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Get your pen ready!

Here come spectacular recommendations for small-vineyard Italian wines.  You won’t hear about the big joints at all, but instead, the small players, the individuals who have passed down their love of grapes through generations.  These are vintners interested in exploring and exploiting the possibilities in their vines, not glutting the market with “good enough”.

I was invited to an Italian boutique wine tasting last week in New York, IL GIRO, Frederick Wildman‘s “Discover Italy” tour.  Wildman tends to search out small vineyards across the continents, showing up with interesting wines, both bargain-priced for quality under the cork, as well as show-stopping bigger ticket items.

Disclaimer:  I tend to like a story with a wine.  I am no expert, just a plain old aficionado.  The “terroir” of one vineyard’s grape may be rugged and stoney, but unless the vintner can tell me about walking those stones, and the peculiar characteristics of the vintage year’s temperatures, I tend to glaze over and nod the “yeah, yeah, yeah” train.

Stephen and I worked the rooms at A Voce.  He focused his attention on reds, and I looked at whites, while occasionally being tempted to the reds.

OVERALL WINNING VINEYARD: Nino Negri, a vineyard two hours north of Milan, but still in Italy.  Barely.  If you can imagine this part of the world on a map, just feet away from Switzerland, you realize quickly that it is all about steeps.  Wine making for this vineyard is as it was a century ago – by hand, on foot.  Since the steeps face south, they get the benefit of extended sun.  The time and care invested in these grapes are as you would see in a well-run nursing home – tender, assured of what may lie under the skin.  And the story came from the Technical Director’s daughter, Sara, who carefully explained to us the wines she had in front of her. For me, the exceptional and very unique white was the 2012 Ca’ Brione Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio, a blend of traditionally white grapes, with some Chiavennenasca thrown in that deepens the flavor.  This is a $30 bottle of wine, and a show-stopper if you love whites.  Among the reds offered by Nino Negri, the La Tense, Vigneto Fracia and Sfursat di Valtellina were most to Stephen’s liking.  They range from $20-50/bottle.  Sara’s depiction of the countryside where these wines are made almost made us feel like we were there with her.  I think Maria Von Trapp may have swirled by, too…  “The hills are alive….”

Nino negri

LONGEST STAKES HOLDERS: Fattoria dei Barbi, a Tuscan vineyard in business since 1790, but owning land in Montalcino since 1352. (Read: around the beginning of the Renaissance and the Hundred Years’ War, right around the time of the infamous Black Death, and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in China!)  We first tried two reds that were touted as excellent picnic wines, a picture I quickly evoked and enjoyed: the 2011 Brusco dei Barbi Toscana Rossa, and the 2012 Morellino di Scansano, the first wine under $10/bottle, and the second under $15.  Stephen loved the Brunello di Montalcinos by this vintner, 100% Sangiovese grapes, crying out for a large dinner with family or friends, talking, laughing, progressively getting louder.  I think our American Easter/Greek Easter/Passover dinner might have done well with these wines, as well as gimbaled funiculars!

BEST SMACK DOWN:  Torre Fornello, in Emilia, north of Florence, where Enrico Sgorbati crafts beautiful reds, but probably does NOT read Borges.  Enrico also will tell you just HOW you must appropriately taste his wines.  “No, no, no!  You will not skip to the richer and deeper reds!  You must start where I say so!”  I love Italians who will tell my alpha-male husband what to do, and then stand up and demand he comply!  It reminds me of other Italians who have done so – the waiter in Rome, who REFUSED to let Stephen order a first plate and second plate with tomatoes!  “No! No!  Pomodoro, pomodoro, no!  You can no order!”  And he INSISTED!  (And got his way!)  Then there was the hotel clerk who REFUSED to arrange our shuttle at the time we requested, because we did NOT want to spend that long at the airport!  He and Stephen were eyeball to eyeball over the front desk, and the hotel clerk won that battle too!  Torre Fornello wines: a Pinot Nero that is so much more than a typical Pinot Noir, and some Barbera/Bonarda blends that were spectacular – when tasted in the order “recommended”!!

FIND YOUR STINKY CHEESE FOR THESE:  Marziano Abbona, in the northwestern region of Italy.  The 2012 Vermentino white, Valle dell’Olmo Favorita Langhe comes alive with a strong and gooey cheese.  The Nebbiolos (2012 Bricco Barone and 2008 Pressenda) were also spectacular with a bit of cheese in the mouth.


  • Tenuta Rapitalá, Sicily, 2012 Piano Maltese (screaming sunshine and friends!), 2012 Grand Cru Sicilia (amazing Italian Chard), 2010 Hugonis Sicilia (Stephen’s requisite red, 50/50 Cabernet/Nero d’Avola blend)
  • La Spinona, Piedmont, 2012 Chardonnay delle Langhe (happily loving Chard without oak!), as well as the 2007 (or 2006 if you can find it) Barolo Sorigepin
  • Col di Bacche, Tuscany, 2012 Vermentino (another summer screamer… Come play!  Take the day off of work!  Wine at lunch is perfectly fine!)
  • Colle del Saraceno, Umbria, the Sagrantino grape, which for me evokes either SACRED or BLOODY.  I like both in a red wine!  This grape is so tannic… it may have a max load, one or two glasses, but they will be large and entirely lovely!
  • Barone Cornacchia, heading south to my ancestors, I loved their 2012 Pecorino.  I thought that was only a cheese, but come to find out it is also a great grape!  Serve with spicy food off the grill, and love, love, love!

There is so much more to Italian wine than your standard Chianti or Valpolicella.  Smaller vintners in Italy ARE able to craft their own unique creations, and those wines are available to us here in the US.  If you can’t find these wines in your local liquor store, ask them to be ordered.  You may be pleasantly surprised!

About Claire Ziamandanis

Claire Ziamandanis is Professor of Spanish at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Over her 20 years at the college, she has been a champion for study abroad, establishing the first affiliation for Spanish students, and then working with the Study Abroad office to open the doors to students from other majors. Claire loves travel, food, wine and Spanish but not necessarily in that order!

One comment

  1. I’m bummed I missed this – but a broken foot in NYC with my father did not sound like a fun time! I love Abbona. Their Papa Celso Dolcetto is a really elegant red for summer, lighter but still complex and interesting.

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