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Hidden Gems from Vinitaly 2018

by Raimondo Boggia, Contributing Editor
Vinitaly is an immense show. This year from April 15 to 18 in Verona, 128,000 people (of which 32,000 were professional buyers) from 143 countries came to taste more than 15,000 wines from 4,380 producers.

             photo: Ennevi-Veronafiere

Many producers presented an anticipation of their 2017 vintage: the right proportion of rain and sun. A warm vintage—and almost everywhere in Italy a great one.

For many DOCG and other wines that need four years or more of aging, producers announced what's going on with the 2014 release. Let's face it, this was a challenging vintage in almost every micro-region of Italy. But before enjoying this vintage, buyers and customers should know how the best winemakers reacted: Almost all producers reduced their production by 25 to 40 percent and many of them are not producing Riserva, single crus, and other top-of-the-class labels. Therefore, they put the reduced (in quantity) selection of their best grapes into the entry-level labels of their wineries. I have tasted some great 2014 entry-price Barolos and Barbarescos, Chiantis and Super Tuscans, even if the Riserva and other premium labels will skip the 2014 vintage.

It is not my intention to make a synthesis of Vinitaly, but to discuss some positive surprises, share the emotions and appreciation I felt in tasting a few of the many wines I tasted, and explore some interesting stories behind their Denominations of Origin, grapes, and producers.

             Terraces in Cinque Terre
             photo courtesy of Cantina Cinque Terre

Compared to the hundreds of years—if not a millennium—of history of the celebrated aristocracy of Italian viticulture, most of the wines I have chosen are produced by quite recent winemakers, and many of them belong to the Heroic Viticulture Association, which unites wineries nested in unbelievably steep lands where hand-made stone drywalls hold terraces built to plant vines.

Seductive Nebbiolo

Wine: Il Sogno
Winery: Travaglini
Denomination: Vino da Tavola
Grape: Nebbiolo 100%
Region: Piemonte, Northwest
Importer: Palm Bay International

Nebbiolo, the austere and tannic grape from Northern Italy, known for being harsh rather than smooth, expresses itself in this interpretation beyond its limit and becomes suave and seductive. A few years ago, Cinzia Travaglini decided to pursue the conceptual dream (sogno in Italian) of her father to have a more "educated" Nebbiolo and started to let the grape clusters rest on nets for 100 days after harvest (the same process used in Amarone). The procedural guidelines of the DOCG Gattinara, where Cinzia produces all her wines, do not allow the drying of grapes on nets before fermentation; therefore Il Sogno is a Vino da Tavola and cannot use the Gattinara DOCG denomination (although it comes in the signature Gattinara bottle created by Travaglini in 1958).

Consistent with the Gattinara denomination, though, Il Sogno has a backbone of acidity that allows the wine to age well, while the well-integrated tannins of the Nebbiolo grape add to the complexity.

Limpid and garnet; complex on the nose with ripe berries, forest floor, eucalyptus and licorice; on the palate smooth and fresh, elegant and intense, with a mineral note of iron that nonetheless leaves the finish to be fruity. Excellent with aged cheese and chocolate, but can also pair well with red meat and venison.

Beyond Prosecco

Wine: Relio  
Winery: Bisol
Denomination: Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG
Grape: Glera 85%
Region: Veneto
Importer: Wilson Daniels

Prosecco, like Chianti, Bordeaux, and Napa, is too large a production area to be homogeneous and to guarantee quality by itself. While the area certainly guarantees a style, quality varies a lot depending on sub-zone, denomination, and producer. A generic Prosecco DOC is for sure an easy and simple drink, yet it is unpretentious and, many times , not so remarkable.  

Relio is a single cru (Rive di Guia) made by Bisol in the Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG sub-zone of Prosecco with the second fermentation in the bottle, like a Champagne or a Metodo Classico. It reaches a level of complexity, structure, and yeastiness not present in other wines of the wider Prosecco area. In addition to the method, it is also the result of its terroir: the Glera grape adapts very well to the steep hills of Rive di Guia in Valdobbiadene and gets the maximum out of the rocky and chalky soil and from the Mediterranean influence of the Adriatic Sea. The low yield of this cru helps as well.

Valdobbiadene is one of the Heroic Viticulture areas because the hills are so steep that the grapes must be picked by hand. After drinking a cru of Valdobbiadene DOCG like Relio, you will never ask for a generic Prosecco again.

Straw yellow, fine, numerous, and persistent bubbles; on the nose you get yellow flowers, croissant, and salty bread, with ripe stone fruit and pear. On the palate, there is a creaminess and a balance between acidity, sapidity and fruitiness. The complexity stays in the long finish. Lightly spicy appetizers, white meat, crab and scallops are excellent pairings.

The Super-Etna

Wine: Eruzione 1614
Winery: Planeta
Denomination: Sicilia DOC
Grape: Nerello Mascalese 90%, Nerello Cappuccio 10%
Region: Sicily
Importer: Palm Bay International

The Etna DOC denomination was created by legislation in 2007 and determines a certain maximum altitude for the production of Etna Rosso, depending on the municipality. Alessio Planeta and his family decided to plant Nerello Mascalese above this altitude limit, and now they produce this phenomenal red wine on the strip of land created by the Etna eruption of 1614. We are close to where snow falls in winter, and the wine acquires acidity, minerality, and unparalleled elegance.

 It is not technically an Etna Rosso DOC, that's why I call it a Super-Etna. A definitive connoisseur’s choice

Limpid with garnet hues, moderately consistent; the nose is taken by the black lava rock note integrated with red berries and dry red flowers. On the palate the flavor and the acidity of the pomegranate is balanced with the sapidity and a light spiciness. Oven-roasted pork chops with carrots and root vegetables are one of the best possible pairings.

Moscato Giallo at 360º

Wine: Bianco Infinito
Winery: Maeli
Denomination: Fior d'Arancio Colli Euganei DOCG
Grape: Moscato Giallo Fior d'Arancio 100%
Region: Veneto
Importer: Wilson Daniels

When you think of Moscato, you think of an aromatic grape and a sweet, low-alcohol sparkling dessert wine. A few wine experts will remember the still Muscat from Trentino, aromatic and dry. When you taste what winemaker Elisa Dilavanzo is able to do with the Moscato Giallo grape in this specific sub-zone of the Colli Euganei, close to Padova and Venice, you can understand why I called it a Moscato Giallo at 360º: from a Metodo Ancestrale sparkling, to a Metodo Classico, to the flat-dry Infinito, to the Sweet Sparkling and the Passito . . .  What an incredible portfolio, with so many different personalities merging the unique aroma of the Moscato grape and the minerality of the ancient volcanic soil.

Moscato Giallo Fior d'Arancio is an experience of its own. Produced with a specific clone of Moscato, a cross between Yellow Muscat and Chasselas from the Loire Valley. It is strikingly different from both Moscato d'Asti and the Yellow Muscat of Alto Adige.

The unique aroma of Muscat grape is there, but in a more subtle way. It is straw yellow with green hues, moderately consistent, at the nose: white wet stone together with yellow plum; to the palate Infinito is a frank Moscato, with some unique and important additions: candied citrus zest, fresh almonds well integrated with the fruit and a remotely smoked nuance complete the complex finish. Excellent with prosciutto San Daniele and grissini , but I would drink it over bigoli in salsa (pasta with anchovy sauce), sardines, and other fat and savory fishes.

Hero of Heroes

Wine: Bianco Vigne Alte
Winery: Cantina Cinque Terre
Grape: Bosco 60%, Albarola 35%, Vermentino 5%
Denomination: Cinque Terre DOC
Region: Liguria
Importer: Siena Imports

With the guidance of oenologist Gianfranco Vita, a decade ago the Cooperativa Cinque Terre, headed by Matteo Bonanini, started to classify the crus that best express their microclimate and terroir. This expression of Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino from Vigne Alte (High Vines) is unique for balance and strength. Part of the Heroic Viticulture Association, this is an incredible strip of steep land, nestled west of Genoa and east of La Spezia in Liguria. A typical hiking tourist destination, it is gifted with a fantastic sea breeze, protected by the strong (and sometimes destructive) Northern Wind. The feeling is drinking an intense juice extracted from herbs and rocks, before the fruit reminds us that it is actually wine!

Straw yellow with golden hues, it is brilliant and consistent. It is floral, herbaceous at the nose with iodine note that emerges and re-emerges between the Mediterranean shrub and the yellow fruits. At the palate it is smooth and warm while keeping the high minerality and the acidity, notes of basil leaves and marjoram add to its complexity. A great little-known Italian white wine. Its perfect pairing is with any type of fish appetizer, a clam soup, a branzino, but it can pair well also with chicken, rabbit (with no red sauce) and farinata , the chickpea flatbread made in Liguria.

The Convergence of Art and Science

Wine: Faro della Guardia
Winery:Casale del Giglio
Denomination: Lazio IGT
Grape: Biancolella
Region: Lazio
Imporer: Siena Imports

The only Biancolella made in the Lazio region, this grape was brought to the island of Ponza by the Bourbons. An unconfirmed guess made by many locals is that it was the Greeks who first brought grape vines to Ponza. Although ships from Britain and France were going to Ponza to buy wine as early as the 17th century, the production of the Island is still today quite unknown to the general public.

In any case, now the entire tiny Island southwest of Rome is covered with grapes, and this particular Biancolella from Casal del Giglio grows on a sea cliff not far from the island’s lighthouse. The necessarily manual harvesting due to the very low height of the vines, which prevents them from being destroyed by the heavy winds, is another example of Heroic Viticulture.

Sebastiano Santarelli, owner of Casal del Giglio, added a scientific approach to the agriculture and the winemaking and, in conjunction with the quality of the volcanic soil, the influence  of the Mediterranean sea, and the steep inclination of the land, created this complex wine able to compete in blind tests with International acclaimed varietals.

Straw yellow, crystal clear and moderately consistent; on the nose the flinty fragrance integrates with honeysuckle and ripe yellow fruit. On the palate, a citrus touch is integrated with white stone fruit and some calcareous and seawater notes. Complex and long, it pairs very well with any kind of seafood, pasta with clams, and the spiny lobsters that are found in the deep water between Ponza and Corsica.

Contributing Web Editor Riamondo Boggia is an Italian wine expert, Certified Sommelier with WSA (World Sommelier Association) and NASA (North American Sommelier Association), and is President of restaurant group OBICÀ USA. He lives in Los Angeles.

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