I’ve always thought that Italian wine should be considered in its entirety, from tip to toe of the boot-shaped country, unlike other wine-producing nations that are more easily divisible by standalone regions. Italy is a nation of wine, with nearly unbroken vineyards blanketing its 20 regions. Its vinous fabric is interwoven with indigenous and international grape varieties, hundreds of appellations and subzones and strong winemaking traditions. You can draw connections that link Barolo in northern Italy to Montalcino in the center to Etna in the far south. I am deeply privileged to be the sole reviewer for Italian wine. My special vantage point allows me to consider the greater context of vino italiano and ultimately lets me tell a bigger story.
That bigger story is one of discoveries. Each new vintage brings new wines, new producers, new grapes, new regions and new winemaking styles to explore. It would be impossible to know if Italy affords more discoveries than other wine regions of the world, although I suspect it might. Over the course of 2021, I kept a running list of wines in their inaugural release and wines that were never previously reviewed in our database. With a few months left before the end of the year, I have published more than 3,000 reviews. Of those, 300 were new entries. Ten percent “discoveries” seems extraordinary for an Old World wine nation like Italy.
In the spirit of Italian wine discoveries, it is my pleasure to present five of my favorite bottles tasted this year. These are not necessarily my highest-scoring choices, but they are the wines that stand out most in my mind as I look back over my 2021 tasting experiences. Some are strict discoveries as defined above, and some are well-established wines with proven track records of past vintages that emerged with especially exceptional results this year. These are just a few wines I hope you will discover too.
I wanted to select a white wine in this category that prizes longevity, bottle evolution and all the magical transformative beauty we should expect of a cellar selection. In terms of reds (such as Brunello, Barolo and Barbaresco), the bulk of my work this year focused on the 2017, 2018 and 2019 vintages, depending on region, and of these, 2017 and 2018 are not as strong. That’s one reason I felt that a white should be prioritized this year. A second reason is because Italy is often associated with easy-drinking, near-term whites, but this is in fact a gross simplification. Exceptional, cellar-worthy Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige is not a new discovery, but this remains one of the most exciting trends to define modern Italian wine. There is enormous energy and excitement surrounding the crystalline, crisp and complex whites from the Italian Dolomites, and for good reason. Born in mixed soils with quartz, volcanic porphyry and ancient marine sediments, the wines are packed with distinct personality and minerality. Cantina Terlano excels in this category. The top two whites released by this cooperative are the Grand Cuvée Primo (which is a blend of white grapes with Pinot Bianco at 65%) and the all-Pinot Bianco wine Rarity, which is a late release. But productions on those two wines are small, with 3,330 and 3,500 bottles released, respectively. The 2018 Alto Adige Terlano Pinot Bianco Riserva Vorberg, however, is a 55,000-bottle release and should prove easier to find should you want to stock your cellar with an exceptional, age-worthy Italian white.
The single Italian grape I am most impressed by recently is white Carricante found on Etna in Sicily. One of my favorite producers from the area is Giuseppe Russo of Girolamo Russo; so, when I learned that Giuseppe was presenting a new wine based on Carricante (with tiny parts Grecanico and Catarratto), I knew we’d be feeling tremors from the mighty volcano. Giuseppe is a former music teacher who changed professions after his father Girolamo’s death. He returned to the village of Passopisciaro to look after his father’s vines and soon started making wine in the family garage. Giuseppe understood the importance of site long before the Etna wine appellation was divided by Contrada, or subzone. Centuries of downward flowing lava from the volcano’s craters and lateral fissures have created specific micro-territories, each with distinct soil characteristics (which depend on the age and the type of lava flow). The Russo family has vines in the Contrade Feudo, Feudo di Mezzo, Calderara Sottana and San Lorenzo. At 740 meters in elevation, the Contrada San Lorenzo in Randazzo today makes two reds from Nerello Mascalese and this white. The wines showcase the elegance and power of wine from under the volcano.
Tonight, I feel like drinking an Italian classic, and Chianti Classico fits the bill. It takes just one visit to Panzano in Chianti to fall in love. There’s that golden sunlight that washes over the amphitheater of vines known as the Conca d’Oro, the meticulous rows of vineyards that have recently turned to autumnal colors, the terracotta jars planted to lemon trees, the celebrity butcher and the smell of meat on the grill, the tiny town square and the morning market. And, there is Giovanni Manetti’s Fontodi, an estate that always overdelivers thanks to its top-shelf organic Sangiovese-based wines like Flaccianello della Pieve and the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Sorbo. Flaccianello represents a blend of fruit from several of the estate’s best parcels, whereas the Vigna del Sorbo sees all its fruit from a single site. It represents an extreme expression of place, and if I could be anywhere tonight, I’d love to be in the dreamy Tuscan landscape of Panzano in Chianti. Since I am not there in person, a glass of Vigna del Sorbo should take me there in my mind.
A Wine from a Producer That Exemplifies Sustainability:
Monte dei Ragni 2016 Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore (Italy, Veneto, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Ripasso) [to be published in December]
This exceptional bottle could fit into several categories including best “under the radar” wine and “wine I’d like to drink tonight.” However, its natural place is here for the outstanding environmentally aware farming and winemaking philosophy practiced by its creator, Zeno Zignoli. Located in Marega, Fumane—at the heart of Valpolicella to the east of Lake Garda, between Sant’Ambrogio and Negrar—Monte dei Ragni (“spider mountain”) is named after the Ragno family who have farmed here for generations (Zeno’s partner is Antonella Ragno). With seven hectares of vines, and more land dedicated to legumes, vegetables, olives, cherries and wheat, Zeno is able to manage all aspects of farming thanks to the small scale of his operation. With meticulous detail and attention—and a guiding belief that monocultures in agriculture are wrong and that biodiversity is key—Monte dei Ragni represents an aspirational ideal in sustainability practiced by one very determined man. Farming is organic and biodynamic, and horses till the soils. Native and restorative cover crops are used, and some vines are planted on their natural rootstocks in the traditional overhead pergola training system. Native grapes Corvina, Corvinone, Molinara and Rondinella are hand-harvested and hand-hung, cluster by cluster, on vertical nets in his special appassimento loft. The larger clusters, like Corvinone, take six hours to hang, and the smaller ones, like Rondinella, up to eight hours. After the grapes have dried, fermentations kick off with ambient yeasts in open barrels with no temperature controls. Oak is used carefully, and mechanical pumping or racking is avoided. Monte dei Ragni’s Valpolicella Ripasso is released four or five years after the harvest, and the Amarone up to eight years.
Piedmont is home to some of Italy’s most expensive wines like Barolo and Barbaresco made with the Nebbiolo grape. But it is also home to a wide assortment of accessible reds made from Barbera, Dolcetto, Freisa and Pelaverga. I tasted two excellent expressions of Pelaverga this year, one by Fratelli Alessandria and one by Comm. G.B. Burlotto, and both received the same score. I am hard pressed to choose between the two. However, of the two, the Comm. G.B. Burlotto 2019 Verduno Pelaverga boasts the lowest price, making it an exceptional value. Langhe Nebbiolo is a category that won’t put too much of a dent in your wallet. I could cite wines from Sottimano, G.D. Vajra, Conterno Fantino, Cavallotto and others who offer good value with their new releases of Langhe Nebbiolo. But I am especially attracted to the electricity, the savory nuances, the lifted berry flavors and the crushed white pepper that characterize the little-known Pelaverga grape. Its unique personality stands far apart from the other important red grapes on Piedmont’s playlist. Not only does this bottle offer terrific value, it delivers a drinking experience you won’t soon forget.