The Wine World Cup Final: Forza Azzurri!

In further preparation for the Wine World Cup Final, and following on from my previous Allez Les Bleus post on recent French wines I’ve tasted, here are reports on a few Italian bottles that have passed our way of late. As previously noted, I don’t drink as much Italian as I do French wine, though that’s more out of habit than a perception of quality. Almost all the wines featured here were quite excellent and the archived reviews that follow further below should confirm that I love Italians almost as much as I love the French. Almost. (And we are only talking wine here. When it comes to that thing called football, my tastes are as they are in women.)

For someone like myself who can’t easily afford Italy’s premier wines like Barbaresco, Barolo and Brunello, CHIANTI CLASSICO (especially the RISERVA bottlings) provide the best reward for a reasonable price. A few years ago, I fell for the VITICCIO family’s wines, perhaps because I was fortunate enough to stop in at Zachy’s in Scarsdale the same day as the wine-maker was pouring for the customers. Viticcio is a decidedly modern company, opting to blend in some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with its Sangiovese, and aging the wines in new oak, but give the wines time and they deliver on their promise.

The 1997 RISERVA was a true beauty, one of the finest Chiantis I’ve tasted (and I was smart enough to buy a few of them, 1997 being widely heralded as Tuscan’t greatest vintage in a lifetime); I poured the 2001 VITICCIO CHIANTI CLASSICO RISERVA not too long ago and found it overly oaky, with the taste of vanilla overwhelming the Sangiovese’s tell-tale dark cherries. I noted that it was “serious and dark and needed time,” which is a valuable lesson for those of us looking for something impressive on short notice. (This probably explains why Napa Cabs and Aussie Shirazes have been so popular: they deliver both power and fruit in their youth, straight off the shelves.)

Barely any more forward was the 2001 RUFFINO CHIANTI CLASSICO RISERVA DUCALE, which ended up on my brother-in-law’s Christmas dinner table and which was a pleasure to share. (See full notes here.) That said, unless you can store a good Riserva for a couple of years after release (which itself is not until it’s been aged in barrel for 2-3 years), you may be smarter picking up a basic Chianti lLassico (Classico being the name of the heart of the Chianti region) for a much lesser price. Read the review of the 2001 RUFFINO AZIANO CHIANTI CLASSICO here. Or head out for a ‘Superiore’ wine, that has had just a little more aging and offers 0.5-1.0% more alcohol, like the RUFFINO CHIANTI IL LEO SUPERIORE 2003, which offered up a far more instantly appealing – and typically Chianti – note of dark cherry and a slight bitterness, being at once lightly astringent while warmly filling. If you’re beginning to think that Ruffino dominates Chianti, you’re not far wrong. But unlike the older historical trend in Italian wine, at least they don’t settle for mediocrity.

Two fine examples of Chianti Classico Riserva, and from a great year. But they need more time maturing than just the 2-3 years they spend in the winery’s cellar.

If it’s true that Pinot Grigio is the new Chardonnay, then we can expect to swallow our fair share of industrial swill in pubs and bars across the world over the next few years. But while Pinot Grigio is indeed mostly seen as a simple, harmless and eminently enjoyable quaff, it can make great white wines that rival Burgundian Chardonnays for finesse and class. I’ve enthused recently about the 2002 TRIMBACH PINOT GRIS from Alsace, a particularly elegant French wine. And though Italian Pinot Grigios lean towards the more acidic, I was majorly impressed by the ALOIS LAGEDER 2004 PINOT GRIGIO VIGNETI DELLE DOLOMITI (which it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to note hails from around the Dolomites). A bright light yellow, it had a typically Italian almond nuttiness to it, that was balanced by a minerality and stoniness. Refreshing and light-bodied with a delicate acidity, it had a bright enough finish that made it hard to forget and went just perfectly with a simple Italian vegetable pasta. Its $16 price tag does not make it a better buy than the Alsace Pinot Gris, but for anyone looking to spend just that little bit extra to see what the Italians can make of their most respected white grape when they put their minds to it, it’s ideal.

One of Italian wine’s highlights is its Moscati, which allows you to enjoy a bottle of bubbly at half the alcohol and half the price – making it the kind of brunch cocktail drink that will still allow you to get out and enjoy your afternoon. We have been particularly taken of late by the ELIO PERRONE MOSCATO d’ASTI CLARTE 2004, not only because of its delightfully designed label, but because the wine itself offers up a marvelously refreshing acidity, zesty bubbles, considerable nuttiness and an acceptable dose of sweetness. It’s the kind of wine you can get away with drinking while watching Italy play World Cup games in the afternoon. And there may just be a few bottles open around the Sunday brunch tables among the vast Italian immigrant population in the States on July 9, when the Final kicks off at midday Pacific Time, 3pm Eastern. At $15, again it pushes the price tag a little bit above the everyday, but in wine as in women, you get what you pay for. (The Moscato and Pinot Grigio were both purchased at The Wine Steward in Shokan.)

Fine examples of Italian traditions: the elegant Pinot Grigio and the bubbly Moscato.

Not every Italian tradition is worth respecting. There’s much talk about the wines of Umbria finally coming good, and while that may be true of the red blend from FALESCO or the full-bodied white wines made from the Grechetto grape, the Trebbiano-based whites that make up the bulk of the region’s bottles are hard to love. “Remarkably thin, tart and characterless” says Jancis Robinson of Trebbiano in her BBC Wine Course book, and based on a bottle of CHIORI COLLI PERUGINI 2005 I picked up from Uva especially for this feature, I can’t disagree. The acidity that marks almost all Italian whites was perfectly apparent, but the wine was markedly free of any aroma and it tasted hollow and eminently unexceptional. Though light enough (12%) to drink in quantity, we could barely bring ourselves to empty half a bottle between us over the course of a dinner. For acidity, price and food-friendliness, I’ll take a Muscadet any day.

The French might see that last statement as proof of their wine superiority, but though many an Italian grape is entirely indigenous, Trebbiano is not one of them. It is the same grape as Ugni Blanc, the most widely planted – and boring – grape in France. So while Italy and France may deserve their considerable renown as the finest wine-producing nations on earth – and therefore earn the right to play each other in the Wine World Cup Final of 2006 – it’s worth remembering that they can be as tedious as anything produced elsewhere in the world. Here’s hoping for a game full of Barolo and Chateauneuf-like muscle, matched by Burgundian and Tuscan elegence, rather than a goaless draw played out by Ugni Blanc and Trebbiano.

Not all Italian traditions are worth respecting: the Trebbiano-based whites of Umbria are the Seria C wines of Italy.

More Italian wine reviews at iJamming!

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January 2022