I’ve always been a fan of Italian wines. In fact, previous to my career as a wine writer, I visited the bucolic country, soaking up every ounce of wine (and pasta) I could find. But at that time I sipped without understanding or truly appreciating the vast diversity of the great country’s regions, native grapes, and winemaking methods. So the chance to learn from the highly acclaimed wine editor and critic, Daniele Cernilli — aka “DoctorWine” — was a most welcome one. Last week I had the chance to do just that at the San Francisco Wine School.
About Daniele Cernilli: “DoctorWine” doesn’t just have one claim to fame, but many. He started as a journalist, writing about wine for newspapers and magazines. In 1986, he co-founded his own magazine, Gambero Rosso, which eventually went on to publish an annual Italian Wine Guide, becoming the most influential wine guide in Italian culture.
He’s written a number of books including Memorie di un degustatore di vini (Memories of a Wine Taster, which chronicles his first 25 years as a taster) and Vitigni del Mondo (World Wine Grapes, considered the most complete catalog of wine grapes published in Italy).
He continues to write for a multitude of Italian outlets and acts as an expert resource for other journalists in the industry, in addition to teaching professional wine courses at the Città del Gusto (Taste City) as well as wine tasting and sensory analysis for the Italian Sommeliers’ Association (AIS). He also continues annually publishing The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine. This year, 2017, celebrates the first time the English version has been released in the US.
About the Event:
DoctorWine gave us an overview of 5 of the main wine producing regions of Italy — Friuli, Le Marche, Tuscany, Sicily, and Piedmont — detailing the difference in geography, soil, and climate and what that means in regards to the grapes grown and winemaking methods. We had a series of 8 different wines to help us familiarize ourselves with the typical expressions of each region.
To keep things simple (though DoctorWine’s book goes into much more detail), one can break Italy into sections: the northern or continental section and the Italian peninsula, each of which can then be broken up between the east and west sides.
Friuli Venezia Giulia
On the east side of northern Italy, where we find Friuli, “considered one of Italy’s most prestigious winemaking regions,” says DoctorWine — especially when it comes to white wine. Indeed, the most common varietals found here are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Friulano — a white wine grape indigenous to Italy, remotely related to the Sauvignon family. According to the good Doctor, the most important regions of Friuli are those that border Slovenia where there are two major DOC appellations, Collio Gorizian and Colli Friulani.
The first wine we tasted was a 100% Friulano from Torre Rosazza, which is located in the Colli Friulani DOC. Here, the climate tends to mimic that of neighboring Slovenia, with temperatures that can get quite warm in the summer and cold in the winter, but (as I understand it) is overall moderate enough to allow for the proper maturation of the indigenous Friulano grape. The 2016 Friulano presented by Torre Rosazza emitted a light to medium straw color and aromas of stone fruits along with light floral notes. The palate, to me, is incomparable to anything we have here in America — notes of raw almond, the texture was quite smooth, soft, with just a delicate line of acid overarching, and a somewhat bitter-green finish. Surprisingly fresh, it’s a wine that, if you haven’t had before, I recommend seeking out.
Moving down the peninsula, still on the east side, we hit Le Marche. To quote DoctorWine, “Marche wines are very different from each other and are particulalry tied to specific territorial realities.” Indeed, it seems that Mother Nature carved out this section of Italy for the sole purpose of wine: Vast valleys and Adriatic rivers comb throughout the region, creating perfect pockets for vineyards. Our case study for this region was 100% Pecorino from Velenosi Vini (2016 vintage), hailing from a fairly new DOCG appellation Offida Pecorino — a cool, seaside region. I don’t want to give you tasting notes for everything I tried (that would make this re-cap much too long, though I’ll continue to mention the personal highlights), but I will stop to mention here an interesting fact. Pecorino is a type of cheese made from sheep’s milk. Pecorino — a white grape variety — is so named because sheep like to eat them. (Well, I thought it was funny).
“In his Italian Journey, Goethe saw Sicily as the clue to everything. While he was referring to ancient civilization, the same could be applied to the world of wine.” – Daniele Cernilli, The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017 (335)
Traveling to the island of Sicilia (located in the south eastern corner of Italy), we find a wine region considered one of the “homelands of Italian wine,” producing over six million hectoliters a year. While there are several DOC’s throughout the island, it is only recently that Sicily itself has been recognized as a regional DOC, encompassing the overall production. With its diverse geography — probably the most famous being the dormant volcano Mt. Etna — and it’s status as an island (indeed, most vineyards are coastal), Sicily boasts a diverse terroir, producing common native varieties such as Grillo (our sample for the day was the 2016 100% Grillo from Feudo Maccari) and Nero d’Avolo. Less common native grapes include Catarratto, Grecanico, Inzolia, Frappato, and Perricone.
Moving back up the peninsula on the west side, we hit Tuscany, where 95% of wine production is classified. There are 11 DOCG classified wines, the most popular being Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti, and Chianti Classico. Tuscany has an extremely wide variety of microclimates ranging from Mediterranean-like climates along the coastal zone, which to no surprise comprises mostly of sandy and chalky soils; to the dual continental-Mediterranean climate of central Tuscany which is home to the famed Montalcino wine region. But our focus was on Chianti Classico — a diverse DOCG that is split between clay-based soils to the south and limestone soils to the north. Here, Sangiovese is the primary grape grown. So our taste of the region was a 100% Sangiovese Chianti Classico from Querciabella who has vineyards on both the north and south sides, the combination of which created an overall well-rounded and, well, classic Chianti Classico.
As we go back north and a bit east, we hit Veneto, which itself can (again) be broken up by east and west. The western section, closer to the gulf is said to have more “local” varieties, while the east grows more “international” varieties.
The wine we tried was the Secco Vintage Verona IGT 2013 from GB Bertani, made from grapes hailing from the Soave region of Verona, located in the north-eastern part of Veneto. Here, the region is heavily influenced by mists flowing in from the Po Valley, but the area as a whole enjoys an overall mild climate. Most vineyards are planted along the hills, which contain predominantly clay loam soils.
The Cav GB Bertani’s Secco Vintage Verona IGT 2013 was made from 80% different varieties of Corvina, 10% Sangiovese Grosso, 5% Syrah and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Something unique, and undeniably a defining factor in the tasting, was the winemaker’s choice to age the blend in combination walnut and cherry barrels. A bright, ruby red in the glass, the wine emitted aromas of brown sugar, molasses, and plump black cherries, plums, unsweetened cocoa, and pine. The palate was surprisingly smooth, with a full, round body and a flavor reminiscent of trail mix. The tannins were solid, yet purposeful, the acid powerful, but balanced. This was probably by far my favorite wine of the day. At $27, I probably should have bought a bottle…
Last but not least, Piedmont, defined by its location at the foothills of the Alps. In fact, the name Piedmont (for those who know their romance languages), is a direct reference to those foot hills. The Alps are what separate the region from France and Switzerland; The Apennines to the south, divide it from Italy’s own Liguria. Surrounded on all sides by land, the climate is predominantly continental in nature, according to DoctorWine, most akin to what one would find in the Rhone Valley of France. But because Piedmont sits amongst these mountainscapes, it contains hilly areas that descend toward the Po River Valley at its center, and vineyards are often found deep into these valleys. It’s that craggy-mountain terroir combined with the entrapment of those valley depths that must (in my opinion) give the wines here their utter rusticity.
Tasting through two separate Borolos when studying the Piedmont region there was absolutely no lack of that rusticity in the glass. But the one that struck me most was the so-named “Multi-Single-Vineyard Borolo” from Pio Cesare who took grapes from Serralunga d’alba, la Morra, and Grinzane Cavour sub-regions of Piedmont. Read: there’s a little from here and a little from there. The combination of the different vineyard sites crafted a beautifully elegant expression of what (especailly this young in my opinion) can be a harsh grape. The 2013 “Multi-Single-Vineyard Borolo” from Pio Cesare, showed a cohesive blend of bold fruit flavors, suede-like tannins, and lingering sweet tobacco or cigar-like finish. Though drinkable now, this wine also emits a promise — with age, this wine will be the smooth romantic wine one associates with amore d’Italia.
Clearly I still have a lot to learn. I can only outline the information I grasped and the wines I tasted. Good thing I got a copy of DoctorWine’s book. I think I’m going to need it!
More Info: For more information about DoctorWine, his book, and other writings, please visit the DoctorWine website. For more information about the San Francisco Wine School, their list of programs, workshops, and events, please visit the SF Wine School Website. And finally cheers to Allison Levine of Please the Palate for inviting me to this fun and informative event.
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