ITALY: WHERE TRADITION MEETS MODERNITY

Ancient grapes, centuries old producers, 2000-year history of wine growing, modern techniques, French identified grapes, modern architecture, that’s Italian wine today.

 

Le Marche in Central Italy is such a region. Still largely undiscovered by tourists and US wine drinkers, it has experienced notable improvements in quality and a great boom in organic viticulture. It’s not a region flooded with commercial tourism like its neighboring Tuscany, Umbria or even Abruzzo to the north.

 

Small estates like Ciù Ciù still maintain tradition emphasizing indigenous grapes like Sangiovese and Montepulciano in the reds and Verdicchio and Pecorino varieties in the whites. They also reflect a sort of “back to the future” trend throughout the region as the winery has a range of certified organic and vegan wines that feature indigenous grapes.

 

The result: 2014 “Gotico” Rosso Piceno Superiore ($20), a blend of 70 percent montepulciano and 30 percent sangiovese grown on the slopes of Ascoli Piceno territory. Its berry fruit is wrapped with vanilla and earthy tobacco notes and it drinks firm with chewy tannins. And the 2016 Lacrima di Morro D’Alba ($18) whose lacrima grapes are grown around the town of Morro D’Alba and vinified using modern techniques. It is closed with a recyclable synthetic cork.

 

And speaking of that neighbor Tuscany, the region also has been a center of innovation over the last several decades even as it preserves many of its winemaking traditions. Ever hear of a “Super Tuscan”?

 

Ornellaia is one of the original Super Tuscans from the Bolgheri region on the Tuscan coast, which has gained world renown over the years for Bordeaux-style blends. At $240 per bottle, it can be out of reach for many. However, its sibling, Le Volte, is an affordable alternative. Le Volte can be considered a first step into the world of Ornellaia. The 2015 Le Volte ($30), a blend of 67 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and 13 percent sangiovese, was aged partly in barrels used for Ornellaia and partly in cement tanks to preserve freshness. It offers bright aromas, sweet and juicy fruit, herbs, leather and earth. It is easy to drink but still presents noticeable tannins.

 

Also in Bolgheri, Aia Vecchia is the winery of a family of growers for several generations who decided to bottle some of their harvest about twenty-one years ago. The winery focuses on Bordeaux varietals to produce a portfolio of small-lot, high-quality Super Tuscan blends.

 

The 2015 Lagone ($15), a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc shows toasty, spicy oak, with earth, yet a succulent mouthfeel, structure. It is a very good value. The 2014 “Sor Ugo” Bolgheri Superiore ($35) is more formidable. It is a Bordeaux-style blend of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet franc and 5 percent petite verdot. It is broadly fruitful with a sophisticated texture accented with spice, licorice and oak.

 

But it was in the heart of the Chianti region in the 1970s where the Super Tuscans came into being as a reaction to what some considered rigid traditional regulations for making Chianti wine. Many of these “modern” wines are quite expensive but there was a quite affordable one in my tasting, the 2014 Brancaia “TRE” ($23), named for the winery’s three estate vineyards (Brancaia Estate, Poppi Vineyard and Brancaia in Maremma) and for the wine’s three varieties, 80 percent sangiovese, 10 percent merlot and 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. Founded by a Swiss couple thirty years ago and now own by the Gallo family, it is balanced, with bright fruit, hints of spice, tobacco and leather, soft and round.

 

A more recent entry into this category showed well in my tasting – the 2015 Lucente ($30). Lucente is the second wine of Luce, which was first created in 1995 through a partnership with the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi, and is produced from Frescobaldi’s vineyards in Montalcino. A blend of sangiovese and merlot, it has concentrated, juicy fruit, licorice and a hint of coffee. It is quite lively with tobacco, and toasty and spicy oak.

 

And how about the medieval hilltown of Montepulciano in southern Tuscany, not far from Siena? Best known for its famed namesake wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, it is one of the classic appellations for sangiovese (known locally as prugnolo gentile). And yet, two of the region’s leading producers today are only several decades old and they are building a reputation for making fine Merlot, both from vineyards in the nearby Cortona DOC, in addition to Vino Nobile.

 

Though its first vineyards were acquired in 1961, Poliziano winery began producing wine in the 1980s. While focused on the traditional sangiovese-based wines of Montepulciano, Poliziano becan producing a 100 percent merlot in 2006. The 2013 “In Violas” ($27) has focused fruit that is balanced broadening oak. It drinks elegant but finishes with strong tannins.

 

Avignonesi was established in 1974 and was purchased in 2009 by a Belgian woman who has converted the property to organic and biodynamic viticulture. The 2012 “Desiderio” ($58), which was first produced in 1988, is 85 percent merlot and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon. It is intense and concentrated, with a hint of smoky, spicy notes. It’s structured but has a luscious mouthfeel.

 

And in Chianti Classico itself, tradition and modernity have developed a mutually beneficial relationship. Consider Chianti Rufina, arguably the most reliable of the seven Chianti subzones after Chianti Classico and often a better value. Castello di Nipozzano, a property that dates to the 11th century and now is owned by the Frescobaldi family, has been producing wine in the Rufina subregion for 700 years. The primarily sangiovese 2015 Nipozzano Riserva ($19) follows the more traditional Tuscan winemaking approach, which is reflected in loads of cherry fruit finishing a bit of spice.

 

The 2013 “Vecchie Viti” Riserva (The 2013 “Vecchie Viti” Riserva ($30) is made with grapes from the oldest vines (hence the name) on the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi’s Castello Nipozzano estate. It ironically is a tradition in the Frescobaldi family to dedicate thia wine to newborn babies. It is aromatic and drinks with elegance and brisk structure, offering bright berry fruits, herb, licorice and spice. An excellent value.

 

Another estate, Selvapiana has been owned by the same family for five generations but its wines show me fresh fruit and lush textures that seem more evocative of New World styles. Its 2015 Chianti Rufina ($17) offers lively cherry offset with hints of earth, a straightforward, satisfying drink. The 2013 Chianti Rufina Riserva “Bucerchiale” ($35) is much more serious and complex. A single vineyard wine produced only in the best vintages, it is fermented in stainless steel and aged in small French oak casks. Smooth with intense red fruits and savory notes, it also suggests leathery and licorice accents.

 

Just to the north of Tuscany, Tommasi, a 110-year old family winery based in Valpolicella in the Veneto is known for their Amarone, made using the ancient “appassimento” process. Because of the appassimento process (drying grapes to concentrate the juice) unique to Amarone production, its production yields a unique style of wine than better known red table wines. The 2013 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ($83) amply displays the power and opulence typical of this raisiny, complex wine. It tastes ripe and suggests sweet cherry, pepper, tobacco and mocha.

 

And then there is the young winery Tenuta Sant’Antonio founded in 1995 by four brothers whose family had tended vineyards in the Valpolicella area for years. Over those years, the winery has earned its reputation as a premium and progressive producer of 100 percent estate-grown, traditional Veneto DOC wines (Amarone, Ripasso, Valpolicella, and Soave, Passito, and Recioto della Valpolicella).

 

Being in tune with modern tastes, though, they created, Scaia a separate family estate that produces wines utilizing the traditional grapes of the area, as well as international varietals with higher acidity and bolder fruit characteristics intended to appeal to contemporary tastes. The 2013 Paradiso ($18) is a fruitful blend of corvina (60 percent), corvinone (15 percent), rondinella (15 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (10 percent). The 2014  Torre Mellotti ($15) comprised of 100% cabernet sauvignon, with half of the grapes dried for 1 month, that would rival any California Cab at that price.

 

In the far northeast corner of Italy, in the shadow of the Dolomites, Italy’s Alto Adige is largely known for producing crisp and aromatic white wines from a range of indigenous varietals. Red wines from the region’s native grapes, such as lagrein, are growing in recognition as well. And who better to make an enticing wine of this distinctive grape than Alois Lageder, a family owned winery with six generations of winemaking history in the region near Bolzano that has emerged as arguably the most influential producer in the region respecting traditional winemaking methods, while working to advance biodynamic farming. His 2014 Lagrein ($25) is dense and dark with spicy notes.

 

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.