Italian wines seem to taste better when the Italy national football team emerge champions of Europe.
In the month of July, we pay tribute to Italy as champions of the UEFA Euro 2020 and the Eurovision Song contest. Therefore, Luc and I organised a dinner for 8 recently at our favourite Italian restaurant so that we could have an excuse to drink some nice Italian wines while indulging in delicious Italian cuisine.
Funnily enough, we both seldom explore wines from Italy because we are so French-focused especially in Burgundy wines. If I have to pick a wine for dinner, I often go for a Pinot Noir-based wine because that’s my most preferred grape variety. I have to admit that I know less about Italian wines than French and this article really forced me to brush up on my Italian wine knowledge especially when it comes to wine regions and grape varieties.
One of the most important wine regions in Italy is Piedmont
It’s home to Barolo, also known as “King of wine” which is a joy to many wine lovers and investors. Piedmont has 45 DOCs and 15 DOCGs and it is the only region in Italy that does not allow production of IGT wine. Every wine lover would come across wines from these 3 Bs – Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo in their lifetime. I think if you are a fan of Burgundy wines, you’ll love Barolo too.
Barolo DOCG is made of 100% Nebbiolo (pronounced as nebby-oh-low). This grape variety is used also in Barbaresco which is also a sought-after wine, after Barolo. Nebbiolo is what Pinot Noir is to Burgundy – it is that pivotal to Barolo.
The taste of Nebbiolo is best described by winefolly.com as “imagine getting kicked in the face by a ballerina” because Barolo is so elegant and classy yet it contains high acidity. It is more vinous than fruity and has mouth-drying tannins. There are 2 very important Ts to take note of when it comes to Barolo. It’s all about terroir and time. Unlike burgundy, Barolo needs a lot of ageing for tannins to soften and mellow.
According to the DOCG regulations, these wines must be aged for at least 38 months including 18 months in oak, with a minimum 62 months required for a Riserva. All this stringent quality control gives Barolo the prestige it needs to justify the prices it commands.
To be legally classified as Barolo, the Nebbiolo must be grown in designated areas within 11 different villages that lie just to the south of the town of Alba. The Barolo DOCG consists of these 11 villages: Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, Roddi and Verduno.
In order to get to know Barolo better, one needs to understand the location of these villages and also their terroir as there is a spectrum of differences between the wines from the village La Morra and Serralunga d’Alba. Between the valley of these 2 extremes, lies the village of Castiglione Falletto which sits in the middle of the Barolo region.
This is a very interesting village that makes wine with a good balance between structure and aroma due to its diversity of terroirs – sandy soils and limestones. The wines from the top producers here are impressive to say the least. And that brings us to the bottle of 2005 Brovia – the first red wine we open for the night.
The 2005 Brovia is a Barolo Riserva from Castiglione Falletto made only in magnums to commemorate 150 years of the estate’s founding. This is bottle No.1537 of 1743 produced for this special occasion and it’s marrying two of the best lots from the vineyards of Roche and Villero. Roche imparts fragrance, while Villero draws flavour. These 2 different terroirs bring equilibrium to this magnificent wine, which is apparent when we taste the wine.
There is no decanting needed here because it drinks perfectly right from the bottle to the glass. The nose consists of sweet beguiling aromas of dark cherry, tobacco, liquorice and mint. The mouthfeel is ample, generous, structured and elegant. It’s so inviting to have another sip and yet another due to the blossoming of flavours in the glass.
The time is now as the acidity and tannins are almost undetectable and what is left is a layered finish from a compelling combination of these 2 vineyards, making it a famous recipe to make great Barolos. What a perfect way to start the line-up of the red wines for the night. The plate of antipasto is polished off when this wine is served – a good sign that everyone is getting prepped for the next few Italian wines!
Wine from Serralunga d’Alba
The next wine comes from the village of Serralunga d’Alba. In this village, the Helvetian/Serravallian soil (clay, limestone, silty marls) gives darker, more structured and long-lived wines. In the past, people used to dread wines from Serralunga as it was known for its powerful and aggressive tannins which needed a lot of ageing.
Beginning in 2009 and 2010, however, the wines became accessible and younger due to a change of winemaking style. In 1988, Gaja acquired a 30-acre vineyard from one of Serralunga’s best areas and renamed it Sperss, a Piedmontese dialect for nostalgia.
This 2011 Gaja Sperss Langhe Nebbiolo in magnum is another great example of beautiful wines from the commune of Barolo, at the other end of the spectrum from La Morra. Based in Barbaresco, Gaja is a very well-known producer in Italy.
However, today they make more wines in Tuscany than in Piedmont itself. The estate drew a lot of attention when it began to blend a small amount of Barbera into all but two of its Barbaresco and Barolo wines, relegating them to the Langhe DOC classification.
In this bottle of Sperss, it contains 94% Nebbiolo and 6% Barbera grapes. What a voluptuous beauty! I love the expressive aromas of plum, tar, truffle and flower. The ethereal cherry, kirsch, cassis, leather and spice made this wine such a treat. The ripe tannins, terroir-deep structure and the austere character of a typical Serralunga result in a very elegant and inviting wine.
I can see that everyone is loving this wine as they dig into the first course of the evening. This caressing wine is so easy-drinking. Although many would want to put this wine away for another decade, I find it very good to drink it now and it pairs really well with pasta and porcini.
Storing the wine correctly
A big name isn’t the only deciding factor when it comes to picking a wine in the restaurant. Just the week before, I had the privilege of tasting 2 bottles of 2009 Gaja Sperss Langhe Nebbiolo in a very chic Italian restaurant. When I first put my nose into the glass, I found it rather funny that I detected some mustiness in the wine. It gave me an impression that the wines were beyond secondary aromas and going into its tertiary stage.
The wine should still taste young and vibrant, yet it was muted and I didn’t like the mushroom and metallic notes I gathered from the palate. Many reliable wine review sources have given this wine a good rating stating it was bold, full-bodied and chewy but I didn’t get any of that. We were quite disappointed with this wine thinking that it was just a poor vintage, but later only did we find out that the problem of this wine lay in the poor storage.
The wine chiller which was located next to the windows (with sunlight) and armed with LED lights that were switched on all the time might have tainted the wine. During the time when the HORECA industry in Belgium was closed for 6 months due to the Covid 19 restrictions, they believed that someone might have turned off the climatisation cabinet.
This is a damage that cannot be undone. Therefore, it’s really important to know how the restaurant stores its wines before one decides to spend generously on a bottle. It was indeed a bummer but as I wasn’t the one paying the bill, I didn’t feel too bad.
An unusual red wine-making process
The final two Italian wines of the evening come from Amarone della Valpolicella. This signature red from north-eastern Veneto is translated as “the Great Bitter” because it is a “monster” of a wine. It is a dry red wine made from partially dried grapes that lose 30% to 40% of their weight in a method called appassimento and then followed by a slow press before the fermentation process, which brings a marked level of complexity to both the production process and the wine.
An Amarone has to spend a minimum of 2 years in wood and the barrels can vary from French oak and Slavonian oak through to chestnut, cherry or even acacia. Due to the drying of grapes, the alcohol percentage of Amarone can range between 15.5% and 16.5%.
Amarone is also known for its steep pricing but it is easy to understand why as it requires 2 times more grapes in every bottle produced, more room is needed to dry the grapes, about 3 weeks to 3 months of drying time and eventually long ageing periods. Therefore, I believe there is no such thing as a cheap and a stunning Amarone.
Wine lovers often ask themselves what would be the best food pairing with such an intense wine and I think the answer would be the wine itself. You don’t need to pair a great Amarone with anything. It’s so amazing on its own!
It is such a delight to be able to put these two very important references of Amarone side by side. The question has always been: Who makes the better wine in Amarone between Quintarelli and Dal Forno?
The late Giuseppe Quintarelli was known as Il Maestro del Veneto, whose wines are the reference of Amarone. When one thinks of Amarone, Quintarelli often comes to mind because in his 6-decade wine career, he created a legendary estate located in the hills north of Verona at the heart of Valpolicella appellation. He was known for his traditional methods of winemaking and nothing is hurried at the estate, creating wines that are deep, complex and elegant.
I love their distinctive handwritten labels which were only automated in 1995. Having one of these old handwritten labels is a treasure for collectors out there. The 2007 Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella Classico is a deep, bright red. Despite the special winemaking technique of a 4-month appassimento, the wine is surprisingly delicate and nuanced. Wild cherry, menthol, vanillin, liquorice, orange peel and spice are some of the dominant aromas I get from the nosing.
On the palate, this wine immediately hits my sweet spot. There is a sweet note followed by juicy acidity, silky tannins and a polished finish. What a finesse! Francesco Quintarelli (grandson of Giuseppe) attributes much of this Amarone’s finesse and elegance to its long élevage which is 7 to 8 years in large casks. The wine is rich and full-bodied but never heavy.
Comparing both Italian wines
On the other hand, we have the 2008 Dal Forno Romano Amarone della Valpolicella Monte Lodoletta as there is no 2007 being produced at Dal Forno. Romano Dal Forno is also known as one of the kings of Amarone. Just like his teacher, the late Giuseppe Quintarelli whom Romano Dal had studied from, started to make exceptional wines starting in 1983.
His dense, creamy Valpolicella is among the best in Veneto and his estate and winery are just as impressive. Unfortunately, when Luc was in Romano visiting his estate a few years ago, I was in Malaysia visiting my family. It would have been such a great experience because the winery is huge, modern and state of the art. And his wines reflect the modernity of his winery and techniques.
When I put my nose into the glass, there are myriads of black cherry, liquorice, clove and ashy smoke. There is so much going on in the glass as aromas interwoven with bouquets of herbs such as rosemary and oregano, oak, fig and bittersweet chocolate. A sip and I am immediately taken aback in a good way. Wow! What a wine!
The wine has such grandeur. It is full-bodied, densely packed of fruits and has so much intensity. With some air, the wine opens up to warmer tannins and makes it very approachable. What a stunning wine indeed. I remember that I used to dread drinking an Amarone because it felt like I was being hit by the astringency of alcohol. The first time I drank a Dal Forno Amarone, I actually passed out on the couch after 2 glasses. But as I begin to explore more of Dal Forno’s wine, it transforms into pleasure.
Which is better?
Both Quintarelli and Dal Forno produce world-class Italian wines. It is a matter of preference in my opinion as some might have a liking towards the austere, rustic style of Quintarelli.
Me, on the other hand, is more impressed with Dal Forno’s modern, hedonistic expression. They both are the apotheosis of wine. They both produce wines that will change how you perceive Amarone. For me, these both producers are inevitably the best and yet different in their own ways. I am still in awe of the juxtaposition of this dark, herbaceous wine. The intertwining sweetness is so intriguing.
However, on the night, I concluded that the 2008 Dal Forno Romano Amarone has won my heart and palate. Of course, the evening doesn’t end here. We carry on with a 1995 Le Pergole Torte grappa as a digestive. Everyone is delighted with the line-up and I am so fortunate to have a husband who takes care of the wine inventory, while me as the proud wife can just sit back, relax, enjoy and take down tasting notes of these sensational Italian wines!
Hero and feature images by Michael Regan / POOL / AFP