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What’s the next big thing in Italian fine wine?

Looking beyond the country's fine wine heartlands, Jim Clarke introduces five Italian regions where savvy collectors might find some exciting discoveries for the cellar

Words by Jim Clarke

Michele Faro of pietradolce holding a bottle of etna wine
The Collection
Pietradolce founder Michele Faro, who is confident that his old-vine Etna wines will stand the test of time

Italian wine is no stranger to idiosyncrasy, and even Italy’s most classic wine regions don’t lack for standout producers that buck tradition. Similarly, regions that seem to offer little of note at first glance are often home to an isolated genius whose wines point to an otherwise untapped potential.

‘I think something that could be very helpful for people to do is check out the iconic wine from one specific region,’ says Giorgio Mulato, head sommelier at London restaurant Locanda Locatelli. ‘I was thinking, for example, of Argiolas’s Turriga. Sardinia is not extremely famous, but that wine shows that Sardinia can produce wines that age very well.’ While many Sardinian wines might be suitable for a Tuesday night or youthful drinking, the Turriga actually suits collecting, and it benefits from time in the cellar.

But not all such genius is so isolated, and in some of these regions a handful of producers have been able to tap into the terroir’s potential, giving a hint of what’s to come as their neighbours and peers take heed.

‘It’s unbelievable how long many of these wines age, but because they’re not in the more travelled wine areas of Italy, they are less known,’ says Shelley Lindgren, owner of the A16 restaurant in San Francisco and co-author of Italian Wine: The History, Regions, and Grapes of an Iconic Wine Country. ‘But they are already becoming harder to get.’

Here is a handful of regions at the tipping point; in each of them, at least a cluster of producers has planted the flag and demonstrated the region’s potential for complex, age-worthy wines. Better yet – their peers are nipping at their heels.

Five Italian fine wine regions to have on the radar

valtellina vineyard
Sandro Fay in mountainous Valtellina is 'producing wines meant for the long haul'

Valtellina: Nebbiolo at altitude

Nebbiolo is so closely tied to Piedmont and, in particular, to Barolo and Barbaresco, that it’s often surprising to find it elsewhere; perhaps that’s why it goes under a pseudonym, Chiavennasca, in Valtellina. There, it produces lighter wines that, given the grape variety, drink so well in their youth, people often forget they can age with grace and elegance.

‘I’ve had lots of older Valtellina wines, and because Nebbiolo (or Chiavennasca) is so high in acid and also in tannin, just like Barolo and Barbaresco, they age, but in different ways,’ says Lindgren. ‘They have a bit more of an alpine character. Just because those wines have a bit more expression typically in their youth, it doesn’t mean they’re any less age-worthy.’

While Piedmont’s most famous vineyards drape themselves over rolling foothills, Valtellina is straight out mountainous and lies further north, parallel to Geneva in latitude. Had the Adda River not carved out the valley into a giant amphitheatre facing south into the sun, the region would never be warm enough to ripen Nebbiolo at all.

With prices rising for Barolo on one side and Amarone on the other, Valtellina is poised to attract fans of both wines

Lindgren calls out two producers in particular – Sandro Fay and ArPePe – for producing wines meant for the long haul. ArPePe even holds back some of these wines for release more than a decade after the vintage, and it’s not difficult to find 20-year-old wines without resorting to the secondary market. Both producers focus on highlighting vineyards within specified subzones of the region: for ArPePe, it’s Sassella, Grumello and Inferno; for Sandro Fay, it’s Sassella and Valgella.

For Marco Vuono, co-owner of the Terra Vino wine bar in Sondrio town, in the centre of Valtellina, wines from specified subregions tend to be more intended for ageing, highlighting Sassella’s cellaring potential, in particular. The subzone has a great number of old-vine blocks, and that, together with the stony soils (sasso means ‘stone’ in Italian), creates more structured wines without sacrificing that alpine character.

While Valtellina has borrowed a grape variety from the province to its west, the region also embraces a winemaking practice made famous in the Veneto, to the southeast. There, Amarone produces one of Italy’s classic wines by drying the grapes on mats before fermentation. In Valtellina, this technique yields what are called sfursat wines. According to Vuono, these wines, while more generous and round in their youth, don’t hold up as well as the single-zone Valtellinas in the longer term. In any case, with prices rising for Barolo on one side and Amarone on the other, Valtellina is poised to attract fans of both wines.

bolgheri grape sorting
With prices for the Super-Tuscan pioneers at an all-time high, many collectors are turning their attentions to younger Bolgheri estates like Argentiera

Bolgheri: staying super

Unlike the other regions mentioned here, Bolgheri is certainly home to some of Italy’s most famous wines; however, for some, it remains an area where individual producer names trump regional identity. After all, wines like Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Le Macchiole were better known as Super-Tuscans than as wines specific to this oceanside corner of Tuscany when they first made their names. But for those who love an Italianate touch on classic international varieties, the region has proven it merits more detailed attention.

‘Here in London, a lot of people have started following other Bolgheri names,’ says Mulato. ‘These days I have people who ask me, “Which vintage of Argentiera do you have?” for example.’ Argentiera is one of several properties that date back to the turn of the millennium and have, in the past two decades, proved that the area is truly a wine region and not just home to a handful of idiosyncratic outliers. Podere Sapaio, Poggio al Tesoro and Campo alla Sughera all celebrated their first vintages in that same era.

Bordeaux-style blends, perhaps supplemented with a portion of Syrah, remain the core of Bolgheri’s offerings, though Tuscany’s most-planted grape – Sangiovese – makes an appearance occasionally. Single-variety wines, often from single vineyards, have become increasingly common, rounding out each cellar’s flagship blends. Argentiera’s Ventaglio, Poggio al Tesoro’s Dedicato a Walter and Le Macchiole’s Paleo Rosso all show the potential for Cabernet Franc in the area; in light of climate change, the grape is taking a more prominent role in blends as well, generally at the expense of Merlot.

Argentiera wine barrels
'Single-variety wines, often from single vineyards, have become increasingly common'

While these younger brands have established their place in the Tuscan landscape, the region’s pioneers have at the same time grown and matured. Appropriately to their grape varieties, they’ve often looked to Bordeaux as their models, including the production of second-label wines from younger vines or vineyard blocks whose grapes don’t match with the stylistic needs of the flagship wine. And as in Bordeaux, some of these wines have taken on their own identity.

‘I’m seeing the second wines of Bolgheri becoming quite collectable,’ says Laurence Walker, buyer at Hedonism, in London. ‘I see Guidalberto and Le Serre Nuove being offered on the secondary market, and we’ve bought quite a lot of older vintages of those. They’ve got the main brand [in this case Sassicaia and Ornellaia, respectively] behind them, but in principle they’re lesser wines that people are nonetheless now thinking of in terms of cellaring, putting away and investing in.’

Marco Caprai
According to Marco Caprai of Arnaldo Caprai, one of the leading lights in Montefalco, careful consideration and investment has gone into softer extraction techniques to achieve long-term balance in its intense Sagrantino reds

Montefalco Sagrantino: Umbria’s powerhouse wine

Umbria lies at the heart of the Italian peninsula, and through that heart runs a wine darker than blood: Montefalco Sagrantino. Sagrantino is often described as the most tannic grape in the world, but Marco Caprai, proprietor of Arnaldo Caprai, one of the leading producers in the DOCG, says there’s more to it than tannins. ‘In 1991 we started to work with the oenologist Attilio Pagli, and he asked us to send some grape samples to a lab in Poggibonsi, in Tuscany. After four or five days, we had no reply, so I called. They said, “Our machine has a problem. All the grapes we’ve ever sampled before have had less than 3,000mg/l of polyphenols, and the samples you sent are reading at over 7,000.” It seemed impossible, but today we know it’s normal.’ Polyphenols mean not just tannins but antioxidants as well, and they affect flavour, texture and, potentially, astringency.

The challenge with Sagrantino, therefore, isn’t making sure it has the structure to last; it’s making sure the concentration of fruit can express itself when the wine is young and not fade before the tannins and polyphenols integrate into the wine. For the last three decades, the region’s leading producers – the likes of Caprai, Paolo Bea and Antonelli – have been rethinking their winemaking approach to tame the polyphenols and coax more expression out of Sagrantino, with great success. Wines like Caprai’s 25 Anni, Paolo Bea’s Cerrete and Antonelli’s Molino dell’Attone demonstrate the top end of these wines, capturing Sagrantino’s iron fist in a much-needed velvet glove.

Leading producers are coaxing more expression out of Sagrantino

Caprai’s latest technical advance comes from famed consultant Michel Rolland, who began working for Caprai eight years ago. Rolland introduced a technique called vinification intégrale, in which the grapes are fermented inside barriques; the grape skins and other solids remain submerged within the wine for the entire fermentation, rather than forming a cap at the top. The result is a very soft extraction that ‘allows us to obtain rounder wines with greater volume, fatness and complexity,’ Caprai says, as well as with a more defined aromatic expression and a silkier finish.

Sagrantino’s powerful character may be slightly out of fashion at the moment, but Mulato says now may be the time to buy. ‘I would stay with the top-quality Sagrantinos for investment, probably spending £50 or more for a bottle; then you can be sure that in 15 or 20 years’ time the wine will still be alive and perhaps the demand will have exploded’ – that’s when, Mulato predicts, powerful, full-bodied wines will have come back into fashion.

aglianico grapes at Colli di Castelfranci in Taurasi
Winemaker Sabino Colucci has returned from his international wine travels to the family estate, Colli di Castelfranci, and is on a mission to raise the profile of Aglianico for the entire Taurasi region

Taurasi: taming the tannins

Campania’s inland district of Irpinia offers a surprising contrast to visitors accustomed to the hot, noisy streets of Naples or the luxury and warmth of the Amalfi Coast. It’s a greener, more forested and less touristy version of Tuscany, with rugged mountains, narrow valleys and scattered vineyards. At the heart of the region, ungrafted 200-year-old vines – so large they resemble trees more than vines – provide grapes destined for Campania’s most cellarable wine: Taurasi.

‘In Taurasi you have extremely age-worthy wines,’ says Lindgren. ‘I’m thinking back to the 1934 vintage of Mastroberardino’s Radici; it’s unbelievable how long these wines can age.’ Taurasi’s reputation long rested on the Mastroberardino family, which split in 1994; Piero Mastroberardino retained the name and winery, while his brother Paolo kept the vineyards, building his own brand, Terredora di Paolo. Both continue to make wines that can age and evolve for decades.

Describing Taurasi as the ‘Barolo of the south’ is a well-worn cliché, and indeed both wines sport the tannins and acidity that lend themselves to powerful reds that reward cellaring. However, Aglianico produces a much darker-fruited wine than Nebbiolo, and a depth of colour that the latter rarely achieves. In terms of winemaking, Taurasi never underwent the highly public, dialectical ‘war’ between traditionalists and Winemaker Sabino Colucci has returned from his international wine travels to the family estate, Colli di Castelfranci, and is on a mission to raise the profile of Aglianico for the entire Taurasi region modernists that pushed Barolo into the public consciousness. Nor has it cultivated a system of recognised ‘crus’, though many producers make single-vineyard wines.

‘I’m thinking of the 1934 Radici; it’s unbelievable how long these wines can age’ – Shelley Lindgren

That’s not to say the area lacks innovators. Former jockey Luigi Tecce returned to his family property in 1997 with a focus on vineyard practices that brought out a very pure expression of Taurasi; regrettably, a few years ago he grew exasperated with the bureaucracy of the DOCG and has chosen to bottle recent vintages under the looser rules of the Irpinia IGT. The winemaking continues unchanged. Other producers, like Boccella and Fratelli Addimanda, have had similar success while staying within the Taurasi DOCG.

The past decade has seen the appearance of a number of small wineries, typically multigenerational farms where a new, younger cohort has taken charge. For example, in 2016, Sabino Colucci returned to his family’s Colli di Castelfranci after studying and working vintages in Australia and Bordeaux; he also consults for I Falco and Antonio Molettieri. At all three, Colucci has shortened maceration time to better control extraction and the tannin levels of the wine, an approach that he thinks will help lead Taurasi to fulfil its potential. He says the growth of single-vineyard wines and the explosion of small producers make it an exciting time for Taurasi.

pietradolce wines in etna
Pietradolce specialises in old-vine sites on the slopes of Etna

Etna Rosso: the active volcano of the Italian wine world

There’s an innate sense of drama to wines that originate on the slopes of an active volcano. At the turn of the millennium, Etna’s old-vine vineyards – planted with, most notably, the local grape varieties Nerello Mascalese for reds and Catarratto for whites – began attracting forward-thinking winemakers and investment from the likes of US importer Marco di Grazia (Tenuta delle Terre Nere), Tuscany’s Andrea Franchetti (Passopisciaro) and locals like Michele Faro (Pietradolce), all joining stalwarts like Benanti in bringing the volcanic wines to greater attention.

Many of the older vineyards pre-date phylloxera and therefore grow on their own roots, a rarity in a world where grafting to American rootstocks is a necessity. ‘The older, pre-phylloxera vines result in tons of character, quality and ageing potential, much more so than the younger vineyards,’ says Faro. Pietradolce specialises in these sites, sourcing seven of their ten wines from them. The old vines produce far less fruit, but with much greater concentration of flavour – 1 to 2kg of fruit per vine compared to 6 to 8kg for younger vines, according to Faro.

It helps that the resulting wines also suit current tastes. ‘For people who like Burgundy and the northern Rhône – medium- bodied, aromatic wines – Etna is where we’re directing them now,’ says Walker. ‘Burgundy prices have jumped up quite a lot, and we’re telling them, “Hey, you can get something similar over here at a much better price, and it still has its own identity.”’

‘They can be forgotten in the cellar for 15 years with no problems’ – Michele Faro

Since many of the area’s leading producers are relatively new, establishing a track record for cellaring can be challenging. Lindgren says Benanti’s library of older wines, both red and white, proves that Etna’s wines can stand the test of time.

Pietradolce’s first vintage was 2007, but Faro is confident that the wines will not just hold up, but also evolve. ‘They can be forgotten in the cellar for 15 years with no problems,’ he says. ‘Young, you can enjoy red-fruit aromas, and after three or four years you start to see more roundness, finesse and a velvety texture. I see the vineyards on the northern slopes providing more finesse and more ageing potential; the southern slopes have more character when they’re young, but they have less potential for ageing.’

Mulato says they’ve begun buying Etna wines to cellar at their depot in Leeds, destined to appear on the list years from now. If the Burgundian comparisons weren’t convincing enough, Lindgren points out the continued development of the contrada system, which is attempting to map and evaluate the vineyards all across Etna. ‘There were 133 contrade on Etna,’ she says, ‘and they recently added nine more. They’re parcelling it out like they have in Barolo and Burgundy, really showing how site-specific Etna Rosso can be.’