Italian wines generate huge profits in the U.S., partly due to our fascination with their food and the quality of their wine. There are times when one has to travel to Italy to find their great wines, other times they come to you.
February always brings the L.A. Italian Wine Gala, targeting mainly clientele from the restaurant industry and affording wine writers an opportunity to be in on the front end of trends in waiting, experiencing wines that will end up on tables in fine Italian eateries. Aside from tasting new, typically bold Italian red wines, my major takeaways evolved from the discovery of new grapes like negroamaro, cannonau, and prosecco, the odds on favorite to become part of the trendy L.A. lifestyle.
Held annually at Valentino’s Ristorante, Santa Monica’s icon of Italian cuisine, the 2011 Italian Gala featured fewer wineries and guests, a sign that the economy worldwide is still struggling. Non-sparkling white wines, for my tastes, were also struggling, leaving the more obscure Italian reds to peak my interest. Keep in mind; the exceptional Tuscan blends that have standing reservations on the major periodical “Top 100” lists are not always featured here. These are mid-priced wines from other regions of the country, vying to be included on restaurant wine lists.
One such wine, Sella & Mosca, Cannonau di Sardegna, DOC 2007, offers a unique story of a famous grape that re-defined itself in the soils of the island of Sardenia. Origins have the Grenache grape arriving on the island with the Spanish dominance during the 14th Century. A few centuries later, the Grenache grape continues to express versatility and uniqueness when grown in the Pioret region of Spain, the Rhone Valley of France or California’s central coast. Illustrating the influence of terrior, the cannonau expressed an earthiness, rare to other Grenache that I have tasted. Jammy on the nose, the finish was long, retaining the earthy flavors throughout. The wine retails for $18 and probably would appear on a restaurant wine list under $30.
Little known Negroamaro is a deep ruby, red grape grown mainly in Salento, the heel of the boot that is Italy. Blended with primotivo, an Italian clone of zinfandel, the Marco Maci, Infinito Rosso Negroamaro, Primitivo, Salento IGT 20005 was the most fruit-forward of the red wines tasted. Surprising fruit and chocolate on the nose was proceeded by a rich, creamy texture with another burst of fruit on the finish. Marco Maci wines appear on many wine lists, a trend that will, without doubt, certainly continue.
Roasts and other red meats are the best food pairing for the Castello di Querceto, Il Picchio, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2007, a Tuscan wine consisting of a hint of canalolo added to the traditional Sangiovese, awarded 90 pts by Wine Spectator magazine. Although very earthy, the wine is well-balanced with a good flavor profile.
Another notable red from the event was the Castello di Fonterutoli, Badiola Toscana IGT 2008, originating from a historic property in the Chianti region of Tuscany. The Mazzei family has produced wines in this area for well over 500 years, yet blending 25% merlot to sangiovese is relatively new, mitigating the traditional earthiness and adding balance. Once again, there were hints of chocolate aromas followed by soft fruit. Surprisingly, I have found their Castello di Fonterutoli Chianto Classico 2005 in a local wine outlet.
The unique Rocca delle Macie, Sasyr Toscana 2007 offers an odd blend from the Tuscan region, pairing Syrah, a southern Rhone French varietal, with Sangiovese, the traditional grape of the classic Chianti. The bouquet of the blend was non-existent, the earthy flavors much bolder.
For those who enjoy a glass of sparkling wine, northeastern Italy may offer a new choice. Prosecco is to Italy what Champagne is to France Grown in appellations in the Veneto region of the country, the prosecco or “qlera” grape, long used to produce the famed “asti spumante”, has been given more respect by producers who have shaped it into a crisp, dry sparkling wine with complex flavors. These improvements and moderate pricing has significantly increased global sales in the past decade.
Tasting prosecco is different from tasting a variety of still wines. As a sparkling wine, the tastes are subtler, almost indistinguishable from each other. Exploring prosecco through three winemakers in the Veneto region was delightfully educational and enabled me to understand appreciate the flavors more.
Well-known winemaker Piera Martellozzo released her Perle di Piera line of moderately priced wines in 2010, the reason they were anxious to introduce them to the Los Angeles market. Her Piera Martellozzo Perle di Piera “Blue Pearl” Proscecco 2010 revealed pears on the nose and very fruit-forward taste. Its smooth accessibility seemed appealing to those looking to augment their wine cellars. My sense is that it will appear in many in the near future.
Producing dry sparkling wines sine the late 1980’s, the Astoria Prosecco Valdobbiadene DOCG Spumante Millesimato 2010 was very well-balanced with tremendous aromas, soft yet full-bodied. Like many from the region, Astoria and other Italian wines carry a DOCG or DOC designation, a quality assurance description tailored after the French AOC. The Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) designation verifies that the wine was produced in a specified region, using defined methods to assure a quality standard. The Denominazione di Origine Cntrollata e Garanita (DOCG) takes the standards process to another level, including government analysis and tasting. Wines carrying these designations are identified by a seal at the neck of bottles holding five litres or less. Always look for the seal and the “black rooster,” denoting quality Chianti Classico from the Tuscan region.
Another sparkling wine producer in the northeast Valdobbiadene region, Belussi was highlighting their Belussi Prosecco DOC, a sweeter wine that is food friendly or can be served as an apéritif. However, the most impressive sparkling wine that I tasted was the Belussi Belcanto Rose’ Cuvee Brut, based from Pinot Noir grapes, expressing great balance with a burst of sweet fruit on the finish. All the prosecco we tasted were clean and refreshing, but the prospect of a sparkling wine effectively utilizing the “heartbreak” grape was irresistible.
There is an abundance of good quality, good value Prosecco available in the Antelope Valley. One outlet carried nearly 15 different sparkling Italian wines, all from Valdobbiadene, including the Nino Franco “Rustica” Prosecco Superior, awarded 90 pt. from wine expert, Robert Parker.
I also found one of their familiar, regularly featured wines locally, fostering a fortunate follow-up connection with the gala. Having just tasted the 2008 vintage at the event, one outlet is offering the Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico, DOCG 2004($24). My notes of the 2008 speak of a typically earthy wine with mineral hints on the nose, followed by a soft finish of bursting fruit. This sounds inviting if I say so myself.
Italy remains the largest source of wines imported into the United States, fending off strong competition from South America, Australia and a declining France, whose historic blends are too expensive and are brilliantly replicated in California. Our continuing love affair with Italian cuisine and the growth in popularity of prosecco has increased our appetites and helped to spur the growth of wine production in many diverse regions.
The L.A. Wine Gala 2001 featured wines from Veneto in the northeast, Salento in the deep south, the islands of Sicily and Sardenia as well as Tuscany. It is an event that continues to foster old partnerships and forge new ones, as the Italian wine production continues to expand. One such collaboration involves my wife and Valentino’s cappuccino, annually described as the best she has ever tasted.