Wine Book of the Year: "Vino Italiano"

Vino Italiano
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It's the time of the year for awards again. You know, the Golden Globe, the Grammy, the Oscar, etc., naming everything that's "best." But did you know there's also an award for the best wine book of the year? In fact, there's not just one award but actually three. Perhaps the most prestigious is the award (for cookbooks too) bestowed by the James Beard Foundation. The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) also names a winner, as does champagne maker Veuve Clicquot.

Now in my opinion, "Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy" ($35), by Joe Bastianich and David Lynch, is without a doubt, the wine book of the year. For years, Italian wine aficionados have relied on Burton Anderson's guide to the wines of Italy. But in the last two decades, the wines have changed, some wineries opting for a more international style, while others strive for the more traditional.

"Vino Italiano" goes a long way in explaining and demystifying Italian wine. Each chapter of the book breaks down Italy into individual regions and then explores the history of that region, the predominant grapes varieties, the winemaking styles, the major wineries, the wines and, as an added bonus, includes recipes (by Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali) for the food of the region.

What elevates this book to greatness, however, is that it puts wine in the context of the regional food. It gives insight into why the grapes and winemaking styles, for example, in Veneto are different from Sicily and that it may have to do with any number of geographical, historical, traditional, political or social reasons. It would have been easy to just assemble a buying list of Italian wines, but this guide insists on giving us a fascinating snapshot of the big picture instead, and then zeros in on the important details.

If you sit down with Joe Bastianich (son of restaurateur and cookbook author Lydia Bastianich) and David Lynch, the co-authors...drawing from material in their book...will put on a first rate tasting primer of the "noble" (i.e. great) red wines of Italy. According to the duo, historically the great reds originate from various regions in Northern Italy and they include Chianti Classico Riserva, Super-Tuscan, Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone della Valpolicella, Recioto della Valpolicella. These are fascinating wine styles and, by way of introduction, I'll give some tasting impressions of each representative wine we tasted, as well as the authors' thoughts. The price range of these bottles are from $25 to $40.

Chianti Classico Riserva - 1998 Querciabella: According to Lynch, this is one of the "radically transformed wine regions in the world," because they have taken their quality commitment to the next level. We're all familiar with straw flasked Chianti as something to be quaffed down, but the Riservas have depth, dimension and spend a longer time aging in the bottle before release. The Querciabella is a classic example with a strong aromatic nose of florals, violets and cherries. It's not just a fruit bomb though; a smoky, woodsy quality permeates the flavors, while the dry tannins are balanced with the good acidity. Lynch insists, as he does with all these wines, that they should be tasted and savored at the Italian table rather than alone.

Super-Tuscan - 1999 Terrabianca Campaccio: Super-Tuscan refers to a relatively recent trend of Italian winemakers to combine their traditional grape varieties with those of France. In this case, the wine is a 70%/30% blend of Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon. Bastianich notes that the Super-Tuscans are comparable to the wines of Bordeaux, in terms of the use of Cabernet, as well as vinification and oak barrel aging regime. Indeed, the smoky, sweet cherry fruit along with dark chocolate aromatics are intriguing; the richly fruited mouthfeel and the vanilla oak extract would appeal to aficionados of California Cabernet. Still very young, this wine is powerfully intense and needs some time in the bottle to show its stuff.

Barbaresco - 1996 Produttori del Barbaresco Montestefano: Nebbiolo, the grape of Barbaresco, is to Italy what pinot noir is to France. Earthy aromas, along with leather and dried cherries are evident in the nose; an earthiness underlies the kinder, gentler cherry fruit flavors (compared to other Italian reds). The tannins are mouth drying and the finish is as well. These Barbarescos can age seamlessly for decades.

Barolo - 1998 Pio Cesare: Again the Nebbiolo grape shows itself here as dark cherry fruit aromatics all the way, though not as giving, due to its young age. But make no mistake, this is a huge mouthful of wine, though it is cleaner and slicker than the rustic versions this region was previously known for. This is a modern style of Barolo that shows more oak influence that is less deferential to the fruit. But it seems all the more powerful in its palate attack, with appropriate tannins that will need time to mellow out.

Brunello di Montalcino - 1996 Altesino: Tuscany, where this wine hails from, is dramatically different than Piedmont. But again, you can sense a certain earthiness in the wine, and though it shows fruitiness in the nose, you can literally smell the dense structure. Chewy, big boned, big bodied are just a few descriptors that I jotted down; an amazing concentration of fruit, smoke and tannin are intense and drying on the finish. Don't even think about drinking this wine without food or you'll miss 90% of the pleasure. Also the best buy of the group.

Amarone della Valpolicella - 1998 Tommaso Bussola BG: "Nobody doesn't like Amarone," should be the advertising slogan for these wines from the Veneto region. Made from dried grapes, the tannins are consumed in the winemaking process and glycerol is produced, giving a perception of sweetness. This example is huge and viscous, coating the mouth with dried cherry flavors along with a certain spiciness. Perfect for liver and onions with balsamic or any of the funky hard cheeses. The softness and richness of the wine really comes through and the bit of perceived sweetness makes for a great finish.

Recioto della Valpolicella - 1998 Allegrini, Giovanni Allegrini: Recioto, made from dried grapes that are left to dry and concentrate their sweetness, is Italy's answer to Port. An accompaniment to dessert or a dessert itself, this traditional version has incredible aromatics of prune, raisin, flower and even coconut. In the mouth, it is super concentrated, intense with the same components found in the nose. It finishes rich and sweet, a perfect ending to a meal.

Feb. 10, 2003

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