How does one suppose to govern a country with 258 types of cheese, pondered former French president Charles de Gaulle. By extension, one might ask, how does one start to understand the wines of a country that cultivates more than 350 varieties of Vitis vinifera?
Over many centuries, the bulk of France’s wine production became concentrated in a handful of areas, allowing it to be easily exported to consumers around the world. Italy, by contrast, established multifaceted viticultural identities in every one of its diverse regions, with the focus on local consumption. Thus, despite a history of wine growing that stretches back millennia, and despite the sheer volumes harvested (Italy produces around a fifth of the entire world’s wine), vino italiano never enjoyed the global reputation of its near neighbour.
At the same time as France was marketing Bordeaux’s finest Left Bank châteaux in the Classification of 1855, Italy was more preoccupied with battles towards unification. It would be another hundred years before it started to catch up in terms of viticulture and vinification techniques.
And so it was that, exactly a century after Piedmont bullied Italy into unification, a young Angelo Gaja took the reins of the family wine business. A few short years later, Bruno Giacosa began bottling single-vineyard Barbaresco and Barolo, just as Bartolo Mascarello was crafting artisan wines under his father’s watchful tutelage. Soon, Giovanni Conterno was planting vines in a wheatfield in Serralunga d’Alba to continue his grandfather’s creation, Monfortino.
Over in Tuscany, visionary Piero Antinori was planting Cabernet vines on the family’s Chianti estate, while persuading his uncle, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, to release his pet wine project in Bolgheri on to the market. In Montalcino, meanwhile, an insurance broker from Milan was planting vines on his newly acquired land, just over 100 years after Biondi-Santi had adopted the name Brunello.
A multiple 100-point scorer, Masseto is, by some distance, the most expensive of the Super-Tuscans
1971 was Tignanello’s inaugural harvest and the year Sassicaia’s 1968 vintage was released commercially. Four years later, Gianfranco Soldera picked the fruit of his first wine. Soon after, Antinori would create Solaia from an abundant Cabernet harvest while Piero’s brother, Lodovico, was contemplating a new wine project in Bolgheri: Ornellaia’s first vintage was 1985. In 1986, Lodovico parcelled off a varietal wine, Merlot dell’Ornellaia; he renamed it Masseto the following year.
In the late 1970s, across the pond, an ambitious lawyer from Baltimore was publishing the first edition of what would become The Wine Advocate, before a young journalist joined a small San Diego publication called Wine Spectator. Both Robert Parker and James Suckling would bring Italy’s exciting new wave to America’s increasingly adventurous consumers while putting Italy firmly on the international fine wine map. Suddenly, Italian wine was being mentioned in the same breath as the grands vins of France.
Now, almost a half century on, demand for Italy’s most prestigious names is stronger than ever. A new generation of winemakers has taken the helm, harnessing the energy of their pioneering forebears and keeping Italian wine at the forefront of innovation and desirability.
What follows is a list of Italy’s most prestigious names that, while by no means comprehensive, details the wines and producers that are most actively collected, traded and sought after, as well as those that command the highest market prices. Naturally, many growers produce more than one wine that could make a claim for inclusion, but we have selected just the wine for which it is best known.
The list is Tuscany and Piedmont heavy, which reflects the historical power, both political and financial, of these two regions in Italy itself and on the global stage. Furthermore, all of the wines are red, which is undoubtedly a reflection of modern tastes. There are, of course, many notable Italian white wines, but none that makes this list; it is perfectly conceivable this will change in line with shifting tastes. And when all is said and done, we have at least another 340 to choose from…
The superstars of Italian wine
Tenuta San Guido, Sassicaia
Celebrating its 50th anniversary release this year, Sassicaia remains il padrone of all Super-Tuscans and coveted around the globe. The estate is now run and co-owned by founder Mario Incisa della Rocchetta’s granddaughter, Priscilla. The wine is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with roughly 10–15% Cabernet Franc, depending on the vintage. The latest release is the well-regarded 2018, initially offered at £900 in bond per six-bottle case [all prices from Bordeaux Index]. It is now trading slightly above there, and it is not inconceivable that it will continue to appreciate over the coming year, especially once the wine itself is shipped and delivered to customers this autumn.
Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Ornellaia
The inspired creation of Lodovico Antinori, brother of Piero and nephew to Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, Ornellaia is neighbour to Tenuta San Guido and, with Sassicaia and Masseto, sits at Bolgheri’s top table. Since the 2006 vintage, an artist has been invited to create a work based on the harvest and to produce a limited number of specially designed bottles. The wine is a blend of just over half Cabernet Sauvignon and a quarter Merlot, with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in roughly equal measure making up the remainder. The most recent release, the 2017 – ‘a stunning wine,’ according to Antonio Galloni, who awarded it 97 points – appeared on the market last year and is currently offered at £765 in bond per 6 bottle case. The 2018, also given 97 points by Galloni, is due for release shortly.
Once a semi-autonomous state within Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, since 2019, Masseto boasts its own state-of-the-art winery and independent identity. In the space of 30 vintages, it has been awarded no fewer than eight 100-point scores by Antonio Galloni, The Wine Advocate and James Suckling. It is, by some stretch, the most expensive of the Super-Tuscans. Now almost exclusively distributed through the Place de Bordeaux, the 100% Merlot Masseto continues to expand its international audience. The 2017 was released in autumn last year and is currently offered at £1,450 in bond per three-bottle case. The 2018 will come on to the market this September.
Born by accident in 1978, when an excess of Cabernet harvested on Antinori’s Tignanello estate was bottled as a new wine. ‘I am convinced the Solaia vineyard is one of the greatest sites in the world for making wine,’ wrote Antonio Galloni – and recent vintages have borne this out, with two 100-point scores from The Wine Advocate for the 2015 and 2016. The wine is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up three quarters of the blend, with a fifth Sangiovese and the remainder Cabernet Franc. Solaia benefits from extended aging. Like Masseto, it is now distributed in most international markets by the Place de Bordeaux. The 2017 is currently trading at £1,035 (in bond) per six-bottle case. The 2018 will arrive on the market this September.
Piero Antinori’s groundbreaking Sangiovese/Cabernet blend launched in 1978 and has never looked back. After Sassicaia, it is probably the most recognisable Super-Tuscan, and it boasts a celebrity fanbase as diverse as British prime minister Boris Johnson and Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle. With a huge production but consistently high scores from the critics, it was described recently by Galloni as ‘the single greatest high-quality, estate wine made in scale’. The 2017 is the current release, offered for £385 in bond per six-bottle case. The 2018 is due for release shortly.
Gianfranco Soldera, Case Basse, Brunello di Montalcino
One of Italy’s great mavericks, with a maniacal attention to detail, Soldera made unique wines that are now the benchmarks by which others are judged. After a contretemps with the Brunello authorities, the wines are now bottled as IGT Sangiovese Toscana. The 2015 vintage was released last year and is currently offered for £2,600 in bond per six-bottle case. The 2016 should arrive on the market later this year.
Giacomo Conterno, Monfortino, Barolo
Originally conceived a century ago as a blend of the best fruit in Monforte d’Alba by Giovanni Conterno and his son Giacomo, Monfortino has, since 1978, been made exclusively with fruit from Conterno’s Francia vineyard. The 2015 vintage, however, will see a return to its blended roots, with the addition of fruit from the newly acquired Arione cru. Monfortino attracts an almost cult following and is comfortably Italy’s most expensive wine. In 2014, the entire Francia vineyard was given over to Monfortino, just as it was in 2002 and 2013, and is currently offered in the market at £2,400 (in bond) per case of three bottles. And with three back-to-back 100-point scores from Galloni and a 40% reduction in volume, it is likely to become one of the more collectable vintages. The estate will release the 2015 at the end of this year.
Angelo Gaja, Barbareso Sorì San Lorenzo
This was the first of Gaja’s single-vineyard Barbarescos to be bottled separately in 1967, way ahead of its time. Always experimenting and innovating, Angelo Gaja was the loudest advocate for Italy to be taken seriously as a fine wine nation. His remarkable wines have stood up to scrutiny over the years and continue to attract collectors and command high prices. His daughter Gaia, along with her two siblings, is now in charge of day-to-day operations (see profile, p.34), and 2017 is the most recent vintage to appear, offered at £1,985 in bond per six-bottle case. We expect to hear more on the 2018 vintage later in the year.
Bruno Giacosa, Le Rocche del Falletto (red label), Barolo Riserva
Nobody knew Piedmont like Bruno Giacosa, dubbed the Professor of Nebbiolo by Robert Parker. His red-label Riservas are the apogee of the Nebbiolo grape, sought by collectors all over the world. His Rocche vineyard is the highest point in his famed Falletto estate and the source of his finest Barolo, only bottled in the very best years. Giacosa died three years ago ,and his daughter Bruna continues his remarkable legacy with Bruno’s right-hand man, oenologist Dante Scaglione. 2014 was the last vintage of Rocche bottled as a red-label Riserva and is on the market for £1,650 in bond per six-bottle case. The 2016 will likely be the next vintage to sport Giacosa’s iconic red label, but it will be at least a year before it appears.
Giuseppe Quintarelli, Amarone
One of Italian wine’s true originals and the godfather of Amarone, ‘Bepi’ makes wines that have an almost mythical aura around them. These are intense, pure, complex wines that age almost indefinitely – drinking a mature bottle can be a quasi-religious experience. The wines are released according to the whim of the family, and the most recent vintage on the market is the 2012, offered for £1,200 in bond per case of six. We await news of future releases from the estate in the coming months.
Bartolo Mascarello, Barolo
The great bastion of traditional Barolo, eschewing the fad for single-vineyard bottlings, Bartolo Mascarello continued to blend his four vineyards as a single-estate Barolo even when market tides were pushing against him. Bartolo was also known for his outspoken views on politics and his opposition to French oak barrels, and these he demonstrated openly by issuing hand-designed labels famously proclaiming, “No Barrique, No Berlusconi.” Such etichette disegnate are particularly collectable. His daughter Maria-Teresa continues his philosophy and has taken quality to an even higher level. The Wine Advocate 100-point 2016 is the latest vintage to be released from the estate, currently trading at £2,100 per case of six bottles (in bond). The 2017 will come to market later this year.
Biondi-Santi, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva
Dubbed ‘the royal family of Montalcino’ by Galloni, Biondi-Santi coined the name Brunello back in 1865 and identified the clone of Sangiovese that would become standard throughout Montalcino. Wines from its Il Greppo estate are intensely traditional and characterised by an aristocratic austerity that demands prolonged aging. The Riserva is a selection of the estate’s old vines planted at up to 500m above sea level and only bottled in the finest years. After a period of uncertainty following Franco Biondi Santi’s death in 2013, the Il Greppo estate was sold to a French company that aspires to build on the family’s remarkable legacy over the next 150 years. The 2012 Riserva, Franco’s swansong, is the most recent edition to be released, currently at £1,100 in bond per three-bottle case. The much-anticipated 2013 vintage is due for release imminently.
This article is taken from the spring 2021 edition (Issue 7) of our quarterly magazine which focuses on wine, spirits and good living, with vivid imagery and insightful articles. Click here to find out more.