Category Archives: Italy

Livon, Collio DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Pinot Bianco “Cavezzo” 2018

($40):  Pinot Bianco often makes light, innocuous wines.  Not this one.  Livon’s 2018 Cavezzo has weight and an alluring texture.  A hint of grapefruit-rind bitterness in a lively finish enhances its appeal.  This stylish Pinot Bianco has surprising complexity and could redefine the category for you.  It would be great as a stand-alone aperitivo, but would also be a good choice for simple grilled fish.
92 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Russiz Superiore, Collio DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Friulano 2019

($27, Dalla Terra Winery Direct):  Marco Felluga, the man in charge at Russiz Superiore, is a good name to remember for top-notch wines.  In addition to a seductive texture, this 2019 Friulano has good power without a trace of heaviness.  Nuances of orange-rind poke through and complement its fruitiness and spice.  A small portion (about 15%) of the wine was fermented in oak barrels, which adds complexity without a trace of oakiness.  Lively acidity keeps his weighty white fresh.  This Friulano would be a fine complement to the meatiness of grilled red snapper.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Colmello di Grotta, Collio DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Ribolla Gialla 2018

($17):  Ribolla Gialla, a late ripening variety, is typically the last white grape harvested, sometimes even after the first of the reds are ripe.  Despite that, it holds its acidity exceptionally well.  It’s a misunderstood variety because it can be transformed into two very different styles of wine.  The crisp and lively “classic” style accounts for about 80 percent production.  The remaining 20 percent is so-called “orange” wine, which is white wine made in the red wine tradition with extended skin contact, usually by small estates.  This is a spritely, classic style Ribolla Gialla that was fermented and aged in stainless steel and amphora without skin contact.  It captures your attention with a gorgeous array of white flowers and honeysuckle-like fruitiness, but without sweetness.  This beguiling wine has good density and a hint of saline-like bitterness in the finish.  It would be a good choice for linguine in a clam sauce or other hearty seafood.
93 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Geografico, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Borgo alla Terra” 2020

($12):  This is a great example of the straightforward — fruity and fragrant — style of Vernaccia di San Gimignano.  Its youthful crispness is emphasized by a delightful salty rather than lemony acidity, which keeps it fresh and lively.  Daniele Cernilli, one of Italy’s top wine authorities explains that the salty acidity comes from an abundance of tartaric rather than malic acid characteristic of Mediterranean wines.  This steel-aged white would be a perfect complement to spaghetti carbonara.
88 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Teruzzi, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Isola Bianca” 2020

($16, Taub Family Selections):  The name of the wine, which transliterates into English as “white island” refers to Vernaccia di San Gimignano’s situation as the sole white DOCG in a sea of Tuscany red wine.  Teruzzi, formerly named Teruzzi & Puthod, remains one of the region’s top producers despite the name change.  Their 2020 has more body and weight compared to Geografico’s version (also reviewed this week), but still maintains gorgeous freshness.  Its riper notes make it a more expansive wine, yet still is vivacious.  Cernilli aptly described it as a “sunny wine” during a Webinar.  I think this steel-aged wine is a perfect choice as an antidote for sunny summer weather.
91 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Il Colombaio di Santa Chiara, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Campo della Pieve” 2018

($28):  Campo della Pieve is one of Il Colombaio di Santa Chiara’s top cuvées of Vernaccia di San Gimignano.  It is distinguished from their easy-to-recommend regular bottling, labeled Selvabianca, by extended lees aging, which occurs for about 18 months in concrete tanks.  The lees-aging, even in the absence of barrel-aging, adds a captivating nutty complexity that balances and enhances its subtle fruitiness.  The interplay of savory and fruity notes is impressive and gives the wine a real presence.  An alluring bitter almond nuance comes through in the finish.
95 Michael Apstein Jun 8, 2021

Donnafugata, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Sul Vulcano” 2018

($40, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Made entirely from Carricante, Donnafugata’s Etna Bianco displays an immediately engaging floral component.  A crisp and chiseled wine, it captures the best elements of that grape.  This paradoxically vibrant, yet restrained, wine starts to blossom after 30 minutes in the glass.  Its refreshing, saline-tinged acidity keeps it fresh, and you coming back for more, throughout the meal.  This mid-weight, mineral-laden white is just what you want for the hot and humid months ahead.
95 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Donnafugata, Etna Rosso DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Sul Vulcano” 2017

($35, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Donnafugata’s Etna Rosso, a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Cappuccio, is a seductive mid-weight red that marries red fruit flavors with a distinct lava-like minerality.  Not an opulent wine, it has a lovely austerity without being hard or astringent.  Indeed, it is clean and elegant with an exceptionally long and refreshing finish which makes it perfect for current consumption this summer with grilled meats or seafood in a tomato sauce.
92 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Donnafugata, Etna Rosso DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Fragore” 2017

($85, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  The grapes for Donnafugata’s Fragore hail from the Contrada Montelaguardia.  Made entirely from Nerello Mascalese, it is denser than Sul Vulcano Rosso, but paradoxically, still displays a wonderful austerity.  This is no fruit bomb.  Indeed, the power and concentration have a lava-tinged savory character.  As expected from a monovarietal Nerello Mascalese, the tannins are more apparent, but are finely honed, not astringent or green.  Good acidity keeps this muscular wine fresh and invigorating.  The name fragore, which means the sound or the roar of the eruption, is appropriate because of the wine’s energy.  This Fragore just needs time, maybe five years, to blow off steam and settle down.
95 Michael Apstein Jun 1, 2021

Etna Erupts

One of the great things about Italian wines is that so many notable ones, both white and red, fly under the radar.  Everyone’s familiar with the great wines of Tuscany, Chianti Classico and Brunello, to name just two, and from Piedmont, home to Barolo and Barbaresco, but these wines often command triple digit prices, commensurate with their reputations.  My advice is to explore other regions, such as Sicily, and especially Mount Etna.  Though Etna received that island’s first Denominazione Origine Controllata (DOC) in 1968, it still accounts for only about one percent of the island’s wine production.  And it’s only been in the last couple of decades that more than a few producers have explored and embraced its unique and challenging terroir.  (Most winemakers worry that rain at harvest could ruin a year’s work.  On Etna they worry that an eruption could wipe out a decade or two of work.)  In 2017, none other than Angelo Gaja, arguably Italy’s most well-known producer, purchased about 50 acres on the slopes of the volcano.  To quote Daniele Cernilli (a.k.a. Doctor Wine®), one of Italy’s top wine experts and critics, “The attention from a producer of such great and recognized prestige has confirmed the undisputed value of the volcano’s terroir, strengthening its image and consolidating its position among the most interesting areas in the world for wine production.”  Now, as you’ll see below, Etna’s wines are not inexpensive, but they are amazing for what they deliver.

One of Sicily’s top producers, Donnafugata, has been exploring the different lava-influenced terroirs on Etna.  If you haven’t tried their wines from Etna, or any wines from Etna for that matter, you’re in for a real treat; they’re the kind of wines that make you wonder—why haven’t I heard about these before now?

Donnafugata, still family-owned and one of Sicily’s top producers, has finally made it to Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano.  They had their sights on viticulture on Etna about 20 years ago, but got side-tracked to Pantelleria, an island off Sicily’s southwest coast.  Fortunately, that detour resulted in the birth of Ben Ryé, a wonderful sweet wine (DOC Passito di Pantelleria) made from the Zibibbo (a.k.a. Muscat of Alexandria) grape that has savory undertones and bracing acidity, making it a perfect accompaniment to a cheese course or to act as dessert by itself.  I, for one, am glad they finally made it up the mountain because they are making stellar wines there that erupt with flavor.

Though Donnafugata’s first vintage on Etna was the 2016, they do have old vines because they purchased and rehabilitated vineyards, some of which are 80 years old.  While no one can say for certain why old vines produce better grapes, and hence, better wines, every winemaker I’ve ever spoken to agrees that they do.

Etna’s a hot area, both literally and figuratively, for stellar white and red wines made from the autochthonous grapes, Carricante, Nerello Mascalese, and Nerello Cappuccio.  Though Donnafugata’s historic home is in Marsala on the opposite, western, side of the island from Etna, they’ve established estates all over the island since 1983 when Giacomo Rallo founded the company.  With about 50 acres, their Etna property is the smallest of their four estates.  (For completeness, Donnafugata has just over 700 acres in Contessa Entellina, 90 acres in Vittoria, and about 170 acres on Pantelleria.)

The Etna DOC encompasses about 2,700 acres in a reverse C arc around the volcano’s northern, eastern and southern sides.  The same three basic components that explain the distinctive quality of great wines around the world are present on Etna: a unique climate, a unique soil, and unique grapes.  Despite being in the middle of the Mediterranean, Etna’s elevation gives it a continental climate, characterized by cold winters, wet springs, and hot summers.  Snowy winters and rainy springs provide ground water for the vines during the hot dry summers, while the large day-night temperature changes during July, August, and September maintain acidity in the grapes and hence, the wines.  The volcanic soil from successive lava flows, known locally as sciare (literally, to ski), imparts a distinctive mineral component to the wines.  The grapes, Carricante for the whites, and Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, for the reds, are unique and grown practically nowhere else.

Carricante, an aromatic white grape, typically displays fabulous acidity and a distinct sapidity or saline touch.  Donnafugata’s 2018 Etna Bianco DOC “Sul Vulcano,” made entirely from Carricante, displays an immediately engaging floral component.  A crisp and chiseled wine, it captures the best elements of that grape.  This paradoxically vibrant yet restrained wine starts to blossom after 30 minutes in the glass.  Its refreshing, saline-tinged acidity keeps it fresh, and you coming back for more, throughout the meal.  This mid-weight mineral-laden white is just what you want for the hot and humid months ahead.  (95, $40).

Nerello Mascalese, like Nebbiolo, often lacks color despite substantial tannins.  A high-acid grape, it delivers both fruity and savory elements.  Nerello Cappuccio, in contrast, has great color, soften tannins, and a larger fruit profile, which makes it an excellent choice to blend with Nerello Mascalese.

Donnafugata’s 2017 DOC Etna Rosso “Sul Vulcano,”
 a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Cappuccio, is a seductive mid-weight red that marries red fruit flavors with a distinct lava-like minerality.  Not an opulent wine, it has a lovely austerity without being hard or astringent.  Indeed, it’s clean and elegant with an exceptionally long and refreshing finish which makes it perfect for current consumption this summer with grilled meats or seafood in a tomato sauce.  (92, $35)

Donnafugata is exploring how wines differ depending on where the grapes grow.  During a Zoom tasting earlier this month, José Rallo and Antonio Rallo, the sister and brother team running the company now, explained that there are over 100 distinct areas, locally called contradas, which are determined by lava flows.  The contradas, which vary in size from 5 to 10 to over 100 acres, have a distinct and unique microclimate despite their often close proximity, according to Antonio.  He explains that the contrada Montelaguardia, whose soil is a result of a 1614 to 1624 eruption, and the cooler contrada Marquesa, whose soil date from a different eruption, are only a couple of miles apart, but produce different wines.

Donnafugata’s 2017 Etna Rosso “Fragore” from the Contrada Montelaguardia, made entirely from Nerello Mascalese, is denser than Sul Vulcano Rosso, but paradoxically, still displays a wonderful austerity.  This is no fruit bomb.  Indeed, the power and concentration have a lava-tinged savory character.  As expected from a monovarietal Nerello Mascalese, the tannins are more apparent, but are finely honed, not astringent or green.  Good acidity keeps this muscular wine fresh and invigorating.  The name, fragore, which means the sound or the roar of the eruption, is appropriate because of the wine’s energy.  This Fragore just needs time, maybe five years, to blow off steam and settle down.  (95, $85).

Time will tell whether the wine world will know the contrada of Etna as well as the villages of Barolo or the vineyards of Burgundy.

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Email me your thoughts about Sicilian wines in general or those from Etna in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein 

Tormaresca, Salento IGT (Puglia, Italy) Primitivo “Torcicoda” 2017

($20, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates):  You know there must be potential for excellent wine in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, when Antinori establishes an outpost, Tormaresca, there.  The region is known for big reds, like this one, made from the Primitivo grape, which genetically is identical to Zinfandel.  Weighing in at 14.5 percent stated-alcohol, Tormaresca’s Primitivo certainly qualifies as a “big red.”  But it’s more than just muscle, delivering savory qualities, as well as a touch of sweetness in the finish.  Its suave texture makes it perfect for current consumption.  Try it with BBQ this summer.
89 Michael Apstein May 18, 2021

Villa Matilde, Falerno del Massico DOC (Campania, Italy) 2016

($32, Kobrand Wine & Spirits):  Falerno del Massico, a small (not even 250 acres) DOC in Campania, retains appeal, in part, because Falerno was considered the great wine of ancient Rome.  With its lava-like underpinnings, Villa Matilde’s, made from a traditional Campania blend of Aglianico (80%) and Piedirosso, reflects its origins at the foot of the volcano, Roccamonfina.  This a broad shouldered red, delivering what you’d expect from Aglianico — tar and minerals and power.  And tannins, too.  But there’s underlying voluptuous cherry-like fruit to it, creating a lovely ying/yang of fruit and savory minerality.  Balanced and fresh because of the ever-present enlivening acidity, it finishes with a haunting touch of bitterness.  If you’re drinking it now, open hours in advance and chose a leg of lamb studded with garlic.  Otherwise, find a place in the cellar for it for at least five years.
93 Michael Apstein May 4, 2021

Villa Matilde, Campania IGP (Italy) Aglianico “Rocca dei Leoni” 2017

($17, Kobrand Wine & Spirits):  Aglianico, the grape known for heavyweight wines, such as Taurasi, bottled under screwcap?  Who would have guessed Aglianico-lite would work — but, in Villa Matilde’s hands, it does.  This light to mid-weight red (not a description used very often for Aglianico) delivers engaging hints of tar alongside fine tannins.  The focus here is definitely on the minerals, not the fruit.  Though a lighter style of wine, it is not fleeting.  Indeed, it has a real presence.  Uplifting freshness accompanies its lovely austerity.  A hearty dish is in order.
91 Michael Apstein May 4, 2021

Tenuta Sant’Anna, Prosecco Rosé DOC (Veneto, Italy) 2020

($17, Montcalm Wine Importers):  At first blush, pun intended, you’d be forgiven for thinking Rosé Prosecco is a marketing tool combining two hot categories of wine.  But this one is a serious wine.  It has a substantial presence.  You can’t help but take note of it.  It’s not fluff.  A whiff of wild strawberries and a hint of bitterness in the refreshing finish remind you it’s a real wine — and at a very attractive price.
90 Michael Apstein Apr 27, 2021

Tenuta di Arceno, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) 2017

($31):  Tenuta di Arceno managed to succeed in a difficult vintage.  Their bold style worked well in 2017 because they captured ripeness, good acidity and suave tannins simultaneously.  Though rich and fruity, a subtly haunting bitterness in the finish reminds us, thankfully, it’s not just about fruit.  There’s a lot of herbal earthy notes and energy to complement those juicy cherry-like flavors.  This Riserva, unlike many, is ready to drink now because the tannins are finely polished and not intrusive.  Still, a hearty beef dish would be a good match.
90 Michael Apstein Apr 27, 2021

Illuminati, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva DOC (Abruzzo, Italy) “Riparossso” 2019

($18, Montcalm Wine Importers):  Illuminati, one of the leading producers in Abruzzo, makes a range of wines from the Montepulciano grape.  This one focuses on the dark fruit tones that the Montepulciano variety can display.  Its fleshiness, coupled with mild tannins, makes this mid-weight red a good choice for current consumption.
88 Michael Apstein Apr 27, 2021

Illuminati, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva DOC (Abruzzo, Italy) “Ilico” 2018

($24, Montcalm Wine Importers):  This Riserva, made from a selection of the best Montepulciano grapes, is real step up from this house’s other, entry-level releases: there’s much more going on here.  Not bigger or bolder, it’s just broader and more layered.  The tannins are more refined, giving it a glossier texture.  Though this nicely balanced wine displays similar energy to Illuminati’s Lumeggio di Rosso, it has a longer and more enticing finish.  Similar to Illuminati’s other Montepulciano wines, it’s a delight to drink now.
92 Michael Apstein Apr 27, 2021

Illuminati, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC (Abruzzo, Italy) “Lumeggio di Rosso” 2019

($18, Montcalm Wine Importers):  This is a differently styled Montepulciano from Illuminati’s Riparossso, highlighting the more herbal and savory side of that grape.  Despite similar weight and concentration, it’s a more aromatic and energetic wine, which makes it a fine choice for current consumption with a sausage-infused tomato sauce for pasta.
90 Michael Apstein Apr 27, 2021

Illuminati, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG (Abruzzo, Italy) Riserva “Zanna” 2015

($38, Montcalm Wine Importers):  Colline Teramane, the hills around Teramano, in the north of Abruzzo, neighboring the Marche, is Abruzzo’s sole DOCG.  Judging from this line-up of Illuminati’s wines, it certainly deserves that accolade based on the quality of this release.  A more robust wine, yet not overdone by any means, it’s wonderfully refined.  Great acidity makes it come alive in the finish, sporting a lovely hint of bitterness and savory qualities.  Its youthful boldness is apparent, which means giving it a few more years in the bottle is a good idea.  If you are planning to drink it now, find a leg of lamb.
93 Michael Apstein Apr 27, 2021

Terroir is Alive and Well in Barolo

With three wines, all made from Nebbiolo grape, the Marchesi di Barolo, a top producer in Piedmont, shows the importance of terroir.  The French, especially the Burgundians, have long insisted that the idea of terroir—where the grapes grow—is fundamental to the character of the wine.  Indeed, the French name many of their wines, and certainly their best ones, by where the grapes grow, not by the grape name.  No Pinot Noir for them.  It’s Gevrey-Chambertin or Pommard.  The Italians take a somewhat broader approach.  Some of the best Italian wines, such as Barolo, are named by location.  Others are named by the grape, such as Barbera, and some are named by both, such as Langhe Nebbiolo (Nebbiolo grape from the Langhe, a wider area of Piedmont surrounding Alba, Barolo and Barbaresco) or, Barbera d’Alba.

The only way to truly understand terroir is by holding constant the other key element in determining a wine’s character, namely the winemaking.  Here’s the dilemma.  If I’m tasting two wines from grapes grown in two different vineyards made by two different producers, are the differences due to the place (the vineyard) or to the producer? Hence, the key to appreciating terroir is to compare the same producer’s wines made from grapes grown in different sites.  And thanks to the Somm Journal webinar hosted by Italian wine expert Lars Leicht and featuring Valentina and Anna Abbona from the family that owns Marchesi di Barolo, we could do just that.

We tasted a trio of wines, side-by-side, all made by the Marchesi di Barolo: a 2018 Langhe Nebbiolo DOC “Sbirolo,” a 2015 Barolo, Comune di Barolo, and a 2015 Barolo “Sarmassa.”  The vintages were not the same, but both 2015 and 2018 were similar in style, being warm, and thus producing ripe wines.  And though the barrel aging is not the same among these three wines, the aging and winemaking in general is driven by where the grapes are grown.  So, the differences among these three wines essentially reflect the differences in terroir.

Wines labeled Langhe Nebbiolo must contain a minimum of 85 percent Nebbiolo, though most all are entirely Nebbiolo, and can come from vineyards classified as such or from Barolo (or Barbaresco) vineyards that have been de-classified.  Producers might opt to declassify some of their Barolo to Langhe Nebbiolo if, for example, the grapes came from an inferior part of the Barolo vineyard or the wine did measure up to the producer’s standards for Barolo.

The bright and lively 2018 Marchesi di Barolo Langhe Nebbiolo “Sbirolo” displays light floral notes and delicate cherry-like fruitiness.  The tannins, for which Nebbiolo is famous, are apparent, but not hard nor astringent.  Overall, there’s a pleasing austerity to the wine, making it an excellent choice for current consumption with pasta in a meat sauce as opposed to a stand-alone aperitivo.  (90 pts; $20)

The Marchesi di Barolo’s “Barolo del Comune di Barolo,” is a blend from their vineyards within in the municipality of Barolo, one of the 11 villages that comprise the DOCG and the one from which the DOCG takes its name.  The 2015 displays a darker profile, from color to palate, compared to their Langhe Nebbiolo.  Though a gorgeous floral element is present, the wine’s focus moves from cherry-like fruitiness to a tar-like mineral aspect.  It expands over in the glass, gaining layers of flavor.  It has great concentration, yet is not overdone.  A lovely, subtle bitterness in the finish enhances its appeal.  As expected from a Barolo, the tannins are more apparent, yet not intrusive.  It’s surprisingly forward and easy to taste, but its balance and structure suggest that more complexity with evolve over the next decade or two.  (93, $65).

Sarmassa, along with Cannubi, are likely the two top vineyards in the village of Barolo.  Marchesi di Barolo consistently produces a wonderful Sarmassa from their substantial holdings there.  The youthful 2015, denser and darker even than their Barolo del Comune di Barolo, is fabulous.  Despite its more noticeable tannic structure, its charms are readily apparent because the tannins are suave, not harsh or intrusive.  Wonderfully perfumed, this powerhouse retains balance and elegance.  Its grandeur blossoms further in an incredibly long finish.  Barolo-lovers should find a place in their cellar for this wine.  (95, $100)

The venerable Marchesi di Barolo estate has both a royal and saintly history.  Juliette Colbert, the great-grand-daughter (or perhaps great-grand-niece) of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King,” became the Marquise of Barolo when she married a nobleman, Marchese Carlo Tancredi Falletti di Barolo in 1806 and moved to his estate in Barolo.  She is credited with changing the style of the local wine from sweet and red, to dry and robust, yet elegant, one that is today’s Barolo, and with labeling it by that place name.  A great advocate for the poor and downtrodden, she was beatified by the Catholic Church and was titled Venerable by Pope Francis in 2015 because of her life of “heroic virtue.”  She died in 1864 without heirs, leaving the entire estate to a charitable foundation, Opera Pia Barolo, which she founded to continue her good works.  Opera Pia Barolo operated the estate until 1929 when charities were required to sell-off property.  Enter the Abbona family whose winery and vineyards were across the road from those of the Marchesi di Barolo.  Though not the best time to be making investments, they, either foolishly or prophetically, seized the opportunity to buy the estate.  Thus, the Abbona family became only the third owners of this jewel and contributed to the fiscal health of Opera Pia Barolo, which is till operational today.

In 1980, Ernesto, the patriarch of the family, again, either foolishly or prophetically, planted Barbera in the Paiagallo vineyard, one of Barolo’s top vineyards for Nebbiolo whose eastern border actually abuts Cannubi.  As Valentina, Ernesto’s daughter, told me several years ago when I visited, her father replaced the more valuable Nebbiolo vines with Barbera, even though he realized it may have been against his economic interest.  Ernesto wanted to return to the Piedmont tradition of having even “humble” varieties planted in the best terroir, according to his daughter.  She explained that he wanted to challenge the general image that Barbera belongs only in sub-par terroir.  She continued that, in this way, her father felt that Barbera could shine, displaying the elegance and power of a great terroir and, simultaneously, be more accessible at a young age.

All of which brings me to Marchesi di Barolo’s 2017 “Peiragal,” their Barbera d’Alba planted in the Paiagallo vineyard.  Suave, and elegant, it is not your “typical” Barbera.  It comes across softer and richer, despite excellent acidity, with far more complexity.  Plushness replaces the briary exuberance that I associate with Barbera and makes it immediately enjoyable.  It’s a lovely choice now for a rich meat sauce-draped pasta.  It does really shine.  (93, $29)

The French have long insisted that the grape is merely a vehicle for the terroir.  The grandeur of this Peiragal supports that theory.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Barolo in general or Marchesi di Barolo in specific at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein

I Saltari, Valpolicella Superiore DOC (Veneto, Italy) 2015

($30, Romano Brands):   I Saltari, part of the highly-acclaimed Sartori di Verona wine group, releases their Valpolicella Superiore when they think it’s ready to drink.  That explains why the 2015 is the current vintage on the retail market and tastes nothing like most Valpolicella.  Yes, it’s a juicy mid-weight red with mild tannins, but it displays a layered complexity rarely seen in Valpolicella.  What I call “not just fruit” flavors are evident with a delightful uplifting balsamic nuance.  Bright and lively, it’s a wonderful choice for current drinking with sautéed veal or other mid-weight dishes.
93 Michael Apstein Apr 6, 2021

Grignano, Chianti Rufina DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) 2018

($24, Montcalm Wine Importers):  Consumers sometimes forget there are sub-zones other than Chianti Classico in the greater Chianti area that spreads between Florence and Siena.  The Chianti Rufina area, just to the northeast of Florence, is home to some wonderful wines, including this one from Grignano.  Ripe, yet energetic, this 2018 delivers dark bitter cherry-like fruitiness married with herbal and earthy elements.  Polished tannins and its balance make it a delight to drink tonight.  This perky wine delivers far more than the price suggests.
93 Michael Apstein Apr 6, 2021

Vigna Petrussa, Friuli Colli Orientali DOC (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy) Friulano 2019

($30):  The leadership of this family-owned winery is unique.  Hilde Petrussa, the current director, is the third generation of female directors.  This Friulano is equally unique.  It has good weight, stone fruit character, all supported and balanced by excellent acidity.  A ying and yang of a subtle creamy richness and hint of bitterness in the finish just makes it just that much more appealing. Hilde remarks that their Friulano always needs seven to eight months after bottling to show its complexity, which means the 2019 is ideal for drinking now with grilled or roasted fish.
92 Michael Apstein Mar 30, 2021

Fattoria Varramista, Toscana IGP (Tuscany, Italy) “Frasca” 2015

($33):  Fattoria Varramista, located halfway between Florene and Pisa, has about 20 acres of vineyards planted to Sangiovese, Merlot and Syrah. They expertly blend those grapes to make this glossy well-proportioned wine where none of its elements predominate.  Fleshy, but not overly fruity, savory notes remain in this traditionally framed wine.  Long and graceful, a delightful hint of bitterness in the finish reminds you this is not a fruit-bomb.
93 Michael Apstein Mar 30, 2021

Fondo Antico, Sicilia DOC (Sicily, Italy) Grillo “Parlante” 2019

($19):  Although only started in 2000, the family-run Fondo Antico, has a long connection with grapes as a grower for Marsala.  They have about 200 acres of vineyards on the western side of the island where they grow both autochthonous varieties, such as Grillo, and so-called international grapes.  Grillo, which in Sicilian dialect means cricket, is a semi-aromatic grape whose charms can be difficult to capture in the wine.  Fondo Antico succeeds, combing a delicate peachy quality and a cutting saline-like mineral aspect.  A clean and refreshing wine, it demands seafood, such as a linguine and clam sauce.
92 Michael Apstein Mar 30, 2021

Tenute Soletta, Vermentino di Sardegna (Sardinia, Italy) “Sardo” 2019

($20):  The brother and sister-run Tenute Soletta is a new estate by Italian standards, having been created in 1996.  They use only their own grapes and focus on this Vermentino and a similarly delicious Cannonau.  This Vermentino spends about seven months on the lees, which likely accounts, at least in part, for its richness.  A crispness and saline-infused finish keep it in balance and you coming back for more.  An excellent match for anything from the sea.
91 Michael Apstein Mar 30, 2021

Tenute Soletta, Cannonau di Sardegna (Sardinia, Italy) “Sardo” 2016

($24):  This Cannonau (also known as Garnacha or Grenache), displays a dark, haunting profile with slightly funky, in a nice way, accents.  Dark fruit flavors are apparent and balance the savory elements in this chewy wine.  This is a weighty, but not heavy, wine perfect for a hearty meal on a winter day or to serve with robust fare from the grill.
89 Michael Apstein Mar 30, 2021

Celli, Bertinaro Romagna DOC (Emilia Romagna) Sangiovese Riserva, “Bron & Rusèval” 2017

($28):  Since Sangiovese, a grape associated with Tuscany, is the most widely planted grape in Italy, it is not surprising to find excellent wines made from it outside of that region.  Here’s one such example from nearby Romagna, which Mauro Sirri, the owner of Celli, is quick to identify as distinct from Emilia: “They’re known for Lambrusco; we’re known for dry wines.”  Bertinoro is one of top sub-regions of Romagna.  This graceful mid-weight red combines savory and dark cherry-like notes.  Wonderful acidity, for which Italian wines are known, imparts energy.  Long and refined, it has a real presence. It’s a hearty food type of red ideally suited for current consumption.
92 Michael Apstein Mar 30, 2021

2016 Brunello di Montalcino: Don’t Miss Them

The great success of the 2016 vintage throughout Tuscany suggested that the just-released 2016 Brunello would be memorable.  Is it ever! To my mind, it is, by far, the best vintage since 2010.  I certainly prefer the 2016s in general to the more powerful and overdone Brunello from the much-hyped 2015 vintage.  Many experienced critics, such as Kerin O’Keefe (whose book on Brunello remains the benchmark for the region) believe that the vintage ranks with the legendary 2004 and 2001 vintages.  The best 2016 Brunelli are sleek, racy, and, at times, explosive, yet not heavy or overdone.  They are balanced with super fine-grained tannins, which suggests that they should evolve beautifully with proper cellaring, though many are surprisingly easy to enjoy now.

In the past, in normal times, my assessment of the vintage would be based on the annual tasting in Montalcino in February and my discussions there with producers.  This year, Covid-19 prevented that annual trip, so my assessment of the 2016 vintage was limited to what turned out to be a beautifully organized tasting hosted by Gianfranco Sorrentino of Gattopardo, an excellent Italian restaurant in New York City.  Though fully vaccinated, I was still filled with trepidation since it was my first in-public tasting in over a year.  I armed myself with a Solo® cup personal spittoon and extra face masks just in case I forgot to remove it while tasting or spitting.  (I didn’t.)  Sorrentino had thought of everything.  Sixty 2016 Brunelli were available to taste in a socially-distanced setting.  Waitstaff poured the wines, which were on a single table.  Tasters pointed to the wine to taste, received a sample, and retreated to one of the small tables scattered around the large, seemingly well-ventilated room, allowing tasters to sit and taste without crowding.  Only 40 people, all masked, attended and remained masked unless tasting.  No producers were present.  My only insights from a producer came from a tasting with Count Marone Cinzano of Col d’Orcia via Zoom® conducted some weeks earlier.

With a broad smile, Cinzano described 2016 as a “classic year,” in the best sense of that term.  The growing season was perfect—not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, not too wet.  Importantly, he felt that the region was lucky to avoid the severe heat wave in 2016 that plagued them in 2015, adding that “a balanced year leads to a balanced wine.”

Much is rightly made of the diversity of the soil and climate within this small DOCG region, which consists of just over 5,000 acre acres.  Gabriele Gorelli, the newly minted MW (Master of Wine), explained the region’s diversity at a seminar last year.  He described the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG as a four-sided pyramid with the town at the pinnacle.  The vineyards are planted from just above sea-level to about 1,600 feet.  Although the overall climate is Mediterranean—warm summers and cool winters—he emphasized that it is not homogenous.  Each of the four main slopes has its own climate and pattern of precipitation.  Furthermore, the position of a vineyard on the slope plays an important role in the ripeness of the grapes and the character of the wine: the higher the vineyard is on the slope, the cooler the growing condition.  To complicate matters further, vast differences in soils, even over a small area, amplify the heterogeneity of the region.  Typically, the higher elevations represent the oldest soils with the greatest amount of limestone, by contrast to the more sedimentary or sandy soil near the base.  The hypothesis that wine style is affected by site location within the region is supported by my many tastings over the years of two of Silvio Nardi’s consistently alluring single vineyard Brunelli, Vigneto Manachiara—made from grapes grown in the clay-laden northeast sector—and Poggio Doria, from the gravely-northwest sector. These two wines show the wonderful diversity of wines from this DOCG.

Based on this tasting of 2016s, I could not identify a subzone that consistently excelled compared to other subzones in the DOCG.  Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to tell the locale of an individual producer’s grapes, since some producers own vineyards throughout the zone, not just adjacent to their winery, and make a Brunello that they consider representative of the DOCG.  Hence, knowing the location of the winery does not tell the whole story.  I found my favorites came from all over the entire region.  Indeed, two of my favorites, the 2016 Brunello from Col d’Orcia in the extreme southwestern section and from Castiglion del Bosco in the extreme northwest section, come from opposite ends of the DOCG.  Another favorite, the 2016 Brunello from Silvio Nardi, was made from a blend of grapes grown throughout the entire area.  I don’t find that surprising since I believe producers’ styles play as large a role in how the wines taste as does the origin of the grapes.

My advice is to buy as much of the 2016 Brunello as you can afford.  This is a great vintage that should develop beautifully over the next several decades.  Buy from producers you know and have liked in the past.  As with all wine regions, the vintage is important, but it’s still producer, producer, producer that is critical.  Due to Covid-19, my tastings this year and hence, my assessment of the vintage, was limited compared to previous years.  I did not have the opportunity to taste wines from producers that I consistently like, such as Canalicchio di Sopra, Gianni Brunelli, Il Marroneto, Mastrojanni, or Le Ragnaie.  That said, if I found them at reasonable prices, I would buy them without hesitation, even without tasting them.

The explosive yet graceful Le Chiuse (99 pts, $99) sits at the top of my list of 2016 Brunello.  The balanced Col d’Orcia (98, $44), perhaps their finest ever, is likely the bargain of the vintage.  Others I recommend highly are listed below.  The ones in bold represent great value.  Prices are from wine-searcher.com

CastelGiocando (97, $59)

Castiglion del Bosco (96, $63)
Corte Pavone (96, n/a)
Fanti, “Vallocchio” (96, $70)
Fulgini (96, $99)
La Poderina (96, $57)
Il Poggione (96, $79)
Talenti (96, $57)

Argiano (95, $57)
Campogiovanni (95, $55)

Capanna (95, $61)
Carparzo (95, $44)
Col di Lanio (95, n/a)
Donnatella Cinelli Colombini (95, $70)
La Fiorita (95, $85)
Silvio Nardi (95, $53)
Il Palazzone (95, $79)
Val di Suga “Vigna Spuntali” (95, $57)

Castello Banfi, “Poggio alle Mure” (94, $62)

Pian delle Vigne (93, $58)

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Email me your thoughts about Brunello at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein

Il Colle, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG (Veneto, Italy) Brut NV

($20):  Established in 1978, Il Colle remains a family-run estate that produces an array of Prosecco.  This one shows the beauty of the DOCG, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, compared to a straight DOC Prosecco.  It has a finesse and refinement that most DOC Prosecco just don’t deliver.  Long and delicate, it finishes with a delightful hint of bitterness.  Part of its quality likely comes from their use of only their estate grapes or perhaps their use only of Glera, with no blending of other grapes.  But they also have a unique fermentation process that they claim reduces the sulfite content of the finished wine.  I have no idea what gives this wine its stature, but it’s got it.
92 Michael Apstein Mar 23, 2021

Isola Augusta, Trevenezie IGP (Veneto, Italy) Schioppettino 2019

($20):   Founded in 1959 by Renzo Bassani, the third generation of the that environmentally-conscious family is now involved.  They gradually expanded to about 125 acres of vineyards, which provide sufficient fruit for all their wines.  Indeed, they sell some of their grapes to their neighbors.  This floral 2019 Schioppettino has a springtime feel to it.  A light to mid-weight red, it is fresh and lively with a touch of spice, which makes it ideal with a tomato-based fish stew.  The absence of sticky tannins also makes it an excellent choice for chilling in place of a Rosé.
91 Michael Apstein Mar 23, 2021

CaselFarneto, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore (Marche, Italy) Verdicchio “Fontevecchia” 2017

($15, Enotec Imports):  Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is one of Italy’s great white wines that flies under most peoples’ radar.  Italian wine regulators awarded the top category, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva, DOCG status, showing the potential of the region.  But even the wines that carry just the DOC, especially those labeled Classico, which indicates that the grapes were grown in the central — best — area, are worth trying to see the potential of the Verdicchio grape in this area.  (Superiore means the grapes were a bit riper, imparting slightly more alcohol to the wine.)  CaselFarneto’s 2017 has excellent weight without being overdone, which means it holds up nicely with flavorful fare, such as a tomato-based seafood pasta.  Clean and fresh, its mineral or stony side shines, and balances its density.  Plus, it’s a bargain.
93 Michael Apstein Mar 23, 2021

Lunae Bosoni, Colli di Luni DOC (Liguria, Italy) Vermentino “Etichetta Grigia” (Grey Label) 2020

($25, Montcalm Wine Importers):  Lunae Bosoni, one of Liguria’s top producers, consistently makes a stunning line up of Vermentino wines.  The 2020 maintains that tradition.  Riper than usual in this vintage, this nevertheless has very energetic acidity holds everything together.  An intriguing and uplifting saline touch keeps you interested and invites another sip.  This is a great choice for a spicy seafood pasta or sushi.  If this helps you to find it, “Etichetta Grigia” means Grey Label.
90 Michael Apstein Mar 23, 2021

Masciarelli, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC (Italy) Trebbiano “Marina Cvetic” Riserva 2018

($58, Vintus):  Similar to its red counterpart, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo can be grown all over the province and varies in quality from insipid to inspiring.  As you would expect from a top producer, Masciarelli’s fits the latter category.  Why the vast difference?  Stefano di Nisio, cofounder of the Atomos Wine Company in Abruzzo, told me recently that the quality of wine can be explained, at least in part, by yield, which for Trebbiano can vary by a factor of 10.  Though I don’t know the precise yield for Masciarelli’s 2018, it’s likely low given the wine’s extraordinary depth and weight.  Who knew Trebbiano could make such an impressive serious wine?  Cutting, uplifting acidity keeps it fresh and balances its concentration.  There’s a subtle and pleasant bitterness in the finish that makes it a delight to drink with grilled swordfish.
93 Michael Apstein Mar 23, 2021

Angelini, Prosecco Rosé DOC (Veneto, Italy) Brut 2020

($12):  Starting with the 2019 vintage, Prosecco Rosé is an official DOC.  Initially, I suspected this category was a brilliant marketing maneuver combining two of the hottest wine categories today.  However, producers have told me that Prosecco Rosé should be a premium product that will likely cost more.  It must include 15 percent of Pinot Noir, which must be grown in the DOC, an area where it is not plentiful.  The demand for local Pinot Noir will inevitably drive up the price for that grape.  Additionally, Prosecco Rosé must be vintage-dated, so blending over multiple years, as is allowed with regular Prosecco, is forbidden.  Thirdly, the secondary fermentation must be twice as long as for regular Prosecco, 60 days versus 30 days, which will increase production costs.  Despite these potential reasons for a higher price, Angelini has managed to fashion a delightful one at a very delightful price.  Dry, clean and fresh with a subtle hint of wild strawberries, it’s a perfect springtime — or summer — aperitif.  With only 11 percent stated-alcohol, it is light, yet not vapid.  It could easily be carried to the table to accompany lighter fare, that is, if the bottle isn’t empty.
88 Michael Apstein Mar 16, 2021

Donnafugata, Etna Bianco DOC (Sicily, Italy) “Sul Vulcano” 2018

($24, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  The primary grape for Etna Bianco is Carricante, one that is unique to Sicily.  Though people, rightly, associate red wine with Sicily, Carricante produces impressive and distinctive whites, especially when grown on the slopes of Mount Etna.  Indeed, Etna Bianco is one of those great white wines that few people know about.  Donnafugata, one of Sicily’s top producers, is largely responsible for showing the world that Sicily can produce great wines.  So, their Etna Bianco is a great introduction to the category.  A full-bodied white, despite its meager (by today’s standards) 12.5 percent stated alcohol, you can almost taste the lava.  More savory than fleshy, it has a distinct and invigorating saline-like mineral component amplified by riveting acidity.  A hint of creaminess peeks through in this long and refined wine.  Unsurprisingly, this would be a terrific choice for hearty seafood, even a tomato-based fish stew.
95 Michael Apstein Mar 16, 2021

Col d’Orcia, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) 2016

($45, Taub Family Selections):  Col d’Orcia, one of the largest producers of Brunello di Montalcino, has proven, time and time again, that quality and quantity can go together.  They did it again with their positively stellar 2016 Brunello.  The 2016 vintage is outstanding throughout Tuscany. Though 2015 was highly rated in Brunello and throughout Tuscany as well, my vote clearly goes to 2016 because the wines are much fresher, livelier and better balanced without losing any of the depth that the 2015s provided.  The 2016 ranks among the best Brunello Col d’Orcia has produced.  Beautifully proportioned, it has everything: grace, power, and freshness.  And it unfolds as it sits in the glass so that the dark cherry-like fruitiness of Sangiovese and the deep mineral earthy component characteristic of Montalcino come together in a most wonderful way.  Its stature sneaks up on you, which makes it all the more compelling.  At the price, it is likely the best value to be found among the 2016 Brunelli.  Some is already in my cellar.
98 Michael Apstein Mar 9, 2021

The Joys of Exploring Italian Wines

One of the many things I adore about Italian wine is its seemingly limitless depth.  You can always uncover a wine area or category unbeknownst to you, even if it’s been known to the Italians themselves for decades.  Take, for example, Albana Romagna.  It may be a discovery for me and other Americans, but the Italians have known the potential of the grape grown in this area for decades.  Comparably obscure to most of us is Refosco dal Peduncolo, a red variety usually showing hard-edged tannins, according to Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson et al., but a grape that a talented producer has turned into a delightful red wine suitable for chilling.  That same producer also makes a dynamite Pinot Grigio (not exactly an obscure grape), that retails for about $12.  And of course, I’d be remiss if I omitted the new category of Prosecco Rosé, a brilliant marketing maneuver combining two of the hottest selling categories in wine today. At least that’s what I thought until I explored the subject a little deeper.

But first, let’s start with Albana Romagna.  In 1967, it was among the first wines to be awarded Denominazione Origine Controllata (DOC) status.  And then in 1987, it was the first white wine elevated to (Denominazione Origine Controllata e Garantita) DOCG status, Italy’s highest classification.  Although the decision of the wine authorities to name this wine as Italy’s first DOCG white was controversial at the time, I certainly recognize their wisdom after tasting scores of examples four years ago at a tasting in Romagna and, more recently, a stunning one, by Celli, just last month at a Zoom® tasting organized by Michèle Shah.  Mauro Sirri, owner of Celli, and other producers describe Albana Romagna as a white wine masquerading as a red because of its power and a hint of tannic structure.  They also call it a sugar machine, which makes it suitable for sweet wines.  Yet, despite the high sugars, the grapes have incredible acidity, providing balance for both the dry and sweet versions.

The grape does exceptionally well in a specific kind of soil, called spungone romagnolo, a limestone rich sandy soil filled with fossils thanks to its undersea location three and a half million years ago.  The grand cru area for Albana, according to Ian d’Agata, a world authority on Italian wines, in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy, is Bertinoro, one of the twelve subzones of Romagna, exactly where Celli is located.  In addition to Albana Secco, the dry version, producers make a sweet version from late harvest grapes, Albana Dolce, a sweet one from partially dried grapes (passito or passimento), and also a sparkling version.

Celli’s 2019 Romagna Albana Secco, “I Croppi” (DOCG) is outstanding.  It’s a substantial wine, conveying subtle nutty and stone fruit character, similar to a white wine from France’s Rhône Valley, but with vibrant and penetrating acidity.  You feel the underlying mineral component—a captivating salinity—and an ever so slight and welcoming bitter tannic component that results from a short period of skin contact during fermentation.  It’s an elegant and balanced “orange wine,” without emphasis on the “orange.” (Orange wines are white wines fermented like red wines, that is, with extended skin contact.  Some can be unbalanced and overpowering.)  Cutting and clean, Celli’s I Croppi’s power and verve make it an excellent choice for those otherwise hard-to-match tomato-based or other highly-flavored seafood dishes.  But frankly, the wine is so satisfying, I’d be tempted to drink it with most anything.  (95 pts., $20.)

Refosco dal Peduncolo, a red grape named because its stem also turns red as it ripens, is found mainly in Italy’s northeastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia.  Though it’s the region’s best-known red grape, according to d’Agata, it has had little commercial success in the U.S., perhaps because of the potentially tough tannins.  Ai Galli, a small, family-run winery based in the eastern Veneto, very near Friuli Venezia Giulia, takes a slightly different approach with their entry level Refosco dal Peduncolo, which carries the Veneto IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) designation.  They select grapes from younger vines and allow the yield to rise, which results in a lighter wine.  They also age the wine in concrete tanks, eschewing wood that could add more tannins.

Despite its dark red color, Ai Galli’s 2019 Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso (Veneto IGT), is not a heavy wine.  Fresh and clean, it delivers bright cherry-like fruit flavors wrapped in mild tannins.  Indeed, the tannins are soft, which means that chilling the wine does not amplify them.  The acidity keeps it fresh, making this charming wine an excellent alternative to a rosé, especially for those who are disappointed by the banality of most rosé.  It’s also a good match for hefty seafood as well as pizza or pasta with a Bolognese sauce.  (88, $12.)

Ai Galli also shows their talents with a bargain-priced (“entry-level,” as they call it) Pinot Grigio.  The Ai Gailli 2019 Pinot Grigio, (Delle Venezie DOC), a fresh and floral wine, has a captivating delicacy.  This clean, crisp Pinot Grigio finishes with a welcoming hint of bitterness.  It costs all of about $12 per bottle! (88 pts.).  Most Pinot Grigio bottlings at that price are vapid.  Ai Galli’s is not.  Alberto Piccolo, spokesperson for Ai Galli, told me via Zoom® that he felt it was essential to avoid skin contact entirely during fermentation because the grapes’ skins are grey-ish in color—hence, the Grigio or Gris, in French—and could impart color to the wine.

Starting with the 2019 vintage, Prosecco Rosé is an official DOC.  As noted in the introduction, I thought this was simply a brilliant marketing maneuver combining two of the hottest selling categories in wine today.  But, after speaking at length with Piccolo, whose winery makes an array of Prosecco, including a Prosecco Rosé, I’ve come away with a different impression.  He explains that Prosecco Rosé is a premium product that will inevitably cost more for a few reasons.  Most importantly, it must include 15 percent of Pinot Noir, the grape which gives it its rosé color.  The requirement that the Pinot Noir must be grown within the area will push the price up because that grape is not widely planted there.  Additionally, the Prosecco Rosé must be vintage dated, so blending over multiple years, as is allowed with regular Prosecco, is forbidden.  Thirdly, the secondary fermentation must be twice as long as for regular Prosecco, 60 days versus 30 days, which will also increase production costs.  I’ve not tasted many Prosecco Rosés yet so I’m looking forward to seeing for myself whether Piccolo is correct.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Italian in general or those mentioned here in specific at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein

February 24, 2021 

Ai Galli, Delle Venezie DOC (Italy) Pinot Grigio 2019

($12):   Ai Galli also shows their talents with a bargain-priced “entry-level,” as they call it, Pinot Grigio.  Fresh and floral wine, it has a captivating delicacy.  This clean crisp Pinot Grigio finishes with a welcoming hint of bitterness.  And look at the price.  Most Pinot Grigio bottlings at this price level are vapid.  Ai Galli’s is not.  Alberto Piccolo, spokesperson for Ai Galli, told me via Zoom® that he felt it was essential to avoid skin contact entirely during fermentation because the grapes’ skins are greyish in color — hence, the Grigio or Gris, in French — and could impart color to the wine.
88 Michael Apstein Feb 23, 2021

Cantina Kaltern, Kalterersee Classico Superiore DOC (Alto Adige, Italy) “Quintessenz” 2017

($34, Enotec Imports, Inc):  Since this DOC is not well-known to most Americans (I had to run to the reference books), a little background.  The DOC is named for a large lake that lies within Alto Adige.  “Classico,” as usual in the Italian DOC nomenclature, refers to the original or heart of the area.  “Superiore” means the grapes, 85 percent of which must be Schiava, are a touch riper.  Cantina Kaltern, a 100-plus year-old co-operative, now has 65 member and controls over 1,000 acres.  “Quintessenz” is a label they use for their upper end wines.  This mid-weight red speaks of dried, rather than freshly picked, cherries, giving it a lovely austerity, as opposed to an in-your-face flamboyance.  Polished tannins lend needed structure without being intrusive.  A refined wine, it would be a good choice for pasta and meat sauce tonight.
91 Michael Apstein Feb 23, 2021

Celli, Romagna Albana Secco DOCG (Italy) “I Croppi” 2019

($20):  The Albana grape is uniquely suited to the Bertinoro subregion of Romagna where Celli is located thanks to the calcium rich soil, locally known as spungone, a vestige of its underwater location 3.5 million years ago.  Celli’s 2019 I Croppi is outstanding.  A substantial wine, it conveys subtle nutty and stone fruit character, similar to a white wine from France’s Rhône Valley, but with vibrant and penetrating acidity.  You feel the underlying mineral component—a captivating salinity — and an ever so slight and welcoming bitter tannic component that results from a short period of skin contact during fermentation.  It’s an elegant and balanced “orange wine” without emphasis on the “orange.”  (Orange wines are white wines fermented like red wines, that is, with extended skin contact.  Some can be unbalanced and overpowering.)  Cutting and clean, Celli’s I Croppi’s power and verve make it an excellent choice for those otherwise hard-to-match tomato-based or other highly-flavored seafood dishes.  But frankly, the wine is so satisfying, I’d be tempted to drink it with most anything.
95 Michael Apstein Feb 23, 2021

Domaine Antonin Guyon, Delle Venezie DOC (Italy) Pinot Grigio 2019

($12):   Ai Galli also shows their talents with a bargain-priced “entry-level,” as they call it, Pinot Grigio.  Fresh and floral wine, it has a captivating delicacy.  This clean crisp Pinot Grigio finishes with a welcoming hint of bitterness.  And look at the price.  Most Pinot Grigio bottlings at this price level are vapid.  Ai Galli’s is not.  Alberto Piccolo, spokesperson for Ai Galli, told me via Zoom® that he felt it was essential to avoid skin contact entirely during fermentation because the grapes’ skins are greyish in color — hence, the Grigio or Gris, in French — and could impart color to the wine.
88 Michael Apstein Feb 23, 2021

Cantina Sanpaolo, Greco di Tufo DOCG (Campania, Italy) 2017

($20, Enotec Imports, Inc):  Greco di Tufo, one of Italy’s premier white grapes, is rarely found outside its home in Campania.  Sanpaolo’s is an excellent example, full-bodied, yet crisp.  It is mineral-infused, reflecting the lava-like residue of Vesuvius.  Its acidity imbues it with energy and magnifies its charms.  This substantial white has a real presence on the table and would be a good choice for grilled swordfish or fettuccine with a clam sauce.
92 Michael Apstein Feb 2, 2021

Il Poggiolo, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) 2015

($70, Enotec Imports, Inc):  A paradox, the traditionally framed Il Poggiolo Brunello marries the ripeness of the 2015 vintage with a lovely austerity.  Not a blowsy wine, it combines dark cherry-like fruit with a core of minerals.  Importantly, especially for the vintage, it has great acidity, which imparts a wonderful vivacity to the wine.  Firm, not aggressive tannins, add structure.  It impresses with grace rather than opulence.  Surprisingly engaging now, its real stature will emerge in another five years or so.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 26, 2021

Donnafugata, Terre Siciliane IGT (Sicily, Italy) “Tancredi” 2016

($39, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  While Donnafugata maintains a traditional focus on indigenous Sicilian grapes, such as Nero d’Avola, they also have planted international ones, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and unusual ones, such as Tannat.  Those three grapes comprise the majority of the blend of Tancredi.  Despite the potential power that Cabernet and Tannat can deliver, this wine retains finesse.  Dark bitter cherry-like flavors combine with an alluring mineral or earthy component in this powerful, yet refined wine.  Remarkably fresh and long, it would be a great choice for hearty wintertime fare.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 26, 2021

Donnafugata, Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG (Sicily, Italy) “Floramundi” 2017

($30, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Cerasuolo di Vittoria, located in southeastern Sicily, is that island’s only DOCG wine.  Regulations require that Nero d’Avola comprise at least 50, but no more than 70, percent of the blend.  Frappato fills out the blend.  Donnafugata, of course, is one of the locomotives that has advanced the reputation of Sicily’s wines over the decades.  So, it’s comes as no surprise that they make an exceptional Cerasuolo di Vittoria.  It delivers a balanced bundle of floral elements, spice, and, as the name suggests, cherry-like flavors (Cerasuolo means “cherry-like”).  This mid-weight wine dances on the palate. Mild tannins lend support and backbone.  With its bright acidity and low (13 percent stated) alcohol, you’d never guess it comes from what is generally assumed to be a hot climate.  Not all of Sicily is roasting, as this wine, and many other Sicilian wines, demonstrates.  Donnafugata’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria is lacy and delicate, but paradoxically, leaves a big impression.  Drink it with a tomato-based fish stew or pasta.  It’s also fine when you’re grilling a hearty fish, such as salmon or bluefish.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 26, 2021

Fanetti – Tenuta S. Agnese, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) Riserva 2015

($33, Enotec Imports, Inc):  Fanetti, one of the great names for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, has produced a fabulous 2015 Riserva from their Tenuta S. Agnese estate.  Traditionally framed, that is, not all gussied up with oak and over ripe fruit, the dark cherry-like fruit of Sangiovese shines.  Not an opulent wine, it is well-structured and penetrating.  Pleasingly firm tannins impart a good grip.  It has great vivacity, a characteristic often lacking in 2015 Tuscan wines, which amplifies its appeal.  A hint of gentle bitterness in the finish reinforces its stature.  It screams for food — grilled meat or game.  Engaging now, and certainly a joy to drink, bottle age will only add to its complexity, so there’s no rush.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Buli, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Estate 44” 2016

($20, Dark Star Imports):  Estate 44 pays tribute to the Allied soldiers, including the owner’s father, who liberated Tuscany in the summer of 1944.  A blend of Sangiovese (60%) Cabernet Sauvignon (20%) and equal amounts of Syrah and Merlot, it is more muscular than Buli’s 515 bottling, but has the same grace, suaveness and structure.  This balanced and vibrant wine is a worthy tribute.  Another bargain!
92 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Buli, Toscana IGT (Tuscany, Italy) Sangiovese “515” 2016

($20, Dark Star Imports):  Robert Buly, an American who owns Buli, was drawn to Italy by heritage: his father married an Italian woman from Tuscany soon after WWII ended.  On their website, he jokes that his father met his mother while on the search for red wine to drink.  Decades later, Buly purchased land in Tuscany and is making red wine, very good red wine, I might add.  The 515 refers to the elevation of the vineyard, 515 m asl, which mitigates the daytime heat during the summer.  Paradoxically, the wine is restrained and austere, in the best way, yet is full of flavor.  The firmness of Sangiovese is a perfect foil for the dark bitter cherry-like flavors.  This sleek and racy wine is perfect with hearty pasta or grilled meats, as opposed to a stand-alone aperitif.  And moreover, it’s a bargain.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 19, 2021

Cecchi, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) “Riserva di Famiglia” 2016

($48, Terlato):  Cecchi is one of the great names for Tuscan wines, especially Chianti Classico.  Combine their talents with a great vintage, like 2016, and, unsurprisingly, you have a truly fine wine.  It conveys both the charm and power of a Chianti Classico Riserva reinforced and amplified by great acidity, a characteristic of the vintage.  It reverberates in the finish.  Apparent, but not intrusive, tannins suggest it’s best left for a couple of years before uncorking it, though decanting it a couple of hours before serving is a reasonable alternative.
92 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2020