Star Wines from Northern Italy

The vine has flourished throughout Italy (Enotria – the land of vine) since recorded history began and numerous indigenous grape varieties continue to a wide range of wine styles. The North Eastern Veneto region where they produce Prosecco and the North Western region of Tuscany, where Chianti is produced, are perhaps, two of the best-known Italian regions on this market. Both produce wine styles much in demand with the UK consumer particularly in the on-trade. Interesting to see that finally this year, Italy over-took France with the most restaurant listings for wine on the UK market.

Although usually considered a Mediterranean country, Italy’s shape and topography varies greatly; from the snow-capped Alps in the north to the sun-baked coast in the South. There is huge variation in terms of the regional styles and grape varieties which explains why there are so many interesting wines. In Spring I visited two key Italian producers whose wine range exemplify why there is increased consumer interest in premium Italian wines, especially in the restaurant sector.

The first visit was to the town of Conegliano, 55 km north of Venice where on the adjacent rolling hills, vines are grown on steep terraced vineyards. Here the Dal Bianco family control 350 ha of vineyards between the historic towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, where they produce their range of premium Prosecco under the brand name Masottina. This Prosecco range is quite simply, the best Prosecco I have ever tasted.

On the first evening at dinner in a local trattoria with Adriano Dal Bianco and his wife Franca, I had the chance to learn more about the family and to taste Adriano’s single vineyard still wines sold under the name Ai Palazzi. Still wines account for approximately 10% of their total production and we tasted the 2017 Ai Palazzi Single Vineyard Pinot Grigio a DOC Venezia made from Pinot Grigio grown 15km from Conegliano. 50% of the wine was aged for six months in stainless steel and 50% in a large old barrel oak (Botti). With a very limited production of 5,000 this was an outstanding example of premium Italian Pinot Grigio. Really perfumed and floral on the nose, it had lovely ripe red apple flavours; this was a beautifully balanced wine with an extraordinary depth of flavour.

His 2015 Montesco Colli di Conegliano Rosso DOCG was another superstar! Made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France and Marzemino, a local indigenous grape. The wine was aged for two years in French Barrique and one year in bottle. This too was a stand out wine, which showed the enormous potential for still wines from this region. Smoky with lovely dark fruit flavours, it was elegant with well-integrated tannin. The DOCG for red wines in the region was granted in 1993 and I am just surprised we are not seeing more of them, though with Prosecco currently operating as the major cash cow, you can understand why.

Adriano’s father, Epifanio Dal Bianco started the business in 1946 with a relatively small plot of land, in a part of the Veneto shaped by local family traditions. Adriano started working in the vineyard when he was six, he went on to study at the Conegliano School of Oenology, the first in Italy to offer a university degree program. Conegliano/Valdobbiadene had not yet become the globally recognised wine region it is today. When Prosecco took off in the early part of this century, the Dal Bianco family began to develop their Estate and re-invested in the business by purchasing more and more land which allowed them to control a large part of the region’s premium vineyard areas where they now produce some of the greatest Prosecco and still wines made in the Conegliano hills.

With their Prosecco brand Masottina, the Dal Bianco family have created a sparkling wine of great finesse, the Masottina range includes: Prosecco Brut Organic DOC, NV; Prosecco Brut DOC Treviso NV; Prosecco Extra Dry DOC Treviso NV; Conegliano Valdobbiadene Brut DOCG NV; Masottina “Conrad Granda” Brut, Rive di Ogliano Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG 2018 and Masottina “Le Rive di Ogliano” Extra Dry, Valdobbiadene DOCG 2018.

We tasted the range of Prosecco with Federico Dal Bianco, who is the company’s Export Manager and is of Adriano and Franca’s three sons who now work in the family business. The wines that stood out for me were:

Masottina Prosecco Burt DOC Treviso NV

This is their best-selling wine. They produce approximately 350,000 bottles and last year, Stephen Spurrier awarded 96 Points for this wine in Decanter, one of the highest ever achieved for a Prosecco. This was smoky on the nose, very fresh in style with lime fruit and lots of it. Highly recommended if you are looking for a fine example of premium Prosecco.

Masottina “Contrade Granda” Brut, Rive di Ogliano Conegliano 2018

This Prosecco is produced from fruit grown in the “Rive di Ogliano” a small sub region of Cartizzi, where the Cru vineyards of the Prosecco region are to be found. The DOCG was introduced in 2009, the “Rive” wines are hand harvested and have a very low yield. They only produce 12,000 bottles of this single vineyard wine and their first vintage was in 2013. This was one of the most restrained and elegant Proseccos I have ever tasted. With only 7 grams of sugar, this dry style sparkling wine is a head and shoulder above most traditional Prosecco styles. Put it on your list to show what Prosecco really can do.

Masottina “Le Rive di Ogliano” Extra Dry DOCG Prosecco Superiore 2018

This wine was first produced in 2009, Extra Dry actually means that it’s a sweeter style of Prosecco and this wine has about 15 grams of sugar, though it does not taste too sweet. They produce 11,000 bottles and the wine is made from 50-year-old vines. This was twice voted by as the “Best Prosecco in the World” by Decanter magazine and it received 95 points from Robert Parker. This wine is definitely an expression of the Terroir of the Cru vineyards in the region. Subtle, expressive with a very elegant mouth-feel.

Masottina is distributed in the UK by Berry Bros & Rudd and by Field, Morris & Verdin.

In early Spring, I also paid a visit to the Poggio al Casone Estate in Tuscany. Chianti is a large wine region in Tuscany with an annual wine production of 292 million litres (6th overall in volume terms of all the Italian wine regions). Chianti production centres around 62% DOC and DOCG’s and 26% IGT wines. Red wine accounts for about 85% of all wines produced here.

Chianti is produced in seven distinct zones and adjacent areas that cover a vast territory of central Tuscany. The region centres around the area known as Chianti Classico, which has aits own DOCG. What Chianti has in common with all of the other regional red wines produced in Tuscany is that production centres around the Sangiovese grape.

Tuscany’s modern renaissance in wine began in Chianti, in the central hills around Siena and Florence and it rapidly spread to take in the strip along the Mediterranean coast that was not previously noted for vineyards, where you will find the Poggio al Casone Estate near to the medieval town of Lari.

The Castellani family operate six large estates in Tuscany and Piergiorgo Castellani who lives at Casone runs the business with his father and uncle. Poggio al Casone located 40 km south of Pisa has 32ha under vine. The other nearby estates owned by the Castellini family include the very beautiful Cepacian Estate in Chianti’s most western point, a short drive from Casone. Here you will find 40ha of vineyards and the Materia Prima art gallery which exhibits some of Italy’s finest contemporary artists. To the East, near San Gimignano is the Castellani’s Burchino Estate with 37 ha under vine and a cellar which was once an ancient Etruscan tomb dating back to 800 BC.

The family have been in the wine business since the 19th century and today they produce approximately 25 million bottles of wine, which is shipped to 46 countries. The company own 200 ha of estates in Chianti Classico and the coastal Tuscan region of Colline Pisane. They also work with contract growers which gives them control over 1,000ha from the best wine producing areas in central and southern Italy.

Their philosophy, introduced by Piergiorgo, twenty years ago, when his first child was born is definitely not about mass production. In fact, on the Casone Estate, Piergiorgo introduced organic farming and as a result the soil on the estate is in magnificent condition with oats, vetch and acacia flowers growing between the vines. This is the finest example of sustainable viticulture you are going to find; the estate is home to a range of wild life include game birds, deer and wild boar.

The Estate centres around a beautifully restored Villa house, which is available to rent; adjacent to it nestled in the middle of the vineyards is Piergiorgio’s family home where he lives with his wife and children.

Among the other innovations introduced by Piergiorgio is the re-introduction of rare grape varieties and example of which is the Grand Noir. Grand Noir a hybrid created in 1885 by Henry Bouchet is made from a cross between Aramond and Petit Bouchet. It was named “Grand Noir de la Calmette” after a property on Bouchet’s estate in the Herault in Southern France. It was introduced to Italy at the beginning of the 20th century but died out. Re- introduced by the Castellani family it is now grow with nine other local black grapes. Most of them are native to Tuscany such as the Abrusco grape, but others like Oliva, Uva Vecchia and Giacomino are less well known. The objective of keeping these unknown regional varietals alive to see if they can be grown commercially again, is certainly an innovative initiative for the region.

2017 Angelico Chianti DOCG

A benchmark Chianti made from 85% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo and 5% Ciliegiolo.
This is a traditional style of Chianti, Ciliegiolo is an old Sangiovese clone, so this is a very traditional style. Smoky with black pepper and red fruit, spicy with integrated tannin, it has a subtle sweetness on the finish which makes it very appealing.

2014 Il Burchino Toscana IGT

Beautiful fresh wine well balanced with black cherry fruit and a slightly vegetal finish. Wonderfully perfumed, but with a good tannic grip. Made from 50% Sangiovese, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot this Super Tuscan was aged for 24 months in oak.

At Burchino we also tasted some back vintages of their IGT wines made from100% Sangiovese, primarily the 2010 and 1983 wines. Both were superb but the ‘83 was leathery and aged with savoury notes that showed power and intensity and of course, the wine’s capability to age beautifully.

2017 Poggio Al Casone Grand Noir Toscana IGT

The organic Grand Noir was a real find. It was quite floral on the nose and gave you lots of red fruit and a nice belt of acidity and some herbal notes. Beautifully made, this hybrid wine had a beautifully soft finish.

The Castellani wines are not only from Chianti, look out for their various labels which include Villagio, Angelico, Ceppaiano, Poggio al Casone, Carrione, Mirapiana, Tenuta di Ceppaiano and Burchino.

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