Unexpected Pleasures — More Fine Italian Wines From Off the Beaten Path
In a previous posting on this website, I reviewed some noteworthy Italian wines that merit attention but are not particularly well known in this country. Italy is a complicated wine country with a rich and varied wine culture. Every one of Italy’s twenty regions grows grapes and produces wines and the country can lay claim to hundreds of different grape varieties.
The vast array of wines produced can be bewildering to American consumers trying to better understand and appreciate Italian wines let alone simply purchase a bottle of vino for that special-occasion dinner. Intimidated by the variety of choices available and sometimes impenetrable wine labels, many wine consumers simply opt-out of the tough choices and stay with old reliables like Chianti and Pinot Grigio.
Which is unfortunate because there are many less well-known wines from Italy that are finely-crafted, pleasurable and worth the time and effort required to become better acquainted with them. And since they are not on most consumers’ radar screens and not highly sought-after wines, they will typically be undervalued and can represent real value on a quality-to-price basis.
What follows is a review of five Italian wines from off the beaten path and hence are not generally well known in the U.S. While some may be hard to find in local wine shops, they are well worth the effort.
Abbazia di Novacella, Kerner Alto Adige Valle Isarco 2007 (about $29)
Several vineyards in the Alto Adige region in the far northeastern tip of Italy harvest a grape varietal called Kerner. A hybrid of Riesling and an indigenous grape called Schiava, the cold-tolerant Kerner thrives in this mountainous area close by the Austrian border.? Here it produces a beautifully rich-flavored, bright and floral white wine called Kerner after its main grape variety.
The Abbazia di Novacella is both a winery and working Augustinian monastery. Established in the 12th century, it has been a prominent religious and cultural center through the centuries and remains so even today.
Traditionally, where there are monasteries and monks there are also wines and, true to form, this abbey in addition to its ecclesiastical functions has produced wines for hundreds of years. While respectful of tradition, the Abbazia di Novacella winery has also embraced innovation and is today one of Italy’s most highly-regarded wineries and the abbey’s Kerner wine one of its most celebrated labels.
The ’07 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner is 100 percent Kerner. It is aromatic with fresh mountain floral scents. It is full-bodied with nectarine and green apple flavors balanced with good acidity and a little citrus fillip. It is a perfect match for shellfish as well as Thai and curry dishes. It is a perfect complement to Mussels Provencale.
Orsolani, Erbaluce di Caluso “La Rustia” 2007 (about $18)
Erbaluce is a white grape varietal that only grows in the acidic soil of several villages in and around the town of Caluso in the far northern section of the Piedmont region in the foothills of the Alps. Erbaluce grapes deliver a classic dry white wine with the mellifluous name of Erbaluce di Caluso (ehr bah loo’ chay di kah loo’ so) that is known for its high acidity, floral aromas and intense fruit flavors.
The Orsolani winery is one of only a small number of producers of Erbaluce di Caluso and Orsolani's “La Rustia” is one of the best examples of this varietal wine. “La Rustia” means the “roasted” slopes in the local Piemontese dialect, a reference to the vineyard’s ideal location for maximum sun exposure.
Vinified in stainless steel, the wine is pale yellow in color with delicate floral aromas and savory fruit flavors evocative of peaches and melons with a hint of grapefruit and other citrus fruits on the finish. It is relatively complex and the floral and fruity sensations are complemented by a bracing acidity. This dry, vibrant white wine is easy to enjoy and a perfect match for appetizers and fish and simple chicken dishes. For example, pair it with a simple lemon roasted chicken and garden greens salad for a no-sweat summer meal.
Mazzolino, Bonarda Oltrepo Pavese 2007 (about $16)
Bonarda is a little known grape (also known as Croatina) that has been cultivated for centuries in a relatively small area south of Milan known as the Oltrepo Pavese. The Oltrepo Pavese (which literally translates as 'other side of the Po River from Pavia') is in the southwestern corner of the Lombardy region and produces some wonderful wines that are not particularly well known in the U.S.
The Mazzolino Winery’s ’07 Bonarda is made from 100 percent Bonarda and is fermented and matured in stainless steel. It has a ruby-red color with purple edges and generous and interesting aromas redolent of blueberries, kitchen spices and black tea. It is medium- to full-bodied, tannic with slightly rustic wild berry fruit flavors and a touch of spice on the finish.
This wine goes well with dishes like meat-filled ravioli or agnolotti seasoned with melted butter and sage. Better yet, serve it with a selection of flavorful Italian cheeses, some salami and crusty Tuscan bread for a simple summer evening repast on the patio.
Poggio alle Sughere, Morellino di Scansano 2005 (about $20)
Morellino is a varietal that is a clone of Sangiovese, the main grape used in Chianti wines. The Morellino is grown primarily in and around the village of Scansano located in the heart of the coastal Maremma zone in the southernmost portion of Tuscany.
Morellino di Scansano (moh reh lee’ no dee skan sah’ no) wines are one of Tuscany’s best-kept secrets but are rapidly developing an enthusiastic following among Chianti and Sangiovese devotees. The Maremma’s long, hot growing season (compared to Chianti in northern Tuscany) allows grapes to develop to their maximum with high sugar levels and deliver structured wines with ripe, rich fruit flavors.
Poggio alle Sugere’s Morellino di Scansano is a blend of Sangiovese (90 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10 percent) that is vinified for eight months in small oak barrels and then spends four months in the bottle before release for sale. Generous aromas of black cherries and plums segue into a core of black fruit and berry flavors. It has a rich, round character with soft tannins but sufficient acidity to add grip.
This wine goes well with a variety of dishes like pasta with sausage, lamb chops, grilled meats or aged cheeses.
Where can I buy this wine? – Available at Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits, Total Wines and More (’03 vintage), Circle Wine and Liquor ('06 vintage) and Corridor Wine and Spirits (Laurel, MD).
Triacca, Valtellina Riserva Superiore “La Gatta” 2002 (about $30)
Northeast of Milan near the lakes region in far northern Lombardy is Valtellina, one of the most picturesque but perhaps least touristed wine regions in all of Italy. Close to the Swiss border and at about 2,500 feet in altitude, it would appear to be one of the world’s most problematic wine growing areas. It is surrounded by mountains once described by Leonardo da Vinci as “tall and terrible.” Because of the vertiginous mountain slopes the vineyards have to be terraced and the steep slopes and narrowly-terraced vineyards make mechanical harvesting difficult so most harvests are done by hand. Erosion and mudslides are also constant risks on the ultra-steep terraces during spring rains.
Despite these adverse growing conditions, the Valtellina is blessed with long hours of summer sunshine and, remarkably, the mountains serve as protection against cold Alpine winds and storms. ?So it turns out that despite the mountainous setting, the unique microclimate of the Valtellina area is quite hospitable to growing grapes for production of quality wines. Who would have guessed?
The grape varietal of choice in the Valtellina area is Nebbiolo, or more technically a clone of Nebbiolo called Chiavennasca, which has been grown here since medieval times. It is one of the few areas outside the Piedmont region where Nebbiolo does well. Valtellina wines are typically lighter in color and less tannic than other Nebbiolo-based wines but are intensely flavored, nuanced and beautifully balanced. They exhibit the best features of Nebbiolo wines but are more accessible and don’t prompt the meditation and navel-gazing as do their aristocratic Barolo and Barbaresco relatives from the Piedmont.
Triacca is both the name of a Swiss family and its family-owned company. Although its headquarters is in Switzerland, the company owns extensive vineyard properties in Italy and La Gatta is one of its properties in the Valtellina. “La Gatta” Riserva Superiore is 100 percent Nebbiolo. To qualify as Valtellina Riserva the regulations require extended ageing in casks, in this case for 36 months.
Triacca’s Valtellina Riserva Superiore is aromatic with spicy notes and is full, rich and concentrated with vibrant, juicy red fruit that burst through gentle tannins. Complex and beautifully-balanced it is a great bargain at this price, especially when compared with its Nebbiolo counterparts from the Piedmont. It is the perfect complement to risotto, roast veal, braised or roasted red meats and aged cheeses. I recommend decanting the wine or letting the wine breath for at least two hours before serving.
Unfortunately, most of the production of La Gatta is shipped to Switzerland, so it will be difficult to find in some U.S. markets. ?In this event, another Valtellina wine worth looking for is Conti Sertoli Salis, Sassella Valtellina Superiore 2002 (about $25).?
Note – prices indicated are averages of generally available retail prices and will vary from store to store. While wines are generally available at many Italian wine shops, availability is not guaranteed. ?It is best to call to check on price and availability before making the trip.