Tasting 100 of Italy’s best wines

While Vinitaly is the most important wine event on the Italian calendar, the most memorable part of the action-packed week (if talking and tasting wine can be considered action) actually takes place the day before the trade fair begins.

The day before in question was Saturday and the Vinitaly pre-event was OperaWine’s Finest Italian Wines – 100 Great Producers. For the second year in a row OperaWine brought together many of Italy’s most famous wines and unless you taste fermented grape juice for a living, alas I am not part of that select group, it is at once incredible, overwhelming and intimidating to find yourself in front of all these wines.

There were, of course, the Barolos, Barbarescos, Super Tuscans and Amarones. But there were also memorable Aglianicos, Fianos and Nero d’Avolas, to name just a few of the wines on offer.

Rather than taste all the most famous producers, which is what I tried to do last year, this time I squeezed in a lot of the smaller, overlooked names. I did find time for some of the big names that have successfully broken into the international market including Planeta, Ceretto and Donnafugata. But I didn’t taste a single Amarone and only got in four Brunellos and three Barolos in the three-hour event.

Rather than rewrite my tasting notes – which would be a bit difficult anyway as I lost my notebook, the effect perhaps of not having spit out enough of the wine – I’ll recount just a few general thoughts.

The Nebbiolo grape has become duly famous for the excellent results it gives in Piedmont in the production of Barolo and Barbaresco. The grape has had some success elsewhere, but not at the level of Piedmont. One of the few exceptions is in Valtellina in northeastern Lombardy. As this is my adopted region, Milan is the capital of Lombardy, I took particular joy in drinking Nino Negri’s incredible 5 Stelle Sfursat di Valtellina 2009: Nebbiolo 100 percent, two years is new French barriques and then another 4 months in the bottle before it reaches the market. This is without a doubt the best expression the Nebbiolo grape outside of Piedmont that I’ve had.

Another particularly memorable wine was Bellavista’s Franciacorta Vittorio Moretti 2006, a traditional method sparker that is released seven years after the harvest. No wonder it goes for about 100 euros a bottle. I visited the Bellavista vineyard this past summer for an article about female wine producers.

Donnafugata brought its Mille e una Notte 2007, a wine made almost exclusively with Nero d’Avola and aged in French barriques for 16 months before sitting another 30 months in the bottle. What’s wonderful about this wine is that it displays the rich complexity and power that the Sicilian nero d’Avola grape is capable of. And it is nice to see that because you can also find barely drinkable nero d’Avola’s that go for 3 euros a bottle. Mille e una Notte will cost you about 15 times more, but it’s worth the splurge.

Andrea Illy of coffee fame, he is Illycaffè’s chief executive, took time off from his coffee endeavors to pour Brunello Vigna Loreto 2008 made at the Mastrojanni estate, which Gruppo Illy bought in 2008. Bit funny to have Italy’s Mr. Coffee, and he really is the face of Italian coffee, pouring you Brunello, especially when the last time you saw him it was during a break in a board meeting. Speaking of Brunello, my favorite of the four I tasted was Siro Pacenti’s Riserva 2007.

General thought on the Barolos: the 2008s are already more drinkable that the 2007s were at last year’s event. In both cases better to wait at least 3-4 years before drinking.

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