1998. The previous owners were contract growers and the vineyards had been pruned for quantity, not quality. Once yields were cut, the old vines began to turn out concentrated wines with great depth and character. After two vintages Pietrafesa identified the plot he needed to make the single-vineyard cru, which came out for the first time last year and crowns what must be southern Italy’s most exciting monovarietal range. The debut vintage of Vigna della Corona came from yields of 25hl/ha, macerated for 35 days, matured for 14 months in wood and should age for decades.

Vigna della Corona, Aglianico di Vulture 2000 *****

First vintage: 2000 Production: 6,000 btls

Berry fruit nose with a smoky edge, enormous length and precise definition. Concentrated flavours, huge but ripe and well-balanced extract, infinite length in the finish. 2005–2200. £35; C&T

Podere Forte, Castiglione d’Orcia (Tuscany)

Podere Forte is in a new DOC zone between Montalcino and the Maremma with no previous history of quality wine production. The discovery of the potential of the area is part of the behind-the-scenes story which features the consultancy team of Attilio Scienza-Donato Lanati (the same which advises Librandi – see above) and an electronics manufacturer with a passion for viticulture. The crucial importance of working with good grapesfor Italian wines is universally recognised today. Few producers, however, have invested at the level of this new estate in applying soil science and viticultural research to the business of making great wine. Owner Pasquale Forte explains the rational of the investment: ‘In order to make a wine with the unique personality of its terroir you have to get the absolute best out of the vines, and the only way to do that is to understand the natural processes in the vineyard.’ This includes the use of wizardry which measures the length of the roots and soil humidity to the depth of a metre, monitoring the rate of photsynthesis and analysing trace elements in the leaves. Judging by the spectacular first vintage of Forte’s Sangiovese/Merlot/ Cabernet blend, Guardiavigna, the data is put to good use.

Guardiavigna Orcia 2000 ****

First vintage: 2000 Production: 1,500 btls

Intense but very young, unformed oaky-fruit nose. Rather tight and severe extract, but lots of fruit and good acidity to balance the alcohol. 2005–2015. N/A UK. +39 057 788 7488

Azienda Agricola Bucci, Ostra Vetere (Marches)

To conclude, a subject for a case study demonstrating that to be the hottest thing on the block it is not always necessary to be new. Bucci has been making wines in the same traditional way since the early 1980s without attaining (or pursuing, one suspects) a particularly high media profile. In the last two years, however, its prestige rating has soared. The methods Bucci and his veteran consultant winemaker Giorgio Grai developed for the Villa Bucci Riserva have been described as anachronistic in the past, but with today’s growing interest in pre-technological approaches to white Italian wines they have started to look contemporary and Gambero Rosso awards for the last two vintages (1998 and 1999) have focused attention on the riserva as a model for a uniquely white Italian wines. Bucci selects the grapes from five different vineyards, vinifies and ages each lot separately and then assembles the best barrels to obtain the balance and complexity he is looking for. He ferments at natural cellar temperatures and ages his wines in traditional Slavonian oak barrels for around 18 months. The wine comes out after three years and is made to last for at least another 10. Taste the wines of Bucci at Decanter’s May event.

Villa Bucci, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva 1998 *****

First vintage: 1983 Production: 20,000 btls

Concentrated and long on the nose, with notes of mirabelle plums and herbs and lots of development still in store. Great structure and beautiful balance. Long and intense in the finish. 2003–2010.

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