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W.O.W. Italia

Before you spend another buck on overpriced
Bordeaux or California Cabs...take a second look
at Italy. Even the whites are suddenly more interesting.

(January 21, 1999) You can't get much higher – without leaving this earth – than Windows on the World. And you can't get much hotter than the new-release Italian wines I tasted there yesterday.

     Michael Skurnik Wines was showcasing Mark de Grazia's Italian portfolio and I'll tell you what – suddenly I'm a whole lot more interested in Italy.

     Why? Well, for starters, I am absolutely bone-weary of steadily rising prices for Bordeaux, Burgundy and California wines that are not any better than they were a few years ago. But here, suddenly, I was looking at a new paradigm. Fairly reasonable prices...for some of the best new Italians I've tasted in years.

     Let's start by mentioning a few whites. Yeah, that's right. Italian Whites. Don't knock 'em till you try 'em. The best of these delivered on an old promise about Italian whites that I've often heard, but rarely tasted in the glass. Not only are they food-friendly and way different from the French stuff – they're actually worth drinking.

     **1997 GINI SOAVE SUPERIORE "SALVARENZA" will make you forget forever all that neutral, acidy dreck you swallowed at parties back in the seventies. 40% barrel-fermented, it has plenty of leesy, melony favors to seduce Chardonnay lovers. But it's also wonderfully fresh and quenching on the palate. Great stuff to match with a salty antipasto or even a Caesar Salad. Best Soave and one of the best Italian whites I've ever tasted.

     For less money, the 100% tank-fermented *1997 GINI SOAVE CLASSICO "LA FROSCA" may please some folks even more. Crisper, with more noticeable acidity, but nearly as long and satisfying.

     I also liked 1997 MAZZINI MONTECARLO BIANO "LA SALITA." This one's a mish-mash of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Roussanne, Semillon and other stuff, but the result is a lovely, lively wine with real focus. Lots of fruit to follow up on the familiar Italian bite.

     Among the Vernaccias, 1996 LE CALCINALE VERNACCIA DI SAN GIMIGNANO "VIGNA SASSI" rang my chimes. All the zing you want plus a big burst of grapefruit in your face.

     And *1997 POLENCIC PINOT GRIGIO "FRIULI" was very nice too. Actually, more than nice. Beautiful, oily mouthfeel to it.

     Finally, although Italian Chardonnays hardly ever impress me – 1997 LA SPINETTA CHARDONNAY "LIDIA" came close. Has terrific fruit and good length. Now, if they could only dial back the oak about 50%...

Value. What a concept!

     Perhaps the most wondrous strange wines I encountered all day came from SANTA LUCIA. Strange, because they came from the all-but-unheard-of Southern appellations of Rosso Murgia and Castel de Monte – the latter dominated by a mysterious, ancient grape called Uva de Troia. Wondrous, because they are very reasonably priced for the pleasure they give.

     The *1996 SANTA LUCIA ROSSO MURGIA "VIGNA POZZO" is soft, sexy and deliciously different. Folks who drink wine daily need this wine badly, especially at about $8 a bottle.

     Priced at only a tiny bit more, *1997 SANTA LUCIA CASTEL DEL MONTE is a spicier, more structured wine that also reveals deeper fruit.

     And, if you want to pay over $10, * 1995 SANTA LUCIA CASTEL DEL MONTE "RISERVA," aged partially in new oak, is a serious rival to more expensive Tuscans.

Blood on the tracks

     Antonio Terni of Le Terrazze was wearing a Bob Dylan T-shirt as he poured his blood-red wines. I forgot to ask him why, but somehow it seemed appropriate as I tasted...

     **1997 LE TERRAZZE ROSSO "CHAOS." It won't be released until October 1999, and as so often is the case with Marc de Grazia VDTs, only 200 cases have been made. But this stuff rocks. Black as a hole – and powerful! – the totally weird cepage includes 50% Montepulciano, with the remainder Merlot, Syrah and a squirt of Cabernet Sauvignon.

     Also available in tiny amounts is *1996 LA TERRAZZE ROSSO CONERO "SASSI NERI." The appellation is located along the Adriatic – in the Marche region, where I believe the Robert Mondavi family traces its roots. The grape is Montepulciano and this bottling represents the pick of the vintage. It's dark (of course!), structured stuff that seems to be capable of some aging.

     But just as you're thinking this winery is all about whallop, you taste the 1998 LA TERRAZE VIGNA TUTAROLI, a white blend of 50% Chardonnay, with the remainder Bombino Bianco and Pampanuto. Elegant and charming!

Tuscany's ba-ck. (But what to buy?)

     Tuscan wine fans are going to be facing a high-class problem in the coming year. There's such a variety of good stuff arriving, as soon as you say to yourself, "yes, that's a buy," you taste something equally yummy or better.

     Personally, I'm going to be concentrating on the non-traditional Vino da Tavolas (aka Super Tuscans). It's not that the top Chiantis and Brunellos aren't good. Many are excellent. But once again, the new VDTs I tasted tended to be fresher, fruitier and beefier. Plus, they don't cost much more. In fact – here's the really odd part – some are less expensive than the traditional stuff from the same winery.

     And get this: most of the VDTs mentioned below are rarer as well. So I'm thinking, if I can lay my hands on a few bottles of these tiny-production, new wave gems, why bother with the commoner stuff?

     Here's what I mean:

     PIAZZANO'S worthy top-of-the line 1996 and 1995 Chianti Riservas will be on the shelves for something like $18. But for only a few dollars more, you can have their gorgeous *1995 or *1996 VDT "PIAZZANO" (choose either year – both are outstanding). The latter is also 100% Sangiovese, but it's been aged in smaller barrels and tastes and lot juicier and less oxidized. Unless you like oxidation, this is a no-brainer!

     Or consider one of my favorite Tuscan producers, Caterina Dei. Her *1995 DEI VINO NOBILE DI MONTEPULCIANO" was showing a lot of beautiful fruit – much more than bottle I purchased locally late last year – and her *1994 RISERVA was very complex and satisfying. But her VDT, the *+1995 SANCTA CATERINA" knocked my socks off. What a bombshell!

     It's 30% Cab, 30% Syrah, 30% Sangiovese and 10% Petit Verdot – and full of dark Bordelaise nuances to complement the bright Tuscan cherry flavors. It's going to be painfully scarce, because only 1 hectare of the Dei estate is planted to non-Sangiovese varieties. But the price is just a few bucks more than the 1994 Riserva. Again, if I can get a few, they're going in my cellar.

    But the perhaps the best examples of fabulous VDTs come from the two tiny giants of Tuscany...

     1. LIVIO SASSETTI PERTIMALI. All their reds were swell. The lipsmacking sample I tasted of their 1997 ROSSO DI MONTALCINO is a bargain in today's market – and the **1994 BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO was wonderfully full, deep and long. But then I tasted the **1996 VDT "VIGNA FILLI DI SETA" and fell in love. It seemed to me every bit as serious as the Brunello, with even more sweet fruit, plus a fantastic aroma of violets that stopped me in my tracks. The wine is 50% Cab and 50% Sangiovese Grosso, and again, only 200 cases will be available. But this wine is also about eight dollars cheaper than the more plentiful Brunello. So what would you do?

     2. CIACCI PICCOLOMINI D'ARAGONA. Like Luvio Sassetti's their **1994 BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO "PIANROSSO" is also a super performance for the vintage. But for seventeen dollars less, you can get **1996 VDT "ATEO" and go to value heaven. With 75% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet and 10% Merlot. this wine delivers a ton of flavor for about $25 a bottle. And I'm betting it can age well for 10 or more years.

     Other Tuscan wines that turned my head include:

     The *1995 CHIANTI CLASSICO RISERVA "SAN MARCELLINO" and the *+1995 VDT "GEREMIA" from MONTEGROSSI. Both wines have a richness of texture you crave but don't always get from Chianti. The Geremia – with 5% Merlot – is just a little more complex.

     The 1995 CHIANTI CLASSICO RISERVA, "CAMPANINO" from TENUTA DI BIBBIANO. No lack of power and flavor in this wines. I do mark it down for being a shade too tannic and chocolatey and wonder if the winemaking could be gentler – but it's good stuff.

     Finally, I made one stunning new Tuscan discovery:

     FATTORIA AMBRA. These Carmignanos from the area northwest of Florence really knocked me out. Part of the secret would certainly seem to be – let me trot out this horse again – the blending of Sangiovese. The wines are 10% Canaiolo Nero and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and they are just beautiful. Smooth, soft, rich...light on their feet as well. The best and probably the most expensive is the **1995 AMBRA CARMIGNANO RESERVE "LE VIGNE ALTE". But you can't go wrong with the deelish 1996 CARMIGNANO or the floral-scented 1995 CARMIGNANO RISERVA "ELZANA". The last two ought to be available in the $15-$25 range.

Barolos to buy NOW.

     Now we come to what used to be one of my least favorite wines.

     I've got a feeling that Piemontese reds are going to become a lot more popular in the next couple of years among former naysayers. Not just because we're looking at some highly touted vintages, but because the new winemaking techniques seem to be paying off. It's analogous to what happened with California Cab in the early 90s, only the change is even more important, because Nebbiolo is such an unforgiving grape.

     Having said all this, let me emphasize that I'm not a total, go-for-broke convert. But I will actually be buying few of the wines I tasted – and one producer gets an unqualified, enthusiastic thumbs up.

     That producer is PAOLO SCAVINO. The top-of-the-line **1995 SCAVINO BAROLO "BRIC DEL FIASC" was among the best wines I tasted all day, and that's saying something from one who nearly always prefers Tuscans. This is a yummy mouthful, fruit flowing over the tannins, with a finish that announces you're in the presence of majesty. Plus, you don't immediately feel like running for the cheese after tasting it. (I am quite tired of hearing Barolo-fanatics tell me that you must have these wines with food to appreciate them – the same could be said for any overly tannic red.) I'm a buyer.

     The less expensive *1995 SCAVINO BAROLO and *1995 SCAVINO BAROLO "CANNUBI" were also worthy, with terrific tar-and-rose aromas and long, satisfying flavors. Both of these were bonier than the Bric del Fiasc, but the balance would even satisfy a certain buddy of mine who never has anything polite to say about Baolo.

     If you like Barolo, buy any of the Scavinos without even thinking – if you don't like it, try at least one bottle of the Bric del Fiasc before you dis the region again.

     Other Piemonte reds I'll be considering include:

     The light but soft and charming 1994 MOCCAGATTA BARBARESCO "COLE"...

     The *1994 LUIGI SCAVINO BAROLO "AZELIA"...

     The *1995 SOTTIMANO BARBARESCO "COTTO-BRICHET", which seemed to have the most interesting flavor nuances of all the Barbarescos I tasted today...

     A surprise hit, the 1996 PAITIN "PAITIN", made from a half-and-half blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera...

     And especially the *+1996 ALBINO ROCCA BARBARESCO "BRIC RONCHI", very dark and tarry-smelling, but stunning once you take a sip.

     So there you have it. A zillion new reasons to stop complaining about rising Bordeaux prices and questionable vintages – and start discovering the good news out of Italy.


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