The New Italian Renaissance

Spurred by the Demise of a Feudal Farming System, a New Generation of Italian Winemakers Has Finally Realized Its Potential

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Today, Italy's wines are the nectar of a social and economic revolution. The potential was there for centuries. After all, everybody knew about Chianti and Barolo. But until recently, the wines simply weren't all that good. Today, cognoscenti clamor for the tiny, expensive production of hundreds of growers in dozens of regions.

Everywhere in Italy--and that includes the beleaguered south, which is rising again--you find winegrowers making extraordinary wines. In the region north of Venice, in the far northeastern corner of Italy on the border of the former Yugoslavia, is the district of Friuli. Its wines have exploded in popularity, and quality, in the last decade.

Indigenous white grapes such as Ribolla Gialla, Picolit and Tocai Friuliano grow alongside better-known varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Producers such as Jermann, Doro Princic, Schiopetto, Gravner and Edi Kante, among many others, create red and white wines of extreme finesse and flavor purity.

Hard against the Alps in high-elevation Alto Adige-Süd Tirol, the language is as much German as Italian. But the wines are pure Italian renaissance, with producers such as Alois Lageder making delicate whites from a dozen different grapes and the Hofstätter family issuing a thrilling indigenous red from an all-but-forgotten grape called Lagrein.

Just south of Alto Adige is Trentino, where the gentle climate and gravelly soil creates a lush, soft red wine from a highly localized grape called Teroldego Rotaliano. The leading producer is Foradori, run by the talented, hardworking (with calluses to prove it) Elisabetta Foradori.

In the northwestern corner is Piedmont, Italy's richest wine region in every sense. This is where the majestic red wines called Barolo and Barbaresco are grown, made entirely from the quirky Nebbiolo grape variety. The list of top producers is the wine version of the old MGM Studios, so dazzling is the array of stars. Names such as Angelo Gaja, Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno, Vietti, Enrico Scavino, Elio Grasso, Roberto Voerzio, G.D. Vajra, Ceretto, Pio Cesare, Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Marchesi di Gresy, Produttori del Barbaresco and Cappellano, among many others, are snapped up upon release. Prices have never been higher, between $50 and $250 a bottle.

Everywhere you turn in Italy today you trip over exemplary wines. You find them tucked away in little districts such as Bolgheri, along the Tuscan coast. Or by volcanic hillsides such as Mount Vesuvius outside of Naples or Mount Etna in Sicily. Vineyards growing delicious grapes with odd names like Pigato and Vermentino are carved into impossibly steep terraces, one row of vines per terrace, with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea in Liguria.

Of course, there's ultrafashionable Tuscany, with its famous Chianti zone, as well as a district called Brunello di Montalcino, which is home to some of Italy's longest-lived, most expensive red wines. Chianti, especially the heartland district called Chianti Classico, has seen immense outside investment in the past 20 years, as Germans, Swiss, English, Americans and non-Tuscan Italians have snapped up country estates and poured fortunes into restoring vineyards. The locals have snapped to attention, too, desperate not to miss the adrenaline rush of ambition.

Look for Chianti names such as Antinori, Riecine, Dievole, Savignola Paolina, Castello di Volpaia, Badia a Coltibuono, Selvapiana, Frescobaldi, Isole e Olena, Castello della Paneretta, Castellare di Castellina, Castello di Fonterutoli, Fattoria di Vignamaggio, Fattoria Monsanto and La Massa, among many others in the Chianti zone. Prices remain among Italy's most reasonable for wines of accomplishment, typically about $20 for the standard-bearer bottlings.

In nearby Brunello di Montalcino, prices are more stratospheric, typically starting at $50 and ascending to $200 a bottle. Are they worth it? Regrettably, often not. Still, a great Brunello--which needs at least a decade's aging--is a memorable experience. Look for producers such as Conti Costanti, Costello Banfi, Biondi-Santi, Casse Basse, Il Marroneto, Il Poggione, Talenti, Caprili, Canalicchio di Sopra and Pieve di Santa Restituta (owned by Angelo Gaja).

The list is truly endless. Italy makes France seem, well, shopworn. In every wine village a new generation takes over, brushes off the dust and seemingly overnight issues wines that have tongues wagging, mouths salivating and hands reaching for wallets. Italy is really like that. Its wines have never been better, brighter, cleaner, fresher or more adventurous. It's a wine galaxy unleashed--and gone supernova.

Portland, Oregon-based Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator, a sister publication of Cigar Aficionado.

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