Best of 2016: Monica Larner

The past 12 months have offered exceptional tasting surprises in Italian wine. The international marketplace has been replenished with beautiful new releases and impressive vintages representing the best of Italy, from the tip to the toe.

My year started off with 2011 Brunello di Montalcino and 2010 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. I gave 100 points to the 2010 Pian dell’Orino Brunello di Montalcino Bassolino di Sopra. That wine represented a very happy start to 2016. The chilly winter months saw travels through Central Italy with spotlights on Umbria, Marche and Abruzzo. I then ventured to the far north with reports on Trentino, Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia. Nothing starts off the spring season better than a trip to Piedmont for annual tastings of Barolo and Barbaresco. Red poppies added sudden color to the hillsides and I enjoyed my first outdoor lunches on the main square in Alba. I tasted wines from 2012 and 2013 with some memorable older vintages in between. There was a quick trip to London for our Matter of Taste event. I hosted three dinners focused on Italian wine while suffering from a terrible winter cold and fever.

As those spring temperatures continued to rise, I headed south to embark on an epic journey that would take me through the back roads of Campania, Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia. My car broke down twice in Puglia, but I hardly minded because it meant I didn’t have to leave.  I discovered many first-rate value wines in Puglia. After that, I headed down to Trapani where I had collected my samples of Sicilian wine. Sicily and Sardinia are the only Italian regions to show excellent results in 2014 (a vintage that was difficult everywhere else in mainland Italy).

As fruit reached ripeness, I drove to Bolgheri and visited standout estates along the Tuscan Coast. Just before the first fall rains began, I attended the 300th anniversary of the Chianti Classico, Pomino/Chianti Rufina, Carmignano and Valdarno di Sopra appellations in Florence. These four wine regions hosted the best party of the year with concerts, dinners and parades. I took that opportunity to taste the new releases from those areas plus white wines from San Gimignano. The 2015 vintage is showing beautifully across Tuscany, but I fell in love with Chianti Classico from 2013. My last big adventure of the year included a 12-hour drive from Rome to Messina along the perilous Salerno-Reggio Calabria superstrada in the pouring rain. I arrived on Mount Etna in the wee hours of the morning to commence one of my favorite tasting events of the year on the blackened slopes of the mighty Sicilian volcano. I lived on a diet of wild mushrooms and Nerello Mascalese.

Only 24 hours following my return by ferryboat from Etna, I flew to Singapore for our Matter of Taste event in our headquarter city. I gave four seminars (in one very exhausting day) on Italian wine and was pleased to meet such a curious and enthusiastic audience. A few days after Singapore, I traveled to California to attend our Matter of Taste event in Napa. I came as a spectator and participated in the excellent seminars guided by my colleagues Jeb Dunnuck and Robert Parker. My year ended with a whirlwind tour of South America that I have detailed below.

This has been a great year, with memorable wines and more travel than I can process. It is my honor to share my highlights with you.

Top 3 Most Outstanding New or Current Releases

  1. Avignonesi 2001 Vin Santo di Montepulciano Occhio di Pernice
  2. Isole e Olena 2013 Cepparello
  3. Gaja 2013 Barbaresco Sorì San Lorenzo

Top 3 Greatest Value Wines

  1. Vignaflora 2015 Susumaniello Tre Tomoli Rosa
  2. Tasca Conti d’Almerita 2015 Grillo Mozia Fondazione Whitaker
  3. Marisa Cuomo 2014 Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco Fiorduva

Top 3 Greatest Wine Drinking Experiences

  1. Petrolo 1997 Galatrona
  2. Quintarelli 2008 Valpolicella Classico Superiore
  3. Casanova di Neri 1979 Brunello di Montalcino

Best Meal of the Year
I ate the meal of all meals at the Masseria Barbera in Puglia this past July. It consisted of quintessential foodie's food with farm fresh ingredients, Grandma-hand-me-down recipes, elegant country chic décor and course after course of sheer cooking excellence. There were 12 dishes served and each one was picture perfect in appearance and taste. Puglia packs a powerful culinary punch and my meal at Masseria Barbera knocked me out cold.

For now, I’ll whet your appetite with the photos below. I have a Hedonist Gazette on Masseria Barbera in the tubes.

My Favorite Vertical/Retrospective
Happy Birthday Gambero Rosso! My esteemed colleagues at Italy’s number one wine guide celebrated the 30th anniversary of their publication in October 2016. I have worked alongside critics such as Marco Sabellico, Daniele Cernilli, Massimo Lanza and Andrea Gabbrielli since I first started writing about Italian wine professionally some 15 years ago. These people – not all of whom still work for the Gambero – continue to be important mentors and friends. I call upon them frequently to share tasting experiences and views on current trends in Italian wine.

I am proud of my close relationship with my Gambero colleagues and was touched when they invited me to participate in their milestone celebration. The headline birthday event was a full retrospective of every vintage of Sassicaia ever produced. The vertical included two vintages that are now officially sold out back at the Tenuta San Guido winery in Bolgheri. In other words, this was a-once-in-a-lifetime tasting never to be repeated again.
Italy’s Gambero Rosso guide celebrated its 30th anniversary with a full retrospective of Sassicaia starting with 1968. Gambero staffers (from left to right) Eleonora Guerrini and Marco Sabellico sit next to Priscilla Incisa della Rochetta and Tenuta San Guido General Manager Carlo Paoli. Gambero Rosso’s Gianni Fabrizio is on the far right.

My favorite vintages by far were the inaugural 1968 vintage (with its retro label design) and the ever-glamorous 1985 (no surprise here). In fact, 1985 was the vintage least commented on by my Gambero colleagues and the other guests invited to attend. Our mutual agreement on the soaring quality of the wine was so unanimous, few words were required.

This was my favorite vertical of the year not only thanks to the excellence of the wines, but because it marked an important celebration for Italian wine in general. The Wine Advocate published its first issue some 38 years ago. Our history mirrors that of the Gambero Rosso in that both publications would become leading voices in their respective countries and around the world. Happy Birthday dear Gambero Rosso and may you continue to spread your passion for Italian wine for the next 30 years.

Top 3 Outside of Italy Experiences
We normally dedicate this space to our top three “get-a-life outside of wine” experiences. Remaining more or less in theme, I have modified this segment to highlight my top three “outside of Italy” experiences. Not by coincidence, these three breathtaking moments all occurred in South America – a continent I had only previously grazed fleetingly at its perimeter.

I enjoyed the opportunity to visit Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru in better detail at the end of November. The trip was very fast-paced, but it did deliver all three “get-a-life outside of wine” moments that I most cherished in 2016. Thankfully, a respectable amount of wine was an integral part of my South American adventure, and almost all of it was new to me. Despite these discoveries, I didn’t want to share vineyard visits. Instead, I am offering a few snippets of the majestic natural beauty that is forever etched in my 2016 memories.

1. Iguazú Falls
Show any Californian 13,000 cubic meters of water in violent free fall per second, and the first thing she thinks of is her state’s devastating drought. That’s where my thoughts were as I contemplated the thorax-crushing spectacle of Iguazú Falls, the world’s longest waterfall system on the border of Brazil and Argentina. Spurred by a sense of utter incomprehension at the sight of so much nationless fresh water, my brain immediately engaged in complex mathematical computations that could rival A Beautiful Mind’s Russell Crowe.

Lake Cachuma, the artificial lake in the Santa Ynez Valley (California), can hold 253,000,000 cubic meters of water at full capacity. Cachuma provides fresh water to the city of Santa Barbara, but because of the drought, it has been reduced to something of a stagnant puddle. Today, it is only at 7.5 percent capacity. If Iguazú falls flows at 13,000 cubic meters per second, it would take 19,462 seconds to fill Lake Cachuma. If there are 3,600 seconds in one hour, that means the estimated 92,000 residents of Santa Barbara would enjoy an abundance of water if Brazil and Argentina would kindly lend us their waterfall for a mere 5.4 hours.

I took dozens of photos and slow-motion videos of Iguazú Falls, but truthfully not one conveys the enormity of the real life experience. For that reason, I have selected the above photo of a very petite tributary (the so-called Twin Sister Falls) with a curious visitor in the foreground. I think this is the Tropical Brushfoot Butterfly. My guide instructed me to lick my hand to get some saliva on my skin. Attracted by the moisture, the butterfly made its cautious landing and gave me enough time to take this shot.

2. Perito Moreno Glacier

Some countries are disproportionally awash in fresh water and Argentina is one of them. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field tucked into the Andes between Argentina and Chile is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. If you broke off a small fragment of these supersized ice blocks, you could resolve the drought emergency in the entire state of California.

I had never seen a glacier before and was deeply impressed by Perito Moreno, the most accessible and largest glacier in the Santa Cruz province of Argentina. Seeing it was one thing and hearing it is another. This glacier is advancing not retreating like most of the other glaciers in the northern hemisphere that suffer from the damaging effects of climate change. Perito Moreno advances two meters each day and sheds huge blocks of ice that splash dramatically into the milky blue waters of Lake Argentino, forcing gigantic ripples across its surface. It takes 20 years for ice at the back of the glacier to reach the terminus, or glacier wall you see pictured here. The sound is deafening with thundering crackles followed by ferocious explosions. The ripping, shredding and disintegrating of ice is perhaps the loudest natural sound my eardrums have ever absorbed.

3. Machu Picchu
What makes Machu Picchu outstanding is no matter how crowded it gets, it still awards a unique and highly spiritual experience to each and every one of its lucky visitors. That is my take-away lesson from this celebrated Inca citadel that soars 2,430 meters in altitude in the beautiful Cuscu region of Peru.  The journey to the destination is as important as the destination itself.

That journey takes you across the fertile farms lands of the Sacred Valley to the Urubamba river valley. Here, you take a happy little train that serves hot cups of coca tea with quinoa strudel to its passengers. It chugs its way from an arid climate that morphs into the lush and leafy landscape of a cloud jungle. The ambient light slowly diminishes as the train enters the thick vegetation. After the train, you board a svelte Mercedes bus that navigates the hairpin curves of the high altitude road with the precision of a needlepoint seamstress. The road is vertical more than it is horizontal. Arriving at Machu Picchu feels like coming up for air after a long underwater dive.

I was lucky enough to visit the site at the beginning of the rainy season. I came during one of those days with low mist, light rainfall and thick waves of dancing steam that rise from the steep flanks of mountains. My guide explained that the Inca’s saw life in everything. That steam could be the heavy breath of life heaved by the mountains themselves. Rainfall could be tears. Sunshine could be love. Every gift bestowed to us by nature is significant and spiritual.

How similar, I thought, is this religion to what we worship in wine.

More articles from this author