Italy is a formidable force in the modern world of wine. The country can boast an impressive list of enological achievements going back to civilization’s first fermentations. Depending on harvest yields, Italy often closes the year as the world’s number one producer; it currently accounts for roughly one-fifth of the world’s wine. All 20 Italian regions from the 38th parallel in Sicily to the 45th in the mountainous north offer their own highly unique expressions, culling from some 700 commercially used indigenous varieties. Most importantly, Italy delivers many of the bottles we love and remember most: the important reds we select for special occasions; the easy whites we employ with home-cooked meals; and the cheerful sparkling wines we enjoy with family and friends.
This year marks an important milestone for Italian wine. It is the 30th anniversary of the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) classification that cements Italy’s carefully earned reputation as a producer of quality wine—bottles that compete with the best of Bordeaux, California and the world. The birthday inspires reflection on how far Italy has come in three decades from a volume producer (remember the straw-wrapped flasks of Chianti on checkered table cloths? Corvo, Bolla and Soave?) to auteur
of our most iconic cellar selections. The anniversary also gives us an exciting opportunity to celebrate the gloriously sophisticated and varied realm of Italian winemaking.
We have selected 15 wines that form a narrative of the history and evolution of Italian wine. These are the “defining wines of Italy.” Some are nostalgic protagonists of Italy’s nascent presence as an imported product and others represent the pinnacle of quality and craftsmanship from individual territories. Each one (organized here geographically from the north to the south) represents a tiny piece of a broader definition of vino Italiano.
Cantina Gaja’s achievement is that it put Barbaresco under the spotlight and brought it international attention by building a strong link between the grape variety Nebbiolo, the unique characteristics of its terroir and trust in a brand.
No one communicates Italian winemaking better than Angelo Gaja. The enthusiastic vintner from Piedmont is today an international symbol for the best of Italy, and his relentless march towards quality has encouraged not only regional colleagues such as Bruno Rocca, Bruno Giacosa and Ceretto, but winemakers the world over. The family business started in 1856, but Angelo came aboard in 1961 and immediately set out to reduce yields in the vineyards, introduce small oak barrels, identify different vineyard sites and vinify them separately. The wine is elegant, pristine, compact yet opulent, and offers notes of ripe berry fruit and soft spice.
Pio Cesare Barolo
Barolo is a bit like the people of Piedmont. It takes time to know them, they seem closed, difficult to reach and comprehend. But if you are perseverant and make the effort, they become friends for life and open themselves forever. They are fantastic, difficult, loyal and ready to please. This is Barolo for me.
Founded in 1881, Pio Cesare is among Barolo’s most historic producers with some of the most celebrated vineyard crus. The Nebbiolo-based region is so rich with top-notch producers (such as Marchesi di Barolo, Bartolo Mascarello, Luciano Sandrone, Paolo Scavino, Vietti, Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Poderi Aldo Conterno, Fontanafredda and Michele Chiarlo) it is almost impossible to select a single one to represent the category. We identified Pio Cesare as one of Barolo’s most important ambassadors abroad and one of the purest expressions of an exceptional territory. Firm but sophisticated, the wine may exhibit earthy aromas of saddle leather, spice cabinet and violets upfront, followed by flavors of crushed roses in the mouth. It is a bold wine to pair with bold food.
Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico
Amarone is an attempt at immortality. It represents the ambitious human desire to leave behind a signature or memory in the afterlife. Bertani Amarone Classico is a wine that has not yet reached its limits because we have yet to experience the “death” of a vintage.
—Gian Matteo Baldi
Valpolicella, the region that perfected appassimento—air-drying of grapes for Amarone—has arguably taken the greatest strides towards change in the past 30 years. It made the switch from quantity to quality production thanks to a group of dedicated producers that includes Masi, Allegrini, Dal Forno, Santi, Quintarelli, Zenato, Speri and Tedeschi. Bertani in particular has made efforts to safeguard Amarone tradition and is among a handful of wineries in Italy to boast a full library of old and precious vintages starting with 1928. Typically fragrant and intense, the wine delivers enticing aromas of spice, cola, mature berry fruit and smoke. You’ll feel power in the mouth, although the wine’s alcohol should be beautifully integrated.
Barone Ricasoli Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio represents 16 years of research and investment to produce a “grand cru” wine that is a true expression of Brolio terroir with personality, individuality and elegance. It represents much more than a great Sangiovese or a great Chianti Classico.
The Ricasoli family is credited with inventing the original formula for Chianti Classico (Sangiovese with Canaiolo and Malvasia) that is used today with a minimum 80% Sangiovese. Without the late Barone Bettino Ricasoli (who died last year at age 87) and his relatives, the world would not have one of its favorite, most food-friendly wines. Chianti Classico is an Italian landmark and Castello di Brolio’s success has spanned the 20th century and beyond. It set the standard for other excellent Chianti Classicos from Isole e Olena, Castello di Fonterutoli, Nittardi, Rocca delle Macie, Felsina, San Felice, Badia a Coltibuono, Carpineto, Castello di Querceto, La Massa, Fontodi, Castello di Albola, Castello di Volpaia and Le Corti. Classically exhibiting rich notes of berry fruit, leather, exotic spice and blackberry, the wine is incredibly smooth and polished in the mouth, with silky tannins and an enduring finish.
Marchesi Antinori Tignanello
I feel a special bond with Tignanello because it represents a major point of departure for my company, my family and, I believe, this wine sparked the beginning of the Italian wine Renaissance.
Tignanello sparked a revolution in Italy back in 1971 when the first vintage of the wine was released. The 116-acre vineyard was purchased by Florence’s Antinori family in 1900 and is located within the boundaries of Chianti Classico. Rather than label it as such, as conventional logic would dictate, Piero Antinori boldly called the 85-10-5 blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc a “table wine.” The super Tuscan was born. This wine was famous for breaking all the rules and consequently re-setting them for a new generation of vintners. Its innovative approach inspired hundreds of followers and many of the best wines today are a product of the Tignanello school. Uncorked and poured, Tignanello can be expected to be extraordinary on all levels: aromas, flavors, richness, density and intensity.
Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino
Brunello from Il Greppo expresses a territory that is perfectly suited to viticulture and is a wine with extraordinary longevity. It shows patience and a willingness to wait through nature’s slow cycles in the hope that the experiences of the past will be repeated.
—Franco Biondi Santi
Brunello di Montalcino, America’s favorite wine, was first created by Ferruccio Biondi Santi in the late 1800s. After careful clonal research and observation, the vintner identified Sangiovese Grosso as the most suitable grape for the territory of Montalcino in southern Tuscany. He established a tradition and methodology that is faithfully followed today by his grandson, Franco Biondi Santi. Brunello di Montalcino from the family estate at Il Greppo—Brunello’s birthplace—sets the standard for the entire township and has directly influenced notable producers such as Castello Banfi, Altesino, Argiano, Capanna, Casanova di Neri, Frescobaldi’s Castelgiocondo, Col d’Orcia, Mastrojanni and Poggio Antico. Thanks to naturally crisp acidity and an in-house re-corking program, Biondi-Santi demonstrated that Italy was capable of producing cellar-worthy wines. And thanks to skilled winemaking, Biond-Santi’s wines speak highly of the territory they come from: the acidity and tight berry flavors recall the hillside vineyards at Il Greppo and the aromatic complexity shows the best of Montalcino. The wine is typically elegant, sophisticated and built to age.
Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia
In many ways, Sassicaia put Italy on the world enological map. When it was first introduced in 1968, it marked the birth of the super Tuscan that put Italy on par with Bordeaux.
—Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta
Sassicaia’s immense contribution to Italian wine cannot be exaggerated. This austere expression of Cabernet Sauvignon with a small percent of Cabernet Franc from coastal Tuscany put Italy on par with the Premier Cru wines of Bordeaux. Tenuta San Guido is managed by the soft-spoken Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta and the top wine is named after a unique vineyard in Bolgheri with rocky (“sassi” in Italian) soils. The first vintage of this historic wine was released in 1968 and today it is considered the seminal super Tuscan. It also represents the apex of quality with many wine critics convinced it is Italy’s number one red. Truth is, it is a complex and layered wine that requires long cellaring and care in serving; it will show herbal notes of chopped mint, wild berry, licorice, bramble and forest floor, with drying tannins, good acidity and firm structure. Nothing about Sassicaia is simple, except for the profound benefits it has bestowed upon Italy’s enological reputation.
It is difficult for us to say what Tenuta dell’Ornellaia has brought to the Tuscan wine scene. Undoubtedly we have—together with other Bolgheri producers—revealed to the world a new growing area and our everyday job is to interpret the magic of this territory at the highest level.
—Axel Heinz, winemaker
Ornellaia from Tenuta dell’Ornellaia in Bolgheri remains one of the top-scoring wines from Italy in the Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide database. A lusciously decadent blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, Ornellaia delivers near perfect results year after year. Winemaker Axel Heinz strikes a delicate balance between the benefits of technology and the true tastes of territory. More than any other wine on the market today, this banner wine represents an Italian ideal in which no compromises are made in the pursuit of excellence and quality. With aromas of black cherry, spice and dark chocolate, Ornellaia can be expected to deliver extraordinary richness, succulence and intensity while remaining elegant to the end.
Mastroberardino Radici Riserva Taurasi
Radici Taurasi proves the potential of winemaking in Southern Italy by establishing an extraordinary link between the classic and the modern. It’s made with Aglianico, a variety with roots in antiquity that has a long aging life and that expresses the best of the local territory.
Taurasi is an Aglianico-based wine that is often referred to as the “Barolo of the South” thanks to its sophisticated aromas and long aging potential. It can be gorgeously smoky and spicy, with harmonious notes of leather, black cherry, mineral, cola and pepper. On a symbolic level, this wine is significant because it represents the recent revival of Italy’s indigenous grape varieties. In fact, Aglianico (with genetic roots in ancient Greece) was all but extinct after the devastating effects of disease and abandonment. The Mastroberardino family takes credit for rediscovering and safeguarding this special genetic patrimony—Italy’s vast treasure chest of autochthonous grapes.
Planeta Santa Cecilia
Santa Cecilia is a journey through Sicily that ends in Noto (in the southeast corner of the island), representing the best balance between grape variety (Nero d’Avola), terroir and technique.
Sicily is the new face of Italy especially where value wines are concerned. Thanks to the hard work of vintners like Tasca d’Almerita, Donnafugata, Cusumano, Benanti and Feudo Montoni, the Mediterranean island is shedding its image as a producer of bulk wine in the name of quality production instead. One stellar example is the Nero d’Avola based (a native grape of Sicily) Planeta Santa Cecilia. The ruby-colored red is elegant, pure and often presents aromas of mature fruit, blackberry, Mediterranean herbs and toasted pistachio. Firm and structured but soft and generous on the palate, Planeta Santa Cecilia shows the largely untapped potential of this extraordinary land that is fully saturated with culture, tradition and beauty.
The Italian Ambassadors
A special nod to five more wines that helped to build an identity for Italy in the minds of the American consumer.
Prosecco is currently the fastest growing category of sparkling wine thanks to its enormous popularity, affordability and informal appeal. Sparkling wine devotees respond to the immediate and fresh delivery of citrus, white stone, dried herbs and, often, a subtle touch of white pepper. An easy-drinking sparkler.
Mionetto Prosecco represents Italian style and a touch of the good life. What we in Italy refer to as the “bella vita” are qualities that many people around the world aspire to have. A glass of Prosecco will point you in the right direction.
Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is one of two wines that have moved us away from Chardonnay and have given us a refreshing, zippy- tasting white wine alternative that tastes great with salad, pasta and easy food. Aromas include peach, citrus, honey and pear, and the wine is crisp and clean in the mouth.
Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio created a new category of wine. Its introduction 30 years ago in the United States turned out to
be revolutionary because up to that point the market had been dominated by a few international varieties that often showed massive use of barrique.
—Ettore Nicoletto, CEO, Santa Margherita
The other white is Bolla Soave, always an enjoyable but simple wine with a slight hint of sweetness that helps maintain a cheerful and
playful demeanor overall. You’ll get aromas of peach and honey, and the wine feels soft and bright in the mouth.
Up until the 1990s, Soave Bolla represented the most available and recognized Italian wine in the U.S. Its success comes from the ease and charm of its flavors, its short, simple name, its attractive pricing and the bigger bottle format.
—Emilio Pedron, President GIV
Riunite Lambrusco is a red wine, a sparkling wine and a sweet wine—and it is one of the most cherished drinks in the U.S. Forest berry, raspberry and cherry will come through on the nose and the mouth will be dominated by fizzy sweetness. According to the Italian Wine & Food Institute in New York, Lambrusco remains the number two imported wine in the U.S. after Pinot Grigio.
Having spent several years in Europe studying the best of German, French and Italian wines, and aware of the American palate, I reasoned that for a wine to become universally popular in America, it would have to be both taste-appealing and pure and natural. We left nature alone…she gave us Riunite. The consumer responded.
—John Mariani, Banfi Vintners
Chianti is now the number three imported wine into the U.S. But back when, the quintessential example, Chianti Ruffino, sparked what has now blossomed into a lifelong love affair with Tuscany and all things Italian. The modern interpretation will display simple aromas of cherry, wild berry and wet earth, and will pair beautifully with pizza or pasta thanks to the fresh acidity and lean mouthfeel.
From the tables of the past to the tables of the present, Chianti Ruffino continues to be an ideal food wine, over and over again proving its ability to outlive the trends of products with exotic names and styles. Today it serves as the quality and consistency benchmark for the entire Chianti category.