North and Northeast

This is a not at all comprehensive tour through some of my favorite wine areas: Trentino, Alto Adige and Friuli Giulla Venezia. I am going to highlight areas based on specific wines that I love and the wineries that make them.

These three regions are probably more influenced by their neighborhoods to the north and east as by the rest of Italy. The food is very different and the languages are different. Alto Adige and Trentino together are called the Sud Tyrol and have a semi autonomous status legally in Italy. German is just as common as Italian in many areas. This is mountainous country so the food is rich in game and mushrooms, and lots of lard is used. Friuli Giulia Venezia has some of the same influences and foods, but adds flavors from the former Yugoslavian republics on its borders. Friuli also had a lot of Venetian influence in the past so its food uses more of the spices traded by Venezia. Friuli also has access to the Adriatic so it has a lot of seafood in its cooking. Fred Plotkin recently wrote a book on Friuli and its cooking. In both of these areas the names of many of the wineries do not sound Italian.

Aside from the cultural factors, there is also a different philosophy about wine making. In most Italian wine making zones, the DOC is given to a specific place name and there is a range of grapes that can be used to make the wine. The DOC is both a geographic guarantee and a recipe for the winemaking. For example in Chianti, the allowable grapes include the Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Malavsia, Trebbiano, Colorino. For Chianti Classico, the base wine must be at least 70% Sangiovese and no more than 90%, yet 10% can be any grape of the winemaker’s choice. Thus a wine COULD be 100% Sangiovese (although then it would most likely be called a Vino di Tavola “Super Tuscan” as those wines sell for more than Chianti), or it could be as little as 70% Sangiovese and have as much as 10% white grapes and could have Merlot or cabernet or syrah added. In fact it could have pinot noir! So seeing Chianti on the label does not specify the grape. In Friuli and the Sud Tyrol, the grape reigns supreme. Having said that, some of the best wines in these regions are actually blends. Jermann and Walter Filiputti both have blended wines that are amongst the most costly and sought after wines of the region: Vintage Tunina and Poesis respectively.

The other major difference in these areas lies in the scale of production. Most estates are small to tiny. It is not unusual for a winery to be 3000 or 5000 cases. Just to put that in perspective, Robert Mondavi may make 100,000 cases or more of Napa Valley Cabernet, 15,000 of his reserve and 10,000,000 cases of wine in total per year. Beringer makes 250,000 cases of its cabernet. The small scale of these areas leads to another difference, the quality of some of their cooperatives. The small growers may opt for selling their grapes to a coop and leaving the technical winemaking and marketing headaches to others. Some of these coops are simply superb. Some are truly awful. Many are just huge wine factories that churn the stuff out like so many gallons of gasoline (Santa Margherita and Cavit come to mind). So one of the main challenges comes in finding your favorite winery. One of my favorites is Doro Princic. This family owned winery makes only 3,000 cases in a good year and less in a poor one. Maybe 400 to 500 make it to the US. The result is a multitude of producers. Few regions are better suited to experimentation than these three.

The Grapes

In both the Sud Tyrol and Friuli, the most famous grape is the Pinot Grigio. This may or may not be the same grape as the Pinot Gris of Alsace. It is related to the Tocai Friulano. It has a tendency to produce large crops and tends towards insipidity. It never was traditionally the most famous or most widely planted grape in the area. But in the 1970’s, Santa Margherita introduced the wine to the US market and made their pinot grigio the number one selling Italian wine asked for by name in the US. In fact its success in the US drove the Italian wine drinking market and made pinot grigio the leader there as well. How unfortunate! The native grapes that used to dominate the area are now the lesser known grapes and a wonderful tradition has been cast aside in favor of mediocrity much as the corner burger shop has been replaced by those purveyors of bad taste, Mickey D’s, BK and all those other pushers of sameness. Pinot Grigio can on occasion arise to the heights of greatness, yet most often is just a vinous, innocuous, mostly forgettable experience. So many restaurants actually admit as much when the waiters say we have XYZ Vineyards chardonnay and a pinot grigio by the glass. I can tell some of you will be disappointed that I am not telling you how I really feel. I must admit that I enjoy so much doing my little bit to get people to drink the unusual and the traditional. But I am a lone salmon swimming upstream against the evil torrents of blandness, sameness and brand name.

Tocai Friulano – This is my favorite grape widely grown in Friuli. It is akin to the tokay-pinot gris of Alsace and has nothing to do with the tokay of Hungary (which yields one of the great sweet wines made anywhere). Tocai has the character and terroir that pinot grigio often lacks. There is a legal dispute going on in the EU over the use of Tocai Friulano and Tokay and at last I heard the Friulani were losing. One move was to rename the grape Furlan, which is also the name of the Friulian dialect. Tocai Friulano are rich and oily, yet dry and crisp. They stand up to surprisingly stout foods such as tomato sauces, salumi, stew made with game, roast birds of any kind.

The high quality and uniqueness of the Tocai is attested to by the following. My favorite seafood restaurant in Roma, La Rosetta, is owned by Sicilians. I became a valued customer the first time I visited because I was familiar with Sicilian cooking from my time in the Italian restaurant business in Los Angeles where the chef owner of the restaurant I worked for had a deep love of Sicilian foods. However, when it came time to pick a wine, I went for a Friulian white. I almost apologized to the waiter saying that as nice as Sicilian white are (a little white lie) I preferred the whites from Friuli. He leaned over and whispered into my ear, “That’s okay, I do too”. Next, Massimo the owner came over and told me his favorite whites were Tocai as well. In fact he had more Tocai on his list than Sicilian whites of all kinds!

Tocai is almost too flavorful. Many a winery is now making a blended wine with the Tocai as its base. Filiputti’s Poesis is a wine in this category- tocai, ribolla gialla, chardonnay, sauvignon and pinot bianco all go into it.

Ribolla Gialla – A native grape to the Friuli area (or at least ancient heritage). It is another spicy grape, more aromatic and bright than the tocai. It is also a very good food wine. This is a wine that has a fresh citrus fruit component yet is also earthy. I wish that RG was more widely available in the US and that more people knew about it.

Gewrztraminer or Traminer – Tramin is a town in Germany. Gewrz is German for spicy. Thus the name of this grape is spicy one from Tramin. I absolutely love gewrztraminer, especially when made dry like that are typically in Alsace, and Trentino Alto Adige. These are wines of great intensity and richness, so much so that you may think they are off dry or slightly sweet, but they are usually quite dry to a slight bit off dry. This means that have wonderful flavors to stand up to flavorful foods and the acidity to refresh your palate. When my wife and I dine in NYC at our favorite restaurant there, Esca, we almost always have one of the three or 4 gewrztraminers they offer on their list. The wait staff all rush over when we do so because these are their favorite wines and yet almost no one orders them. Again, I am a salmon…

Riesling Renano – Another Sud Tyrol specialty. This is again a dry wine that is not my favorite but that’s just my opinion. Riesling is a grape that I prefer sweet so I love German Riesling but not Alsatian or Italian versions.

Malavasia – I am only familiar with Malavasia from Friuli but there may be some grown in the Sud Tyrol. This is another aromatic wine with a rich broad mouthfeel. I love them but they are very hard to come by even over there. If you do see one try it!

You may note that I have not mentioned red grapes so far. That’s because I don’t really drink reds from Friuli or Trentino Alto Adige. The predominant grape in Friuli is merlot and it is very often made in a lighter, high acid low oak style. I have really never seen many reds from Trentino and alto Adige but I know that they are popular. One red I do like from the northeast is Teroldigo, And there are many Veneto reds I like such as Vennegazzu by L. Gasparin. This latter wine is from the area north of Treviso and is cabernet based. Look for the simply incredible Capo di State “black label” instead of the fine “white label” regular. Maculan also makes cabernet based reds in Breganze, but I am not a big fan. Teroldigo is a high acid big fruit low tannin red, but I am not exactly sure of where it comes from. I do like Teroldigo when I find it on a wine list, although I have never bought a bottle to bring home.

For the producers, the star rating is purely arbitrary and not statistically reliable. It is a measure of how much my mouth watered when thinking about the wines from them that I have enjoyed. Its on a scale of 1 to 3 stars so you can tell how I really feel about Ca’ Terlano! I would love to visit both of these regions and do some serious tasting but the problem with that is the heavy use of lard in the food and my dietary restrictions. I would only do a trip there if I had an apartment and could cook for myself.

Producers – Trentino Alto Adige

I will treat the Sud Tyrol as a single unit. To distinguish the two would require me to actually consult a reference book and that would be too much like work! Besides, the winery differences far outweigh the geographic ones (leave it to me to have a philosophical reason behind my laziness!).

***Ca’ Terlano – My favorite winery in the area. They make simple blends, vineyard designated wines and then their top of the line bottling. These latter are amongst the greatest white wines I have ever tasted. They go by proprietary names such as ****!!!Quarz (sauvignon) and ****!!!!Lunare (gewrztraminer). I have only seen these wines in Venezia (at Fiaschetteria Toscana and the wine shop next door to Achiugette) and in California (imported by Diamond Wine Merchant).

***Institute di San Michele – Superb gewrztraminer. Again, there are blends and then there are vineyard designates. Very delicate of body but very intense flavors. Simply superb wines. I was introduced to them at La Rosetta in Roma and I have seen them in NYC at Esca. Amazing producer.

***Hoffstadter – I have had these wines at Esca in NYC so I know they make it over here. The importer is either Vias or Vinifera so they are nationally distributed. They will make several designations of a particular grape. A little fuller in body and less aromatic than the San Michele.

***Maso Furli – I have only had this wine (their traminer) at Fisachetteria Toscana. in Venezia and it is one of the most stunning whites I have ever tastes. I have seen the blend wine on a list from an enoteca in Firenze but I have not seen their reserve wines.

**Pojer e Sandre – Very nice whites in a more rustic style. They make some lesser know grapes like Muller Thurgau.

*Kris by Franz Haas – Widely available and very good bargain. Cost plus usually has them as does Whole Foods so they are available in a lot of markets.

*Lageder – Probably the most famous winemaker in the area, and a very good one. Very precise wines, very clean if a little bit soulless. I would not hesitate to buy anything by Lageder if there were no other Sud Tyrol wines to try, but I almost always would try something else to further my education. The house style predominates in my opinion.

Producers – Friuli

***Ronco Del Gnemiz – Incredibly rich and spicy wines. I love their Tocai and their chardonnay. I have not tasted their wines since 1997 vintage and have not seen them in DC since I moved out here.

**Doro Princic – Tiny little producer who is right on the border. You actually leave Italy when you drive through some of his vineyards. Lovely wines with a little more delicacy than the Gnemiz.

**Jermann – The first heavy hitter winery from Friuli to make it big in the US. They go back in history to when the area was a part of Yugoslavia. Wonderful rich wine, very pricey, very good.

***Pra di Pradis – From the owners of Castelcosa (see below). This is their reserve wine. Big rich wines of substance. Very racy wines. I love them, hard to find.

**Castelcosa – Very easy to find. This is a blended wine, the blend being across the zones of production. They are very recognizable by their bright mustard or goldenrod label which at first appears to be put on the bottle crooked. It’s a great marketing ploy as their wines are instantly recognized.

***Walter Filliputti – The first famous winemaker from the area. He has consulted with many of the top wineries at one time or another. His eponymous winery is now making great wines. Try Poesis!

***Abbazia di Rosazzo – Not sure if they are still in business, their label got hung up in legal battles. Wines were originally made by Filliputti.

**Piuatti – Very nice producer of wines with distinct flavors. Not my absolute favorite but I would have no problem drinking their wines if one of my more favorite wines was not available.

**Zamo e Zamo (aka Vigne di Zamo) – Very nice. Another Filliputi influenced property. They make some old vines bottlings. Really good property.

*Livio and Marco Felluga – 2 wineries owned by different branches of the same family. Not my favorite, very commonly available.

**Vie di Romans – I have only had their wines once or twice and I was very impressed. If you are at Esca in NYC, the wines are available there and are worth a try.

**Borgo Tiglio – Very small producer of high quality. Very hard to find. They make “regular” and cru vineyard designated wines. The designated wines are a major step up.

***G. Dorigo – Haven’t seen them recently but these are huge bodied and full flavored wines that justify their high price. One of the great producers.

Impressions of Brunello

Great wines are grown, not made. The job of the winemaker is to translate what nature gives them and not screw it up. Our visit to the vineyards of Brunello was far too short (and this piece may be far too long). But my understanding of the wines made in this very special spot was greatly enhanced. Just spending two days here showed me so much and yet, Andrea Costanti is still learning after spending 22 years making wine in Montalcino. Our visit reinforced that Brunello is, for me, one of the greatest red wines there is. Along with mountain grown cabs from Napa, Santa Cruz and Sonoma county, the Brunelli from the mountainous portions of Montalcino are my favorites.

The wines of Brunello di Montalcino are at once simple to understand and very complex. The DOC Brunello di Montalcino allows for the making of three wines: Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. All three must be made completely of the Brunello clones of the Sangiovese grape. Brunello must spend three years in wood and are released January 5 years after the harvest year (1998 is just being released in January 2003). Brunello Riserva must spend an extra year in wood and is released 6 years after harvest (the 1997 Riservas will begin to be released in January 2003. Rosso has no specific aging requirements. The complications have two sources: the geological complexity of the region and the emergence of “Super Tuscan” vini di Tavola and IGT. These latter are the myriad wines being made by Montalcino producers with assorted grapes (mostly combining Sangiovese with Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet) and more modern techniques resulting in wines of a more international style. It is the complexity added by the vast variations in soils, weather, exposures and the experience of families who have been part of the wine making traditions for hundreds of years that will be addressed, however briefly, here.

Modern Brunello is a recent phenomenon. Biondi Santi produced the first famous Brunello just over 100 years ago. These are huge, strikingly tannic wines that take decades to age out. They are fabulously expensive as well. In the 1960’s, many traditional Montalcino families led by the Costanti’s began to modernize the style of winemaking, converting their families’ private winemaking into commercial ventures. Today there are over 150 wineries in the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino, the organization that regulates and defines what Brunello is. There has been one major revision of the DOC law in the recent past and another is being discussed. The movement is towards less wood aging and earlier releases of the wines. I hope this process is not taken too far so we don’t lose what makes Brunello so special.

Our visit began on a foggy Monday leaving from the Tuscan Maremma. We drove north from Manciano through Saturnia, Arcidosso, around Monte Amiata and entered Montalcino from the south. The valley formed between Monte Amiata and the hill of Montalcino itself is the Val d’Orcia. The Orcia river is a conduit to the cool and moist sea air of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The two hills make for a funnel, or venturi, which speeds up the air flow coming along the Orcia. Once past the town of Montalcino the region opens up to a sloping hillside, adding another variant to the equation of Brunello. It is this unique combination of geological features which give the precise balance of heat and coolness, of moderating sea influences and of a combination of soils that make Brunello what it is. There are at least 4 major sub regions in Brunello: the Val d’Orcia itself, the hills around Castelnuovo dell’Abate, the shoulder of the hill of Montalcino and the slopes to the north. Each has a characteristic soil and weather pattern which accounts for much variation in Brunello. Then within each area there are variations. The Consorzio di Vini di Brunello di Montalcino writes of 24 distinct micro climates in the area.

The southwestern end of the Val d’Orcia is dominated by Banfi. The Banfi estate is thousands of hectares, much of it originally owned by Argiano. You drive northeast for over 1/2 a hour with Banfi signs your constant companion. I think the Banfi estate has its own area code. This is where Brunello di Montalcino is a mono culture, nothing but grapes. It is only when you pass Banfi that you return to the mixture of farms, vineyards, olive groves and woods that is so common to Toscana.

The southern portion of Brunello is all rolling hillsides. The estates tend to be larger. As we moved north towards Argiano and Sant’Angelo in Colle the land got much wilder and more hilly, the estates smaller. Argiano is on a little bluff. It is 200 hectares with a villa overlooking Castello di Argiano (privately owned and not possible to visit). Argiano is a modern winery with loads of stainless steel and tile in the cantina (fermentation and bottling facility). The cellar however, is a different story altogether. It is dirt floored and filled with small oak barrels and the botti where the wine spends its final resting time after blending and before bottling.

The Brunello and Riserva are a blend selected on a barrel by barrel basis. The lots of Rosso and Brunello are separated early on. The Rosso is blended and bottled at about a year of aging. The rest of the barrels are set aside for potential use in the Brunello or Riserva. The most concentrated barrels wind up getting more aging time and go into the Riserva. The rest are examined for use in the “regular” Brunello. Many a barrel originally intended for Brunello does not make the make the final blends, well after the rosso from that vintage has been bottled. I suspect that a lot of the Brunello that is not selected for the final blend will be sold to other wineries. Anywhere from about 30% to 70% of the vintage will be made into Brunello in any given year, depending on quality. In 1997, 70% of the wine harvested wound up as Brunello. In 2002 only about 30% will.

The district running east and south from Sant’Angelo in Colle and starting just to the north of that town produces some of the greatest wines in the region. This is a side valley with conditions very different than the surrounding area. The wind comes up from the ocean along the Orcia river valley. As this valley narrows considerably at Montalcino, the wind speeds up. This makes for slower ripening and higher acid levels in grapes grown in this area. In great vintages, where the grapes achieve full ripeness, this area really shines. Wines from this area may have a very different vintage character than the rest of Brunello. Many of my favorite wines come from this zone including Agostini Pieri, Lisini, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, Uccelleira. These wines tend to be big and spicy.

The Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona wines are made in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, near Sant’Antimo. The grapes come from very hilly vineyards located a little to the south of there. The cantina, where the grapes are crushed fermented and bottled, is located in the vineyard, while the barrels and botti for cellar aging are in the Palazzo. The Bianchetti family inherited the property from the d’Aragona family when the last Count and Countess (or was it the last Duke and Duchess) died without children. It was a surprise that the family left the winery to their property manager, Signor Bianchetti, and not to the church, as they had so many a Pope in their background. Bianchetti maintained the winery name as Piccolomini d’Aragona and put his name in tiny type on the label. It was Bianchetti’s dream to enter commercial winemaking. In just 17 years, his wines are now amongst the most sought after wines of Brunello.

The wines are aged mostly in botti: large oak ovals of varying size, from a few hundred liters to maybe 4000 liters. By transferring the wines often from one type of botti to another (differing sizes and ages of oak), they are able to get a lot of complexity on the wines without a lot of oak flavor. We tried the 1998 and it was superb, especially considering the poor reputation of that vintage. We also tried the 2001 Rosso and it was incredible for a rosso. This bodes well for the vintage at Piccolomini. Their super Tuscan is Ateo and it was nice. Half sangiovese and half a cabernet merlot blend. We had a delightful time with Jena, who is the girlfriend of the Bianchetti son, and handles sales for the winery. I hope to see her in New York at a major Brunello tasting on November 18. We did not get to try their Syrah, named Fabius after the builder of the Palazzo.

After tasting at Piccolomini, Jena took us to visit her neighbor Andrea at Uccelleira. There was a small mishap involving our rented car, a wall, and seeing the sky from an interesting perspective. Well, I am not sure that the wall was actually involved because Tabby (the name our intrepid VW Golf got early on in the trip) came through without any rearrangement of her sheet metal. There was a loud noise and Tabby’s front end leapt up several feet off the ground… Leave it to say that some plastic parts fell off the car somewhere between Ciacci and Uccelleira (a drive of less than a mile) that did not seem to affect Tabby. I have always maintained that cars in Italy have too many parts and that losing a few is a good thing. Luckily we were renting from Europcar through Auto Europe. They didn’t say a thing when we said farewell to Tabby in Firenze.

Uccelleira is a tiny producer which makes 1100 cases a year. We met Andrea, the owner and his parents. Dad was on a ladder checking the olive trees. Mom was out checking into what Son and Dad were doing. Andrea, the son, was in a dirty pair of auto racing related blue and greasy black overalls. Jena has visited the winery before and tasted wines out of the barrel before. At Vinitaly she does the spiel for Uccelleira in English as Andrea can’t speak a word.

Andrea first took us to look at his vines. He only has two hectares at the winery (about five acres). He was telling us how each row differed and how there were upper and lower parts of each row that usually went to Brunello or Rosso. I think he names each vine. He farms about six hectares in total at various levels of elevation in the Castelnuove dell’Abate area. In Napa this sized holding would yield about 2500 to 5000 cases of wine, here it yields 1100. This is a reason Brunello is so expensive.

We tasted in order: Rosso 2002, Brunello 2002, Brunello 2002 Riserva (he separates Riserva portions from regular early on, but will not always bottle it separately. In 2002 he will not make Riserva), 2001 Brunello, 2001 Riserva from Botti, 2001 Riserva from Barriques blended with a bit of the botti batches, 2001 from Barriques only, 2000 Brunello, 2000 Brunello Riserva (which is destined to be blended back into the 2000), 1999 Brunello, 1999 Riserva (which will probably be bottled separately) and 1998 Brunello out of the bottle. Please note that this represented twelve different wines at Uccelleira (and eighteen total for the day!). I have done a lot of barrel tasting in my day but this was one of the most intense experiences of my wine life. I felt for Kay who was having sinus problems. Jena was amazed by the tasting. When we got to La Chiusa that night we had to brush our teeth; they were black.

Once you get to the northern slopes of Montalcino, the weather again changes. There is little fog, less rain and the wind, while strong is less strong than on the southern exposure. Costanti is in this area. His wines are superb. Andrea is the second of the “modern” Costanti’s to run the winery. The family dates back to the 1500 but the winemaking professionally only began in the 1960’s. This is Andrea’s 22nd vintage in charge. He is a quiet man, very elegant, subtle with a sly sense of humor, just like his wines. We hit it off with him immediately and have been invited back in July to spend a week or so at the Villa. The guest apartment has a huge fireplace in the kitchen with a grill in it, a stove, full cooking equipment. I am sure that there is a bathroom and bedroom as Kay assures me, but all I can remember is the kitchen.

We tasted 2002 Rosso, Brunello and Ardigno (cabernet merlot blend. Then we moved into the villa to taste 2001 Rosso, 1998 Brunello, 1997 Riserva and 2000 Ardigno. The Rosso was extremely good. I can’t wait for its release in February. His 2001 is a great vintage. His 1999 is a very good one. In other areas of Brunello, the 1999’s may be better than the 2001’s. All depends on the particular spot the grapes came from. The 1998 was okay, but not as good as those of Uccelleira and Ciacci. The 1997 Riserva was a true wine moment. Its hard to explain how a wine can be so good. Its like explaining sex to a virgin (or gelato to someone raised on Baskin and Robbins). You can describe it all you want, but experiencing it is the only way to fully grasp how good it actually is.

I commented to Andrea on how different his wine was to those of his near neighbor, Val di Cava. Less than a mile apart, the wines differ so much. Andrea explained that Montalcino used to be an island surrounded by sea. Eons ago it rose to form the modern hill of Montalcino. Andrea’s property is on a portion of the original island. The rock is volcanic. Val di Cava is on the original sea bed, a heavier sedimentary rock formation. Both formations have weathered into soil that supports their vineyards, but of a different texture and components. Costanti is rocky and gravel soils, Val di Cava is heavy with clay. One is not better or worse, just different. Also Val di Cava is at the top of the fog line. In normal times, in the middle of the day, Val di Cava can be fog shrouded while it is clear at Costanti. Costanti is on the shoulder of the ridge containing Montalcino and the winds are very strong there. Val di Cava is on a more open hillside and the wind is more diffuse. The result is wines that are a world apart. Val di Cava is huge, ripe and lush. Costanti is velvety and smooth. Another near neighbor to Costanti, Canalecchio di Sopra, which is in the direction of Val di Cava, is also very rich and lush. It is in the sedimentary soils, between Costanti and Val di Cava. The winery is closer to Costanti than to Val di Cava yet the soils and exposure more similar to Val di Cava. The grapes yielded are like those of Val di Cava.

We spent the rest of our day back in Montalcino buying up a few of the wines produced in the area. I highly recommend Enoteca Pierangioli, which participated in the tax free program. I received a 12% rebate on the VAT on the wines. Drogheria Franci, just across from the Enoteca has a great selection and offers superb wine advice. If you tell them the name of a few Brunellos you like they will steer you to others in a similar style. Prices are not as high as some but a little higher than Pierangioli. The Enoteca Fortezza is a fabulous place to shop as well.

A word on pricing in Montalcino. When the wines come out, they are all priced the same at all the shops and at the winery. But as the wine sells it gets marked up. Ciacci Piccolomini has basically sold out in Montalcino and is now going for 90 euro a bottle when you can find it. We managed to find some in Saturnia for “only” 52 euro. But Val di Cava was available for about 42 euro in Pitigliano, Saturnia and in Montalcino. Lisini ranged from 35 euro to about 42 euro. We bought it for 35 euro at Pierangioli. It was 37 euro in the fine wine shop Terre di Siena in Monteriggioni and 39 at the Enoteca Fortezza and Franci.

Now for a short and personal list of favorites:

Costanti – My absolute favorite. It was the first great Brunello I was exposed to. Now that I have met Andrea, it is even more of a favorite. The wines are silky and elegant. They are big but not in a showy way at all. They need time in the glass to open up not because they are so tannic but because they are so multifaceted. Costanti’s riserva’s are so good it’s hard to explain. Its not that they are so much more tannic or big but just a more magnified example than the regular bottling.

Agostini Pieri – I have rarely seen this wine outside of Montalcino and never in the US. It is simply incredible. In a lesser year like 1995 it is very high quality. Their riserva is thick and tannic and loaded with spice. I wish I could have found a bottle of the ’95 riserva for less than 95 euro. I would have bought it (it was only 130 euro at La Chiusa where wine is well marked up, I expected it to be 50 or 60 at retail!).

Le Chiuse – A superb small winery that I just recently discovered. I would put it up there with Agostino Pieri as one of my most favorite wineries after Costanti. The wife/owner is a member of the Biondi Santi family and inherited about 18 acres of grapes from the family. She and her husband have been farming the land for almost 18 vintages. They have been planting new vines all along so their vineyard has a wide range of ages of vines. But actually by Brunello standards, 18 year old vines are quite old. These are serious wines, brash, full, spicy, made in a style that is suited for long aging. The older vines add such complexity and fruit to the wines that they are also delicious young. They are imported by Fredrick Wildman so they should be available widely (geographically speaking at least as the total production is fairly small) starting this spring.

Lisini – A huge and spicy wine in an older style. If you like late picked Zinfandel, Amarone or Sagrantino di Montefalco and are looking to get into Brunello, this may do the trick.

Ciacci Piccolomini – I have only had their wines in lesser vintages: 1998 and 1996. In both vintages the wines are concentrated, full, spicy and just plain yummy. I will sit on my 1997’s for a long while before opening them. I can’t wait for their 1999 and 2001 vintages, and for the ’97 riserva.

Uccellereia – I have only tried the ’98 out of bottle but I am sold on this tiny producer after spending the day with Andrea. What loving care goes into each bottle. His 1997 Riserva will be a “must have” bottle for me.

Val di Cava – A huge wine that stops just short of being over the top. High in alcohol, ripe, lush, huge in every way. This is a Wagner opera in a bottle. In fact its Die Walkure in liquid form.

Silvio Nardi – A wine I discovered on this trip. I had never heard of it before. It was super cheap, only 27 euro or so a bottle and it was superb! Not as spicy as Lisini, not as big as Val di Cava, it was a great value and a fun wine. I wound up with 4 bottles each of Costanti ’97, Val di Cava and Nardi. The Nardi was not as good as either of the two others, but it was 30-40% cheaper.

Il Poggione – A lovely wine: spicy big, a little old fashioned, not unlike Lisini but a lot cheaper over there, again about 27 euro. I used to drink this wine in the old days and did not like it but it was recommended by the owner of Terre di Siena which is the wine shop in Monteriggioni. I have trusted him in the past and this was no different. I wish I had bought some more to take home but we did not drink this till our last day in Firenze. We could not find a bottle of the ’97 in Firenze while every shop had it in the Montalcino and Pitigliano areas.

Argiano – This is the biggest producer of the wineries I really love. They make about 10,000 cases of wine in a year, maybe a little more in good years and less in lesser years. Not as huge in style as Val di Cava, not as elegant as Costanti and not as spicy as Lisini, it combines all those features in a superbly pleasant style. Easy to find and usually well priced. I have 3 bottles of the ’97 in my cellar (as well as 3 of the ’95). For some reason, it is very cheap in the US. Argiano is available for 40 to 50 a bottle here and was 39 euro in Italy.

Pertimali – Superb in a very rich and lush style. Almost over the top. Their 1998, an off vintage, is as good as most wineries’ 1997’s. They make absolutely outstanding Rosso. I have never had one of their great vintage Brunello and I can’t wait to try one. Very expensive, even harder to find.

Castelgioncondo – Frescobaldi’s Brunello. Good but not as good as some of the little guys mentioned here and often more expensive. I would not hesitate to buy it on a wine list where it might be the only Brunello available. Much more to my liking than Banfi or other widely found Brunelli.


I was just reorganizing my Italian wine collection in the cellar last night and was salivating over my small but growing Amarone collection when I read Joe’s reference to Amarone on the Slow Travel message board. This got me to thinking about the wine. For those of you who are not familiar with Amarone, here is a little bit about them.

Amarone is a style of wine made in the Valpolicella DOC in the Veneto. Amarone is a shorthand version of the actual DOC (the legal name of the wine) of the wine which is Reciotto di Valpolicella. Without the word Amarone attached, it is actually a sweet wine. If it is a Reciotto di Valpolicella Amarone, it is anywhere from just off dry to bone dry, high in alcohol with an intense flavor. If you have never had one, think of late harvest Zinfandel (especially from Ridge) or anything from Turley, Deloach or other 14%+ alcohol Zinfandels.

The name Amarone probably comes from Vaio Amaron, the name of the vineyard originally owned by Serego Alighieri, a member of Dante Alighieri’s family. The growing region is near Verona: to the north and to the east. Valpolicella has many famous towns, including Negrar, north of Verona, and Illasi to the southeast. Both areas have top wine producers.

Amarone are made from the “orecchiette” or “ears” of the cluster. If you look at a bunch of grapes, it typically has arrowhead shape (pointing down). There is a main stem running vertically and then two main branches running horizontally (angles downward somewhat) at the top of the bunch. In the best wines, these two side branches are cut off as the grapes attached are the most exposed to the sun and have the most caramelization going on in the ripening process, The grapes are laid out on straw mats in trays and dried, then crushed and the wine is made. The result of this drying process is raisining of the grapes and the resultant rich, intense, jammy flavor. Sometime there is such a concentration of sugars in the wine that you cannot get it to ferment out totally dry because there is just too much alcohol. Some wines are deliberately left quite sweet and these will not carry the Amarone designation. And amazingly enough, these are the same grapes that go into Valpolicella. But the grapes that are destined for an Amarone are the best sections of the vineyards typically from older vines. It is quite incredible how Amarone has become one of Italy’s best red wines due to advances in winemaking techniques that still honor tradition while making the wines more stable. The labor and time involved help to explain why any Amarone worth its straw mats cost over $50.00

If you like Amarone, but can’t take the price tag or want to drink them more often than the budget allows, look for Ripasso. This is a technique that only the frugal Italians could have thought up. When you are finished making an Amarone, you have skins that are just loaded with sugar and flavor. By adding the skins to normal Valpolicella, the alcohol in the already fermented wine will leach out the sugars and the wine will begin to re-ferment (this process is similar to the governo in Chianti). You get a wine with a lot of the character of Amarone at a much lower price. After the skins are used to make the Ripasso, they will be sold to a grappa distillery for yet another bit of income.

As it was for many areas of Italy, 1997 was an insanely great year for Amarone. It may be the best ever. 1995 was outstanding but will be overshadowed by 1997, 1993 is good but a little light (and more ready to drink). If you can find any 1990s left they are superb. I like my Amarone about 12 to 20 years old. I drank a bottle of Zenato Riserva Sergio Zenato 1988 recently and it was superb. I am trying to resist opening a bottle of the same from the 1990 vintage for at least 5 more years.

My favorite producers include Allegrini, Masi (especially the Vaio Amaron), Zenato Riserva Sergio Zenato, Tomassi. I have never had the guts to buy a bottle of their Amarone, but I bet that Dal Forno Romano is the best Amarone there is (and at $350 a bottle for the 1996 if you can find it in DC it should be). The reason I can say this is that I have had their Valpolicella and it is better then almost any Amarone I have ever had (it sells for about $80.00 here in DC). Roberto, from Fiaschetteria Toscana, our favorite waiter in the world, turned us on to the Dal Forno Romano and he was embarrassed to do so as the Valpolicella was about $65.00 in the restaurant. After we finished the bottle, he was very apologetic and said that if we ever wanted to taste the best red wine ever, we needed to come back and try their Amarone. He said “I am sorry to tell you, boss, that it is L440,000 (about $200.00 at the time).” The whole time he was telling me this he kept an eye on my wife who was twitching visibly seeing me lust for the bottle… Lucky for me we will be back to Venice one of these days. I just hope my wife lets me hold my credit card.

Piemonte Wines

Again, the reorganization of my Italian wine collection has spurred me on. A little over 2500 words on a favorite wine production area.

The whole area of Piemonte would be too large a topic for a single page. So I will concentrate on the best know fine wine area and that is the area surrounding Alba, home to Barolo and Barbaresco and white truffles. This is an area that is rich in game and wild mushrooms. Given this heritage, the wines are huge and rich. They are among the biggest in all of Italy. I would say that most people would put Barolo and Barbaresco, along with Amarone and Brunello, at the top of any list of great red wines of Italy.

The Grapes

Nebbiolo is the most famous grape here. It is the grape of Barolo and Barbaresco as well as being bottled under its own name or in combination with Dolcetto or Barbera in proprietary blends. It may have actually been related to Pinot Noir! Since Nebbiolo are some of the most rich and tannic grapes around, this is a surprising thought. Nebbiolo can have a deep violet flavor and a spicy aroma. It can also be over made into hard as nails wines. The name Nebbiolo probably comes from nebbia or fog. The vineyards are often shrouded in fog in the mornings or afternoons while there is full sun in the middle of the day to promote ripeness.

Barbera is an earthy grape that can result in wines ranging from seductive and elegant to earthy and rustic. There is no particular style in Barbera, a point which can either be a joy to behold or a real pain in the neck. Barbera’s can now cost as much as a Barolo or Barbaresco or be a real value prices wine.

Dolcetto is perhaps my favorite “fun” wine in all of Italy. Made carelessly, they are insipid and fruity. But made with care, they are simply superb. They are loaded with fruit but have the power of all the red grapes of the area. Some can be highly acidic which actually makes them a good match with rich game based stews.

Gavi – A very nice white that is made in a Chardonnay model typically – big, rich, broad on the palate, okay.

Cortese di Gavi – The grape of Gavi, usually wines thus labeled are fresher and sprightlier than Gavi or Gavi di Gavi.

Arneis – A native grape to the area that almost went extinct. It has been propagated more widely in recent years but is still not too common. Crisp and lively, my favorite Piemonte white.

Moscato – Used to make a fun extremely aromatic yet very low in alcohol crackling dessert wine. One of my true guilty pleasures. My favorite way to end a meal in Italy.


Barolo and Barbaresco

In general, these two areas produce wines that are similar in structure: Big, spicy, earthy, tannic and needing age to show their full promise. They also are famous for having relatively few great vintages in a given decade (thankfully the 90’s are a major exception). Barolo has to be aged 4 years before release so 1997 is the current vintage. Barbaresco is aged a year less and you are seeing more and more 1998’s on the market. There are riserva and riserva speciale designations which are becoming less and less common because the move now is to less aging. We are now in an embarrassment of riches since 1996, 1997 and 1999 are all superb vintages. I have not tasted any 1998 Barbaresco’s yet so I cannot assess them, and the 1999’s are still in cask or are bottled but not released. The aging period called for in the DOC speaks to barrel, cask or bottle aging. Nowadays the move is on to age the wines along a more Bordeaux like regime-two years in barrique (60 gallon or so French oak barrels). I am not a fan of too much new oak- the vanillin it contains makes the wines more drinkable when young but takes away from the character of the grape as the wine ages. I prefer aging wines in either old oak or in larger sized barrels.

There are several large vineyards where ownership has been split up so that now there are many owners of these vineyards. Some of the best known in Barolo are Brunate, La Serra, Canubbi, Bussia etc. Many producers will have a vineyard designation on their wines and may produce several examples. I myself love wines of Bussia, Brunate, La Serra and Canubbi so I will try other producers wines when I see these vineyards.

I do not like my Barolo and Barbaresco too aged, but with all the modern advances in winemaking we will just have to wait and see. I usually buy 2 bottles of a given wine with the idea of opening one in about 5 to 7 years after release (10 years for a Barolo from vintage date and maybe 8 for a Barbaresco) and then judging what to do with the second by how well the first has done.

1996 is one of the greatest vintages ever in Barolo and Barbaresco in my opinion. The wines are classically styled with loads of both fruit and tannin. These are serious wines that will benefit from 5 or so year in a good cellar. I am especially impressed with Barbaresco’s from 1996. This vintage is still available fairly widely. The 1997’s have overshadowed the 1996’s but there are serious wines to buy and cellar. If you want to drink today or in the near future, buy 1997’s.

1997 is a controversial vintage because the Nebbiolo got so ripe in that year. I have tasted some simply outstanding wines. True they are not classically styled but they are yummy! I personally am buying my favorite producers in pairs so I have a little of both vintages. I have not had many Barbaresco’s from ’97 but have had several Barolo’s and have enjoyed them immensely. Great producers who grow all their own grapes have done well in 1997. Producers who also make a fruit oriented style in most years also have done better then those who make really big wines typically.

Barbera’s can be released relatively young. There are several areas where you will find Barberas made – Barbera di Alba and Dogliani are two of the most common. There used to be consistent differences between the two regions but now I would have to say house style is more important. 1997 is a superb vintage for Barbera as the grape is wonderful in years when it is fully ripe or even a bit overripe. 1997 is an overripe year.

Dolcetto is the everyday wine of folk in Piemonte, yet it is not too well respected here. They can be very big and rich. 1997 again is a superb vintage. 1999 and 2000’s are available and I am impressed with both vintages so far.

Food Matches

Nebbiolo is milder and smoother than Barolo and Barbaresco. Still it is a big wine and should go with grilled meats and game birds. It can also go with pasta sauced with red wine containing sauces.

Dolcetto is a wonderful wine to accompany a wide range of flavors. Its superb with almost any pasta except one with fish sauce. While I do subscribe to the red wine with fish theory, that does not include the red wines of Piemonte – they are just too tannic and will be too bitter with fish. I also love Dolcetto with a platter of salumi. Again, some are higher in acidity so they might go better with stews and rich dishes. I love Dolcetto with my pasta course, especially if the sauce is mushroom based, Bolognese or truffles. Dolcetto will also go with a range of meats from a simple grilled or roast chicken to veal to heavy stews. For this reason it is a great restaurant wine where people will be having a wide variety of different dishes.

Barbera is a rough and ready wine that will go perfectly with rich stews like stracotto. In fact, I like to use a little of the wine I am going to drink in the stew. The wine won’t be hurt by several hours of air time if it is a big one.

Barolo and Barbaresco are serious wines (and seriously expensive!). they need to be well thought out in terms of food choices. This is the wine for grilled or stewed game, especially cinghiale, cervo (venison) and ostrich. I love it with quail if the little birds have been marinated. I would also love it with a fiorentina or any other big thick chunk of steak. Lastly, there is no better wine for a cheese course. You can go wild and try all sorts of wonderfully pungent (OK stinky) cheeses and the wine will hold up easily. I love it with parmigiano reggiano, especially when splashed with a little aceto balsamico vecchio (25 years old or more).

Arneis and Gavi are for the obvious choices, fish and chicken as well as lighter pasta sauces and veggie dishes. I really don’t go out of my way to drink whites from Piemonte, far preferring Trentino or Friuli whites.

Moscato d’Asti is a perfect wine for sipping with some fruit for a hot summer day pick me up or to go before the dessert. Although it is sweet, it will not hold up to an ooey gooey dessert as it is very low in alcohol. It will be very nice with a bit of plain, not too sweet cake.


Most producers make several DOC’s in this region. For example, Gaja makes Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto and a couple of blends and single vineyard wines. He also makes Cabernet and Chardonnay, but these are just missed opportunities to have more Nebbiolo planted. This practice makes for a way to organize your thoughts on the reds of Piemonte. Most producers, at least the smaller ones, have a distinct house style. When I like one wine from a producer a lot, there is a great chance that I also like their other wines. So I tend to stick with a lesser variety of producers that I really love. Lastly, my education into Piemonte reds came largely from the importers Neil and Maria Empson, so his wines are over represented in my favorites. I will go from producer to producer and not grape by grape in giving my favorites.

Marcarini – My favorite producer. Manuel Manchetti and his wife are some of the nicest people I have ever met in the wine business. In the late 1800’s, her family was the first to use a single vineyard designation on a Barolo with the Brunate vineyard. The house style is to emphasize fruit characteristics. They have superb sites in Barolo in La Serra and Brunate. They also make the best Dolcetto I have ever had, the extremely hard to find Boschi di Berry. This vineyard has the oldest vines in all of Italy, being over 140 years old and planted pre phyloxera. This wine is stunning when you can find it. Their “regular” Dolcetto called Fontanezza is quite fine but nothing as extraordinary as the BdiB. Their Moscato is a picture of freshness and fun, my favorite.

Ca’ Rome – A newer producer. I believe the family was in the wine business before coming into the winemaking trade. They produced what is my single favorite red from Piemonte- their Barbaresco Maria di Brun. They only export Barolo and Barbaresco to the US as far as I know. They make a DOCG Barbaresco every vintage. In exceptional vintages, the best barrels are selected to form the Maria di Brun. It is named after, I believe, the grandmother of the current winemaking generation. They have two Barolo’s: Rapet and Vigna Ceretta. All their wines are stunning in my opinion. My second favorite producer after Marcarini.

Luigi Einaudi – Here is a more rustic style that has been freshened up over time. The wines are true to their rustic style yet well made and modern in a rustic way. They make Barbera, Dolcetto and Barolo, having several bottlings from each area. They make my other favorite Dolcetto bottling (second only to Boschi di Berry) called Vigna Tecc. Luigi Einaudi was the first president of the Italian republic as well as mayor of Alba, and his grandchildren are now involved with the winery. They really do an outstanding job!

Podere Cola – From the family that made A Prunotto such a great wine estate comes this newer property. They have Barolo, Barbaresco as well as Bricco del Drago which is a wonderful blend of 85% Dolcetto with 15% of either Barbera or Nebbiolo (I think it’s the latter, I am too senile to remember and the cellar is 2 stories down!). I love both their Barolo Bussia and their Barbaresco Tenuta Roncaglia.

Tenuta Caretta – A more rustic style, great Barolo from the Canubbi site. A great bargain.

Aldo Conterno – A more traditional style of wine, very big.

Gaja – The most famous name in the area but I think the wines are far too expensive for their quality. There has also developed a sameness to the wines, a house style that overrides the differences between the grapes and the vineyards they come from. I once heard Angelo Gaja say that the name Gaja is in large type and the name Barbaresco in small type because what is important in that the wine is from Gaja. I feel he has been hoisted on his own petard by this philosophy. House styles are important but I also want a wine to taste of where it comes from.

Bruno Giacosa – One of my favorite producers but sadly one I can not really afford. His wines are very pricey for what they are. Even though they may be among the best from that area.

Ceretto – Another of the big three most famous producers (and among the highest priced). Not as painful as Giacosa or Gaja but still you pay more for his wines of a given quality than you will with lesser names. Makes a wonderful Arneis Blange and Moscato, both in a crackling style. The Moscato is not as good as and is more expensive than Marcarini’s, but is widely poured by the glass both in Italy and at fine Italian eateries here.

G Mascarello – The first Barolo I ever tasted. His single vineyard bottling “Mon Privato” is superb. Huge wines with a rough edge. I love them.

Produttori del Barbaresco – A cooperative that bottles a huge array from various vineyards. While they are not my favorite producers, it can be a real eye opening experience to get together with a bunch of Barbaresco buffs and taste thru a range of various vineyards. You will not believe the range of flavors from grapes grown in a very small geographic area. All of Barbaresco is much smaller than the Napa Valley. It’s more in line with the Stag’s Leap District or Carneros in size.

Giacomo Bologna – One of the great Barbera producers. Giacomo made the first “Super Barberas” to really take hold, leading to a range of very high end Barberas. His wines have always delivered the goods but I have not tasted any for several vintages (’93 or ’95 were the last I tasted). I look forward to trying a ’97 to see if they have maintained their standards. These Barberas are just as expensive as a good Barolo or Barbaresco, and just as good!

R Voerzio – A very famous wine geek name, fairly hard to find and a little on the high end of things. Wonderful wines.

Moccagatta – Incredible Barbaresco from Bric Balin and Bassarin. Superb wines in a more modern style. Very spicy wines. Worth the money. They also make great Barbera and Dolcetto if you can find them.

Buying Wine

Almost everyone who travels to Italy brings back at least a bottle or two of wine. I have brought home 22 bottles in carry on before. We had two leather bags jammed full. The strap broke on one bag but I was able to avert disaster. However, the memory of lugging 68 pounds of wine through the airport is indelibly etched in my mind (not to say on my shoulders). Nowadays I check all my wine and use luggage carts.

How to carry back your wine

Since most of us go to Italy only every so often, buying wine there takes a little planning. And somehow checked luggage is always taken up by such things as clothing! This trip I am taking 2 Styrofoam wine carriers with me as checked luggage and will fill them over there with mostly Brunello. We will return with 5 pieces of luggage – 2 checked pieces of luggage (extra room for all the clothes buying we are planning to do!), one carry on and 2 wine shippers. I have checked with United and checking an extra case would run $105. With the savings on good bottles running $20 to $40 a bottle, an $8.00 freight charge per bottle would be worth it.

If you do go the checked baggage route, use only shippers with Styrofoam inserts. Do not use the pressboard shippers or boxes with foam pellets or bubble wrap as many airlines will not allow these to be checked. Go to the airport with the cartons open so they can be inspected at check in. The airline will give you tape to seal your baggage. The folks behind you may scowl but… We have moved upwards of 50 cases in Styrofoam shippers and never lost a bottle. Some of my wine carriers would have already earned a free ticket if only they had a frequent flyer number. You can buy the Styrofoam shippers most anywhere but I fill out my allotment of luggage with shippers whenever I travel to wine country so I don’t get caught short.

Wine Buying Strategies

Now on to considering a strategy for what YOU are buying. What I buy has no relevance to what you are buying. I will buy about 80% or more red wines. You may not drink the stuff. I know a lot of people who buy some every day stuff in Italy and then find they have only saved a few dollars over what they could have bought it for here in the US. While it is a fun reminder of your trip to pull a bottle with a label all in Italian and without all the US regulated verbiage on it, the wine is the same stuff inside (unless you are dealing with large winery plonk). If your wine merchant knows you by name, you will probably have a very different strategy than if your wine drinking consists of the occasional bottle when you have company over. If your wine merchants rub their hands with glee and say “Look honey, we just paid for another year of Suzie at Harvard!” whenever you walk in … just move over there!

Your strategy has to work for your drinking style. While it is fun to find some really inexpensive and wonderful wines in Italy, do the math when figuring out what to bring home. I love to drink local and obscure wines that are dirt cheap over there and are much more expensive or not available over here. However, I never buy anything inexpensive over there to bring home unless the bottle has some great sentimental value. It is the same hassle and cost per bottle to bring home a great bottle as for a bottle of plonk. I target wines that cost $30 to $50 or more over here and shoot for a $20.00 a bottle savings or more.

For example, Rosso di Montalcino that sells for $12.00 in Montalcino and $30 in Washington DC are almost as good a buy as Antinori that costs $70 in Toscana and $100.00 here. Plus I drink a heck of a lot more of the $30.00 a bottle wine than I ever do of the $100.00 a bottle wine. My typical wine drinking runs to the $15-20.00 bottle but I drink a $30.00 bottle about 1-2 times a month. Those 2 cases from Italy will supply me for a year with some pretty good drinking (or actually add to my cellar as I pull out some of the older stuff!). If you do drink a lot of Amarone, Barolo and Brunello etc., you can save a lot. A case at $30 to $40 a bottle average instead of the $60 to $70 you would pay for the really top flight producers here is going to add up. It almost pays for the trip! At least that’s what I tell my wife.

Do your homework before you go. You will almost certainly know what part of the country you are traveling to. Do some research on the wines of the area. Check out Victor Hazan or Burton Anderson (my 2 favorite wine writers on Italy). Go to wine shops and find out pricing on wines from the area. Even do a little tasting to see what you like before you get there. Once there be sure to stop in at wine bars where you can taste through a range of wines to see as wide a variety of styles as possible. I am past the stage where I like to make my dinner into a wine tasting so I do my comparing before dinner at the enoteca where we all have different wines and trade tastes. When I do find a great wine at dinner, I ask the waiter where I should go to buy wine locally. I have been turned on to several great shops that way. Markups in restaurants over retail can be a lot less in Italy so I have actually bought bottles from the restaurant and still got a great buy.

While I love to drink local, there is many a great wine shop where you can buy wines from all over Italy. There is a wonderful shop in Monteriggioni with not only great Tuscan wines, but also a very good selection of Barolo and Barbaresco at great prices. Any good enoteca or wine shop will have some Amarone, Barolo and Barbaresco as well as others. Try a few tastes if offered and give your opinion to the wine seller. They should then be able to steer you to some other things you will also like.

I would rather buy fewer types of wine and get more bottles of each. For example I am not buying the last of the 1996 Borolo’s and Barbaresco’s I can find. The 1997 and 1998 vintages are also good, but I am sticking to ’96 mostly. Why? Because there is a vintage effect. The 1996’s will vary from producer to producer but there will be some vintage wide characteristics across all producers. The long lived-ness and ready to drink-ness of the wines will have some similarity. For example the 1996 Barolos are less ready to drink than the 1997’s, as a whole. By buying 3 or 4 bottles of each wine, I can go back and taste the wines as they develop. Also a great way to learn about a region is to compare different producers in a given vintage. Also, by sticking to estate bottlers (that is wineries that own their vineyards) you will get to know a house style which will help you decide on the next good vintage. If you do not cellar wines as I do, this is not a factor in your strategy. Also, if you do not cellar wines, you have more options as many vintages are quite good to drink young but not age-worthy. 1998 in Toscana is a prime example. I have yet to taste anything worth extended cellaring but some wineries have produced perfectly lovely wines.

A last point: as good a buy as you can get on wines, high end spirits may be an even better buy! The liquor market is dominated by huge and very expensive importers. Great cognacs and single malts are often available at a third of what they would cost in the US. Since really great cognacs and malts can easily cost $100.00 a bottle over here, a few bottles of the good stuff can really add to your savings.