Tasting Italy’s blue chips

(by peter & susie)

Entering the vast Vinitaly wine fair on the bright, warm Friday morning was an even more chaotic and unruly process than usual.

In addition to some unorthodox door-keeping tactics, this was due to the imminent arrival of the President of the Republic.

When someone had mentioned this to us the day before, we’d blithely assumed this meant one S. Berlusconi; we were soon put right by an ice-cream-wielding nonna on the streets of Verona, who shuddered at both at our ignorance and the mention of the name. “It’s Signor Napolitano,” she had spluttered.

Shortly after this encounter, we were brushed aside by the president’s retinue in one of Verona’s narrow streets – and we managed to capture the footage below:

But whatever your viewpoint, Friday was the day to be at Vinitaly this year.

This applied to wine lovers as well as political groupies, because as well as the usual raft of attractions was the annual tasting of top Italian wines sponsored by Veronafiere. In this instance, it was a tasting entitled “The blue chips of Italian wine”.

The theme of this tasting changes every year: last year it was 12 ageworthy whites from 1996, apparently.

This year, the idea was to demonstrate that Italian wines could be great when made in significant quantities (hence the connection with the much-traded blue chip stocks, and the specifying of production quantities in the tasting sheets, reproduced below). The audience was informed that the participants had been chosen at random by computer, after factors such as awards and production levels had been inputted. I’d love to see how this process was undertaken…

As a result, the stage was shared by an intriguing collection of Italian wine aristocracy (Ferdinando Frescobaldi, Piero Antinori) and lesser known names (Willi Stürz of Cantina Tramin, Antonello Pinaldi of Cantina Santadi).

The event was clearly one of the highlights of Vinitaly, with over 200 tasters crammed into a hanger-like tasting room in the bowels of Palaexpo building. People were turned away at the door while inside the pre-tasting atmosphere had an air of feverish excitement (as much as it could be in Italy at 10:30am). Brigades of sommeliers filed in and stood to attention.

Then we started.

The shaky video below gives you a feel for the atmosphere as the tasting began:

Owing to a typically late start and quite a few wines to get through, each winery principal was limited to five minutes when introducing the one wine they were featuring. It all made for quite a breathless style of presentation, and less time than ideal for tasting in-depth, but Susie and I pooled our efforts and the notes are a result of this.

The wines detailed below represent our highlights from the 12 wines featured, fleshed out with some comments from the winery principals (as rendered by the live translation feed).

Cometa Fiano 2008 IGT Sicilia Bianco, Planeta (Menfi (Agrigento) Sicily; Production = 88,000 botts; RRP 22 Euros) – Planeta started experimenting with non-Sicilian grape varieties when it started out in the 1980s; they were clearly impressed with how Campania stalwart Fiano adapted, so much so that Alessio Planeta boldly stated that, “it is one of the most important white grapes in the world and will surely spread much further.” Deep lemon colour. Rich honeyed nose, with exotic apricot and wax. Some floral tones. Palate is pithy and somewhat alcoholic on the finish. Has good breadth, though, and some nice minerality. Good overall balance and length, made in a self-consciously broad, mouth-coating rather style rather than built around an acidic backbone. Susie rated it higher (8/10) than me (7.5/10) because she found it very drinkable, like a good Condrieu with more flavour/purity, and saw it going with a chicken and apricot tagine with couscous. For me it was a bit too spicy and sunny. But still an impressive wine. 7.75/10

Montiano Merlot, IGT Lazio 2007, Falesco, 14% (Montecchio (Terni), Umbria; Production = 55,000 bottles) – Ubiquitous Italian winemaking consultant Riccardo Cotarella was in fine fettle, proclaiming he’s “never been a believer in boundaries as far as quality goes”, lambasting Italians for promoting varieties over terroir, and saying he particularly enjoyed this wine, “not for the profits it’s given us but for what it’s proven about areas that were previously considered inauspicious”. For this project, Merlot was grafted over Trebbiano in an area near Lake Bolzano (Cotarella: “the traditional wine here was nothing special”). And the results are impressive, an elegant red, pleasantly filigree in texture and refined in structure. Savoury, old-world style with some creamy oak and gently raisined fruit. Ripe fruit, fine sinewy tannins: in Susie’s words, a stylish rendition of Merlot that is beautifully savoury/sweet. 7.5/10

Radici Taurasi DOCG 2005, Mastroberardino (Atripalda (Avellino), Campania; 100% Aglianico; Production = 80,000 bottles; RRP 20-25 Euros) – We count Mastroberardino among Italy’s winemaking elite, championing as it does a classic, almost defiant style of Campanian wine. This pure Aglianico is wild and wonderfully untamed in style, yet still beautifully harmonious, even timeless in feel. Notes of wild herbs and tobacco on the nose, with some dried fruit. The palate is firm, structured and savoury, engagingly rustic. It has personality and fire: exactly what you want from this part of the world. Lovely succulence, a real classic. Though not to everyone’s taste, this was one of Susie and my wines of the tasting (along with Sassicaia and Tignanello). 8.25/10

Terre Brune, Carignano del Sulcis Superiore DOC 2005, Cantina Santadi 14.5%, (Santadi (Carbonia-Iglesias), Sardinia; Production = 80,000 bottles; RRP 35-40 Euros) – one of the finer Carignans you’re likely to find, this refreshing, juicy number from Sardinia was a real eye-opener. Santadi is a co-op in the south-west of the island; Italian winemaking legend Guillermo Tachis helped them revolutionise their winemaking approach and focus on quality (rather than the traditional bulk shipped to France…) On the nose it has expressive cherry notes, some raisined fruit and florality. The palate is fine and grippy, with olive and mineral character. Manages the interplay of fresh acidity and firm yet round tannins quite deftly. Intense, savoury finish. Susie rated it higher (7.75/10) than me (7/10).

Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2005, Allegrini, 15% (Fumane di Valpolicella (Verona), Veneto; Production = 125,000 bottles; RRP 60 Euros; Blend = Corvina Veronese 80%, Rondinella 15%, Oseleta 5%) – Marilisa Allegrini focused on Corvina and the drying process typical of Amarone production. She asserted that DNA research at Verona University had shown Corvina was particularly well adapted to the drying process. In addition, the new “Terri di Fumane” drying centre had improved local producers’ ability to dry grapes without mould setting in, which has proved crucial, for example in rainy vintages like this 2005. “Without it, this wine wouldn’t have been made,” she commented. It’s an unquestionably modern style of Amarone: dense, ripe and polished. Silky texture and great depth. It’s a classic example of its style despite its resolute modernity, full of floral, spicy, marinated cherry flavours. Very moreish, in Susie’s words. Very young. One to match with slow cooked duck ragu, perhaps…? Lovely stuff. 8/10

Flaccionello della Pieve 2006, IGT Colli della Toscana Centrale, Fontodi, 15% (Panzano di Chianti (Firenze) Tuscany; Production = 50,000 bottles; RRP 60 Euros) – This pure Sangiovese is grown in an organically farmed south-facing amphitheatre and matured in French oak barrels. It has a beautiful nose, full of typical bitter cherry, with an elegant polished oak complexity. Initially, the palate is seriously impressive, with grippy savoury tannin, lovely Sangiovese grip and thrill. But it falls away on the back palate, becoming spicy and hot, with an inelegant and lumpy finish. It comes across as a wine that’s almost too polished, too selected, too cherry-picked for its own good. It’s all a bit too ripe, a bit too pristine – whereas a blend with some slightly less perfect grapes might have helped balance it out and ground it. As it is, it does have many lovely facets (grippy fine tannin, sour cherry flavours) but, for us, the alcohol and finish just let it down in the final reckoning. Hard to drink. 7.75/10

Ornellaia 2006, Bolgheri Rosso Superiore DOC, 15% (Bolgheri (Livorno) Toscany; Production = 140,000 bottles; RRP 120-140 Euros; Cabernet Sauvignon 56%, Merlot 27%, Cab Franc 12%, Petit Verdot 5%) – for all Ferdinando Frescobaldi made of the attention to detail lavished on this Tuscan coast blend, the wine didn’t sing. Dense and restrained but rich Bordeaux-esque nose. Pepper, black fruit, cedar hints along with a touch of volatility. Good acid, firm fine tannin and a polished style. It’s beautiful – but just too big. It smacks of a wine made for the US market and thus lacks Italian verve and swagger. Just doesn’t hang together. Shame, because there are some really good elements here. 8/10

Sassicaia 2006, Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC, San Guido, 13.5% (Bolgheri (Livorno) Toscana; Production = 180,000 bottles; RRP 130 Euros; 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cab Franc) – San Guido CEO Sebastiano Rosa claimed that, “to make a bad wine in Bolgheri, you have to be very clever”. His wine bore him out. Lovely texture and structure despite being young. Food-friendly, young, rich but not alcoholic or overblown. It’s persistent and elegant, with a long life ahead of it. The nose shows tobacco and red fruits. Lovely rounded tannin and savoury elegant tones. Mineral and drinkable. Wonderful lightness of touch yet real depth and persistence. Very good indeed. Drink 2011-2030. 8.75-9/10

Tignanello IGT Toscana Rosso 2006, Antinori, 13.5% (Firenze (Toscana); Production = 350,000 bottles; RRP 60 Euros; 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cab Franc) – Piero Antinori rose above modesty when he explaining why Tignanello was his desert-island wine. “It marked the turning point, the renaissance of Italian wine,” he explained. And his wine showed very well on the day. Bittersweet cherry and coffee aromas with some plum and floral perfume. Tobacco emerges with time in glass. Soft texture initially, broad. Layered, really savoury and elegant. Balanced, quite profound but young. Long, complex, lovely. Needs time though can drink now. Spicy, slightly leathery finish. Good Sangiovese character but excellent structure. Will improve with age. Along with the Sassicaia and Radici, the wine of the tasting. 9/10