What Makes An Iconic Italian Wine—Plus 6 Of The Best Italian Wine Brands To Try Now
“Icon” is a word that gets thrown around rather loosely these days in the world of wine, as it does everywhere else. It has attached itself to everything from vineyards with centuries-old reputations to the golden children of influential critics, or “movements” that will be all but forgotten decades from now. However, most of us would agree that there are a handful of wines that deserve this vaunted label. And figuring out what they have in common might yield some insight into what exactly it is that we oenophiles derive from our most cherished wines.
How does something even get into the running for iconic status? Price is certainly one factor, although that can easily be manipulated by producers who equate expensive with luxury, a classic tactic known as vanity pricing. Ratings and other critical acclaim are also necessary but insufficient on their own. Scarcity helps, as so few people have actually tasted the rarest wines that those who do often feel so fortunate that they either consciously or unconsciously convince themselves of their greatness.
History, and having a good story to tell, seem to be the indispensable X factors in a wine’s ultimate achievement of status. In Europe, where every other family producer can talk long into the night about generations of winemaking, the story needs a little something extra. Italy is an interesting country in that regard, both very old and in some ways very new. Among today’s quality-oriented Italian producers, few were making collectible bottles before the years of post-war prosperity that elevated wine producers from “mere farmers” to auteurs.
What's In A Name
Unlike in France, where Emperor Napoleon III created a fine wine juggernaut when he requested the 1855 classification of Bordeaux to rank its most prominent châteaux, and where Burgundy’s Benedictine and Cistercian monks laid the groundwork for today’s fetishised Grand Crus, Italy has suffered from a relative dearth of classification systems. This seems ironic given that the Chianti region (or technically the portion of it we call Chianti Classico today) was among the first wine regions to be officially delineated in 1716 by Cosimo III de Medici.
And yet, over three centuries, as a brand name Chianti has suffered thanks to a vast expansion of the territory, industrialised farming and rigid (and arguably counterproductive) prescriptions. Many of the region’s most prestigious wines don’t even feature the name Chianti on their label.
The wines we think of today as Italy’s superstars, by contrast, often come from regions that the toga-draped Romans or even the Medici grand dukes would hardly recognise. The town of Montalcino was known throughout the Middle Ages for making a sweet moscatello, rather than its now famous dry red brunello. Piemonte, with its barolo and barbaresco, was not even a spot on the map for fine wine production in Roman times. The Bordeaux grapes cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot have existed in the northeast of Italy for several centuries thanks to Austrian and French influences, but the idea of planting them in Maremma, a swampy area redrained by Mussolini in the 1930s, did not occur until the 20th century.
Staying True To Tradition
Such is the nature of Italian regionalism, or campanilismo, a phenomenon I addressed in last month’s column, that many Italians remain wary of innovation, especially any advance that is perceived as having come from abroad. In today’s climate, the word “modern” is anathema in Italian wine circles, while any linkage that can be drawn to tradition (even somebody else’s tradition, as seen in the open-armed embrace of Georgian-style amphora wines) is considered vital to cementing status as an icon.
Hence, Italy is a place where tradition and novelty coexist, albeit tensely, cheek by jowl. Usually, at the core of any of the most successful wines’ stories are a strong personality that confronts tradition and either boldly chooses to break with it, despite the possibility of ridicule, or adheres to it staunchly when others have blithely given it up. Sometimes success is immediate. Other times validation is a long time coming. Perhaps we only celebrate contrarians because, as in war, it is the victors who write history. Be that as it may, those stories are the ones that stick in our consciousness, elevating wine from a mere beverage to a symbol of belief in the vision of people who believe in themselves.
The following six artworks, called Visual Tasting Notes, and the accompanying texts are my own attempts to examine and explain the greatness of some of Italy’s wine icons. One 28x28 cm giclée print of each edition of 12 was sold along with the accompanying wine at the Gelardini and Romani auction in May. Proceeds from the remaining prints, which are available at Molde Fine Art in Hong Kong and Lullo Pampoulides in London, will go to the Italian Red Cross.
Sassicaia’s iconic status seems almost preordained in retrospect, given it is widely known as the first among wines christened as “Super Tuscans”. Funny that when Mario Incisa della Rocchetta of Piemonte, cousin by marriage to the famous Antinori wine family, decided to make a fine wine from Bordeaux grape varieties in the rural pocket of coastal Tuscany called Bolgheri, many were dubious. Bolgheri was not known for quality, but rather easy-drinking rosés. The first vintages produced, just for family consumption in the 1940s, were referred to by the locals as “vinegary” and “like mud”.
But when the Antinoris took over commercial distribution of the wine in 1972, they were an almost immediate success. Decades later, the decision to plant cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc in this stony spot—hence “Sassicaia”, from sasso, or stone—has paid off to an unimaginable degree, launching a movement and forcing the Italian government to create the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) category for high-quality wines that don’t adhere to tradition. The wine itself bears the clear imprint of modernism, but in the mid-century sense: precise, clean lines, confident but restrained, its dark fruit, cedar-like perfume and architectural structure exuding the optimism of a newly wealthy society that could devote itself to such things as creating a world-class wine.
2/6 Montevertine Le Pergole Torte
Le Pergole Torte is the archetype of that other genre of Super Tuscan: a wine made in a traditional region (Radda, high in the hills of Chianti Classico) from a traditional grape (sangiovese) that couldn’t fit in a traditional appellation thanks to bureaucratic inflexibility. The backstory is that the “Ricasoli formula” for Chianti wine, developed by Barone Ricasoli in 1872, included the use of white grapes in the blend to help soften them for early consumption. In 1967 the recipe became the basis for the Chianti DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) classification, so pure sangiovese wines fell outside the appellation.
The same year, steel industry veteran Sergio Manetti bought Montevertine as a holiday home and planted two hectares of vines. Those would ultimately become the foundation for the 100 per cent sangiovese Le Pergole Torte, meaning “the twisted pergolas”, a wine disallowed from the Chianti appellation. To this day, the immediately recognisable labels by artist Alberto Manfredi make no mention of Chianti. The wine itself is more Chianti-like than virtually any Chianti I’ve tried: sheer, blood red and elusive with spectral hints of tart red fruit, scrubby flowers and spices, its ethereal wafting eventually clamped into a steely, tannic close.
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3/6 Aldo Conterno Granbussia
The late Aldo Conterno, the younger of the two sons of Giacomo Conterno of the eponymous Barolo winery, has often been painted as a modernist in contrast to his diehard traditionalist brother, Giovanni. Likewise, his resplendent, effusive Granbussia has been set in opposition to his family’s austere, classical Monfortino. This simple characterisation obscures the magnitude of Aldo’s achievement: first his decision to buy great vineyards, in an era when even many top names bought grapes, and second in his openness to fresh ideas. Like Lodovico Antinori, Giacosa spent a formative period around the wines of California and returned to Italy a changed man.
Through comparatively small, sensitive innovations emphasising the essential qualities of the nebbiolo grape rather than obscuring them under cosmetic improvements (he never succumbed to the lure of the barrique), Conterno arguably walked the line between tradition and innovation, acting as a model for today’s ubiquitous “postmodernists”. Supporting this notion is the fact that though he bottled three beautiful single vineyard wines, vivacious Colonello, lusty Cicala and profound Romirasco, the estate’s pinnacle wine is the blended Barolo Riserva Granbussia, made only in the best years. Densely packed with the heady floral caress that defines great nebbiolo, it is brightened with balsamic herbs and deepened with earth tones, all woven deftly into a detailed, classic structure.
4/6 Biondi Santi Tenuta Greppo Brunello Riserva
Though the storied name of Biondi Santi seems odd company among these pioneering upstarts, it’s worth remembering that when chemist Clemente Santi first decided to submit his dry, sangiovese-based wine to competitions around Tuscany in the 1860s, the future appellation of Brunello di Montalcino was not even a distant dream. His sweet moscatello wines, though also held in high esteem, were not the main focus for Santi, who used his scientific knowhow to improve the farming at his beloved Tenuta Greppo and the ageworthiness of his wine, effectively creating a category of its own.
Franco Biondi Santi, who made his first Brunello Riserva in 1971, was the quintessential modern face of the legendary winery. Known affectionately to the townsfolk of Montalcino as “Dottore Franco”, the family scion continued to produce great Brunello to exacting standards, resisting the temptation to shorten ageing times, switch from neutral Slavonian botti to new French barriques or delay his harvest date despite commercial pressures, until his passing in 2013. His wines maintain a remarkable elegance that is at odds with the somewhat bombastic modern image of Brunello. Exquisitely layered, with shards of plum skin, fragrant herbs and a metallic bite all intricately interlocking, they carry a sense of rationality, innovation and striving made soft and human by the passage of time.
5/6 Bruno Giacosa Le Rocche Del Falletto Barolo Riserva
The recent history of Barbaresco is defined by two central characters: Angelo Gaja and the late Bruno Giacosa. The former is best known for his willingness to bring foreign innovations like green harvests and barriques to this small, rural corner of Piemonte; the latter for his preternatural understanding of the underlying qualities of the territory’s best vineyards (though this dichotomy is somewhat unfair, as Gaja has also played a significant role in the elevation of individual sites).
For context, both Barolo and Barbaresco were traditionally made by blending grapes from within the region. Giacosa’s wines, made by sourcing and later farming grapes from the region’s best sites and bottling them individually, kicked off a “cru” wine craze that hasn’t abated since. Giacosa is to thank for the fame of vineyards like Barbaresco’s Santo Stefano and Asili and Barolo’s Vigna Rionda and Falletto. The Riserva bottling of Le Rocche del Falletto (the “rocks of Falletto”), bearing the distinctive red label Giacosa saved for his best efforts, is among Italy’s greatest. It opens with a brooding reticence, its dense outer carapace peeling away gradually to reveal clearly delineated notes of medicinal herb and dark fruit, building in volume and richness to a gloriously triumphant finish.
Although the famously decadent, pure merlot Super Tuscan Masseto began life as an offshoot of Ornellaia, the cabernet sauvignon-dominant Super Tuscan created by Marchese Lodovico Antinori to rival his cousin’s Sassicaia, it surpassed its older sibling in reputation (and price) from the beginning. The young Lodovico had originally entertained dreams of a California winery, but was redirected by Russian-American oenologist André Tchelistcheff, who advised the Marchese to return to his family’s holdings in Bolgheri and soon became Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’s first consultant in the early 1980s.
Tchelistcheff found an unused slope on the property that was too rich in clay for cabernets but that he suspected might be a goldmine for merlot. He was proven right in spades. Masseto’s greatness had eluded me until fairly recently—the style always struck me as too soft, rich and unctuous, without the definition I crave. Tasting the 2015 and 1999 recently caused me to reassess. All of that luscious fig and plum fruit was still there but with a Mediterranean herbal savour, its power girded into supple, satisfyingly proportioned contours: a Bacchanalian roar rendered articulate and concise.
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