Category Archives: Italy

Luca Bosio Vineyards, Gavi DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) 2016

($19, Quintessential):  Although Piedmont is best known for its stellar red wines, it is home to excellent whites, such as this one.  The Cortese grape, from which Gavi is made, is naturally high in acidity, so the wines need enough body to balance it or they come across and tart and thin.  Luca Bosio’s checks that box. With good density, even a hint of creaminess, it has ample weight on the palate despite its modest 12.4 percent stated alcohol.  It would be a good choice for linguine and clam sauce, prosciutto or other antipasti or even tomato-based seafood dishes.
90 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Brancaia, Toscana Rosso IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “TRE” 2014

($23):  The three-grape blend, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, give rise to the name, TRE.  This mid-weight wine (13.5% stated alcohol) delivers an array of red and black fruit notes surrounded by mild tannins. Bright and lively, it has good density and surprising complexity and polish for the price.  Its lively acidity makes it a good choice for hearty pasta dishes or a beef ragu this winter.
88 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Brancaia, Toscana Rosso IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Ilatraia” 2012

($70):  Brancaia has fashioned a “bigger” more modern style of Super Tuscan by blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.  Although these are grapes known as Bordeaux varieties, Brancaia’s Ilatraia has clear roots in Tuscany as manifested by its terrific enlivening and refreshing acidity.  In contrast to its TRE, Ilatraia conveys riper, more black fruit flavors seasoned with the luxuriousness of oak.  Remarkably approachable now, it’s not a sipping wine, rather one that would be at home at a Florentine steak house.  Its 14.5% stated alcohol is noticeable as a slightly hot finish, but is hardly an impediment if a rare strip steak is on your plate.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Caiarossa, Toscana Rosso IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Aria di Caiarossa” 2013

($40):  With an unusual blend, this “second” wine from Caiarossa is an outstanding value.  The team uses five of the seven red varieties planted on the estate, Syrah (28%), Cabernet Franc (22%), Merlot (21%), Cabernet Sauvignon (15%), and Alicante, for this robust, yet balanced wine.  There’s a Margaux-like suaveness and Tuscan acidity that keeps it fresh and lively.  So, despite its power, it doesn’t tire on the palate.  Though there’s spice and minerality, it’s a fruitier wine than the estate’s standard bearer.  It’s a treat to drink now.
92 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Caiarossa, Toscana Rosso IGT (Tuscany, Italy) 2013

($51):  Caiarossa, a relatively new entry into the Super Tuscan world (2004 was their first vintage), is headed towards the top of that illustrious group.  In addition to four of the traditional Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot), they planted and use in this, their flagship wine, Syrah, Sangiovese, and Alicante.  Although it’s a concentrated wine with great depth and an exciting edginess, it displays finesse and sophistication.  Nothing is overdone, nor out of place.  Owned by the same family who owns Château Giscours and Château du Tertre in Margaux and with the same general manager, Alexander Van Beek, it is not surprising that Caiarossa has a velvety Margaux-like texture.  Indeed, it’s the cashmere-like texture of the wine as much as its layers of flavor that captures your attention.  This wine has more youthful, but still silky, tannins compared to Aria di Caiarossa and Pergolaia and is best left in the cellar for several years, while you drink their other ones.  But put some in your cellar — it’s a legend in the making and an extraordinary value.
96 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Donnafugata, Terre Siciliane Rosso IGT (Sicily, Italy) “Tancredi” 2012

($40, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  It’s hard to go wrong with any wine from Donnafugata, one of Sicily’s — and Italy’s — iconic producers.  With Tancredi, Donnafugata has married Nero d’Avola, an indigenous Sicilian grape, with Cabernet Sauvignon and a pinch of Tannat to produce a dense and concentrated, but balanced, wine.  Weighing in at about 14 percent stated alcohol, it has an alluring hint of bitterness in the finish.  That, along with the youthful tannins, make this muscular wine cry out for beef or lamb this winter. 90 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Donnafugata, Terre Siciliane Rosso IGT (Sicily, Italy) “Mille e una Notte” 2012

($80, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Mille e una Notte, Donnafugata’s flagship wine, is a tribute to Sicilian grape growing and winemaking.  The 2012 is simply gorgeous.  A masterful blend of Old World (Nero d’Avola) and New (Petit Verdot and Syrah) it conveys power and sophistication.  It’s a collection of paradoxes: intense, without being heavy; plush, but not soft.  There are no sharp edges, but the wine is edgy and exciting to drink.  A hint of tarriness and minerality merges seamlessly with dark fruit notes.  Gloriously long, it’s a joy to savor now with robust, but simple fare, which allows the complexity of the wine to shine.  That said, I suspect consumers who cellar it for a few years will be amply rewarded.
96 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

La Mannella, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) 2013

($72, Quintessential):  Though the wines are bottled and in distribution to wholesalers, the official release date of the 2013 Brunello di Montalcino is the beginning of 2018.  The growing season was cooler than 2012, which suggests the wines might be more elegant than powerful, but generalizations can’t be made, if at all, until tasting a full range of them.  As with many Brunello producers, La Manella blends wines made from Sangiovese grown in vineyards in two parts of the DOCG, north and southeast of the village itself, to achieve a balanced and complex finished wine.  They have achieved that with their traditionally framed 2013.  It has impressive combination of density and suaveness with luxuriously silky tannins.  A refined wine, it’s long, with bright acidity that imparts an uplifting freshness. There’s the barest hint of attractive bitterness in the finish that reminds you this a serious wine. 93 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Luca Bosio Vineyards, Barbera d’Asti DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) 2013

($15, Quintessential):  Though the Piemontese speak of Barolo and Barbaresco with reverence, they all drink Barbera d’Asti with gusto.  And this wine shows why.  Its bright red fruit flavors mingle nicely with a spiced herb component.  The naturally high acidity balances good concentration, making it energetic and lively.  It delivers more than the prices suggests, so it’s a perfect choice for pasta with a tomato sauce or even take-out pizza any night of the week. 90 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Feudi di San Gregorio, Greco di Tufo DOCG (Campania, Italy) 2015

($18, Terlato Wines International):  Feudi di San Gregorio’s Greco di Tufo is less floral and more mineral-tinged than their Fiano d’Avellino (also reviewed this week), but has a similar refreshing edginess to it.  A more “serious” wine, it has an engaging firmness and more of a presence on the table.  It cuts a wider swath without being opulent.  Indeed, its charm rests in its austerity and reserve.  Whereas the Fiano makes a fine aperitif, this Greco cries for food because of its more rigid spine.  This wine and Feudi di San Gregorio’s Fiano reminds us how Campania remains an underappreciated treasure trove region for whites. 91 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Feudi di San Gregorio, Fiano d’Avellino DOCG (Campania, Italy) 2016

($18, Terlato Wines International):  Floral and clean, like fresh fruit blossoms, Feudi di San Gregorio’s 2016 Fiano conveys a lacey delicacy.  Combine that with its lip-smacking acidity and you have a refreshing choice for simply sautéed — or if your grill is still functioning — grilled fish.  Not an opulent wine, it’s easy going and would be equally at home as a stand-alone aperitif. 90 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Poderi e Cantine Oddero, Barolo Riserva (Piedmont, Italy) “Vigna Rionda” 2007

($160):  From Vigna Rionda, an acclaimed vineyard in Serralunga d’Alba, Oddero has fashioned this still — at 10 years — a youthful wine.  Oddero started to label wine from this vineyard as a Riserva with the 2006 vintage and released it after 10 years of aging, five of which were in barrel.  With a tarry, iron-tinged signature, the 2007 is a quintessential Barolo from Serralunga.  Still firm with a noticeable tannic structure, this tightly wound wine reveals its substantial charms with time in the glass.  A dense and hefty wine, it still needs another decade of age.  For those without patience or a cool cellar, decant it an hour before serving it with a cut of robust beef this winter. 95 Michael Apstein Nov 14, 2017

Poderi e Cantine Oddero, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) “Rocche di Castiglione” 2013

($74):  Oddero is one of Barolo’s top producers, Rocche di Castiglione is a top site in Castiglione Falletto, and 2013 was an excellent year for Barolo, so this wine’s stature is no surprise.  Floral and pretty, it emphasizes elegance over power, although it still packs plenty of the latter.  Prominent firm, but not astringent tannins, enrobe cherry-like (red rather than black) fruity flavors.  Balanced and quite easy to taste even at this young stage, I suspect it will close up only to reemerge with even more complexity in a decade’s time. 94 Michael Apstein Nov 14, 2017

Castello di Radda, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) 2012

($42):  Befitting a Riserva, Castello di Radda’s 2012 has depth balanced by a gutsy firmness.  Even with its youthful vigor, the balance of dark fruit and savory notes is apparent.  An appealing hint of bitterness in the finish reminds you this is a wine meant for the dinner table.  Refined tannins allow you to enjoy it now, but will show even more complexity in another few years.  Frankly, I’d drink Castello di Radda’s 2015 Chianti Classico in the interim. 93 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Castello di Radda, Chianti Classico DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) 2015

($22):  In a word, delicious.  It’s just what you’d expect from Chianti Classico: a wonderful combination of dark cherry-like fruit and herbal qualities. Not all gussied up with oak, the alluring earthiness of Chianti Classico comes through.  Polished tannins in this mid-weight wine impart a suave texture. Freshness — that’s Tuscan lively acidity speaking — makes you want to come back for more in between bites of fettuccine with Bolognese sauce. 92 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Castello di Radda, Chianti Classico DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Gran Selezione” 2012

($49):  As much as I liked Castello di Radda’s 2012 Chianti Classico Riserva, I must admit, their Gran Selezione from the same vintage is just better.  With stricter production standards, Gran Selezione, a relatively new category for Chianti Classico, is supposed to highlight a producer’s top wine.  Castello di Radda’s 2012 Gran Selezione is just that.  Its gorgeous aromas stop you in your tracks before you sip it.  It has more of everything — a finer texture, more complexity, more refinement, and more length — without having too much of anything.  Packed with flavor, but not boisterous, it delivers a harmonious combination of dark black cherry-like fruitiness and earthy savory notes atop an underlying firmness.  In short, it sings.
96 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Michele Chiarlo, Gavi DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “Le Marne” 2016

($18, Kobrand):  One tends to forget about Chiarlo’s white wines since they make such stunning reds.  Here’s one that should not be forgotten.  Not an opulent wine, this Gavi still has good depth and is piercing, mineral-y and refined.  It is cutting and stony, a perfect foil for a tomato-based seafood dish, such as swordfish in a tomato-caper. 91 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Michele Chiarlo, Barolo DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) Cerequio 2013

($102, Kobrand):  Chiarlo was largely responsible for the resurrection of this iconic vineyard in La Morra, that, according to Kerin O’Keefe, a world’s expert on Italian wine in general and Barolo in particular, laid abandoned until the 1950s even though it had been listed as a top spot in an authoritative 19th century classification of Barolo’s vineyards.  Chiarlo owns more than half of the entire vineyard.  Not surprisingly, it is their signature wine, their pride and joy.  Very aromatic and captivating on that basis alone, it reflects the lighter side of Barolo, as it should, coming from La Morra.  It dances on the palate, conveying a Burgundian-like elegance and airiness — then the firm tannins hit. A bit of oak flavor from barrel aging is apparent at this stage, but not intrusive.  Judging from past vintages, the oak will become integrated, leaving a suave and even more refined texture. 94 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Michele Chiarlo, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Cannubi 2012

($86, Kobrand):  Chiarlo owns about 3-acres of vines in the heart of Cannubi, arguably Barolo’s most famous vineyard.  From it, they make a sensational wine. Their 2012 Cannubi combines power and elegance, just as the textbooks say.  Its wonderful aromatics and intriguing tar-like character make for an unusual pairing, but the combination is captivating and keeps you coming back for another look.  The tannins are firm, not aggressive, and refined.  More muscular and denser than their Cerequio, this wine would benefit from at least a decade of bottle aging. 93 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Cantine Sant’Agata, Barbera d’Asti DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “Baby” 2016

($11, Montcalm Wine Importers):  This juicy mid-weight wine is an example of why Barbera d’Asti is so popular.  Lip-smacking, cherry-like acidity enlivens the briary, spicy character of the wine’s fruitiness.  Mild tannins make it perfect for current consumption.  This is not an “important” wine, but rather one you could open on the spur of the moment — it has a screw cap, so you don’t even need a corkscrew — when a take-out pizza arrives at your door.  A fabulous bargain!
91 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Bricco dei Guazzi, Barbera d’Asti DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) 2013

($13, Montcalm Wine Importers):  A more robust, richer style of Barbera, Bricco dei Guazzi’s 2013 still maintains the grape’s hallmark juicy acidity and low-ish level of tannins that makes it hard to resist.  Darker in color with a whiff of oak flavors, it a seductive, suavely textured wine that has a black, rather than red, fruit profile.  Exceptional length makes you pause between sips.  Another fabulous bargain! 92 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Feudi di San Gregorio, Taurasi Riserva DOCG (Campania, Italy) Piano di Montevergine 2011

($75, Terlato Wines International):  I hate to say that an almost $75 a bottle of wine is a bargain, but, if you have 75 bucks to spend on a wine, here it is.  Although Taurasi justifiably carries the DOCG accolade, it still lacks the prestige — and price — of the Tuscan or Piedmont DOCGs.  The Aglianico grape grown in Taurasi can, in the right hands, produce monumental wines, such as this one.  Tarry and mineral-y, with dark fruit profile, this full-bodied wine is still tightly wound, even at 6 years of age.  The tannins are apparent and firm, but not aggressive or angular.  This is a long and refined youthful wine that will reward another decade of cellaring.  If that’s not your plan, open and decant it several hours before serving and then watch it unfold in the glass. 95 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Illuminati, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (Abruzzo, Italy) “Spiano” 2015

($15, Montcalm Wine Importers):  Here is a wine that provides more enjoyment than the price suggests.  Wines, especially those made from the Montepulciano grape and especially from Abruzzo, the region east of Rome on the Adriatic coast, have little or no prestige, which keeps their prices depressed.  But a talented producer, such as Illuminati, transforms what could be a rough and tumble wine into one with charming rusticity, such as this one.  Not thin and anemic, Illuminati’s Spiano has good concentration, juicy fruit and that hint of rustic charm.  It’s a perfect choice for penne with a sausage-enriched tomato sauce. 88 Michael Apstein Nov 7, 2017

Silvio Nardi, Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany, Italy) Manachiara 2012

($92, Kobrand):  Silvio Nardi, one of my favorite Brunello producers, consistently makes a stunning wine from their Manachiara vineyard, some of whose vines date back to the 1960s.  Located on the east side of Montalcino, the vineyard has a mixture of clay and sand in the soil, which helps account for the wine’s seemingly paradoxical combination of power and elegance.  The 2012 is both explosive and firm, not a touch overdone, a flaw found in some Brunello from that powerful vintage.  Dark earth-filled fruit flavors sneak up on you through the beautifully polished tannins.  Tightly wound at this stage, this long and sophisticated wine should evolve beautifully over the next five or so years. 95 Michael Apstein Oct 24, 2017

Michele Chiarlo, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Nizza DOC (Piedmont, Italy) La Court 2013

($42, Kobrand):  In addition to making noteworthy Barolo, Chiarlo, a top producer in Piedmont, also makes excellent wine from lesser known areas, such as Nizza.  Starting with the 2014 vintage, this wine will be labeled simply Nizza Riserva DOCG, since this small subzone of the Barbera d’Asti region was recently awarded DOCG status.  The 10-acre La Court vineyard, which has been in the Chiarlo family for decades, has one section of 30 to 40-year old vines and another section with 69 to 70 year old ones.  These old vines help explain the stature of the wine, which has a seemingly endless finish. Chiarlo manages to combine power and a stop you-in-your-tracks presence with suaveness.  A patina of oak adds subtle creaminess without intruding.  Drink now with robust fare or find a place in your cellar — Chiarlo’s releases from La Court develop splendidly over a decade. 93 Michael Apstein Oct 24, 2017

Boccadigabbia, Colli Maceratesi DOC (Marche, Italy) Ribona “Le Grane” 2016

($16):  So you’re not familiar with the Colli Maceratesi DOC or the Ribona grape?  Join the club.  Ribona, more commonly known as Maceratino Bianco, takes its name from the city (Macerata) in the western part of the Marche region.  The Colli Maceratesi DOC, comprising only about 600 acres, does not produce a lot of wine, which explains why we in the U.S. don’t see much of it.  Judging from this example, that will change.  It delivers bright stone fruit flavors with a slightly alluring lanolin-like texture.  Not a heavy wine, it finishes with an uplifting and refreshing crispness.  It would be a good choice as an aperitivo-style wine as well as accompaniment to prosciutto or other antipasti. 89 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2017

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Valdo Spumanti, Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG (Veneto, Italy) “Oro Puro” Brut NV

($15, EDV Esprit du Vin):   Often the line between DOC and DOCG — and IGT, for that matter — is blurred as far as quality is concerned.  Not this time.  For Prosecco that is a cut above the others, reach for the DOCG because it encompasses the original zone where the grapes are grown on less-fertile hillsides, which translates to better wine.  Just as Valdo Spumanti’s straight Prosecco is a fantastic bargain, so is this one.  Their Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG has more finesse, length and elegance compared to their Prosecco DOC.  Another bargain!
90 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2017

Valdo Spumanti, Prosecco DOC (Veneto, Italy) Brut NV

($10, EDV Esprit du Vin):  There is a lot of inexpensive Prosecco on the market, most of it giving the category a bad name.  Not this one.  Tasted side-by-side with Valdo’s stable mate release from the Veneto’s prime region, Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG (also reviewed this week), it pales in comparison.  But considered on its own, it’s a delight — clean, refreshing, not candied.  An amazing $10 bottle of bubbly. 88 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2017

Il Colombaio di Santa Chiara, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Selvabianca” 2016

($20, Artisanal Cellars):  Despite being Italy’s first DOC, Vernaccia di San Gimignano (yes, you read that correctly) rarely receives the accolades it deserves, which is a boon for consumers because its low visibility keeps the prices down.  Il Colombaio di Santa Chiara is one of the region’s top producers, so their wines are a good place to start for consumers who want to know what Vernaccia di San Gimignano should taste like.  Their Selvabianca, a selection of their best wine, delivers an ever so slightly creaminess buttressed by vibrant acidity.  It has good depth, with an attractive hint of bitter nuttiness in the finish.  It’s concentrated and zesty enough to stand up to hearty seafood-based pasta or grilled swordfish. It delivers far more than the price suggests. 93 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2017

Fattoria Fibbiano, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) Ciliegiolo 2015

($30, Artisanal Cellars):  Often confused with Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo, which means small cherries, usually comprises part of a blend.  But a few producers, such as Fibbiano, make a monovarietal wine from it.  This is a lovely example, combining cherry-like fruit, earthiness and an attractive subtle bitterness in the finish.  Not a stand-alone aperitivo type wine, it is a fantastic choice for pasta with a hearty ragù. 91 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2017

Assuli, Terre Siciliane IGT (Italy) Nero d’Avola “Besi” 2014

($18):   Enter a different style of Nero d’Avola.  Assuli’s emphasizes the fruitier side of the grape.  At 14.5 percent stated alcohol, it is riper and more lush, with fewer savory notes than the Nero d’Avola from Barone Sergio (also reviewed this week).  At a gathering of experienced tasters, my table of eight was split equally between the two.  Also ready to drink now, this one is another good choice for a robust pasta dish or a plate of hearty beef.
90 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2017

Barone Sergio, Eloro DOC (Sicily, Italy) Nero d’Avola “Sergio” 2010

($19, Artisanal Cellars):  Nero d’Avola, the most widely planted red grape in Sicily, makes a diverse style of wine, ranging from fruity to more savory depending on where the grape grows and the producer’s style. This one focuses on the earthy, herbal character, though there’s plenty of dark fruit flavor as well.  A big wine — it weights in at 14 percent stated alcohol — it’s not boisterous or overdone.  It suave texture makes it easy to drink now, as does the price. 94 Michael Apstein Oct 17, 2017

Nizza: A New Italian DOCG Worth Remembering

The history of the official alphabet of stratification of Italian wines–VdT, IGT, DOC, or DOCG (Vino da Tavola, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, Denominazione di Origine Controllata, and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)–does not inspire confidence.  When Sassicaia, now an iconic Italian wine, was first released, it barely registered on the official scale, being relegated to a lowly VdT designation.  The top Soave Classico producers have either opted to label their wines as an IGT (Anselmi) or refused to use the DOCG designation to which they are entitled.  For a time, Angelo Gaja, certainly one of, if not THE, star Italian producer, opted to label some of his wines with the less prestigious Langhe DOC instead of the Barbaresco or Barolo DOCG because he felt he could make better wines outside the rules of the DOCG.  Regions making distinctive wines, such as Chianti Rufinà, have no official recognition while the less prestigious greater Chianti area carries Italy’s highest ranking, DOCG (Rufinà’s official categorization is, in fact, Chianti DOCG).

So why am I trumpeting the emergence of another DOCG to add to Italy’s 73?  Because the wines from this enclave in Piedmont deserve this special recognition.  The Italian wine authorities have taken a historically important area with a track record for fine wine and added vigorous regulations to ensure quality.

The new Nizza DOCG, which consumers will see on the label starting with the 2014 vintage, was formerly one of the three subzones of Barbera d’Asti (For completeness, the other two are Astigiani Colli and Tinella.)  Prior to the 2014 vintage, the wines from this area were labeled Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza. Since many of them are still on retailers’ shelves, consumers are well advised to remember the old name, especially since the 2013 vintage was exceptional in the area. Nizza, which represents only about 10 percent of the entire Barbera d’Asti DOCG, is home to about 47 producers, including 4 co-operatives, according to Gianni Bertoli, a spokesperson for the association of Nizza producers.

Part of the reason the wines from Nizza outshine the wines from the Barbera d’Asti DOCG is because this small area is exceptionally well suited to the Barbera grape.  Barbera in Nizza is like Pinot Noir in Burgundy or Nebbiolo in Barolo or Barbaresco. Bertoli explains that since Nizza has always been revered for its Barbera, more than half of the total vineyard area has vines that are over 50 years old. Indeed, the grapes from Nizza have historically commanded a premium.

Moreover, the regulations for the new DOCG actually assist in achieving the goal of producing very high-quality wine throughout the zone.  Only vineyards with the best exposures–those facing southeast or southwest–are included in the new DOCG.  Allowable yields are about 75 percent lower in Nizza compared to Barbera d’Asti (3.1 versus 4.0 tons/acre).  If growers opt to make a single vineyard wine and put the vineyard name on the label, the yields must be another 10 percent lower.

Nizza wines must be made exclusively from the Barbera grape–growers there realize they don’t need international varieties to make impressive wines–whereas in the Barbera d’Asti zone, producers are allowed to use up to 10 percent of other red varieties.  Additionally, the grapes need to be riper (Nizza wines need to achieve a minimum of 13.0 percent alcohol compared to 12.0 for Barbera d’Asti).  Although no chapitalization is allowed in Italy, growers can add concentrated grape must to increase minimum alcohol in poor years.  Not so in Nizza.  If grapes don’t ripen naturally to achieve the minimum level because of poor weather, no Nizza will be made that year.  Nizza wines are required to undergo longer aging (18 versus 4 months minimum) 6 months of which must be in barrel. (There is no barrel-aging requirement for Barbera d’Asti DOCG.)

The soils in Nizza have been carefully mapped and are quite varied even in this small area, with lighter sandy soil in the northern part of Nizza giving way to sandy clay and sandy marl as you move south.  Bertoli explains that the soil differences account for lighter, more elegant wines to sturdier and more structured ones moving from north to south within Nizza.  In my experience, from a tasting of about 40 wines from about a dozen producers, the viticultural and winemaking techniques far outweighed any sense of where within the zone the grapes grew.

Nizza is clearly popular among Piedmont winemakers, with many high-profile producers buying land, which is still far less expensive than in Barolo or Barbaresco.  Ignazio Giovine from L’Armangia noted mournfully that land values in Nizza have already gone up three-fold in the last two years.  “Last year land that sold for 40,000 € per hectare ($19,000/acre) is now 80,000 € per hectare.”  Bertoli predicts than land prices will increase further over the next several years as people see Nizza DOCG on labels and taste the wines.

The important takeaways from my tastings were these:  First and foremost, Nizza stands head and shoulders above Barbera d’Asti in general.  They are big, juicy wines with balancing acidity that show surprising complexity and suaveness.  In my mind, the best examples emphasize the wine’s savory and spicy side, restraining their natural power.  Nizza produces none of the lean, acidic wines that may have soured consumers in the past on Barbera.  The Barbera grape is a “sugar machine,” but its inherently high acidity helps balance whatever sweetness alcohol provides, so the wines can carry a 15.0 percent alcohol effortlessly.

A constant thread in Nizza is spicy acidity, but producer style–especially the use of oak, the amount of extraction and overall ripeness–is highly variable making it difficult to generalize beyond that. Some producers believe Barbera’s inherent acidity and spice can balance full-blown ripeness, extraction and oak aging.  Sometimes it does, but often times it doesn’t. Oak, per se, is not the demon in Nizza.  Rather it’s how the winemaker opts to use the oak that can be the problem.

The wines generally have low tannins and high acidity–it is Barbera–but with an appealing generosity and suaveness that is unexpected from that grape.  Prices currently run anywhere from $20 to $50.  I suspect that, like land prices in Nizza, these retail prices will rise over the next several years.

For me, part of the definition of a great wine is its ability to develop with bottle age.  Judging from Berta’s 2008, Riserva de la Famiglia’s 2007, and two single vineyard wines from 2001, Bava’s “Vigneti Bava d’Agliano,” and Michele Chiarlo’s “La Court,” Nizza checks that box.  (All of those wines are labeled Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza since the vintages preceded the DOCG.)

The producers are aiming high, hoping to put Nizza on the same exalted plain as Barolo and Barbaresco.  To that end, they are identifying cru and the best vineyards, hoping for some sort of classification in the future.  The market will determine whether they succeed. My bet is that they will.

Distribution in the U.S. is still spotty, but consumers should be able to find Nizza at their local retailers from some of the producers recommended below.  As consumers realize the value these wines deliver, I predict they will become more readily available.

Recommended producers:  Bava, Bersano, Borgo Isolabella, Michele Chiarlo, Coppo, Dacapo, Famiglia Berta, Garitina, Il Botolo, Ivaldi Dario, L’Armangia di Giovine Ignazio Domenico, Le Nizze, Olim Bauda, Riserva de la Famiglia, and Vietti.

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Email me your thoughts about Barbera d’Asti or Nizza at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

October 11, 2017

Prà, Soave Classico (Veneto, Italy) Monte Grande 2016

($29, Vinifera Imports):  Prà, like Pieropan, is a benchmark producer of Soave Classico.  The Prà name on a label is as good a guarantee of quality as you can get.  Their flagship Soave Classico bottling is from the well-regarded and well-situated Monte Grande vineyard.   Prà performs an unusual, but highly successful, technique to increase the concentration of their Monte Grande.  About five weeks prior to harvest, they sever the canes, but leave them among the vines, allowing the grapes to dry partially on the vine.  Then they harvest these partially dried grapes with a small percentage (sometimes none) of normally ripened grapes to make the wine. Prà’s very youthful 2016 Monte Grande still shows flavors of oak, from barrel aging, along with gorgeous stone fruit flavors and vibrant acidity.  This is a magnificent young wine, years away from being ready.  But there’s no rush since Prà’s Monte Grande develop gorgeously with bottle age — you could be excused if you thought the 2001 I had recently was a mature Meursault Premier Cru! 94 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2017

Pieropan, Soave Classico (Veneto, Italy) Calvarino 2015

($26):   Pieropan is undoubtedly one of great names in Soave.  They have been instrumental in resurrecting the prestige of the area with their consistent production of stellar wines, from their “regular” (though none of their wines are “regular”) Soave Classico to their single vineyard bottlings, such as this one.  The Calvarino vineyard has been in the family for over 100 years, since 1901, and they have bottled it separately starting with the 1971 vintage.  Indeed, Pieropan was the first in Soave to identify and bottle wines from a single vineyard.  A blend of Garganega (70%) and Trebbiano di Soave, Pieropan’s Calvarino has enormous depth, while still dancing on the palate.  Pieropan avoids oak aging, opting to perform the fermentation and aging in cement tanks, which allows the underlying minerality from the volcanic soil to shine. It has uncanny elegance, which persists into a long finish.  Bright lemony acidity keeps it lively and refreshing.  If you want to understand why Soave Classico can be a great wine, try this one.  And it’s a bargain!
94 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2017

Cà di Rajo, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG (Veneto, Italy) “Cuvée del Fondatore” Brut 2016

($17):  Prosecco has gained so much popularity worldwide that its name has replaced the word Champagne as the generic term for all sparkling wine. Sadly, much Prosecco is mass-produced and uninteresting.  Typically, the path to finding a more distinctive Prosecco takes the consumer to a difficult to pronounce DOCG, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore.  Cà di Rajo’s 2016 Cuvée del Fondatore, from that DOCG, has a delicate and haunting white peach-like flavor.  An elegant and long Prosecco, it shows that, in this case, that the DOCG designation matters. 92 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2017

Quintarelli, Valpolicella Classico Superiore (Veneto, Italy) 2009

($85, Kermit Lynch):  Valpolicella originally was an inexpensive delightfully light red wine, not an “important” or prestigious one.  Over the last several decades, many producers have ramped it up by performing a “ripasso,” adding either dried grapes or the leftover must from another fermentation to the fresh pressed juice, which increased the alcohol content and the overall weight of the finished wine.  Usually, but not invariably as this wine shows, the term “ripasso” will appear on the label of wines enriched by that method.  Quintarelli is by most accounts the leading name in Valpolicella, which explains the price tag for this wine that carries a less than famous DOC.  Though the term ripasso does not appear on the label, Quintarelli has, indeed, co-fermented dried grapes with freshly pressed juice for his Valpolicella Classico Superiore.  They also opt to delay release until they think the wine is ready, which explains why this 2009 is the current release.   Not surprisingly considering the technique, the wine is rich and ripe — 15% stated alcohol — even with a trace of sweetness in the finish.  Fine tannins, a suave texture and bright acidity makes it a good choice for full-bodied fall fare, such as a roasted leg of lamb. 92 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2017

Rocca delle Maciè, Morellino di Scansano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Campo Macione” 2015

($15, Palm Bay International):  Rocca delle Maciè consistently makes lovely Chianti Classico, so it’s no surprise that they succeed with the Sangiovese grape further south in Scansano.  Their Morellino di Scansano 2015 focuses more on ripe cherry-like fruit than earthiness, but a hint of savory notes and bright acidity keeps it in balance.  Smooth tannins allow you to enjoy it now, especially with hearty pasta.
88 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2017

Feudi di San Gregorio, Falanghina del Sannio DOC (Campania, Italy) 2015

($15, Palm Bay International):  Falanghina, the grape was named after falengae, the Latin word for the stakes the Romans used to support the vine, is my “go to” wine in Italian restaurants with modest wine lists because it almost always represents good value. This one certainly does.  Reflecting the rather warm vintage, Feudi di San Gregorio’s 2015 is ripe with peachy notes and enlivening acidity that keeps it fresh.  It’s a great choice for Italian seafood dishes, from grilled octopus to linguine and clam sauce.
88 Michael Apstein Oct 3, 2017

Cà Rugate, Soave Classico (Veneto, Italy) “San Michele” 2016

($16): Not a single-vineyard wine, San Michele is the name. Cà Rugate’s San Michele bottling is a blend from several of their vineyards located in the Soave Classico subregion, the best area for Soave production.  More fruity than mineraly, it blossoms with air, befitting a young wine.  A delicate stone fruit character balanced by vibrant acidity comes through. It has lovely elegance and finesse for a “basic” Soave Classico.
89 Michael Apstein Sep 19, 2017

Nardello, Soave Classico (Veneto, Italy) 2016

($14): Nardello is one of the producers changing the image of Soave. A key to finding top quality Soave is to look for those, such as this one, that comes from the Classico subregion. Fortunately for consumers the price of Soave from these top producers has not caught up to the quality. Nardello’s 2016, made from grapes grown in a number of vineyards in the Classico area, is crisp and clean with good concentration.  A citrus quality and minerality in the finish keeps you coming back for another sip.  It’s zippy enough to stand up to antipasto and simple seafood.
90 Michael Apstein Sep 19, 2017

Cà Rugate, Soave Classico (Veneto, Italy) Monte Fiorentine 2015

($20): Both the 2015 and 2016 are in some markets simultaneously.  They offer a superb example of the differences between the vintages, with 2015 being riper and 2016 being racier.  Hence, something for everyone.  Cà Rugate opts to use Garganaga exclusively from this 15-acre vineyard that sits about 600 feet above sea level.  A cooler microclimate from the elevation helps explain the excellent acidity and freshness in this 2015 Soave Classico.  The dark volcanic soil imparts depth of fruit.  Fresh and lively, it’s an energetic wine, especially for a 2015. Those preferring more richness in their wines will seek out the 2015, while those whose tastes run toward tauter wines will prefer the 2016.  Frankly, I’m happy with either.
90 Michael Apstein Sep 19, 2017

Cà Rugate, Soave Classico (Veneto, Italy) Monte Fiorentine 2016

($20): This wine ticks all the right boxes.  Cà Rugate is a top Soave producer. Monte Fiorentine, a single-vineyard bottling from their old vineyards with vines that are approximately 50 years old, according to Francesco Ganci, their Italian commercial direction, is their top Soave.  And 2016 is an excellent vintage in Soave because the wines have exhilarating acidity.  It delivers minerality, reflecting the vineyard’s dark volcanic soil.  A mouth-watering salinity balances a slightly waxy texture.  Its racy character becomes more apparent after a half-hour in the glass, so give this youthful wine time to show itself.
91 Michael Apstein Sep 19, 2017

Ottella, Lugana Riserva (Veneto, Italy) “Molceo” 2014

($30): Wines like this one will make Lugana a common name.  That Ottella could make a wine this polished in 2014, a “challenging” year, to say the least, shows the dedication of this producer.  It’s floral and elegant, with just the right understated hints of tropical fruit. It has good concentration and spice with a lovely lemony finish.  Clean and bright, without a trace of off-flavors, they must have selected the grapes with tweezers given the difficulty with the harvest in 2014.  Here’s a delightful white for a Wednesday night roast chicken.
93 Michael Apstein Sep 19, 2017

Le Morette, Lugana DOC (Veneto, Italy) Mandolara 2016

($22): Lugana, a small DOC just south of Lake Garda, is a treasure trove of well-priced white wines.  Le Morette’s single-vineyard Mandolara is just one example.  The grape, formerly thought to be Trebbiano di Soave (and sometimes still referred to that on labels), is Turbiano, a distinctly different variety as determined by DNA analysis.  Le Morette’s 2016 Mandolara, a youthful wine, opens beautifully after 30 minutes in the glass, revealing subtle floral aromas and a delectable balance of spice and stone fruit flavors.  It has good density throughout and zesty acidity that keeps it fresh and lively.  It would be a good match for pasta and a clam sauce.
91 Michael Apstein Sep 19, 2017

Cavalchina, Custoza Superiore (Veneto, Italy) “Amedeo” 2015

($18): The Custoza DOC, formerly known as Bianco di Custoza, has suffered in the past from watered-down versions made by co-ops and other industrial-sized producers.  Cavalchina is trying to change the reputation and certainly will do so as more consumers taste their wines.  The grape is Garganaga, the primary grape used in Soave.  Regulations for the superiore designation require lower yields in the vineyard—more flavor in the wine — and an additional six months of aging before release.  Cavalchina’s 2015 Amedeo has a subtle creamy texture that enhances its richness.  Excellent acidity keeps it fresh and lively.  A hint of attractive bitterness in the finish reminds you this is serious wine.
91 Michael Apstein Sep 19, 2017

Arnaldo-Caprai, Colli Martani DOC (Umbria, Italy) “Grecante” 2016

($18, Wilson Daniels): Historically, white wines from Umbria, made from the Grechetto grape, were called Greco, Grechetto or Grecante.  Arnaldo-Caprai, one of the region’s leading producers, opted from Grecante, but the grape name still appears on the label as well.  This white combines freshness with an intriguing subtle nuttiness.  Good density and vivacity makes it a perfect choice with linguine and clam sauce or other flavor-packed seafood dish.
90 Michael Apstein Sep 5, 2017

Arnaldo-Caprai, Montefalco Rosso DOC (Umbria, Italy) 2014

($20, Wilson Daniels): The major problem facing growers of Sagrantino di Montefalco, a prestigious DOCG in Umbria, is how to make the wine more approachable when young — Sagrantino has ferocious tannins — without eviscerating it.  Enter the Montefalco Rosso DOC, which gives the consumer a chance get a hint of what the region has to offer.  Arnaldo-Caprai has fashioned a quite engaging example by blending a bit of Sagrantino (15%) with an equal amount of Merlot and then filling out the wine with Sangiovese (70%).  Sangiovese imparts a lip-smacking cherry-like fruitiness, while the Merlot adds fleshiness and the Sagrantino power and structure.  Best of all, it’s a delight to drink now with a hearty pasta dish.
90 Michael Apstein Sep 5, 2017

Tenuta Sette Cieli, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Scipio” 2010

($92, Wilson Daniels): It’s not surprising to see more estates popping up in Bolgheri, the area of the Tuscan coast that’s home to super star such as, Sassicaia and Ornellaia.  Moreover, it stands to reason that there’s potential for other producers to find the correct microclimates for their interpretation of wines made from the Bordeaux varieties.  Enter, in 2001, Tenuta Sette Cieli, the estate of seven skies.  They’ve hit the bull’s eye with this 2010 Scipio, made entirely from Cabernet Franc, a grape that is notoriously difficult to get right.  Sette Cieli has.  They make the wine only in years they think are perfect for the variety, so they skipped it in 2011 and 2012.  The 2010 is sensational with herbal notes for which the grape is well known, but with perfect ripeness, which avoids vegetal notes, for which the grape is also known.  The tannins are fine, which actually amplifies the gracefulness of the wine.  It bowls you over with elegance and suaveness, not power.   Each sip reveals new flavors, like drinking a kaleidoscope.  If your budget permits, don’t miss it.
96 Michael Apstein Aug 29, 2017

Tenute Silvio Nardi, Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany, Italy) 2012

($60, Kobrand): Tenute Silvio Nardi produces classically framed Brunello that reveal their substantial charms slowly.  They have vineyards both in the northwest and southeast section of the DOCG zone, which allows them to capture the virtues of each of those zones by using grapes from both of them for this wine.  (They also make sensational single-vineyard bottlings from those vineyards, labeled Vigneto Manachiara and Poggio Doria.)  Their 2012 Brunello, from an excellent vintage, shows a classically framed structure surrounding a core of dark, mineral-like fruitiness.  Tightly wound at this stage and beautifully balanced, give it at least 5 years in the cellar for it to blossom.  If you can’t wait, open and decant it a few hours before serving.
93 Michael Apstein Aug 29, 2017