Reviewers’ Favorites 2022: Monica Larner

I remember the moment the heat hit. I brought a friend to the airport in the early hours of May 23, 2022. Standing outside Terminal 3 at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport while waiting for my guest to complete the COVID-19 tests inside, I felt droplets of sweat forming on my forehead and down the small of my back. The air was suddenly hot, heavy and humid. I felt vaguely faint, and it wasn’t even 8 a.m. yet.

I will remember 2022 for the relentless summer heat and humidity that started that morning at the airport and stubbornly never let up through June, July and August. It was constant and oppressive. Even a break to the beach was a disappointment because the sand was too hot and the Mediterranean water too sticky. 

On the evening of August 15th, I got caught in a violent summer thunderstorm outside Panzano in Chianti, south of Florence. I feared my small car would be washed off the road as I struggled to drive though water runoff and mudslides. The weather in Italy changed slightly after a series of mid-August storms, and although the suffocating humidity finally broke, the high daytime temperatures did not subside. 

There is a beautiful word in Italian—settembrino—that describes the first fluttering of fall-like sensations registered during the month of September: the smell of an autumn leaf on the ground and a sudden startling clarity to the air. Signs of settembrino surely brought psychological respite following a torrid summer, but in truth, the thermometer only reluctantly relinquished those record readings. The long heat of 2022 continued until my birthday in early November.
With five months of heat, I celebrated Italian white wines in 2022.

Five months of heat was insufferable, and I say this because my drinking habits changed over the course of 2022. I fully pivoted to white wines instead of reds. My eating habits also changed. I sought out vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian dishes and paid special attention to sourcing ingredients from organic growers and farmers’ markets. 

As the chatter regarding climate changes grows stronger and louder, especially in a year like this, I’m sure I am not alone in embracing this lighter and brighter approach to food and wine. 

Italy is in a unique position to offer a new set of modern wines to match our changing habits. With an enormous biodiversity of white-skinned indigenous grapes and untapped potential of white-wine growing sites—from the ashy volcanic soils of Etna to the glacial till of Alto Adige—the future of Italian wine is white. 

Timorasso, Vermentino, Garganega, Pinot Bianco, Carricante, Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino and Verdicchio are just a few of the many whites I profiled in my coverage this year. 

It is no coincidence that all five of my “reviewers’ favorites” choices this year are white. This is my way of signaling how important I believe white wines will be to the future of vino italiano

A Wine for the Cellar: 
I spent a lot of time in Campania this year, one of my favorite Italian wine regions, specifically because I love the white wines made here, such as Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino, Falanghina and others found from Caserta down to the Cilento. Proximity to the Italian Capital means that Campania whites are especially popular and available in Rome, where I live. 

Campania whites are proving their mettle when it comes to longevity. More than a handful of these cellar-worthy wines are proving that they can pass the test of time.
The carefully manicured vineyards at Quintodecimo in Mirabella Eclano, Campania

Among these is the glorious Quintodecimo 2020 Irpinia Grande Cuvée Luigi Moio, a blend of 40% Fiano, 40% Greco and 20% Falanghina, or the “three grace” of Campania whites. This new blend is the brainchild of brainiac professor Luigi Moio, who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of fine wine both through hands-on viticulture and academia.
Luigi Moio

With only 4,600 bottles produced, some 60% of the wine is fermented in oak, and the blend is submitted to regular stirring of the lees. The bouquet reveals peach, quince, acacia honey and fragrant tuberose over silky fruit weight and rich texture. Those sensations are framed by etched notes of salinity or crushed oyster shell. 

I gave the wine a long 15-year drinking window in my initial review, although I suspect it will hold for longer still. 

A Wine That’s Under the Radar: 
Bruni 2020 Maremma Toscana Vermentino Perlaia (Italy, Tuscany, Maremma Toscana) 
My standard coverage focuses on classic Italian wine regions, and whenever possible, I do spotlights on up-and-coming appellations. In early summer, I wrote a report on Maremma Toscana DOC, a wild and untamed corner of coastal Tuscany with open spaces and nature reserves. As of 2020, heat-loving Vermentino became the most-bottled grape in this appellation, and soon the Italian government is expected to ratify a Vermentino Superiore denomination.
Sunflowers in Maremma, Tuscany (Photo by Jenni Burgess)

I tasted quite a few new submissions from Maremma Toscana, but one of my favorites is the Vermentino made by Marco and Moreno Bruni. The 2020 Maremma Toscana Vermentino Perlaia sees fruit harvested at various stages of maturity, with some air-dried or appassito clusters, and a blend is formed from these various parts. The estate is located in front of the Talamone – Argentario Gulf on the Tyrrhenian Coast with loamy clay soils at a sunny 50 to 70 meters above sea level. Partially aged in oak, it shows a lovely lean-bodied but creamy texture with apricot, candied orange peel and honey. Vermentino shows its best results when planted in proximity to the coastline, and in fact, the grape is found along the northern part of the Mediterranean basin and more famously on the island of Sardinia. Added complexity is delivered thanks to salty sea spray or mineral-infused nuances that rise from the bouquet. I am delighted to recommend this wine.

A Wine for Tonight: 
Veteran winemaker Carlo Ferrini made the wine I want to drink tonight—and most nights, truth be told. The consulting enologist is known for his work with Sangiovese, especially in the Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino appellations. Carlo also has an impressive body of work in other regions outside Tuscany such as Trentino and Sicily. 

In recent years, he has downsized his consulting work to focus on two personal projects: The Giodo estate in Montalcino (where he built a compact but super efficient winery) and Alberelli di Giodo on Mt. Etna. He has ancient bush-trained vines on the volcano in ashy soils, and he uses the state-of-the-art Pietradolce facilities for winemaking.
Alberelli vines on Etna for Alberelli di Giodo

I visited with Carlo in Montalcino earlier this year, and he gave me a preview taste of his phenomenal Alberelli di Giodo 2020 Sicilia Carricante, his first solo white wine from the volcano. I would later visit with Carlo a second time along with Michele Faro of Pietradolce to see the vineyards of both men, planted in adjacent plots. 

Visiting ancient vineyards on Etna is a major highlight of any year in the life of an Italian wine reviewer. You feel as if you are walking through a botanical garden in prehistoric times. Twisted and knotted vines give texture to landscape that is dominated by black rocks, scorched earth and steaming fumaroles from the nearby crater. Your shoes are covered in the finest ashy silt that makes puffing sounds and sends up clouds of black powder with each step.
Carlo Ferrini showing his Sicilian summer tan

Carlo’s Carricante offers an excellent level of freshness, sharpness and focus that makes it a truly memorable drinking experience. With only 3,500 bottles produced, the wine shows tart citrus, white flower and lots of volcanic character with salt and ash. Winemaking is straightforward in stainless steel, and the wine is held back for one year before its commercial release. His bottle is further proof that some of the most interesting and immediately enjoyable wines from Etna today are the whites.

A Wine from a Producer That Exemplifies Sustainability:
Frescobaldi 2021 Gorgona (Italy, Tuscany, Toscana, Coasta Toscana) 
As our understanding and definition of sustainability vis-à-vis the wine industry grows, the social impacts of sustainability take on greater importance. Italy is home to a singular wine project, a symbolic cultivation of compassion, human rights and rehabilitation that stands alone. The wine I have chosen exemplifies sustainability, but it also pushes the boundaries on how social sustainability can be interpreted. 

The beautiful island of Gorgona in the Tuscan Archipelago about 19 nautical miles from the port city of Livorno is a protected nature reserve covered in Mediterranean bush and inhabited by wild rabbits, a unique white snake, seagulls and a migrating falcon. There is an ancient stone fortification at the highest point of the island, and steep cliffs descend to rocky inlets and crashing waves.
Heaven or hell? The port entrance to the Gorgona penitentiary

Thanks to the Frescobaldi wine estate of Tuscany, I was given special clearance to visit the island this past September in a police boat. You need permission to come to Gorgona because the entire island is a penal colony with about 100 prisoners serving their sentences in a state of semi-liberty within the certain confines of the island. They are allowed out of the barracks during the day to work at the various agricultural and livestock projects managed by the Italian Justice Ministry on the island. Some are former maximum-security prisoners. In the past, these have included terrorists and, reportedly, the hitman who killed fashion heir Maurizio Gucci.
Lamberto Frescobaldi looks over the 2022 harvest on Gorgona, where grape growing is part of prisoner rehabilitation.

Lamberto Frescobaldi leases the vineyards facing the prison barracks and makes the IGT Costa Toscana Gorgona here. (My review of the 2021 vintage will be published in an upcoming video spotlight that details my full day on the island.) As part of their rehabilitation, the inmates cultivate the vineyard, harvest Vermentino and Ansonica grapes and work in the tiny winery that is fitted with a small bladder press and fermentation tanks. The prisoners are paid a salary, so when they are eventually released, they have money saved. 

Gorgona is the only island penitentiary left in Italy. Because of high operation costs, the prison was due to close about 10 years ago. In fact, if it weren’t for the winemaking partnership with Frescobaldi, the prison would have most certainly been shuttered. The ultimate test of sustainability is that wine keeps this important program alive. 

A Wine That’s Especially Good Value: 
Alto Adige in the far north of Italy is an excellent region for seeking out value wines, especially white wines. With high-altitude vineyards planted on steep mountain slopes surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Dolomites, alpine growing conditions and moraine soils are ideal for fragrant expressions of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and my personal favorite, Pinot Bianco. 

You’ll find plenty of terrific values in my annual report from Alto Adige, but at $22, the 92-point Kellerei St. Pauls 2021 Alto Adige Weissburgunder Pinot Bianco Plötzner stands out.
A blanket of vineyards in Alto Adige

With an ample 75,000 bottles produced, this Pinot Bianco (also known locally in this German-Italian speaking region as Weissburgunder) highlights the amazing tension, freshness and tonic personality that the grape is known for. The wine opens to green apple, guava and melon, with crushed stone, salt and melted snow. It ferments in large oak casks and sees partial malolactic fermentation for extra volume and texture. Fruit comes from east-facing vineyards above the village of St. Pauls at 550 to 650 meter above sea level where the vines benefit from steep diurnal shifts to lock in freshness and aromas.

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