Looking at the Leonard Freed photographs of Italy on these pages prompted me to think about the tradition, artistry, romance and chaos of Italian wines. Italy is reputed to have the highest count of indigenous grapes of any country—estimates of upwards of two thousand—and quite a few wines are imported here that are undeservedly overlooked. The words Chianti, Barolo and Barbaresco may trip easily off your tongue, but what about Aglianico, Lagrein, Refosco or Negroamaro?
Those names, all of which are wines, illustrate another aspect of that chaotic nature. The first three derive from the geographic regions where they are produced, the others from the grape variety they are made from. And why should it surprise us that from the land of Italo Calvino still other wines take their names from legends, such as Corvo (the crow) and Lacryma Christi (tears of Christ).
My first introduction to Italian wines came in 1980 during a train ride from Florence to Bologna. I still remember the view out the window as I turned the page of that day’s International Herald Tribune and came upon a profile of Burton Anderson with the news that his book on Italian wine, Vino, was just about to be published. When I returned home that fall I got myself a copy. Locating it on a hard to reach shelf in the bookcase and taking it down for the first time in years, I felt a comforting sense of nostalgia as I leafed through and saw the black and white photos and read about some wines that at that time were impossible to find anywhere where I could search and therefore that much more intriguing. Many of them I have since drunk, others I still have not seen.
By the way, I never abandoned Burton Anderson, having kept his Wine Atlas of Italy (published in 1990) near to hand for easy reference.
But back to the wines. Aglianico, grown in the south of Italy makes a supple, medium bodied, often vibrant wine. The best known are probably those from Campania, the region of Naples and Mount Vesuvius, but excellent examples come from Basilicata and Apulia as well. I recently enjoyed the 2008 Aglianico Rubrato from Feudi di San Gregorio with its slightly smoke-tinged, bright berry nose and tart, pomegranate-like notes on the palate.
One reason for my fondness for Aglianico may be the memory of a wonderful evening in Paris at a hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant on the Île St. Louis, which provides an example of why getting to know these less familiar wines serves a purpose—the wine list dilemma. The first two wines we ordered were out of stock and, having had Aglianico only once or twice before and not recognizing this producer, we hesitated, took a chance and ordered. Thank goodness we did, it was perfect with the veal chops.
Taurasi is an aglianico-based wine from the commune of that name and by regulation must have a certain amount of barrel aging. The 2003 “Vigna Macchia dei Goti” Taurasi from Cantine Antonio Caggiano is a deep, dark, hefty wine still exhibiting plenty of tannin. A good match for a hearty meat dish and strong cheeses.
I’m guessing I was in a particularly onomatopoeic mood when I had my first sip of the 2008 Palazzo della Torre from Allegrini, a renowned Veneto producer, because the word that came immediately to mind was “luscious.” The label states that this is “a unique wine with a pleasant, fruity, raisin-like character” but I will stick my neck out here and disagree. Since I don’t particularly like raisins (please pass the currants, thank you very much), I feel qualified to say that the fruit here is much too bright and vigorous to be compared to raisins as regards taste. Perhaps it was true for previous vintages, or perhaps the point is in reference to the particular method, called ripasso, used in the vinification which involves drying a portion of the grapes.
Having sampled many dark, inky, saturated reds lately it was a comforting surprise to pour a glass of the 2007 Fattoria dei Barbi Morellino di Scansano and see a clear, very slightly brick-tinted color. The nose offered strawberry jam and dried autumn leaf aromas followed by dried cherry flavors on the palate. Structured, restrained and somewhat lean, it performed one of those magical transformations in the glass that keep us wanting to fill them. Enjoyed with some fairly spicy food and a pungent blue cheese, the fruit seemed to become fuller and richer.
Ah, Lagrein! I tasted it first a few years ago at a trade tasting where I usually approach the tables of wines from the Alto Adige, the northernmost region of Italy, looking forward to a range of complex, excellent, and delicious whites, which might include a Pinot Bianco, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Gewürztraminer, even a Müller Thürgau. But this time I noticed the red at the end of the table, and quite frankly fell in love. That time it was from the producer Tiefenbrunner. Just recently I had the 2006 Lagrein Gries Riserva from Cantina Terlano and was also enchanted. A rich, inviting nose of mocha and blackberry, with satisfying fruit, acidity and tannin in harmonious equilibrium. This is a wine that might be called generous as well as graceful with the flavors expanding on the finish.
Going from the very north to a warmer island, I also recently drank the 2009 Argiolas Perdera from Sardinia. This is made primarily from the monica grape and is a fruity, earthy wine highlighted with a peppery spice and really just fun to drink.