Italy has fodder aplenty for the wine-geek. The Greeks started growing vines here back in 800BC and the Romans improvised to produce some truly treasured wines. They loved these wines so much that they named the country ‘Oenotria Tellus’, the land of vines. Recently, I visited the country to explore and educate myself on some of the world’s most famous wines.
Our trip started from Venice in the sparkling wine paradise called Prosecco. Glera (white) grape flourishes here and makes easy-drinking young, fresh, and fruity bubbly. Cartizze, a special small hill here, produces the most prestigious sparkling wine of the region, hence expensive too. We appreciated the wines of Le Colture, Extra Dry Prosecco and Cartizze, and also at Le Contesse winery, which also established Italy’s most important Oenology school marked for sparkling wine production. They claim to have invested over five decades in finding the perfect colour for rosé sparklings and their award-winning Pinot Rosé Brut showed exactly why. En suite were the grandmasters, Carpene Malvolti. Antonio Carpene, scientist and oenologist, was the first to start teaching local farmers the techniques of Prosecco. Their Extra Dry remained our favourite and luckily it’s also available in India. We wrapped up the region by visiting our final destination at Villa Sandi which is set in a 1622-built Palladian-style mansion with underground cellars running approximately 1.5 miles. Their Cartizze is pure gold.
Moving into the heartland of Veneto one must try Valpolicella (red) and Soave (white). Valpolicella earlier was always considered too light. It was Cesari Winery that decided to dry the grapes (appasimento) on straw mats to intensify its structure and make heavier wines. This gave birth to a wine-style called Amarone della Valpolicella in 1971, first at Cesari. The basic style is still made today and is considered to be an everyday-drinking wine but it’s the Amarone that entices the palate. Soave, on the other hand, has always been an easy-drinking, minerally, crisp, and slightly buttery white made from Garganega grapes. Located in the Soave Classico area is the Fattori Winery that produces no reds as yet but their Runcaris and Motto Piane Soaves make up for that along with a surprisingly commendable Sauvignon Blanc. A dessert wine is also produced here by naturally drying Garganega grapes that concentrates the sugar and increases the body and alcohol of the wine. This then becomes Recioto Soave which earns high accolades in the area. We found some great drops at the two family-owned wineries Monte Tondo and Vicentini Agostino. While the former offered us beautiful Soaves, it was the Recioto di Soave of the later that we decided to end our regional trip on a sweet note with.
Piedmont, meaning the foot of the mountains, welcomed us with Barolo, home to Nebbiolo (and Dolcetto) red grapes. Barolo is a masculine wine that’s also blatantly called ‘the king of wines and the wines for the king’. It matches well with the game and beef dishes of the area and also the special black truffle that is found here. Brezza Giacomo e Figli’s owner is also the consortium president that works towards preserving a traditional bottle shape called Albeisa that was originally destined to carry Barolos. The wines here tasted rustic and had a touch of the old-school to them. This was refreshing as most winemakers seem to be catering to international styles now. His cousin also owns a winery called Cantina Bartolo Macarello, a small backyard operation but with wines of substance. A wittily controversial label directing towards their present country president is their trademark, ‘No Barrique No Berlusconi’. This indicates that the winemaker is as much against the new approach of using barriques as is towards their president’s policies. Her 2001 Barolo took us by surprise as the wine showed elegance and was still firm. Our last winery in Barolo was Renato Ratti having a long history, including the claim to have started the trend of single-vineyard wines in the region with their 1978 vintage. All their three wines we tasted, Ochetti Nebbiolo d’Alba, Marcenasco Barolo, and Ronché Barolo, are all award-winning champions and were a delight to taste. As Dogliani area awaited us as we were only to be a short guest in Barolo.
Dogliani, a small region neighbouring Barolo, produces a completely different avatar of Nebbiolo. Poderi Luigi Eianaudi, meaning production for eleven farmers, regaled us with their wines as they were much more refreshing and palatably lighter than the robust Barolos. Though there Barolo impressed us too but it was the Dogliani wine-style that won us over. Pecchenino, located at an uphill location offered the perfect sunset view for our day-end. Again, the wines were of a completely different character. Their Dogliani, Barbera, and Barolo were definite winners on our lists.
From Dogliani we went north to reach Ghemme and here we encountered yet another version of Nebiolo. The area is closer to the snow-covered hills that provide the wines a different character altogether. Also, we were introduced to two new grapes, Vespolina (red) and Erbaluce (white). At Torraccia Del Piantavigna winery, aka Francoli Center, was our first taste of a copper-coloured Nebiolo Rosé, and boy was it good! Their Ghemme and Gattinara rated high on our sheets but the unique Vespolina and Erbaluce will linger in our memories for long. The company is also one of the biggest producers of Grappa in the country and the people behind introducing Black Sambuca.
Moving into the Lambrusco territory of Emilia-Romagna we were now cruising towards the centre of the country. Though the area is home to many other varieties, Lambrusco rules through-and-through. The grape expresses itself best in a fizzy style. At the region’s official enoteca we were prepared to taste an army of Lambruscos and other local favourites. As the tasting ended it was clear to us now why sparkling Lambrusco is the biggest export success of the country. Fattoria Zerbina offered us a tasting at their plush winery and we were amazed from the first wine itself. The winery also trains Indian vinos to be winemakers. Marzieno Ravenna Rosso, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon was a great award-winning wine to try. Also their luscious Scacco Matto (Checkmate) Passito was quite a delight. Our last visit in the region was at Drei Dona winery, a well-known brand in the region. Their Blanc de Blanc Brut, La Vigna Nuove blend, and Magnificat Cabernet Sauvignon (a must-try) were cherishing memories to take away.
Chianti Classico was next and we were ready for it. Following the GPS here is not recommended and the good old map is the way to go. Chianti Classico is the oldest and the most important area of the region. Sangiovese thrives here along with some indigenous and international varieties. Exploiting the versatility of the soil, oceanic and mountainous weather influence, and the dynamicity of graper variety the region produces wines both ways, good for early consumption and also decade-long laying down. While Chianti Classico style is briefly aged, its Riserva version is more complex and oak-kissed. Super-Tuscan was a rebellious wine-style that originated as a revolt initiated by new-age winemakers against the wine legislation guidelines as they saw potential to make great wines without following the set regulation. It became a huge phenomenon worldwide and today includes some of the most expensive reds from the country. To begin this journey we reached Cecchi’s estate and saw a big winery ahead of us. Their Chianti and Riserva di Famiglia impressed us the most amongst their other wines. Spadaio Piecorto, a small family-operated winery, produces wonderful rustic-style wines including some Super-Tuscans. From smaller to larger wineries, we moved to Castello della Paneretta. Set in a 15th century castle the winery looks big and classy. It’s a beautiful site and is a shame to miss. Their much-demanded Caniolo-based Rosato was a great way to start the tasting, again a must-try. The Chianti Riserva, Quattrocentenario, and Vin Santo impressed us the most. The latter two are absolute celebration wines meant for the best occasions. The small farmers having limited resources come together to make their wines at a joint winery, called co-operative, and amongst them one of the biggest in the area is Geografico. Their production runs even outside the Classico area with four wineries in all. We settled for tasting all at one spot and sparing the run. Their Colli Sensi Riserva, Contessa di Radda, and Montegiachi Riserva Chiantis were were our dear favourites. A small private village within Chianti Classico, San Felice, invited us next and we were overwhelmed at its first sight. A small town all run by themselves with everything you need on a holiday. And because no Italian holiday is complete without good wines, their Il Grigio and Poggio Rossa Riservas, and Super-Tuscan Vigorella serve the thought well. Elegant wines with traditional and international sense.
Our last stop was at Abruzzo-based co-operative Cantina Tollo in Abruzzo The winery has over a thousand farmers supplying grapes and it appears to be an industrial setup like none other. Each year they release their first wine, also the first in Italy, in September and thus without much thought it’s called, Settembri Chardonnay. A simple fresh clean wine with no frills attached. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a subtle fruit-forward red wine with hints of spices made using Montepulciano grape variety grown locally. The wine is generally aged for a brief duration and enjoyed best with some local delicacies. Their Cagiolo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, having strong varietal appeal and impressive character, made it to our favourites’ list.
Italians love their food and wines and they offered their best to us too. Food and wines here walk hand in hand and it’s amazing how every household lets them share the table on a daily-basis. Winemaking in Italy is not only a profession but a way of life, with generations continuing it further. Big or small, almost every winery has some precious masterpiece worthy of being exported but the fact that it may sometimes barely make it out of the village is a big enough deal. No wonder they say that Italians truly know how to live the good life, La Dolce Vita!