A Dozen Must-try Italian Wines for 2018 that Provide an Escape from the Ordinary


Italy exports more wine to the U.S. than any other country so the shelves of many wine shops are groaning under the weight of the vast array of Italian wines available for purchase. While an expanded choice of offerings is always beneficial it can also be bewildering to consumers trying to better understand and appreciate Italian wines let alone simply purchase a bottle of vino for that special get-together with friends. Intimidated by the variety of choices available and sometimes impenetrable wine labels, many wine consumers take the easy way out and fall back to old tried-and-true standards like Valpolicella, Chianti or Pinot Grigio.

While understandable, it’s unfortunate because there are many finely-crafted and pleasurable wines from Italy on wine shop shelves that get overlooked simply because they’re not particularly well known and consequently outside the typical wine purchaser’s comfort zone. While it will take a little work to become better acquainted with these wines the upside is that you may be rewarded by a new and gratifying taste experience as well as bragging rights when friends inquire about the new and exciting wine you served at your social gathering or dinner party. Moreover, because they are little known they tend to be relatively less expensive than more popular but otherwise equivalent wines and represent real value on a quality-to-price basis.

What follows is a review of a dozen pleasurable, out-of-the-ordinary Italian wines that will give fillip to your plan to escape the ordinary and expand your wine horizons in 2018.

So how does a wine qualify for a place on this short list of “must-try” wines? First, the wines have to be enjoyable and rewarding on their own with delicious aromas and flavors and some depth and complexity. Second, they should have a special touch of interest whether it be from a not-especially-well-known variety or over-looked wine region or some special innate flavors or a touch of nuance or complexity that make them stand out from the crowd. While this may not prompt a life-changing experience it should move the needle on your wine pleasure index as well as give you bragging rights at wine gatherings.

The must-try list includes both red and white wines as well as an orange wine. While all are generally available in major wine markets, some may be harder to find than others. But they are all well worth the effort.

The wines are listed alphabetically by producer.

Agricola Punica, “Barrua” Isola dei Nuraghi IGT 2009 (about $44)
Agricola Punica is a 370-acre estate located in the southwestern corner of the island of Sardinia (Sardegna). This interesting winery was founded in 2002 as a collaborative venture between some of the most prominent names in the Italian wine world that include the cooperative producer Cantina di Santadi in Sardinia, Tenuta San Guido of Sassicaia fame and legendary, recently deceased, Italian winemaking consultant, Giacomo Tachis.

The Punica estate produces only two wines - Barrua and 2009 "Barrua" Isola dei Nuraghi from the Agricola Punica in SardiniaMontessu - both of which are Carignano-based blends. Of Spanish origin, Carignano is perfectly suited to the dry, sun-drenched terrain of southwestern Sardinia. This late-ripening grape produces deeply colored, warm and spicy wines with naturally high acidity and assertive tannins. It is often blended with other varieties to both help soften the tannins and add complexity.

The Isola dei Nuraghi IGT is a general designation that covers the entire island of Sardinia.

The 2009 Barrua is 85 percent Carignano, 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 percent Merlot. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged in a combination of new and used French oak barrels for approximately 18 months and subsequently bottle-aged for an additional 12 months prior to release.

The wine is dark in color, full-bodied, remarkably rich and complex. A gentle swishing of the wine releases a rich mixture of black cherry, sage and rosemary aromas. It is a deeply-textured, full-bodied wine with soft tannins and brimming with mouth-coating, ripe dark fruit flavors with some cedar and wild herb notes.

The 2009 Barrua is great served with roasts, grilled meat, game and aged pecorino cheese.

Antonio Caggiano, “Vigna Macchia dei Goti” Taurasi DOCG 2013 (about $36)
Aglianico is one of southern Italy’s most important indigenous red grape varieties. It is known to produce full-bodied red wines with pronounced berry flavors, firm tannins and good aging potential. Because Aglianico wines share some of the same characteristics as Nebbiolo-based wines in the Piedmont region, they are sometimes referred to as "the Barolo of the South.”

The abundant tannins and high acidity of Aglianico-based wines make them perfect candidates for extended aging. It’s a rich and full-bodied wine that pairs well with rich meat dishes.

Antonio Caggiano founded his wine estate near the village of Taurasi in Campania, Italy in 1990. His original 2013  Taurasi "Vigna Macchia dei Goti" from the Caggiano winery in Campaniaproduction focused exclusively on Aglianico-based red wines but over time his portfolio grew to include some white wines based on Campania’s indigenous white varieties, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and Falanghia. The whites are fermented and aged in stainless steel and the Aglianico wines in oak.

Caggiano’s Vigna Macchia dei Goti Taurasi is made exclusively of Aglianico grapes harvested in late October from a single estate vineyard. The wine is fermented in temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks and then spends 12 to 18 months maturing in small French oak (barrique) barrels

This 2013 Aglianico is a powerful yet elegant wine. It’s full-bodied with concentrated flavors of black raspberries, plums and dark cherries with some coffee and smoky nuances due to the oak ageing. The wine has a mouth-filling lush texture supported by firm tannins that follow through on the finish. The wine is ready to drink now but will age gracefully for another five to ten years.

Balgera, Valgella Valtellina Superiore DOCG 2002 (about $36)
Valtellina is a quality wine-producing area in Italy’s Lombardy region just south of the Alps that border Switzerland. It is one of the most northerly wine-producing regions in Italy. Valtellina became a DOC in 1968 and the Valtellina Superiore received DOCG status in 1998. It is a small wine-producing region and while it has many small growers tending tiny vineyard plots there are only about 25 wineries that actually produce and sell wines in the DOCG-delimited area.

The primary grape variety here is a local clone of Nebbiolo called Chiavennasca. The richness and texture of Valtellina wines varies widely with some showing Barolo-like structure and tannins while other Valtellina wines offer leaner, finer, Burgundy-style versions of Nebbiolo.

Balgera is a small, boutique winery founded in 1885 which makes it one of the oldest wineries in northern Italy.

Balgera’s 2002 Valgella Valtellina Superiore consists of 95 percent Nebbiolo and 5 percent other local varieties sourced from terraced, south-facing vineyards in the Valgella sub-zone of the Valtellina DOCG. The wine is macerated on the skins for about 2 weeks, then spends a year in steel tanks followed by as many as 10 years in large oak casks.

Balgera’s 2002 Valtellina Superiore is ruby red in color with enticing cherry, plum and dried herb aromas. A sip reveals a medium to full-bodied wine with a silky texture, soft tannins, crisp acidity and rich and complex raspberry and plum fruit flavors along with some lingering earthy notes.  It has a marvelous crisp, tannic finish with notes of brambly dried herbs that just linger on the palate.

It is an outstanding wine, rich and elegant and very distinctive with a singular sense of place.

COS, “Pithos” Rosso Sicilia IGT 2014 (about $30)
The COS winery is located near Vittoria in southeastern Sicily in the heart of the prominent Cerasuolo di Vittoria wine zone, Sicily’s only DOCG appellation.
COS was initially started on a shoestring budget by three long-time friends (the winery gets its name from the first letters of the surnames of the original three founders) in the early 1980’s. Their wines quickly found critical success and the business took off and today is regarded as one of Sicily’s premier wineries.

The COS Pithos is a blend of 60 percent Nero d’Avola and 40 percent Frappato, the same blend as for Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines but is not classed as such because the vinification protocol is different. The grapes are destemmed, lightly pressed and placed, along with indigenous yeasts and the grape skins, in terracotta amphorae for fermentation and ageing. The 400-liter containers are buried in soil covered with sand and gravel. The wines are bottled unfiltered in distinctive squat-shaped bottles unique to COS but resemble old Marsala bottles. The Pithos never sees any wood over the entire process.

The 2014 Pithos has a fairly light color that can be deceiving as the wine is medium-to-full bodied and fairly robust. It opens with a tsunami of red currant, dark fruit and spicy aromas. The mouthfeel is full and rich with solid black fruit flavors and textured tannins but not at the expense of structure and complexity. There’s grip, tension and length on the finish.

COS’s unequivocal and innovative approach to winemaking exemplifies all the passion and dynamism that marks the Sicily wine scene today.

Ferrari, “Perlé” TrentoDOC 2007 (about $38)
Cantine Ferrari’s Perlé is made entirely of Chardonnay grapes sourced from prime mountainside vineyards in the prestigious but not-well-known – at least to the American wine-buying public - TrentoDOC appellation in Italy’s northern Trentino region. Like all Ferrari sparkling wines, it is produced using the traditional Classico Metodo process whereby the wine undergoes a second fermentation in bottle instead of tanks. Ferrari’s own selected strain of yeasts is used to start the bottle fermentation and the wine is aged on the lees for 5 years.

The 2007 Perlé has sprightly acidity and a soft, creamy texture with fruity notes of ripe apple, lemon, nectarine and white peach with a nutty edge. It is an approachable yet elegant, intense and delicious sparkler that is the equal of some Champagnes that sell for twice its price.

This vintage-dated sparkling wine goes well with a variety of dishes - from appetizers and cheeses, fish and shellfish, Asian dishes with a touch of spice to many poultry and pork dishes - so there’s no need to wait for that special occasion to pop the cork.

Elena Fucci, “Titolo” Aglianico del Vulture 2012 (about $45)
The Elena Fucci estate consists of a single, 15-acre vineyard planted in the mineral-rich volcanic terrain on the high slopes of Mount Vulture in the northwestern part of the Basilicata region. This vineyard is planted exclusively with Aglianico grapes used for the production of Titolo, the estate’s only wine.

The vineyard is farmed organically and the hand-selected Aglianico grapes are fermented in temperature-con2012 "Titolo" Aglianico del Vulture from the Elena Fucci winery trolled stainless-steel tanks and undergo full malolactic fermentation in new French oak barriques. There is no fining or filtration. The wine is then aged for 12 months in first and second passage French oak barriques and receives an additional 12 months ageing in the bottle before release to the market.

The 2012 Titolo has a dark and intense ruby red color with aromas redolent of dried herbs, dark cherries and blackberries with a hint of cinnamon. The wine is deep, structured yet exceptionally refined. The wine’s ripe dark fruit flavors help soften the edges of the firm tannins and the salient acidity provides overall balance and structure to the wine. This Titolo should age gracefully for at least another decade.

Only about 25,000 bottles of Titolo are produced annually. It is a first-class, high quality cru wine.  That along with its limited production have enabled it to achieve the wine world equivalent of rock-star status and it is much in demand by international wine enthusiasts. It is a serial recipient of Gambero Rosso’s prestigious Tre Bicchieri award.

G. Milazzo, Terre della Baronia Bianco 2016 (about $22)
Catarratto is a white Italian wine grape grown almost exclusively in Sicily where it is the most widely planted variety and the base for a number of DOC whites. While much of the Catarratto wine produced is, unfortunately, bland and uninteresting, in the hands of talented and conscientious producers – such as the G. Milazzo winery - Catarratto can make superb wines distinguished by good texture, acidity and intriguing citrus and floral aromas.

G. Milazzo’s 185 acres of vineyards are situated on gently-rolling hills northeast of the town of Campobello di Licata in the province of Agrigento in south-central Sicily. Here they produce a wide range of wines based primarily on native varieties like Nero d’Avola, Nero Cappuccio and Perricone for the reds and Inzolia and Catarratto for the whites.

G. Milazzo’s Terre della Baronia Bianco is made entirely of estate-grown Catarratto. The grapes are harvested in late September and gently pressed whole-cluster, then fermented and aged on the grape skins in steel vats for 5 months. The wine is then racked and bottled where it rests for 2 months prior to sale.
2016 Terre della Baronia Bianco fro the G. Milazzo winery in Sicily

It is worth noting that the entire vinification process prior to bottling is carried out in an oxygen-free environment designed to ensure retention of the grapes’ natural and diverse citrus and floral aromas and flavors and sprightly acidity.

The 2016 Terre della Baronia Bianco is citrine-yellow in color with a faint green glimmer. Skin contact and innovative winemaking yield an intriguing, savory and food-friendly wine. A nose to the glass reveals swirling aromas of broom, spring flowers and white peaches. It has a medium-weight body with good texture and presence and good depth of white fruit flavors and lemon-rind acidity that gives lift to the long finish.

G. Milazzo’s Terre della Baronia Bianco is a fine example of a quality Catarratto and a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the variety.

Gianfranco Fino, “Es” Primitivo di Manduria 2015 (about $58)
Gianfranco Fino is one of Puglia’s most famous winemakers with a well-earned reputation for producing exceptional Primitivo wines from ancient vines.

“Es” is made entirely of Primitivo di Manduria grapes from vines that average 60 years of age. The grapes are partially dried on the vine prior to harvest which concentrates the sugar and flavors of the grapes so the resulting wine is more flavorful. The wine undergoes a Gianfranco Fino "Es" Primitivo di Manduriarelatively long 3 to 4-week fermentation on the skins and is aged in a combination of new and second-passage French oak barriques for 9 months. The wine isn’t filtered or fined and is bottle-aged an additional 6 months prior to release.

Es is made in an extroverted style. It has an almost impenetrable, inky-black color that opens slowly with aromas of cedar, dried spices and balsamic. It is full-bodied and opulent in a fleshy, ripe style with smooth, almost sweet tannins, ripe black fruit and plum sauce flavors and doesn’t have a hard edge anywhere. It has a full, grippy finish with lingering herbal notes.

With its sheer weight, intensity and abundance of dark fruit flavors it is a one-of-a-kind expression of Primitivo. It is an impressive effort from one of Puglia’s most accomplished producers.

Kuenhof-Peter Pliger, “Kaiton” Riesling 2015 (about $32)
Italian Riesling wines are just starting to make their presence known thanks primarily to some excellent recent offerings such as Kuenhof’s Riesling-based “Kaiton.”

The Kuenhof winery is located in the Isarco Valley in the northern part of the Alto Adige, Italy’s northernmost region. Sheltered from the cold northern winds by the nearby Italian Alps and blessed with abundant summer sunshine the Isarco Valley is one of Italy’s premier white wine appellations and the Kuenhof winery (owned and operated by Peter and Brigitte Pliger) has a well-earned reputation as one of the Isarco Valley’s best wine producers.

Kuenhof’s 2015 Kaiton is made entirely of Riesling grown on the estate’s steep, terraced vineyards. The wine is fermented in large acacia barrels where indigenous yeasts induce spontaneous fermentation and undergoes long ageing on the lees. When the primary fermentation is complete the wine is partially racked and then returned to barrels where it rests with the remaining, finer lees until May when the wine undergoes final racking and clarification before bottling.

The wine is golden yellow in color with elegant and delicate fruity and floral aromas with subtle hints of orange blossom. Intense white peach, green apple and lime flavors dance across your taste buds. The wine is bone-dry and steely with lively streaks of lime and lemon zest acidity that adds balance to the deep fruit flavors and leads to a long, flinty finish.

Kuenhof’s Riesling-based Kaiton has 12.5 percent alcohol and is produced under the Alto Adige/Südtirol DOC designation.

Don’t let the screw-cap top deter you – this is one of Italy’s best and most rewarding white wines.

La Stoppa, “Ageno” Emilia Bianco IGT 2012 (about $38)
This wine is what is referred to as an orange wine, a descriptor that refers to the wine’s color and not the fruit used in the wine. While the vinification process for making orange wine is very old, going back thousands of years, this ancient process has only been revived in the last quarter-century. So now we have red wines, white wines and some orange wines.

Production of an orange wine involves pressing white grapes and then macerating and fermenting the juice along with the skins and seeds in steel tanks or oak barrels or a combination of the two with fermentation lasting anywhere from several days to several months. In some cases, large clay or cement amphorae buried in the ground are used for fermentation and ageing. Depending on the ageing regimen the resulting wine can vary from marigold to bronze-orange in color. It is a very natural process that typically uses little or no additives, sometimes not even a yeast starter, and for this reason is generally held in high regard by natural and/or biodynamic winemakers.

But - spoiler alert! – orange wines will not be to everybody’s liking. They are typically big, dry and intense wines with an entirely different flavor and taste profiles than regular white wines, and even red wines for that matter. They can be brazenly tannic with flavors ranging from fig to dried orange rind along with a certain sourness redolent of fermented apple cider.

For those new to orange wines, they can be a knock-your-socks-off experience. They elicit strong reactions and my experience has2012 "Ageno" Emelia Bianco IGT from the La Stoppa winery in Emilia been that people are either intrigued or put off by them with no in-between.

Because of their assertive flavor profile, orange wines are best paired with equally bold foods such as curry dishes and traditional North African, Korean and Japanese dishes. With its assertive tannic backbone it also goes well with most red meats.

La Stoppa is a historic estate in the province of Piacenza in the Emilia part of the Emilia-Romagna region. It has a small portfolio of red and white wines produced exclusively from native varieties grown on the estate’s 80 acres of organic vineyards.

The 2012 Ageno consists of 80 percent Malvasia di Candia Aromatica with 10 percent each of two other white varieties, Ortrugo and Trebbiano Toscano, all from vines that average 30 years of age. The varieties are harvested at the same time, destemmed and macerated on the skins for approximately a month and fermented using only native yeasts. The wine is then aged for a year in a combination of stainless steel and previously-used French oak barrels, then bottled where it rests for 2 years prior to release. The wine is named after the original owner of the estate, Giancarlo Ageno.

The wine has a light amber to ginger color with pronounced aromatics of clove, juniper and medicinal herbs and smoky apricot, dried orange peel and ginger flavors with some green tea elements. It’s a big, rich and textured wine with strong tannins that follow through in the finish with some spice details.

It is a lively drinking experience. Try it and let me know what you think.

Librandi, “Gravello” Val di Neto Rosso IGT 2014 (about $28)
Librandi is Calabria’s most well-known and recognized winery that has worked hard to put Calabria on the world’s wine map. The estate has approximately 580 acres planted with both indigenous varieties like Gaglioppo and Mantonico and internationally popular ones such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Some of its wines, such as its Duca San Felice Rosso Riserva and Magno Megonio Rosso as well as the Gravello being reviewed here, have garnered international acclaim and recognition.

The 2014 Librandi “Gravello” Val di Neto Rosso is a blend of 60 percent Gaglioppo from the Val di Neto vineyard and 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. After fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks, the wine lies in repose in new, small oak barrels for 8 months and then spends an additional 6 months in the bottle prior to release.

The wine is deep red in color with purple edges and generous aromas of plums, ripe cherries and kitchen spices. It is full-bodied with a ripe and fragrant mouthfeel due to a nice combination of dark cherry and cassis flavors. There’s not a rough edge here; it’s big, round and smooth with velvety tannins that drive a long, lush finish.

It’s a luscious wine that goes well with flavorful foods or can be leisurely sipped by itself.

Secondo Marco Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso 2013 (about $26)
Ripasso is a type of wine from Italy’s Veneto region that has a singular method of production. Recently fermented Valpolicella wine is added to (or “passed over”) the remainders of recently fermented Amarone. The end result is a wine with greater texture, color, concentration of flavors and slightly higher alcohol content than the original Valpolicella.

Secondo Marco’s Ripasso is a traditional Valpolicella blend of Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and a splash of other local red varieties from the Classico Valpolicella zone. After being fermented on the grape skins for two weeks the Valpolicella wine undergoes an 8 day second Ripasso fermentation on the skins of recently fermented Amarone wine. The wine is then aged in a combination of large oak casks for a year and spends an additional 6 months in the bottle prior to release.

Secondo Marco’s 2013 Classico Superiore Ripasso is medium to full-bodied with an intense ruby red color and plenty of ripe plum, blackberry and blueberry flavors accented with dried herbs and some spice notes. It has a rich, warm and textured mouthfeel thanks to the Ripasso method and soft tannins with a long, velvety finish. While big and flavorful with 14 percent alcohol this Ripasso carries its weight well and is not overdone or exaggerated.

This Ripasso just begs to be paired with full-flavored pasta and risotto dishes, stews and whatever’s on the barbeque grill.

Note – prices indicated are averages of national retail prices but will vary from store to store. However, since availability is not guaranteed it's best to call the wine shop or check their website for availability and price before making the trip.

©Richard Marcis
January 28, 2018

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