Back In Review: Best of Italy Wine Dinner in Shanghai

Published on 4 February, 2020

© Linden Wilkie, 4th February 2020

How do you put together a dinner featuring the ‘best’ wines of Italy? To start with, subtly drop that definite article, the. For the wines offering exceptional quality, style, and unique expression now covers all twenty Italian regions and countless zones within. If you haven’t begun to explore, there is much to recommend in the list below, which, as a rather personal and conservative selection, is perhaps as good a place to start as any.

The Brunello grape © Biondi Santi

While Italy has been producing noteworthy wine for millennia, recognition in export markets really grew in the 1970s and 1980s. Two things happened in concert: Italy proved its point for quality by making wines from Bordeaux grape varieties at a quality to rival the best growths of the Médoc and Pomerol. That is represented tonight by Sassicaia and Masseto respectively. Recognition for the native classics of Italy followed. While Biondi Santi and Giacomo Conterno were outliers – gaining recognition perhaps first – others, like Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa followed in the 1970s, and then Gianfranco Soldera and Giuseppe Quintarelli in the 1980s. These all featured in The Fine Wine Experience ‘Best of Italy’ dinner Andy Tan and I co-hosted in Shanghai last month.

Eleven wines were featured, and below you’ll find a little background on each, my tasting note from the dinner, and how our guests voted when asked to pick their two favourite wines of the night.

2017 Livio Felluga ‘Terre Alte’ Rosazzo

We begin in the northeast of Italy in Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s Colli Orientali, a region that has grown a reputation for complex and mineral-driven white wines. Here, one of the best producers offers their top wine from the Rosazzo DOCG, made from a blend of 40% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Friulano, and 30% Pinot Bianco, hand-picked and aged in 250-litre French oak barriques, and some in stainless steel. ‘Terre Alte’ (high land) has been made since 1981, on marl and sandstone soils. 

The musky aroma of the sauvignon comes through in this with the creaminess of pinot bianco and friulano on the palate, notes of honeysuckle, the oak is present but well-integrated. This is elegant and poised.

No votes for wine of the night.

From the left: Ripoli, Fenile and Ginestra ©

2017 Marisa Cuomo “Fiorduva”, Furore Bianco 

This wine exemplifies how far things have now come in the Italian fine wine scene. Here we are in the Furore district on the Amalfi Coast in Campania. This wine is made only from local grape varieties – Ripoli (40%), Fenile (30%) and Ginestra (30%) from very old vines (many 100+ years old), grown on limestone soil, hand-picked late (in October), fermented and then aged for a short time in barrel (6 months), before bottling and further ageing 1 year before release. Marisa Cuomo and her husband Andrea Ferraioli founded this estate in 1980 in the seaside village of Furore. The vineyards are terraced and rise steeply from the sea, to over 500 metres elevation. This, the “Fiorduva”, is their top wine.

This is aromatic and fruity on the nose, verging on the tropical; the palate delivers that fruitiness and the opulence that the nose suggests but also with a grassy tangy twist, great concentration and a fine texture. The balance is impressive.

No votes for wine of the night.

2011 Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva

The Biondi Santi family invented “Brunello” (little brown one) at their Montalcino estate in Tuscany in the 19th century. The “Riserva” is their top example, from vines 25 years of age or more, and represents less than 10% of the production when they make it. Since 1888, only 38 vintages of their Brunello di Montalcino Riserva have been produced. This is an estate that has preserved the best of tradition, and that credits four elements for their quality and style: first, their vineyards are only in the upper part of the zone, on ‘galestro’ soil; second, they have carefully propagated only the best of their own clonal material (no bought-in clones are used); third, careful timing of the picking to balance fruit, acidity and tannin potential for long cellaring; and fourth, a traditional approach to winemaking – long ageing (36 months) in large old Slavonian oak casks, followed by an extended period in bottle before release. (For a fuller exploration of this estate, read Linden’s write up of a series of Biondi Santi events here).

Bright light depth garnet with some ageing on the edge of the rim; this is fragrant with fruit, olive and herb notes; sweet and supple on the palate, elegant, with lowish acidity compared to the house style (2011 was warm), fine firm grip at the finish.

One vote for wine of the night.

From the left: The “Soldera glass”, Soldera vineyard ©

2013 Gianfranco Soldera Case Basse ‘Toscana Sangiovese’

I once asked Gianfranco Soldera (1937-2019) for advice on serving his wine, expecting a decanting time and temperature. What came back was detailed instructions, including that his wine was not to be decanted, but that it must be served in a specially shaped glass. Mr. Soldera hand-drew a picture of the glass on the fax to make sure I understood! Soldera was a highly individual man, and created for his estate the reputation of being one of Italy’s greatest producers of Brunello di Montalcino within one generation. He planted his vineyards in 1972-1973. Since the 2006 vintage, the full name is Toscana IGP 100% Sangiovese Dalla Società Agricola Soldera Case Basse’, but it is the same wine as the one Soldera labelled as Brunello di Montalcino from 1977 to 2006. He has never produced a bad wine, in part, as his daughter explained to me, because he would rather risk losing an entire crop than pick any underripe fruit, and what ripe fruit is picked is strictly selected. Great vintages would produce ‘Riserva’, good years ‘Annate’ (like this 2013), some years both, and lesser years he would declassify to the ‘Intistieti’ label. The wine is made in large old Slavonian wooden casks, with only natural yeasts and no temperature control. Ageing in wood is up to 6 years. 

Pale and bright, with a youthful rich ruby colour; this is aromatic and open on the nose, a real thrill, lively and scented with cherry and herbs; sweet and elegant on the palate, elegant and bright, more weight and concentration than the Biondi Santi, real intensity, depth and with a long fruity finish with a touch of almond milk. There is a little volatile acidity present, but just enough to provide extra lift to the amazing aromas. Thrilling wine.

Eleven votes for wine of the night = 1st place.

2007 Gaja Langhe ‘Costa Russi’

Much like Soldera, this label hides some prestigious information. This wine is not only from Barbaresco, but from one of Angelo Gaja’s three top single vineyard sites – Costa Russi. But, like Soldera, Gaja believed in making decisions himself, as his own rules were tougher than any imposed by DOCG, and his customers knew this well enough to pay the prices anyway. Unlike Soldera, Gaja’s inspiration for technique came more from the ‘modernista’ movement utilizing temperature control, and carefully selected French oak barrels, giving his wines a more precise, luxurious feel, aroma and taste. Costa Russi has been made since the 1978 vintage, and was labelled Barbaresco. From 1996 to 2011 vintage it was ‘declassified’ to Langhe Nebbiolo classification, keeping the ‘Costa Russi’ single vineyard designation. That was because Angelo Gaja felt the wine expressed itself better with 5% Barbera in the blend, with 95% Nebbiolo. From the 2013 vintage onwards, Angelo’s daughter Gaia Gaja has dropped the Barbera, and returned the label back to ‘Barbaresco: Costa Russi’. 

A fine, elegant, high register nose and taste, more red fruit in expression, the oak element is to the fore and a key part of the style. Very long finish.

No votes for wine of the night.

Detail of the Falletto vineyard, Serralunga d'Alba, the source of Bruno Giacosa Barolo © Tom Hyland

2001 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva Le Rocche del ‘Falletto’ di Serralunga d’Alba

Bruno Giacosa (1929-2018) was one of the greatest traditional producers of Barbaresco and Barolo. He was the first to promote the idea in the Piemonte region that – like Burgundy – different vineyards produced different qualities and expressions in the wine. His first, was from Santa Stefano di Neive in 1964. Giacosa’s regular Barolos and Barbarescos are referred to as “white label”, while the very rare, and only produced in great vintages Riservas are referred to as “red label”.  This ‘Rocche del Falletto Riserva’ comes only from the top of the clay and calcerous slope within the Falletto vineyard. Serralunga zone Barolos are known for depth and power. Giacosa is known as a traditionalist (using large Slovonian oak casks), but he also built a very contemporary high-tech winery – quality was his focus.

Sweet nose with a touch of balsamico and dried roses; real roses essence on the palate, rich middle and then it returns to roses on the super long finish. Seductive and supreme.

One vote for wine of the night.

Roberto Conterno, Oct 2019 © Linden Wilkie

2002 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva ‘Monfortino’

Likewise Roberto Conterno, who began in 1988 and took over from his father Giovanni Conterno here in 2004, this estate is one of the greatest in Italy, and the ‘Monfortino’ is their top wine. It is – like the Giacosa we taste this evening – from a vineyard in Serralunga d’Alba. The style here – like Giacosa – is both traditional (long ageing in large Slavonian oak), and modern (immaculate high tech winery and attention to detail). The Monfortino label goes back to the 1920s, from the highest quality grapes the Conternos could buy. But in 1974 they bought the 14ha Cascina Francia property in Serralunga and from 1978 onwards ‘Monfortino’ came exclusively from here, but only in the best vintages.

Superfine and pure on the nose; the palate shows fine fruit, perfect weight and expression, so elegant, with a long, dark finish. This is less forboding than some Monfortinos are at this ‘young’ age, quite elegant and already approachable, but with a long life ahead. Monfortino precision is all here.

Four votes for wine of the night. 2nd equal place.

2006 Tenuta San Guido ‘Sassicaia’ Bolgheri

Sassicaia began as a wine for private consumption for the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta and his family at their Bolgheri estate ‘Tenuta di San Guido’, where he bred race horses after World War Two. But he was persuaded to sell this family wine ‘ Sassicaia’ commercially from the 1968 vintage onwards. In 1978 Decanter magazine in the UK named the 1972 Sassicaia their top wine in a Cabernet tasting, and through the 1980s Sassicaia became known as the first of the ‘Super Tuscan’ wines – wines with the humble ‘Vino di Tavola’ label (lowest grade) because they didn’t come from traditional regions and styles like Chianti Classico, but had gained a high reputation for quality and price. (these wines later received their own Bolgheri DOC status in the 1990s). Here we have a sort of Médocain style Bordeaux blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, aged in French oak barriques, yet still somehow with a Tuscan sort of taste.

Fine nose, Médocain in expression, but sweeter; sweet, supple and well-balanced on the palate, this has really lovely fruit. Still young, but so supple it is a pleasure to drink. 

Four votes for wine of the night. 2nd equal place.

Masseto vineyard, the blue clay, Merlot©

2006 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia ‘Masseto’ Toscana IGT

Lodovico Antinori created two great ‘Super Tuscan’ wines in the 1980s. The first was Ornellaia – in 1985. From 1986 the 6.6ha Masseto vineyard was kept separate at the Ornellaia estate because its special blue clay soil was ideal for Merlot, and so ‘Masseto’ was born as a 100% Merlot wine with the 1987 vintage. It has often been called “the Pétrus of Italy” by connoisseurs. 2006 saw a dry but not too hot summer, giving a concentrated flamboyant Masseto.

Deep, unctuous, sweet Merlot, very finely structured, manicured even perhaps, this is also really concentrated, very long and so young in expression it is monolithic really. Not giving tonight, but the components are there. 

Two votes for wine of the night.

2008 Romano Dal Forno Amarone della Valpolicella

A protegé of Giuseppe Quintarelli, Romano Dal Forno began making his own Amarone wines in 1987. Like Quintarelli, Dal Forno aims to maximise quality. The vineyards are planted high-density (up to 12,800 plants per hectare), on gravel, silt and clay soils, and yields are restricted through strict green harvests. Carefully selected hand-harvested grapes – Corvina (60%), Rondinella (20%), Croatina (10%) and Oseleta (10%) are dried for 90 days. The winery is high-tech, and the approach modern, with computer-controlled stainless steel tanks with automatic cap rotation. Barriques are used, with ageing for 36 months. The drying of the grapes slowly concentrates the potential fruit concentration, natural acidity, and alcohol (this is 16.5%), while keeping everything in harmony. ‘Recioto’ has its fermentation stopped with some residual sugar to make a sweet wine, while ‘Amarone’ is fermented dry. It is what the Italians call a ‘vino da meditazione’, or ‘meditation wine’. 

Intense, deep, pure and very aromatic expression, fine tannins offering some grip, perfect integration, dried fruits, chocolate, long and brooding finish. 

No votes for wine of the night.

Amarone harvest at Quintarelli ©

2003 Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella

Giuseppe Quintarelli (1927-2012) took over his family estate in 1950. What he had in common with Romano Dal Forno was a very strict sense for quality. Quintarelli would declassify (‘Rosso del Bepi’) wine destined with the ‘Amarone’ label if he didn’t think the quality was high enough. For Amarone he was a traditionalist – bunches of grapes would be slowly air dried, and after fermentation in stainless steel, aged for 8 years in large Slavonian oak casks. But in other ways Giuseppe was adventurous. His Amarone was made 90% from traditional Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella grapes, but 10% from Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. He made another wine in the Amarone style called ‘Alzero’ from 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc. It’s quite a wine! 

Fine garnet with some age on the rim – lighter in appearance than the Dal Forno. Sweet, open and lifted aromas of dried fruits, spices and grilled nuts; sweet, liquorious and tangy with a sour cherry taste, sweetness (though it finishes just dry), and fine tannin.

One vote for wine of the night.