Vinitaly happens once a year in Verona. It’s a cross between the World’s Fair and wine with a lot of P. T. Barnum thrown in. An Italian friend calls it planned chaos. Getting in every day is an exercise in patience. In my early days I rented a car and drove, creeping along in nightmare traffic only to park in a neighborhood where I would later find a ticket on the windshield every day. Experience taught me I didn’t need the car and I started taking a shuttle directly to the front door.
The place is huge with 12 buildings, some with multiple floors. You have to plan your appointments near each other or you will never make it from one to the next in time. Every minute is used, with a quick stop for an espresso now and then. Dinners are at wineries in the area or in the myriad restaurants in the city with suppliers. There’s never a dull moment. I love it.
There is always the search for new wines and wineries. Paul Quaglini, our Italian wine specialist, and I went after wines from regions where we don’t currently have anything, but where there are good, if relatively unknown, wines.
We concentrated on the Adriatic Coast regions of Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Abruzzo. Emilia-Romagna is known more for its variations of Lambrusco in the western part of the region. The east, closer to the coast is all about Sangiovese. We had a good meeting with an estate owner who grows Sangiovese at high altitude. It’s a different animal from the wines on the Tuscan side of the Apennines. Grown at relatively high elevation, the wines develop bright red fruit notes carried on firm structure.
South of Emilia-Romagna is the region of Marche. The region edges up to the sea along steep cliffs where the sea breeze cools the vines. In a typical piece of Italian logic, the Montepulciano variety in Marche cannot be called that as neighboring Abruzzo registered the name as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Producers there make red blends and mono-varietal wines from the variety with names like Rosso Piceno. Verdicchio is the dominant white variety. Visits with two suppliers showed promise and we will review the wines soon.
Abruzzo borders Marche on the south and is similar in terrain with cliffs rising above the sea and mountain villages built for defense in times when war and brigands were common. The vineyards are relatively close to the sea but at elevation. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the flagship red, while Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is the most common white. A rosé from Montepulciano is called Cerasuolo locally, another term that makes Italian wines either confusing or interesting. Paul and I visited two producers who look interesting in availability and price, and we will get samples to review with the rest of our team.
The rest of the show was spent in visiting old producer friends to taste their new vintages and wines–Fernando and Giovanni Catani of La Calonica in Montepulciano and Cortona were the first stop. (In another Italianism, Montepulciano is a town in Tuscany, not a grape variety.) It’s always an enjoyable visit with them and we have had their wines for more than a decade. Nearby we visited La Gerla to taste the Brunello and a new wine from a recently leased vineyard bordering part of La Gerla’s property. A mad dash through the rest of three days allowed us to work in Giorgi in Lombardy, Racemi in Puglia, Pepi Lignana in the Maremma of Tuscany, Giovanna Tantini in Bardolino, Collalto in Conegliano – Valdobbiadene, Tenuta Pepe in Campania, Rainoldi in Valtellina and La Ripa and Poggerino in Chianti Classico. All of them have been solid and respected partners of ours.
We couldn’t go to Italy and be that close to vineyards and not see something new and interesting. We have had the wines of Santa Maria La Palma on Sardegna (Sardinia) for several years now and took the offer to visit. It’s a trek to get there. We left Verona after the show on the last day and took a train to Milan, a bus to Linate Airport, flew to the island and drove to the hotel in Alghero. Alghero, on the northwest corner of the island, was a Catalan colony in one of its many epochs and still maintains a relationship with Spain. The local dialect is a variant of Catalan.
Vermentino is grown all over the island and varies in style by the terroir. Much of it is enjoyed locally with the seafood from the surrounding waters. La Palma’s Aragosta is the entry level and shows the bright apple and quince notes with refreshing acidity. The label even has a lobster. Most reds are from Cannonau, a local variant of Grenache Noir. Rumor has it that drinking Cannonau will lengthen your life but it may have as much to do with the laid-back lifestyle and seafood of Sardegna. After tasting the wines and visiting the winery and vineyards, our hosts took us on a tour of their part of the island. It made the trek there worthwhile. The coastline is precipitous, surrounded by some of the bluest water on the planet. An underwater national park borders the northwest corner and is home to a specific type of red coral. Keep an eye out for a new cuveé of Vermentino coming soon.
Flying to Pisa the next morning we had a clear view of Corsica to the north. Alberto Passeri picked us up there and drove us to La Gerla in Montalcino. La Gerla’s wines have been highly rated for years and it was a pleasure to see it finally.
The winery sits just below the town and part of the vineyards is there with the rest on a slope facing northwest several miles away. The blend allows for diversity in the wines. We have the Brunello Riserva gli Angeli, Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino and a red I.G.T., Birba. For dinner Alberto brought a 1991 Brunello and 1990 Birba. Straight from the cellar, they were showing beautifully with little sign of age.
Alberto took us to the train station the next morning and we rode to Naples where we were met and taken south to Tenuta Cavalier Pepe in Campania. Cousins Melina and Michele took us on a tour of the vineyards and winery. This is a place to see and worth the effort to get there. The vineyards are in the communes of Luogosano, Sant’Angelo all’Esca and Taurasi, and the grapes are the local varieties: Falanghina and Greco di Tufo for the whites and Aglianico
for the reds. These are unique and affordable wines worth trying. The whites are the local match for the seafood just off the coast. Taurasi from Aglianico is the top red and is limited in quantity by the laws and size of the appellation. We only get a small amount for the year so don’t miss it when it’s in.
Melina took us on a walking tour the next day and we experienced something Paul and I had never seen. Historically, vineyards had been planted in pergole, grape arbors that train the vines in a canopy overhead. Many of the vines were 200+ years old and still producing. One last dinner with Melina and Michele wrapped up a memorable visit and we were off for home the next day.
Brad Lewis, Direct of Wine Sales
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