As wine is produced in all twenty regions of Italy, and there are thousands of producers growing hundreds of varietals, it’s no wonder that there are so many Italian wines that are relatively unknown. Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino and Amarone may be iconic wines in Italy and thus serve as calling cards for those looking to discover the greatest from the country, but the reality – as with most wine-producing nations – is that the less famous wines are the ones that better define what a country’s wine industry is all about.
Having traveled to Italian wine regions for more then two decades, I’ve had the opportunity to sample thousands of wines, which include the celebrated ones mentioned above, and more often than not, beautifully made wines from all over the country that are well made and reflect the territory quite well; these are the wines that are too often overlooked by the critics, but are wines that are consumed and loved by the locals. Let’s look at a few selections – white, red and sparkling – that I believe embody the true spirit of the Italian wine industry.
Vigneti di Ettore Valpolicella Classico 2020 – Valpolicella is one of the true parameters of the wine industry in Veneto, and indeed, in all of Italy. The Valpolicella district, situated north and west of the city of Verona, is home to Amarone della Valpolicella, a powerful, sometimes dazzling red wine that in its finest versions can drink well for 35-40 years. But it is the humble Valpolicella that best represents the soul of this land.
Produced from a blend of indigenous varietals such as Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella, Valpolicella has traditionally been a light to medium-bodied red with moderate tannins and appealing red cherry fruit with subtle spice notes in the finish. When Amarone became fashionable, some producers, in order to cash in on the intensity of that wine, started to craft more formidable examples of Valpolicella that seemed to betray the identity of this wine. Thankfully, more producers today make Valpolicella as it is meant to be, an enjoyable red that can be consumed upon release or paired with food over its first five years. The 2020 Valpolicella Classico (the term Classico refers to a specific district within the Valpolicella territory) is truly a classic Valpolicella, one that is delicious and complex and displays the true character of this area. It’s delicious and would pair well with most lighter pastas, red meats or even some chicken, pork or veal preparations. Another reason to recommend this wine is its price, about $20-$22 on most US retail shelves, making this a Very Good Value.
Ricci Curbastro Franciacorta Brut – Making a sparkling wine with the method introduced in the Champagne region, where the secondary fermentation takes place in the individual bottle, is a time-consuming and more costly process, but one that defines the most complex and ageworthy bubblies. This practice is known as metodo classico in Italy, and is the one used to produce Franciacorta, arguably the country’s most recognized and critically praised excellent sparkling wines.
The Ricci Curbastro estate, managed by Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, has been one of the leading Franciacorta producers over the past decade, crafting several different versions of Franciacorta, including a line of wines known as Museum Release, that receive a great deal of aging at the winery (up to 90 months on the lees!) before they are available in the marketplace. These are outstanding cuvées, that are necessarily limited in production, so it’s nice to know that the non-vintage Franciacorta Brut from Curbastro is also excellent. A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Noir, this is quite dry with appealing lemon and pear flavors and a light touch of toastiness in the aromas. It’s also quite elegant and very delicious. And at about $45 a bottle (sometimes even less), it’s very fairly priced for a wine this well made of this quality.
Teruzzi “Terre di Tufi” 2020 – Here is a lovely white wine that some twenty years ago, was one of the most famous in all of Italy; while it’s not as well-known as it should be today – thanks in large part to so many excellent whites from several regions in the country – Terre di Tufi is still a remarkable wine, and one that is making a comeback as far as publicity; it’s quality has not suffered over all these years. (Note: the wine was originally known as Terre di Tufo, but given the possible confusion with the famous Campania white wine, Greco di Tufo, the name was changed.)
Produced from a blend of 50% Vernaccia – the indigenous white varietal of the town of San Gimignano where Teruzzi is located – 20% Trebbiano Toscano, 15% Chardonnay and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, the wine is matured in stainless steel along with mid-sized and older barrels; the pear, apricot and melon fruit is lovely, while the jasmine floral perfumes are hypnotic. This is very rich on the palate and offers notable complexity. I would pair this with rich seafood and lighter game birds, or even roast chicken. Yes, there is excellent white wine produced in Tuscany! Enjoy over the next 6-8 years.
Riecine Chianti Classico 2020 – Riecine, located in the commune of Gaiole in Chianti in the southern reaches of the Chianti Classico zone, has been one of the major players in this territory over the last half dozen years, yet you rarely hear about them. Perhaps this has to do with the large number of producers of Chianti Classico, but I tend to think the reasoning for this is that the owners are more interested in producing excellent wines as opposed to a huge marketing campaign. The vineyards are located in an ideal setting and the cellar work is imaginative, as most of the wines are fermented in concrete egg vessels; this was inaugurated by former winemaker Sean O’Callahan (now at Tenuta di Carleone in Radda in Chianti); current enologist Alessandro Campatelli has continued with this practice, with the result being minimalist winemaking that promotes varietal purity. The 2020 Chianti Classico is what I love about a traditional version of this wine, as it emphasizes the delicious red cherry fruit of Sangiovese (this is 100% Sangiovese), with appealing freshness, moderate wood notes and tannins and beautiful harmony, along with excellent complexity; this is a wine that will please novices and long-time wine professionals alike.
Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Vigneto Bucerchiale 2018 – While Chianti Classico is the best known district of the large Chianti zone, there are other sub-districts that are home to several renowned producers. Directly east and slightly north of the city of Florence, Chianti Rufina (pronounced ru-fee-na) is home to some of the highest vineyards plantings in all of Chianti, and one of the premier producers from here is Fattoria Selvapiana. Proprietor Francesco Giuntini Antinori first produced this wine from the 1979 vintage, and makes it only in the best vintages. 100% Sangiovese, matured in French barriques, the wine displays appealing cherry, orange zest and rosemary aromas and is medium-full on the palate, which is typical of the 2018 vintage in this area. The wood notes are subdued and the tannins are round; this is a highly complex, flavorful Chianti Rufina with great charm and style. Enjoy it tonight or over the next 5-8 years.
Donnachiara Campania Aglianico 2021 – Aglianico is the most important red varietal of Campania in southwest Italy, as it is the grape that is the basis of Taurasi, not only the region’s most famous red wine, but also one of the country’s longest-lived; examples from the 1950s are still drinking well. Many producers of Taurasi make a lighter, more approachable version of Aglianico, and Donnachiara has two notable examples. The Irpinia Aglianico (the current release is from 2020), has received more press, as it is slightly richer on the palate and is a beautifully made, less expensive alternative to Taurasi. But this Campania Aglianico from 2021, is a sheer delight, as it delivers the dark cherry fruit of the varietal in an immediately approachable style. The wine was not aged in oak, so there is excellent varietal character, while the moderate tannins are sleek and round. What a delicious red wine for $18 a bottle! Pair tonight with most red meats, duck breast or roast lamb or wait another two to three years to enjoy. Excellent value.
Andrea Felici Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Superiore 2021 – Andrea Felici and his son Leopardo have made their estate into one of the absolute finest in the Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi territory in a short time. They are best known for their brilliant Verdicchio Riserva “Il Cantico della Figura” from a single vineyard at their estate; this wine in the opinion of many (myself included) is one of Italy’s ten greatest white wines, but this superiore offering, their only other wine, is also first-rate. The newly released 2021 is all about freshness, finesse and varietal purity, with melon and citrus fruit and perfumes of white flowers. Verdicchio is arguably the finest white wine type in Italy – it is certainly among the longest lived – and this example from Andrea Felici is outstanding and a classic example of Verdicchio, and as it’s priced between $18 and $20 on most US retail shelves, this is an Amazing Value.
Santa Barbara (Stefano Antonucci) Castelli di Verdicchio Riserva “Tardivo Ma Non Tardo” 2018 – The Santa Barbara winery, located in the town of Barbara in Marche, is sometimes referred to as Stefano Antonucci for its imaginative and dynamic proprietor. His signature white wine – he also produces brilliant red wines – is this cleverly-named Verdicchio riserva named “Tardivo ma non tardo.” Tardivo refers to late-harvested grapes, while ma non tardo means “but not late;” thus you have a wine made from late harvest grapes that is not “late,” or sweet, as you might expect.
This is a powerhouse Verdicchio, make no mistake about it, with deep concentration and a very long, fruit-driven finish that offers notes of orange peel and saffron; there is also a distinct minerality with this wine. The aromas are of guava and almond, giving this wine remarkable distinctiveness and complexity. This would be excellent paired with very rich seafood or cornish hen, while the wine will offer even greater character in another half dozen years. This is a remarkable wine every release, and the 2018, with its precise acidity, is one of the finest examples I’ve tasted to date.