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An Italian Snapshot
By Paul Lukacs
Jul 28, 2015
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VinoVip is an annual celebration of Italian wine hosted by the influential Italian wine magazine, Civiltá del bere.  Held in the picturesque mountain resort of Cortina, surrounded by the majestic peaks and crags of the Dolomite Alps, it involves three days of tastings, seminars, talks, panels, and--did I mention--more tastings.  This year’s event, held a few weeks ago, featured fifty-five top producers, each of which showcased an array of different wines, providing the outside visitor with a snapshot of the contemporary Italian wine scene.  Here is what the picture revealed--at least to me.

Italian wine has never been more interesting than it is today.  The famous regions and renowned vintners continue to produce many outstanding wines, though some do seem to be resting on proverbial laurels.  (Sassicaia, the famous Super Tuscan, was probably the most obvious example.)  And while Italians continue to be fashion-crazed--witness the outfits at the event’s gala dinner--the vogue of internationalization seems to have faded somewhat.  That’s because more Italian wine producers are beginning to embrace their own heritage.

This does not mean that they are making wines as their grandfathers or even their fathers did.  They are for the most part making better wines--meaning cleaner, fresher, and more vibrant ones.  Modern oenology and viticulture, long ignored if not shunned in much of Italy, is now standard practice for anyone aiming to compete in more than his or her local market.

Much as happened elsewhere in the wine-producing world, modernization in Italy began in large measure with vintners mimicking foreign models.  Some of that certainly still goes on, but more and more wines being made today have identities of their own.  The most exciting wines I tasted at VinoVip were those made from local grape varieties in places that lack the prestige of Italy’s more celebrated ones.  I came away from the event wanting to know more about Nebbiolo from Gattinara, Pecorino from the Marche, Nerello Mascalese from Sicily, and, most notably, Trebbiano from Lugana.

Trebbiano di Lugana is a grape and wine that I knew absolutely nothing about until I tasted the wines from the small estate of Perla del Garda.  That may simply be a sign of my own ignorance, but I would wager that few readers of Wine Review Online know much about them either.  One sip, though, convinced me these wines are worth learning about, and that something quite special must be going on there.

“What’s in a name?” asks Shakespeare’s Juliet.  When it comes to this grape and wine, I soon learned that the answer is confusion, and plenty of it.  The grape called Tebbiano that is cultivated near Lake Garda in Lombardy has nothing to do with the more ubiquitous grape called Trebbiano that is cultivated in Tuscany and elsewhere.  That variety is the same as the French Ugni Blanc.  Even in skilled hands, it yields fairly dull white wines.  By contrast, Trebbiano di Lugana is much the same grape as Verdicchio from the Marche, over 200 miles away.  Why do completely different grapes sport the same name?  The only answer anyone gave me (invariably with a shrug of the shoulders) was, “That’s Italy.”

No matter the name, Trebbiano di Lugana from Perla del Garda is a beautiful white wine, marked by crisp acidity and flavors that seem mineral-laden as well as citrusy.  Perhaps most impressive, it can age beautifully.  A glass from the 1997 vintage tasted as fresh as a spring morning.  The estate produces four separate cuvées reflecting different vineyard sites.  One (the Madonna della Scoperta) sees some time in oak, but the others are fermented and aged in stainless steel.  All four provided revelations.

But these were not the only exciting surprises I was fortunate to taste.  Others included Baglio di Pianetto’s “Cembali” from Sicily, Umberto Cesari’s “Tauleto” from Emilia Romagna, Donnafugata’s sweet passito “Ben Ryé” from Pantelleria off the Sicilian coast, Masciarelli’s “Villa Gemma” Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nervi’s Gattinara, and Santa Caterina’s “Arlandino” Grigolino d’Asti.  I am listing them not to show off, but rather to illustrate that truly exciting wines are coming from all over Italy, and so not just from famous locales like Barolo or Chianti Classico.

It has taken Italian wine a long time to reach this point.  Grapes have been cultivated and wine made up and down the Italian “boot” for many millennia, but after the fall of the Roman Empire, very few wines were anything special.  It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that a few ambitious vintners aimed to raise standards and produce wines that tasted truly distinctive.  Their initial success was interrupted by phylloxera and then two world wars, and as late as 1970, Italian wine as a whole was widely regarded as cheap in every sense of the word--fine for quaffing with pizza or spaghetti, but nothing worth caring much about.  Even Burton Anderson, the dean of Italian wine experts, had to confess that, “Serious wine drinkers found it hard to take Italy seriously.”

All that changed in a remarkably short period of time.  Led by men like Piero Antinori from Tuscany and Angelo Gaja from Piedmont, a veritable revolution swept across the country in the 1970s and 1980s.  But it was inspired as much by wines and winemakers outside of Italy (something that both Antinori and Gaja freely admit) as by any sort of native tradition.  Only within the last fifteen to twenty years have vintners begun to focus more intensely on their own heritage.  My experience at VinoVip suggests that their doing so is at last becoming the norm.  In the wonderfully diverse world of Italian wine, an era of flattery through imitation may well be coming to an end, as an exciting new dawn breaks.