The Boston Phoenix
April 6 - 13, 2000


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Mamma mia!

Great news: There's an Italian wine war

by Thor Iverson

The world of wine is full of discord. Wineries suing other wineries, wineries fighting legislators, legislators suing wineries. And that's just America. In Europe, where the battles are seemingly more arcane (moving an appellation border a few meters south, for example), disagreements are usually resolved by the lowering of standards. And the result for the consumer is a downturn in the quality of wine.

In Italy they've been carrying on different versions of the same battle for three decades. In this war, however, the spoils are delicious. You may already be familiar with the first volley in this skirmish, the introduction of "super-Tuscan" wines by several high-profile Chianti producers around 30 years ago. Annoyed at the restrictive and quality-damaging laws governing production of Chianti at that time, wineries in Tuscany concocted a wild array of blends and varietals, gave them brand names such as Tignanello, Solaia, and Sassicaia, and released them as "table wine" (a European classification normally reserved for low-quality bulk wine) in a deliberate tweaking of Italian appellation law.

For years, Italian authorities fought to stifle the trend. Recently, however, they capitulated and started modifying the very laws that led to this vinous rebellion. New appellations have been created to embrace the non-traditional wines, and existing appellations have had their rules re-examined. Why?

Well, for one thing, the new wines were good, competing for the same audience as red Bordeaux and top California cabernets, and it rankled the authorities to have Italy's most acclaimed wines be lowly vini di tavola. But the second reason was that the rebellion had spread all over the country; there are now "super-Piedmonts," "super-Venetians," "super-Puglians" . . . pretty much super-anything.

The downside of this trend has been that more and more Italian wineries have been producing generic cabernets, merlots, chardonnays, and syrahs instead of their traditional regional wines. But for the most part these experiments have raised the quality of all Italian wines, and have increased the variety available to wine drinkers.

Who knew war could be so much fun?

Recently, I've had the opportunity to taste a lot of Italian wine. Here are a few of the best I've tried, in both the traditional and the modern styles.

1998 Sella & Mosca Vermentino di Sardegna "La Cala" ($11). This winery tries to work both sides of the fence. This particular wine is a traditional white from Sardinia, but a little hyped up with some modern techniques. Nevertheless, it's a fantastic Vermentino, full of tart lime and apple flavors, minerality, and a full-bodied palate that carries the unmistakable flavor of sea spray.

Other Sella & Mosca wines worth a look include the 1996 "Raím" Isola dei Nuraghi ($12), a strange and unique red concoction that tastes a little weird now, but has the structure to fill out to raspberry and carnation deliciousness in about five years, and the 1994 "Tanca Ferra" ($18), another fence-sitting red blend of traditional and modern. It's smoky and spicy, full of black cherries and chocolate-flavored oak, but lightened up by tangy raspberry and bubble-gum flavors from one of the blending grapes (grenache). Excellent balance; it's drinkable now but will be better in five to eight years.

Italian wine magazines went nuts over sauvignon blanc this year, and having sampled a few I agree with them. A far cry from the watery whites of yesteryear, the sauvignons from the northeast appellations of Italy are intense and wonderful. If you can find them, try the 1998 Venica & Venica Sauvignon Blanc "Ronco delle Mele" (intensely herbal, chili peppers offset by a very slight sweetness), the 1998 San Michele Appiano Sauvignon Blanc "St. Valentin" (tingly mineral-laced limes and chili peppers, with excellent structure), and the offbeat 1998 Ascevi-Luwa Sauvignon Blanc "Ascevi" (off-dry, floral, with nut and lychee flavors reminiscent of gewürztraminer). Prices for these wines are in flux, because of the enthusiasm in the Italian press, but all should be around $20.

Finally, a warning. There's been a lot of hype about the 1997 vintage in Italy, some of it in this column. And early releases were indeed promising. But having tasted a few hundred '97s in the past month, I've gotten a clearer picture of the vintage, and all is not well. The good news: the wines are so fruity and big that even wines that typically need a decade or more to come around (like Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Barbaresco, and others) are delicious right now, though they're not built for much aging.

But fans of barbera are in for a major disappointment with '97. Old-style barberas (tangy red cherry and raspberry flavors, acidic, usually less than $15) are fuller and richer than normal. But the internationalization of Italian wine has led to a lot of barbera aged in barriques (small oak barrels). This usually produces pretty tasty results, but the overripeness of '97 in concert with that oak has created a lot of disjointed, nasty Frankenwines. Be wary, or buy the more traditional '96 bottlings.

Boston is losing a wine institution. Uva, the Brighton restaurant famous for its selection and pricing policy (every bottle on the list cost just $10 more than its wholesale price, plus four percent), will be closed by the time you read this. But Boston's wine community shouldn't worry, because proprietor Chris Campbell is scouting out locations for a new venture in the city.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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