Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Fortunes of the Times - Great Italian Vintages from the “Noughties” - 2012-2016

Frequent readers already know this little secret – Italy is in a full-blown Golden Age for wine. Never have we seen more great wine coming out of this land once called Oenotria. After thousands of years, we have arrived to the Promised Land. And the last five vintages have bestowed a largess upon wine lovers almost to the point of excess. Before one thinks this a protestation, let’s examine our collective fortune.

While on this last trip to Italy, covering Tuscany and Piedmont with a dollop of Vinitaly in the middle, we tasted through many wines from these five vintages from 2012 to 2016.

2012 – The new and current release for Brunello di Montalcino. Tasting through wines from La Gerla, La Fiorita, Barbi, Casanova di Neri, Renieri, Fuligni and Le Chiuse I recorded a lot of “Wow!” in my tasting notes. Look, one doesn’t need to read this blog to know the producers in Montalcino are pumped up about the 2012 vintage. Other producers, other wines, Marchesi Pancrazi’s Pinot Noir and Selvapiana’s Pomino, Felsina’s Rancia, Badia a Coltibuono’s Riserva, even Losi-Querciavalle’s regular Chianti Classico impressed. Common threads, for me, were power with balance, tannin for a healthy spine-life and gorgeous fruit. And that’s just Tuscany. Notes for 2012 red wines from the Marche region, from Piedmont and the Veneto (Amarone) presented this taster with high marks. This is a solid vintage for cellar-worthy reds. I already own a cache of Barolo, Barbaresco and Chianti Classico wine and suggest anyone who takes my words seriously to buy in now. The excitement over new vintages (like the 2013 in Piedmont) often leaves the previous vintage in a limbo state. There are some good values to be had.

2013 – Four days in Piedmont, after Vinitaly, which bordered on a death-march, nonetheless produced notes of astonishment. 2013 is the current (and new) release for Barolo, and the producers we saw were showing wines that had grip, warmth, openness, freshness and lots of energy/tension/balance. Among the wineries we tasted were Burlotto, Massolino, Pio Cesare, Rocche Costamagna, Renato Ratti, Conterno Fantino and Carlo Revello. There is a plethora of enthusiasm for 2013, and rightfully so. If you read in the old books about Barolo being a tannic wine (and not the tannins of the barrels) and like me, have labored to detect those tannins (having grown up drinking Napa Valley red wines from the 1970’s), 2013 display and confirm that Nebbiolo indeed can be tannic. Again, great for the long-haul, great to put in the cellar and wait 20 years for the wines to blossom. Note to anyone under 40: this vintage is for you, not for the Silverbacks in the audience.

2014 - What can I say that I didn’t say last week? Choose classic producers; do not forsake Barbaresco (or Etna) in this vintage. Find the producers who knew what to do with the swirling weather and the unending blather from the naysayers. There are some lovely wines, and not just reds. Umani Ronchi’s Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico Superiore Vecchie Vigne, Bucci’s Verdicchio Classico Riserva "Villa Bucci" DOCG, both from the Marche and Rivetto’s Nascetta all are worthy white wines for the table.

2015 – It wasn’t the Italians that first clued me into this vintage, it was Burgundy. And yes, there are those experts who don’t see Burgundy in 2015 as a great overall vintage. But what it did to me was shoot off a flare. And then I tasted the 2015’s in the Langhe, you know the simple Nebbiolo wines and I said to myself, “Wow!” Yeah. All the reds, the Dolcetto, Barbera, Freisa, Pelaverga, mesmerized me. These wines were rich and fruity and fresh. And yes, in the youth of a wine, those are attractive, even seductive. But after they slough off their baby fat, will there be any there – there? If the Nebbiolo I tasted, many of them, are any indication, this is another round-tripper. I said to myself, “when have I seen such a run of the bases in Italy? Four years, some great wines, and not just from Piedmont or Tuscany?” Yeah, I was talking to myself a bunch, wishing I was a wee bit younger, to be able to really enjoy the 2015’s from Barolo and Barbaresco when they have 10-20 years of aging. But I’ve had great exposure to great vintages in the last 50 years, so no real bellyaching from me. Just a slight bit of jealousy for the millennials (and the Gen-X’ers) who will see these wines in full bloom. Tasting notes with words like fragrant, delicate, powerful, rich, not heavy, delicious, intense. Yes, the producers were a small sampling, not like one would find at the vintage tasting they hold in the Langhe. But what I saw and tasted really made an impression. So, save room in your cellar for these wines, and also for Burgundies as well (hey, if the new French president can admit one of his favorite composers is Rossini, we can show some love to our French wine cousins. They’ve earned it).

Which leads us to 2016 - So far, the whites and rosé wines have been bottled. The reds are still in barrel, Inox or concrete.

The 2016 whites and rosé wines that have been bottled are exactly what they’re supposed to be: crisp, fresh, fruity and lively. Italians drink them to shred the long, dark winter months from their metaphysical frames. Americans are starting to adapt a similar mien. It might be too soon to anticipate greatness from the white wines in Italy that have staying power. But for now, the youthful entries are refreshing and delicious.

The 2016 reds are still in process. So how can one tell how great the great red wines will be from that vintage? Again, I will draw from my French cousins in evaluating them, something I learned from going to Bordeaux En Primeur time and again, tasting hundreds of wine from the same vintage, day after day. Some people say it is impossible to evaluate by tasting such young, tannic, fruit-forward wines. But walk a mile in those shoes and it is clear one can come to some relatively accurate conclusions as to the depth and width (and greatness) of a vintage. And in the case of 2016 in Italy, there is a lot of enthusiasm for the quality of the vintage. The barrels I tasted from in Tuscany and Piedmont kept giving me notes like “not overly extracted,” “rich, expansive flavors,” “nice grip with respect to the tannins,” “very smooth” and “unencumbered.” Look, we still have many miles to go before release (and many promises still to keep). While the ‘13’s, ‘14’s and ‘15’s unfold the 2016 will eventually cycle into the order of business. But I believe this vintage will be welcomed by wine lovers looking to store wine in their closets until they come of age.

All this to say that the last five years we have seen unprecedented return from the great vineyards of Italy - and not just the usual suspects from Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto. This Golden Age has been crowned in the 21st century and now in the twenty-tens (or the “noughties”) we have before us five admirable vintages, with unique strengths - not all appearing the same - but full of promise.

It really doesn’t get any better than this.

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