I am no great wine expert, but during the forty-plus years that I have been working in Italy I’ve drunk a good deal of it. Mostly red. In fact almost all red. The two exceptions to this rule come from opposite ends of the country: Tokai from the north and a couple of Sicilian whites, which warrant a story.
A couple of years ago I had a great lunch in Florence with my friend Matteo Renzi, a brilliant 32-year-old politician who had been elected and reelected as president of the Province of Florence. He asked me what sort of wine I preferred, and I said “red,” and he agreed, and we settled on a local chianti. But as the waiter headed off, Matteo said “wait a minute, is there any more of that Sicilian Chardonnay?” There was, and it duly arrived. It came from the Planeta vineyards, and it was golden, so rich and bright to look at that I was flabbergasted. And it tasted just like that, an explosive flavor that brightened up the whole day. Since then I’ve gone through pretty much the whole Planeta line, red and white, and they’re all terrific, especially “the other white,” which they call Cometa. They’re not cheap, so be forewarned.
I mean, if a hardline Tuscan raves about a Sicilian white wine, you know it’s fabulous, right? And it is. It’s magical.
Sicilian wines for a long time were a bad joke, but I suspect that the Sicilians kept all the good stuff for themselves and sent the junk to the “continent,” as they call mainland Italy. Nowadays there is no end of wonderful Sicilian wines. In the Ledeen house we favor a vineyard called “Donna Fugata” (runaway woman), which I believe is the estate of Count Lampedusa, the celebrated author of The Leopard. Many of the wines are named after characters in the novel, but the very best is called “Mille e una notte,” which is a Nero d’Avola, a strong, very dark red wine that is the southern equivalent of the Piedmontese Barolos and Barbarescos. A few years ago such wonders cost much less than the northern stuff, but the Sicilians have caught up.
For many years, I simply looked at the import label on the back of Italian wines, and whenever I saw anything handled by Marco de Grazia, I knew it was great. A few years ago, Marco bought a vineyard in Sicily and is now making his own wine, a delightful red called Etna Rosso. The vineyard is called Tenute delle Terre Nere. It’s a work in progress, but the first results have been spectacular. Marco is the son of the great scholar Sebastian (who won a Pulitzer for his intellectual biography of Machiavelli).
The other big island, Sardinia, has also delivered itself of a long-secret treasure, the incredible Cabernet from Terre Brune. Strong, vigorous, luscious…Sardinia has very sandy, volcanic soil, just what you want for its ancient vines. It’s not easy to find, but it’s worth the hunt.
We spend more and more time in the south (I have developed a theory that the “south” everywhere is more fun than the “north,” even in the southern hemisphere), but that is no reason to limit yourself to southern wines, and the Tuscans and Piedmontese quite rightly dominate the American market. We can’t afford the legendary reds (although, believe it or not, Barbara miraculously found some Tignanello at Costco for a relative song), so let’s just say if you’re lucky enough to get an Ornellaia or a Solaia, or a Tignanello or a top Brunello di Montalcino, sing a nice aria and light a cigar and praise your good luck. But if you have to invest your hard-earned money, buy Rosso di Montalcino instead of the Brunello–you have to have a highly sensitive palate to tell the difference, and you can save sixty or seventy percent of the price. There are lots of new labels around, but it’s hard to make a mistake if you stick with Antinori, Frescobaldi, Ciacci and Avignonesi. I love Luce (the pun very much intended), which is a joint American-Italian production from the Tuscan Frescobaldis and the California Mondavis.
The best bargains I know of come from Guicciardini (yes, that family) and Il Palazzone, both terrific Chianti vineyards.
By the way, for some years the Tuscans put a black rooster on bottles they wanted to certify as “the real stuff,” but I don’t think we have to worry about that any more. During the Chirac years, when Americans cut back on French wine, the Italians worked hard to maintain good quality across the board, so you don’t need that certification any more.
And one other thing: there are some great wines that are known as “super Tuscans.” I don’t know where the “super” came from, since it only means they are blended, and not squeezed from only one variety of grape. It’s kind of like the Rosso di Montalcino; there are some other grapes in there, not just the ones certified as Brunello.
The Piedmontese stuff is for serious wine drinkers, and it’s hard to find great bargains on Barolo and Barbaresco, which are the icons of the region. You can still find some reasonably priced cases from Altare and Clerico, as well as from Einaudi, which I enjoy both because it’s great wine and because it comes from the family estates of post-war Italy’s terrific first president and outstanding liberal economist, who would have been quite comfortable plying his trade at the University of Chicago with Milton Friedman et. al. And if you can find it, try Boroli’s line of Barolo and Nebbiolo. Full disclosure: Mr. Boroli is a friend who has two businesses: wine and books. He’s my current publisher in Italy, so I love him for two very good reasons.