Two Hearty Italian Red Wines to Help Get You Through March’s Chilly End-of-Winter Days

Wine for march – under $20

Cantina Zaccagnini, “Tralcetto” Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2011 (about $13)

All right, let’s get this out of the way at the start. Montepulciano - the grape - bears no relationship to the historic walled city of the same name in Tuscany. Rather, Montepulciano refers to a native Italian red grape variety of great, oftentimes unrealized, potential that flourishes in the mountainous Abruzzo region - hence its name, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

It is the primary red grape variety of the Abruzzo region and accounts for nearly all of the region’s DOC red wines. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (mon ta pul chee’ ahn no dah broot’ zo) wines generally have deep colors, soft flavors and gentle tannins.

The Montepulciano variety originated in Abruzzo but it is a prolific grower and can be found today in other regions in central and southern Italy. Since it is a thick-skinned, late-ripening variety, it doesn’t fare well in the cooler northern regions. While extremely popular in the Abruzzo region, these wines are generally underappreciated and frequently overlooked by wine enthusiasts elsewhere.

Cantina Zaccagnini got its start in 1978 as a family-owned and operated business. Though still family-owned and operated it has grown over time and today has 375 acres of vineyards with annual production of 1.2 million bottles of red, white and sparkling wines.  The majority of its wines are exported to various countries around the world. Despite the current scale of operations the winery has kept a close watch on quality and today markets a full lineup of reliable and generally-affordable wines. 

2011 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC from Cantina ZaccagniniThe “Tralcetto” Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the estate’s entry-level Montepulciano red wine and is a good introduction to those unfamiliar with the variety. It is made entirely of Montepulciano grapes harvested from the estate’s vineyards. The wine is fermented on the grape skins in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. It is then aged in French oak barrels for 6 months followed by an additional 3 months in the bottle prior to release for sale.

The wine has an intense dark violet color and aromas of dark cherries and plums. It is full bodied and softly textured with low acidity and rich dark, ripe fruit flavors intermingled with a warming touch of vanilla. It has a delicious, opulent finish with lingering notes of dried fruit.

This is one heck of a wine at a very modest price. It goes well with hearty pasta dishes, risotto, stews, roast lamb and grilled and roasted red meats. You may want to keep several bottles on hand for those informal, impromptu occasions calling for an inexpensive but crowd-pleasing red wine.

Each bottle comes with a small woody grapevine stem artfully tied around the bottleneck that makes it stand out on wine shop shelves.

Wine for March – $20 and over

San Cassiano, Valpolicella Superiore 2009 (about $35)

Cantina San Cassiano is named after the close-by hamlet of San Cassiano in the Mezzane Valley of the eastern Valpolicella region. San Cassiano is a family winery that dates back to 1964 and the current owner and manager, Mirko Sella, is the third-generation of the family to manage the winery. 

San Cassiano has 35 acres of vineyards that produce the traditional Valpolicella varieties of Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella. The estate produces only red wines and their annual production is about 65,000 bottles. Mirko's style of winemaking is to make his wines as natural as possible. Towards this end, he is cutting back on use of chemical fertilizers each year with a goal of being “completely natural” in the near future.

I first had San Cassiano’s Valpolicella Superiore at the winery’s tasting room earlier this year. I was visiting the winery as part of a group of about a half-dozen wine writers and bloggers on a tour organized by Amarone Anteprima in Verona. Mirko led us through a tasting of his wines that chilly day in late January and their 2009 Valpolicella Superiore received uniformly high praise from the group. I had occasion to taste it again a few days later and it was every bit as delicious as I remember.

San Cassiano’s Valpolicella Superiore is produced with partially dried grapes. After about 40 days the dried grapes are vinified and then aged for two years in a combination of small (barrique) and large barrels. Mirko referred to it as a “baby Amarone” and its sweet dark fruit flavors and structure are certainly reminiscent of Amarone.

The wine opens with ripe berry, prune and kitchen spice aromas. 2009 Valpolicella Superiore from San CassianoA sip reveals a full-bodied but not too-heavy red with sweet dark fruit flavors embellished with subtle notes of vanilla and oak. There are no rough edges here - it is rich and round with ripe, sweet tannins and there is a straight trajectory of pure flavors all the way to an elegant finish.

This full-bodied but not too-heavy red goes well with a wide range of dishes such as hearty pasta dishes, risotto, roast lamb and roasted or grilled red meats. My recommendation? This wine would be a perfect complement to braised veal shank with herbs.

The U.S. importer is Quigley Fine Wines.


©Richard Marcis
March 1, 2015

To view other wine of the month selections, see Monthly Wine Reviews

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