With travel to and within Europe restricted and at times onerous (masks, new forms to fill out, restrictions on numbers allowed into restaurants and museums)—this is an ideal year to delay physical travel and instead virtually visit Italy via videos, books, podcasts, music and wine.
Below are brief notes about four different Italian regions producing vintages. These are not wine appellations but larger, politically administrative regions (of which the country has 20). These include the northernmost (Trentino – Alto Adige), the southernmost (Sicily) as well as two others (Piedmont and Tuscany) reputed for producing iconic wines conducive to aging. These wines can be purchased from producers or regional wine boards directly, from Italian wine stores or from one of various online outlets.
Trentino – Alto Adige.
This northernmost Italian administrative region is protected from an influx of cold air by peaks to its north. The valleys also receive warm air blowing off Lake Garda and the Adriatic Sea to the south. These airflows, combined with 300 days of annual sunshine, elevate mountain valley temperatures to be optimal for growing grapes. Most wines (55%+) produced in this region are reds—made from such indigenous grapes as Schiava and Lagrein, as well as from international varieties that include Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Whites are produced from several varieties that include Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Müller-Thurgau.
Grapes grow at elevations approximately between 600 and 3,300 feet (200 to 1,000 meters) above sea level, and a high percentages of these wines are classified as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in terms of quality—meaning both this region’s terroir and techniques are optimal for making good quality wine.
Consider sampling well priced wines, such as those listed below.
Weissburgunder. Alte Reben. Selezione. 2017. (Alto Adige DOC.)
This 14% alcohol high-altitude Pinot Gris wine includes sharp, brittle, flinty and acidic aromas—including notes of green apples. In the mouth, the slicing sharp flavor gives way to roundness and includes tastes of lemon, lime and a bit of salt. A hard to beat crowd pleaser.
K. Martini & Sons. Maturum Chardonnay. 2017. (Alto Adige DOC.)
This 100% DOC Chardonnay from Alto Adige grows over gravel soils and is aged for six months in oak barriques. It includes aromas of green apples, pears and a slight hit of gooseberries and lime. The taste is crisp and the length is lasting. In the mouth a rounded flavor of green apples coats the cheeks, and there is an overall taste of tropical fruits with a hint of lime and salt. After ten minutes in the glass, the green apple taste melds with that of butterscotch and this light taffy-apple taste turns creamy. As precise as a well-made dry Riesling with minerality, but more softly layered.
Peter Zemmer. Riesling. 2019. (Alto Adige DOC.)
From a winery that has existed for over 90 years comes this Riesling with aromas of honey, green apples, lemon drops and even pine needles. In the mouth this is full and creamy with tastes of Bartlett pears, green apples, gooseberries and yellow plums. The racy acidity is slightly cloaked beneath a veneer of sweetness, and the length includes minerality.
Peter Zemmer. Rolhüt Pinot Noir. 2019. (Alto Adige DOC.)
Made from grapes grown at 450 meters (1,400 feet) above sea level above loam and chalk soils, half this Pinot Noir is aged in large French oak barrels, and half in smaller, two- to three-year old French oak barriques before these juices are blended together. This 13% alcohol wine is light in color and includes aromas of blackberries, blueberries and cola with a streak of lime acidity and hint of eucalyptus. An easy drinking wine with flavors of black cherries, raspberries, pine nuts and salt. The acidity is pronounced and the length includes a hint of a taste of salty Dutch licorice.
The relatively large administrative region of Tuscany within central-northern Italy includes multiple wine appellations. Although it abuts the Ligurian Sea (part of the Mediterranean) the hilly interior provides it with an overall continental climate (hot summers, cold winters). The ruling red grape here is Sangiovese—a relatively fickle, early blooming, late harvested variety with high acidity and tannins that prefers very warm—though not too hot—temperatures. Sangiovese is the key grape used to make Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino wines.
Representative well priced wines include the following.
Gagliole. Colli della Toscana Centrale. 2016. (IGT.)
This 14.5% alcohol Tuscan Sangiovese wine includes smoothly integrated aromas of blackberries and smoke, fresh raspberries, ripe plumbs and star anise. In the mouth the flavors, tannins and acidity are well integrated with ample tastes of red fruit and even mild cola on the length. An Argentinian taster described it colorfully as, ‘full of energy and freshness; like in the morning putting your head out the window.’
Ridolfi. Brunello di Montalcino. 2015. (DOCG.)
This 14% alcohol wine with a brick color is aged 36 months in large Slavonian oak casks before being further aged for one year in bottle. Aromas include plums, cola, tar, blackberries, sage and a hint of bushfire smoke. The taste is balanced and light and includes that of oranges, sultanas and hickory with a balanced ribbon of both sweetness and acidity in the mouth.
Francone. Gallina Barbaresco. 2016. (DOCG.)
This 15% Barbaresco is ruby colored and ages for 18 months in French barrels and subsequently in bottles. The wine includes a huge bouquet with a layer cake of aromas: maple syrup, blood oranges, cherries, pencil lead and menthol. In the mouth this provides a rich, robust and velvety array of flavors that include oranges, burnt caramel, mint, sage and rosemary. Think spice rack with a ribbon of orange citrus. Wow!
Ridolfi. Fiero Toscano Rosso. 2017. (IGT.)
Aromas of red fruit, roasted chestnuts, cranberries and pencil lead. In the mouth—a coherent and bright ray of red fruit, including juicy raspberries as well as tastes reminiscent of shortbread and butterscotch. An altogether pleasing length.
The northern half of Italy resembles a (tilted) letter T, and the bulk of the left (western) part of the horizontal bar is the Piedmont region—which means ‘foot of the mountains’ (the peaks being the Alps). The climate is influenced by air from chilly Alps to the north and warm Mediterranean winds blowing in from the south. Growing above a complex limestone base are primarily two red grapes—Nebbiolo (producing Barolo and Barbaresco wines) and Barbera. White wines include Arneis, as well as other popular international varieties.
Well priced wines to try include those listed below.
Forte Masso. Barolo. 2015. (DOCG.)
Initial aromas of sultanas and ash, cigar and limestone. Tastes include marmalade, with characteristics of a modern Barolo—suave rather than austere. This alive and generous wine pumps out brilliant, focused energy. Pair with duck breast, or even banana chocolate crème brûlee—where sweetness complements the wine’s acidity.
Malvirà Treuve. Langhe Bianco. 2015. (DOC.)
This winery is located a 20-minute drive north of Alba in the Piedmont region. This 40/40/20 blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Arneis is fermented in oak and aged one year in barrel and for one year in bottle. The Arneis adds aromas of green apples and freshness, and overall aromas include those of juicy pears. This wine is full, generous and juicy within the cheeks, with slight spice; tastes includes those of tropical fruits and oranges. Think Gewürztraminer meets Pinot Gris. Pair with sashimi, lamb lasagna or pear cobbler.
The large island of Sicily is geologically complex and includes the frequently smoking volcano of Etna. Classic red wines are made from Nero d’Avola, whereas Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio are signature grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Etna.
Salvatore Tamburello. 306 Biologico Nero d’Avola. 2017. Sicily. (DOC.)
From a producer located in western Sicily who has only produced vintages for five years comes this organic wine made from 100% Nero d’Avola. It ages 20 months in acacia barrels, and another six months in bottles. Explosive aromas are of fresh cherries, and also charcoal and smoke. In the mouth the wine is closed until it spends five minutes in the glass, after which it transforms to smoky and suave with pronounced acidity cloaked in dark fruit, with a hint of eucalyptus in the length. Pair with barbecued ribs—the wine’s acidity will cut the fat; or even with apple crumble, so acidities of both dish and drink match.