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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 result of an indigenous varietal expressing the character of a certain place. I think of Nebbiolo showing off its delicate side in Barbaresco, Frappato and Nero d’Avola walking a tightrope of sweet and sour in Sicily, or a Verdicchio that asks for a recipe inspired by the nearby Adriatic Sea.

My list has historically — and will continue to have — a bit of a bend toward Piedmont, especially its heart, The Langhe. This is where I had my “a-ha” moment with wine many years ago, and as a result, it has become an area of speciality and emphasis. But Piedmont has added intrigued because it is flush with compelling grapes: many producers make a Dolcetto, a Barbera and a Nebbiolo (usually a Barolo or Barbaresco or both, as well as an entry-level Nebbiolo). While Barolo and Barbaresco often hog the spotlight, Dolcetto and Barbera are ready young, and totally enchanting in their own right. And let’s not forget about Freisa, Grignolino, Arneis, Cortese, Timorasso and Moscato.

If there is a problem with Piedmont, its that it can corner you with obsession, and make you ignore the other remarkable regions of Italy. Sicily continues to enchant with its multitude of wild wines, both sweet and dry (I’m still working on listing an Etna producer … one of this list’s blind spots, I know). Meanwhile, the Sangiovese-dominated region of Tuscany has three producers represented who have managed to thread-the-needle between power and elegance with their wines. Veneto also has a strong showing because it is arguably Italy’s most wine-obsessed region. And I am determined in the next few months to pay tribute to many of Italy’s lesser-known but equally dynamic regions — Valle d’Aosta, Marche, Campagna — with a few special additions to this list. Watch this space.

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Abbazia di Novacella

Essential Winemaker of Italy: Arianna Occhipinti

Essential Winemakers of Italy: ARPEPE

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Azienda Agricola COS

Bisol: Essential Winemakers of Italy

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Buglioni

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Castello di Volpaia

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Donnafugata

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Fattoria Selvapiana

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Marchesi di Grésy

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Marco Felluga / Russiz Superiore

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Nino Negri

Oddero Essential Winemaker

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Pio Cesare

The wines of Poderi Sanguineto, ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Produttori del Barbaresco

Essential Winemakers of Italy: Vietti

Our list for Italy will continue to grow faster than any other because — in my opinion — it is the world’s most complex and idiosyncratic wine country. There is just so much exploring to do.


Abbazia di Novacella

2014 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Valle Isarco, Alto Adige •  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

Read more: Only in Northern Italy: The Simple Beauty of Lagrein // Schiava from Alto Adige


Arianna Occhipinti

The wines of Arianna Occhipinti ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Vittoria, Sicilia • www.agricolaocchipinti.it

What she makes: Meticulous, thoughtful and thrilling red and white wines from the heart of Sicily’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria appellation. Start with her two “entry-level” wines named after the historic SP68 road which divides the appellation. There is a red and a white. Move up into her pure varietal expressions with Il Frappato and Siccagno (a Nero d’Avola) then taste Arianna’s take on Sicily’s only DOCG regulated wine — Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato — with the Grotte Alte bottling. There’s also a passito version of Nero d’Avola and a Grappa to seek out.

Why I am partial: Arianna Occhipinti is the niece of Giusto Occhipinti (the “O” in COS, see below). In her teens, she began to apprentice with her uncle before moving on to viticultural school, where — as she describes — she grew frustrated with how the program was teaching “a recipe for wine.” She returned to Sicily and launched her own endeavor, determined to make wines in a more nature way. She was 22 at the time.

Arianna’s wines are Exhibit A that natural wines can be supremely elegant, expressive and balanced without being wacky. I’ve sampled five of them so far, most recently the muscular yet light-on-its-toes passito called Passo Nero. The SP68 Rosso elicits a mood of sour strawberries and scraped-open vanilla beans (yet it sees no oak), and I rated it the No. 3 wine of 2017. Il Frappato is a little more elusive, yet no less tempting, while Siccagno dances with each sip. In fact, that might be the common thread for all her wines: they have a kinetic energy that gives pace and measure to any meal they are served with.

Importer: LOUIS/DRESSNER

Read more: Sicily: Italy’s Most Exciting Wine Region / The Top Wines of 2017 


ARPEPE

ARPEPE's wines ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Valtellina, Lombardia •  www.arpepe.com

What they make: Traditionally made Nebbiolo wines from one of Italy’s most fascinating and challenging appellations: Valtellina. Led by siblings Isabella and Emanuele Pelizzatti Perego, ARPEPE has tailored its mix of wines to acutely reflect each vintage. Every year, they make a Rosso di Valtellina DOC which can be consumed young and which can complement an enormous array of cuisines. In off vintages, the wine benefits from inclusion of vineyards that would normally go into their cru or riserva-level wines. In good vintages, the cru wines (one each from the Sassella, Grumello and Inferno zones of Valtellina) beautifully express their individual terroir with extended maceration and roughly two-and-a-half years of chestnut-cask aging. For extraordinary vintages, ARPEPE will extend the cask aging to as much as five years, and then hold onto the bottles for several more, only releasing the wines when they are ready. This ensures a ridiculous level of quality in their wines. Amongst a roster of all-stars, the “Rocce Rosse” Valtellina Superiore Sassella is the most prized bottling, but I am every bit as enamored with the newest riserva bottling from the Inferno, labeled as “Sesto Canto.” ARPEPE is, simply put, as good as Italian wine gets.

Why I am partial: Few winemakers in the world have impressed me more than ARPEPE.

Where to begin? Perhaps with their work ethic: ARPEPE’s steep, alpine vineyards require 1,500 hours of labor per hectare each vintage. Until the grapes reach the winery, nothing can be done with machines. Yet, despite the odds, the quality of the wines is simply staggering. I am lucky enough to have sampled the 1996 vintage of the “Rocce Rosse” — at 21 years of age — and it was amazingly fresh, with the energy of a wine that could run a marathon. ARPEPE’s secrets are numerous, and its good that some of their secrets elude me, but one they happily share is the use of large chestnut casks. Banned by regulations in Barolo and Barbaresco (as well as several other DOCGs around Italy), aged chestnut seems to impart alpine Nebbiolo with a nearly mystical texture. As if that weren’t enough, each ARPEPE wine — minus the Rosso di Valtellina, which is a blend of several plots — is highly expressive of terroir. If you want to know the differences between Valtellina’s Sassella, Grumello and Inferno zones, start here. ARPEPE is world-class wine.

Importer: Volio Vino

Read more: A Vineyard’s Story: ARPEPE’s Rocca de Piro / The Mysteries of ARPEPE’s Beautiful Wines (Part 1)The Mysteries of ARPEPE’s Beautiful Wines (Part 2)


Azienda Agricola COS

Azienda Agricola COS wines ©Kevin Day / Opening a Bottle

Vittoria, Sicilia •  www.cosvittoria.com

What they make: Fresh, vibrant and beguiling red and white wines from the southern edge of Sicily. All told, they make 11 wines including two Cerasuolo di Vittoria (a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato) and two whites that are technically “orange wines” since they are fermented on the skins. There is also two 100% Nero d’Avola bottlings — of these two, I’ve only sampled the Nero di Lupo and it is off-the-charts delicious. Only two of their wines are aged in oak.

Why I am partial: Founded by Giambattista Cilia, Cirino Strano and Giusto Occhipinti, Azienda Agricola COS has been one of Italy’s most forward- (and oddly, backward-) thinking wineries since its inception in 1980. Forward-thinking in the sense that they helped launch a renaissance in Sicilian fine wine, particularly in elevating the standing of the island’s only DOCG wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. I say “backward-looking” because they embrace the oldest vessel for aging wine — the clay amphorae — and follow the practices of biodynamics which emerged in the mid-19th century. The results, however, speak for themselves. Every bottle of COS that I have had has been a struggle: they are complex, vibrant and refreshing, yet oddly elusive. Unlike any other fleet of wines to cross my palate.

Importer: Domaine Select

Read more: Sicily: Italy’s Most Exciting Wine Region


Bisol

Bisol: Essential Winemakers of Italy. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Valdobbiadene, Veneto •  www.bisol.it

What they make: Prosecco, and very, very fine Prosecco at that. At the entry-level price is the Jeio line: a Brut Prosecco DOC, a Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG and a sparkling Rosé of Merlot and Pinot Nero. These wines are fresh, easy, delicious and frankly, a bargain. But an even better value comes from wines that draw their grapes from the unique vineyards in and around Valdobbiadene. The labor in the vineyard alone justifies the $20–$30 price range for the Crede, Relio, Rive di Campea and Cartizze bottlings. The fact that these wines are exceptionally fine, detailed, and expressive of site makes them among the best values in Italy.

Why I am partial: I’m an advocate for Prosecco. I think its fun, it gives us a break from taking things too seriously, and it is quite possibly Italy’s most refreshing and accessible aperitif. Yes, much of it is industrially made from the plains of Veneto, and true, you are not going to find a lot of character in Prosecco … that is, until you reach the high hills of Valdobbiadene. There, the vineyards are dramatic, sun-kissed, complex little ecosystems, and the potential for exhibiting wines of style and eccentricity is rich.

Among a raft of producers in Valdobbiadene, Bisol is the one I know best, and the one I have been drinking the longest. The two best wines in their collection are Relio and Cartizze. The Relio is vinified Brut, and this dryness allows the minerality of the Rive di Guia to shine through on the finish. The Cartizze, however, has 25g of residual sugar, which rightly makes the wine more sumptuous (and addictive). That bit of sweetness is not at all cloying — it’s more an illusion, and the notes of blueberries, pear, rye bread and violets that come through show that the unheralded Glera grape can in fact be terroir-expressive.

Importer: Wilson Daniels

Read more: Prosecco, Cava or Champagne for New Years Eve?


Buglioni

The wines of Azienda Agricola Buglioni, Valpolicella, Italy. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Valpolicella Classica, Veneto • www.buglioni.it

What they make: The Buglioni family made their living in the textile industry before moving completely into the wine business in 2000. Mariano Buglioni, the current proprietor of the estate, told me that people initially didn’t take their business seriously. So they opened Osteria del Bugiardo in the heart of Verona to showcase their wines, and pretty quickly they proved everyone wrong.

Buglioni’s wines show an amazing level of finesse, with tongue-in-cheek names like “l’Imperfetto” — a stunning Valpolicella Classico Superiore — and “il Bugiardo” (the liar) — a Ripasso that postures like an Amarone. Buglioni’s showpiece wine is “il Lussurioso” (the lustful), a suave and even-tempered Amarone that is hands-down the best version I’ve sampled from this storied DOCG. Also be on the lookout for the wild “Molì” (a metodo ancestrale experiment with the estate’s Molinara grapes). Finally, I’d go to the ends of the earth for “il Narcisista,” Buglioni’s sexy Recioto which recalls blueberries, mint and black truffles.

Why I am partial: Azienda Agricola Buglioni may technically be a Valpolicella winery, but its identity is just as strongly connected to the nearby city of Verona, where the family’s osteria cultivated a passionate following among the Veronese. While much of Valpolicella is hung-up on swinging for stratospheric point scores, Buglioni’s wines are aimed for enoteca culture. They inspire lively conversation and they complement a wider spectrum of foods. (I’ve had their “Il Lussurioso” Amarone della Valpolicella with sea bass, and yes, it worked). Buglioni is able to balance this elegance and docility without losing the tones, textures and aromas that make Valpolicella’s wines so distinctive. And that, is a neat little trick.

Importer: Wilson Daniels

Related articles: Reconsidering Amarone della Valpolicella


Castello di Volpaia

Castello di Volpaia wines ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Chianti Classico, Toscana •  www.volpaia.com

What they make: Castello di Volpaia has the standard Chianti Classico roster of wines: a Chianti Classico DOCG, a Riserva with a little more aging, a single-vineyard Chianti Classico, a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, two Toscana IGT red wines where they can bend the rules as they please, and of course, a Vin Santo. I have sampled every one — four of them by the bottle with a meal — and they are all extraordinarily elegant, detailed and precise wines. They also have a separate label called Prelius that specializes in wines from Maremma. The Vermentino from this brand is quite good.

All of their wines are certified organic, and they are striving for zero CO2 emissions in their winery practices. Neither of which are a prerequisite, but kudos to them for making organic viticulture and sustainability a priority.

Why I am partial: Chianti means one thing: Sangiovese. Sure, there are other grapes often blended in, but the star of the show is unequivocally Sangiovese. From my experience, no one makes this star shine brighter than Castello di Volpaia. Their wines have an elegant and feminine quality to them, with heavenly aromas and evenly balanced acidity and tannins across the entire flight of wines. Chianti Classico often fatigues the palate with oak; Volpaia’s version does the opposite: it is engaging from the moment the bottle is opened to the moment the bottle is empty.

Of particular note is the single-vineyard “Coltassala,” which may be my favorite Sangiovese-based wine, period. Further up the ladder is Il Puro, a Gran Selezione which may be even better (based on the single sip I had at a trade event … I prefer to review wines by the bottle with a meal). But until you’re ready to drop $120 on a Chianti Classico, their base-level bottling (at $19) is the best in the business as well.

Importer: Wilson Daniels

Read more: The Wines of Castello di Volpaia


Donnafugata

The wines of Donnafugata: Essential Winemaker of Italy

Contessa Entellina, Sicilia •  www.donnafugata.it

What they make: Donnafugata’s story closely mirrors the rise of Sicilian wine in the modern age. The winery formed in 1983 as a side project within the Rallo family, who were esteemed for their Marsala. With Donnafugata (translation: “woman running away”), they would skip Marsala wine entirely and instead focus on dry wines made from international and native varieties. Like their fellow Sicilian powerhouses — Tasca d’Almerita and Planeta — their ambition lead them to set up operations across the region: in nearby Contessa Entellina, in the southern lands of Vittoria, on the slopes of Mount Etna in the east, and on the remote island of Pantelleria near Tunisia. Today, they make 22 wines, many of them low in alcohol, including Nero d’Avola blends, white wines from native Sicilian varieties, a superb Cerasuolo di Vittoria and their most fascinating wine, Ben Ryé, a passito wine made from Pantelleria’s Zibibbo grapes.

Why I am partial: The parallels between Donnafugata and Tasca d’Almerita and Planeta are very strong. In many markets around the United States, these wines are the sole ambassadors of Sicilian fine wine, making them a crucial first step for many of us. Each winery has their high points (and misses), but from my tasting experience, Donnafugata’s highs are the highest. Their Cerasuolo di Vittoria (called “Floramundi”) is a standout even by the standards of Sicily’s only DOCG appellation. It’s  blueberry and strawberry tones burst with beauty. I also appreciate Donnafugata’s “SurSur” Grillo and their Inzolia-focused white blend “Vigna di Gabri.” Both make excellent companions to briny shellfish dishes. I have mixed feelings on their Nero d’Avola wines (“Sedàra” and “Mille e Una Notte”). I rated both of them highly during my tastings because they exhibit a grace and elegance often lost among bold red wines of this stature. But Donnafugata’s blending of Bordeaux grapes in these wines comes at a small cost: some of the wild, tart and bitter notes synonymous with Sicilian red wines are glossed over. Because of this, they drink like a Bordeaux blend (albeit, excellent ones at that). If you want the peppercorn and black-fruit gravitas of a varietal Nero d’Avola, reach for their bottling called “Sherazade.”

In the end, Donnafugata’s most compelling wine is Ben Ryé, a passito wine from Pantelleria. Not only is the wine’s story one of impressive labor and meticulous attention to detail, it also happens to be one of the best dessert wines in Italy — a haven of apricot, orange peel and honey-lemon tea aromas wrapped up in decadent sweetness.

Importer: Folio Fine Wine Partners

Read more: The Wild Vineyards of Pantelleria (coming soon)


Fattoria Selvapiana

The wines of Selvapiana, Chianti Rufina. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Chianti Rufina, Toscano •  www.selvapiana.it

What they make: Located just east of Florence in the Chianti Rufina appellation, Fattoria Selvapiana has created one of Italy’s best portfolios of affordable fine wine. The Selvapiana Chianti Rufina works any night of the week, but can get dressed up for a Sunday roast as well. Their Villa Petrognano Pomino is a beautiful, classy wine decked in bitter blueberry and violet aromas, while the Chianti Rufina Riserva called “Bucerchiale” is one of my favorite Tuscan wines. I have only had it young (and its ★★★★★ before maturity), but I can imagine its firm structure would give it life in the cellar for some time to come. They also make a Merlot-based blend called Fornace and an exquisite Vin Santo that’s perfect for a winter’s night digestif.

Why I am partial: I’ve encountered no other winemaker in Italy who combines grace, complexity and deliciousness with affordability quite like Fattoria Selvapiana does. Their wines seem to have one foot in the Old World, one foot in the modern kitchen. Their version of Sangiovese isn’t confined to strictly Italian food pairings, offering a clean line of acidity to quench the palate time and again. Because Chianti Rufina is less well known than Chianti Classico, Fattoria Selvapiana’s wines are priced less. But don’t be fooled: they can go toe-to-toe with any Chianti Classico any day.

Importer: Dalla Terra Winery Direct

Read more: Shining a Light on Chianti Rufina


Marchesi di Grésy

2011 Marchesi di Gresy "Martinenga" Barbaresco and 2014 Marchesi di Gresy Langhe Nebbiolo

Barbaresco, Piemonte • www.marchesidigresy.com

What they make: Some of the finest wine from one of Italy’s finest appellations, 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 Grésy 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 Grésy’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 Grésy 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


Marco Felluga / Russiz Superiore

Russiz Superiore wine ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Collio, Friuli-Venezia Giulia • 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 very, very good. 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


Nino Negri

2011 Nino Negri "Le Tense" Valtellina Superiore Sassella, 2011 Nino Negri "Sfursat" Sforzato di Valtellina

Valtellina, Lombardia • 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 a fabulous wine — probably the best one I’ve tasted from Nino Negri. 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. This delicate, creamy and toasty white wine is delicious and worth every penny.

Importer: Frederick Wildman

Read more: New Obsession: Nino Negri & Valtellina / A Different Expression of Nebbiolo: Valtellina Superiore


Oddero

Oddero wines. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

La Morra, Piemonte • www.oddero.com

What they make: Oddero is one of the largest land-owners in the Langhe region, and their holdings give them quite a range of vineyards to choose from. In total, they make 14 wines ranging from a Grappa of Moscato d’Asti to a 10-year reserve Barolo from the Vignarionda vineyard of Serralunga d’Alba. Highlights of their portfolio include a delicious, every-night-of-the-week Dolcetto d’Alba; a Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza with superb movement on the palate; and a gorgeous expression of Barbaresco from the Gallina cru. But Oddero’s fame comes from their traditional Barolo. They are fiercely loyal to longer macerations and aging in oak casks. Look for a “classico” blend from different Barolo vineyards, or choose from five single-vineyard bottlings. Of them, the Brunate is the most irresistible.

Why I’m partial: Oddero’s wines remind me of what’s special about Piedmont. Like many wineries of the area, the trade here has been passed down from generation to generation. The current winemaker — Cristina Oddero — is the sixth generation, and Isabella and Pietro (her niece and son) are poised to carry it on into a seventh generation. That may not be evident when you taste their wines, but it is important for their longevity. I detected a strong sense of identity to these wines when I tasted them in succession. They are exact, detailed and very elegant. That kind of consistency only comes from serious dedication and adaptability to what each vintage throws at you. Oddero has this trait in spades. Lovely, lovely wines.

Importer: Polaner Selections

Read more: Oddero: Barolo with a Generational Perspective / 2006 Oddero Barolo Vignarionda: Worth the Wait / Piedmont Wine Tasting Report


Pio Cesare

2010 Pio Cesare Barbaresco

Alba, Piemonte • www.piocesare.it

What they make: One of the most historic wineries in Piedmont, Pio Cesare represents a continuous through-line to the 1880s, when the Barolo region was ascendant. Through two world wars and more fads than they can count, the five generations of the Cesare/Boffa family have maintained ridiculously high standards. Hopefully, someday I can encounter some of their legendary older vintages, but what I’ve had of their modern-day wines is among the most impressive in my drinking career. Exquisite Barolo and Barbaresco, fine and approachable Nebbiolo Langhe, and a delicious Barbera d’Alba. I’ve also savored their Dolcetto d’Alba, which from my experience, is one of the best Dolcetto out there. I’ve yet to review their Arneis, Gavi, Chardonnay or Moscato d’Asti.

Why I’m partial: Pio Cesare is responsible for two of the 10 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 near the top of the hill in Piedmont.

Importer: Maisons Marques & Domaines

Read more: Transcendent Barbera d’Alba from Pio Cesare


Poderi Sanguineto I e II

The wines of Poderi Sanguineto, ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Montepulciano, Toscano • www.sanguineto.com

What they make: The southern Tuscan town of Montepulciano ought to be among Italy’s best wine destinations. Montalcino is nearby, the climate is ideal for Sangiovese, and the DOCG wine is named after its illustrious history gracing the tables of popes and nobles. Yet Vino Nobile di Montepulciano rarely dances with the same grace as Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino — that is, with one exception. Poderi Sanguineto I e II is a small winery managed by Dora Forsoni, and these wines demonstrate a beauty and grace that most Tuscan wines rarely achieve. Across the two farms (I and II), Forsoni grows grapes for a Rosso di Montepulciano (with exquisite berry tones) and two structured and charming Vino di Montepulciano (a normale as well as a Riserva in select years). There is also a white blend and an IGT Rosso that I have not yet sampled.

Why I’m partial: When I visited Montepulciano in 2008, I was merely an aspiring travel writer and photographer, celebrating an anniversary with his wife. The world of wine was a passing interest. But when we were offered a horizontal tasting of three different vintages at a local enoteca, the wines came from Poderi Sanguineto. The beautiful wines and the subtle differences from year to year were enough to kickstart an obsession with wine. Forsoni’s 2004 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano would be the first bottle I would ever smuggle home in a suitcase, and we would open it to celebrate the birth of our first child in 2010. In looking for more bottles, I came up short. It seemed as though Poderi Sanguineto was not imported (or I just wasn’t able to find it), and years would pass of settling for lesser bottlings of Vino Nobile.

Then, one day, that distinctive label with the red S showed up in my local wine shop, and I was able to revisit the wines that started it all. With a much more experienced palate (and probably too much wine knowledge for my own good), would these wines be as good as I remembered?

They were better. In addition to blue fruit tones and gorgeous aromas of violets and leather, the wines of Poderi Sanguineto have a noticeably different cut of acidity, which is amiable and gentle yet strong enough to carry the wine through a wide variety of dishes. In a region where standing out often comes at the expense of typicity, Poderi Sanguineto manages to do both.

Importer: Louis Dressner

Read more: The Origin of an Obsession


Produttori del Barbaresco

Wines from Produttori dei Barbaresco ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Barbaresco, Piemonte • 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.

Importer: Vias Imports, Ltd.

Read more: Produttori del Barbaresco: An Essential Winemaker of Italy


Vietti

Vietti Winery wines: Barbera d'Asti, Barolo Castiglione, Nebbiolo Perbacco

Castiglione Falletto, Piemonte • 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 true Barolo classico which takes grapes from multiple parcels in the zone and blends them together. Finally, Vietti’s single-vineyard cru bottlings — Lazzarito, Rocche dei Castiglione, Ravera, Brunate, and in exceptional vintages, a Riserva from Villero — reveal the wonderful details of the region’s terroir.

Importer: Dalla Terra Winery Direct

Read more: The Long Story Arc of Barolo // Vietti & the Rascal: Roero Arneis // The Simple Joys of Moscato d’Asti // A Vineyard’s Story: Barbera d’Asti from La Crena // The Crazy Genius of Barolo’s Vietti


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