My personal connection to Italy and its wines is deeper than any other. And so, I’ve consumed more Italian wine for a longer period, which means this list is currently the longest on the site.
What makes an Italian wine so special? From Friuli-Venezia Giulia to Sicily, Piedmont to Puglia, it often comes down to those wild and uniquely Italian grapes that aren’t grown anywhere else. Italy’s best wines are more often than not the collaboration of an indigenous varietal and its ability to express a certain place. I think of Nebbiolo showing off its feminine side in Barbaresco, or a Ribolla Gialla that begs to be served with fish from the nearby Adriatic Sea.
My list has historically — and will continue to have — a bit of a bend toward Piedmont. This is where I had my “a-ha” moment with wine many years ago, and along with being the area I know best, it is also the area where I’ve had the most time and effort to sample multiple bottlings from its producers. Another reason Piedmont rules this list is because of it’s trinity of grapes: most producers make a Dolcetto, a Barbera and a Nebbiolo (usually a Barolo or Barbaresco or both), and unlike in France, I can actually afford many of these wines. So meeting the Essential Winemakers criteria has happened faster.
At the moment, conspicuously absent from this list is Tuscany and Sicily, but we have a few producers who are on the verge. The criteria is the same as elsewhere in the world: Three different outstanding wines or three excellent vintages of the same wine. Truthfully, for my palate, delineation from one wine to the next is trickier in Tuscany. But stay tuned. I think we’ll have some newcomers from these iconic regions soon.
Valtellina, Italy • www.ninonegri.net
What they make: A huge roster of mostly Nebbiolo-based wines from Italy’s Valtellina region northeast of Lake Como. At the top end of the range you will find three different Sforzato di Valtellina (a Nebbiolo wine made in the style of Amarone), and 13 different bottlings of Valtellina Superiore. Also look for their white blend, Ca’ Brione, as well as Grappa and a traditional method sparkling wine called Cuvée Negri (not yet tasted).
Why I’m partial: Valtellina Superiore is — in my opinion — the most underrated red wine in Italy, and the versions made by Nino Negri are consistently excellent ambassadors of this light-bodied, aromatic Nebbiolo. The black-label “Inferno” Valtellina Superiore is the wine that turned me onto to this compelling region, while “Le Tense” is currently the best of the lot. Both are accessible in youth, but will improve with age.
I have also sampled one of their three Sforzato di Valtellina bottlings — called “Sfursat” — and found it to be a monstrous powerhouse of detail, persistence and intrigue. I’m holding on to a 2010 vintage for as long as possible to see how it develops.
However, where Nino Negri really shows its versatility as a wine house is the Ca’ Brione. Simply put, this delicate, creamy and toasty white wine is delicious and worth every penny.
Importer: Frederick Wildman
Alba, Italy • www.piocesare.it
What they make: Exquisite Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Barbera d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Alba, Arneis, Gavi, Chardonnay and Moscato d’Asti.
Why I’m partial: Pio Cesare is responsible for two of the five greatest wines I have ever tasted: a 2010 Barbaresco and a 2004 Barolo from the Ornato vineyard. Beyond that, they offer a lifetime of wine-drinking adventures with a portfolio of wines that spans Piedmont’s signature grapes. They would make a fabulous introduction to Piedmont if they didn’t set the bar so high.
Their standard Barbera d’Alba tastes like an upper-echelon fine wine (for $24), and their Dolcetto d’Alba may be the best I’ve had. But the wines of Pio Cesare really sing at the top end. The aforementioned Barolo from the Ornato vineyard is the only wine I wouldn’t hesitate spending $100 for. Considering their long history, respect for tradition but willingness to embrace modern techniques, they’ll continue to sit at the top of the hill in Piedmont.
Importer: Maisons Marques & Domaines
Read more: Transcendent Barbera d’Alba from Pio Cesare
Castiglione Falletto (Barolo DOCG) • www.vietti.com
What they make: Vietti is one of Piedmont’s most storied winemaking houses, with the Vietti name first gracing bottles in 1919 (but the family has been producing wine since the 19th century). Today, they offer an impressive array of wines, 16 in total at last check, ranging from excellent everyday Barbera d’Asti, to elegant Roero Arneis (an indigenous white grape they helped save in the 1970s), to six different Barolos.
Why I am partial: Helmed by Luca Currado, Vietti is one of the most consistently excellent winemakers in Italy. You won’t find any Chardonnay or other international grapes in their portfolio. Vietti is loyal to Piedmont’s grapes, but not just Nebbiolo. Luca’s father helped resurrect Arneis in the late 1960s, and Luca has been instrumental in elevating the profile of Barbera with the Barbera d’Asti “La Crena” and Barbera d’Alba “Vigna Vecchia Scarrone” bottlings.
But let’s not forget the Nebbiolo, either. “Perbacco” is an entry-level Nebbiolo Langhe that is not only available everywhere, but is a reliable, easy choice with great value — the perfect first-taste of Nebbiolo if you’ve never tried it. Next, step up to the Barolo di Castiglione Falletto — a blend from a variety of vineyards in the Barolo region — which will give you a sense for how the Nebbiolo grape transforms in the vineyards of Barolo (all without spending more than $50). Vietti also bottles several single-vineyard cru Barolo and Barbaresco, which I’ll just have to get to at a later date.
Importer: Dalla Terra Winery Direct
Read more: The Long Story Arc of Barolo // Vietti & the Rascal: Roero Arneis // 15 Great Wines for Fall (2015 Edition) // The Simple Joys of Moscato d’Asti // A Vineyard’s Story: Barbera d’Asti from La Crena
Produttori del Barbaresco
Barbaresco, Italy • www.produttoridelbarbaresco.com
What they make: Nothing but Nebbiolo. Really, really beautiful Nebbiolo.
One of the world’s greatest wine co-operatives, Produttori del Barbaresco makes up to 11 different bottlings each vintage, from more than 50 wine growers in the Barbaresco area. Of these, nine are single-vineyard Reserva Barbaresco that are only made in the best vintages. The other two wines are a multi-vineyard blend of Barbaresco and a Langhe Nebbiolo — two of Italy’s greatest value wines.
Why I’m partial: Yes, the wines of Produttori del Barbaresco are consistently excellent, but what they offer to an adventurous Italian wine lover — in terms of horizontal tastings from a single area from a single winemaker with a singular ethos — is unparalleled. Without the gravitas of a celebrity winemaker, and with an emphasis on traditional winemaking processes, these wines have a purity and consistency that make them the perfect gateway to the wonderful wines of the area.
I’ve only sampled five of their 11 wines, but of those I’ve tasted, my favorite is the 2011 from the Ovello vineyard. It takes the aromatic characteristics of Nebbiolo — the cherries, the roses, the tar — and amplifies them to a significant degree, all without blowing out your palate with tannic overload. There are also distinct details of raspberry and bitter espresso that I’d like to think are the distinct hallmarks of this particular vineyard. Perhaps I should drink more to find out.
Importer: Vias Imports, Ltd.
Marchesi di Grésy
Barbaresco, Italy • www.marchesidigresy.com
What they make: Some of the finest wine from the finest appellation in Italy, Barbaresco. Look for their cru-designated wines from the Martinenga vineyard, mineral-driven white wines, as well the “usual suspects” of Piedmont — Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo.
Why I’m partial: Marchesi di Gresy is a standout in a region that stands out. I prefer Barbaresco to Barolo (and pretty much any wine in the world) because of its delicate, floral-and-earth qualities, and because they are approachable at a younger age. And Marchesi di Gresy’s trio of Barbaresco wines from the Martinenga vineyard are at the pinnacle. It took me a second tasting — with winemaker Alessandro Cisa Asinari di Gresy no less — to fully wrap my head and heart around their complexity and beauty. The day after that tasting, their aroma would revisit me, even when I was thinking of something totally different. Not many wines can do that.
The standard Martinenga Barbaresco bottling is great, and very affordable. The Camp Gros and Gaiun bottlings — both from specific plots within Martinenga — represent the best of the appellation. They are worth ponying up for.
Also not to be missed is their Sauvignon Langhe. It’ll make you wonder why the world doesn’t spend more time hunting down white wines from the Langhe.
Importer: Dalla Terra Winery Direct
Read more: A Vineyard’s Story: Martinenga Barbaresco
La Morra (Barolo DOCG)
What he makes: Excellent Barolo (more rose than tar) from the La Morra side of the DOCG, Nebbiolo Langhe, and a red blend with the Yes We Can name of Vino Rosso del Popolo (Red Wine of the People).
Why I’m partial: My wife and I were guests of the Bocchino’s family inn — the spectacular Villa Carita, which they have unfortunately closed. But staying at that home allowed us to develop a deep bond with their wines and the terroir of La Morra. Our guest room backdoor was a mere 10 feet from clusters of Nebbiolo grapes that are ultimately ending up in their 2012 vintage. As their guests, they also opened their winery door to us and gave us a private tasting in the kitchen during the height of harvest.
One of their Barolo is named after their daughter (“Lu”), and I have a 2006 vintage of it sitting in my cellar, awaiting some special moment. (Now at 10+ years of age, I have a green light to open it). Since the time of that first tasting, I’ve sampled numerous Barolo and Barbaresco. Bocchino’s wines strike me as a bit more approachable and open than many. Time will tell how detailed his wines are after significant age.
Importer: Gianonni Selections
Abbazia di Novacella
Alto Adige Valle Isarco DOC • www.abbazianovacella.it
What they make: A full line of classic, elegant and straight-forward wines typical of Italy’s northern Alto Adige region: a plum-tastic Lagrein with notes of wintergreen mint, a light Schiava that marries almond and pie-cherry, and an exquisite Kerner, a white wine that brings savory, nutty and floral scents together in an intriguing manner.
Why I am partial: Kloster Neustift is an Augustinian monastery underneath the Dolomites where the monks take vows of chastity, obedience and poverty. Yet they still support themselves financially through the sale of these wines. As much as I love their Lagrein and Schiava, its their Pinot Grigio which puts them on this list: it is easily Italy’s best, as it is more similar to a fine dry Riesling than any of the insipid, crummy Italian “P.G.” on the market.
Importer: Michael Skurnik Wines
Valpolicella • www.zenato.it
What they make: Veneto’s Valpolicella wine region is a world apart (even by Italian standards), and the suite of wines from Zenato are the perfect crash course for falling in love with them. Try their “entry-level” Superiore for a first-taste of the region, their “Alanera” proprietary blend as a next step, and then splurge for their “Ripassa” and Amerone as a final step.
Why I am partial: As I began to explore the Valpolicella region at home, I kept discovering that Zenato’s wines excelled over others. They are distinct, focused and decidedly indulgent with the right amount of acidity: rich black and purple fruit, and layers of vanilla, raisins and violets. No other wine that I have tasted better shows what Valpolicella is capable of than their five-star “Ripassa.”
Importer: The Winebow Group
Marco Felluga / Russiz Superiore
Collio Orientali del Friuli • www.marcofelluga.it
What they make: Some of the purest, most precise and refreshing white wines I’ve ever enjoyed, from the northeastern corner of Italy. Two brands under one winemaker, together they offer 26 different wines, at least at last check. But stick to what the area is best known for: indigenous varietals Friulano and Ribolla Gialla, as well as minerally Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Grigio that will change your opinion of what Pinot Grigio can be.
Why I am partial: The white wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia — while being hailed regularly as the best in Italy — are still not readily available. But of the Friulian winemakers who do import to the United States and are distributed widely, Marco Felluga and Russiz Superiore are easily the best in my opinion. Few winemakers can present so many layers to a white wine while still retaining a precise focus and ensuring the wine supports a wide variety of dishes. I haven’t tried their red wines yet, but will continue to seek them out.
Importer: Dalla Terra Winery Direct
Read more: Russiz Superiore Collio Sauvignon