If you like Italian wine, then Tre Bicchieri is your guide. To my palate, it's more reliable and authoritative than anything from Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. For the 2011 edition, more than 70 Gambero Rosso tasters blind-tasted nearly 25,000 wines from 2,350 producers all over Italy. The editors then awarded 402 "tre bicchieri" (three glasses - their top designation) and 32 "the bicchieri plus" (the absolute highest award for wines selected by the editor-in-chief Daniele Cernilli), reflecting Italian wine quality and trends, and influencing fine Italian wine consumption around the globe. One could expect air of unapproachability from such god-like officials, but in reality, talking to Marco Sabellico and Eleonora Guerini (two of the three senior editors present at the tasting in San Francisco) was easy. To be perfectly frank, I was mesmerized by Eleonora's lightest-shade-of-blue eyes and Marco's baron-like mustache. The wine talk was just the icing on the cake!
Eleonora Guerini, Iron Chevsky, and Marco Sabellico.
It felt like no particular region stood out, or rather I saw fair representation from all over Italy. In 2009, the 2004 vintage dominated with Barolos and Barbarescos from Piedmonte, and Brunellos and Super-Tuscans (Bolgheri, Maremma and Toscana IGT wines) from Tuscany. In 2010 and especially this year, the representation from those has not been as pronounced, even though the absolute number of tre bicchieri winners did not significantly change for those great regions. However, the wines were less clustered on any particular appellation. And I saw fewer bombastic styles. Brunello was almost unnoticeable. Barolos were still showing well, with riservas from 2004 being very strong, and the 2006 solid but still very tannic and unyielding. Super-tuscans have showed up every year with quality wines, but I continue to be uninspired by that entire category of French varietals (Cab, Merlot, Syrah), much preferring Italy's native grapes. With one more year of experience under my belt of tasting and learning Italian wines, I was able to better appreciate the bounty of what different regions had to offer beyond Piedmonte and Tuscany, from Lombardy to Trentino to Friuli to Veneto to Campania to Marche to Sicily. That diversity coupled with the fact that we have not had a blockbuster vintage from Piedmonte since 2004, and the fact that much anticipated 2006 Brunellos haven't yet arrived in numbers, explains the composition of the 2011 Tre Bicchieri show.
I asked both Marco and Eleonora what in their views was different this year from last. What were the emerging trends in Italian wine?
"I see Campania gaining [with producers like Feudi di San Gregorio, Pietracupa, Mastroberardino (all tre bicchieri recipients)] - making great wines from native grapes such as Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo [two whites], and of course Aglianico [famous red that goes into Taurasi]", said Eleonora.
"What about Falanghina [another well-known Italian white from Campania]?", I was curious.
"Not so much. Falanghina is not as good", Eleonora struggled to find the right words in English. "Does not age well. Lower-end."
My experiences with the above grapes didn't really show such a big difference, but I had not had them at more than a couple of years of age.
Macro chimed in: "We see more native varietals emerge: Pecorino (from Marche), Casavecchia (from Campania), Nerello (from Sicily). We also see increasing popularity of organic, natural, and biodynamic winemaking. Quality of those is not necessarily better or worse, but people are more environmentally conscious." Marco continued: "The biggest trend we see is the pendulum swinging back to more traditional wines. In the past 20 years, people have played around with modern / international, over-ambitious, over-the-top, bombastically styled wines (richer, riper, oakier, approachable earlier), and now that they've satisfied their curiosity and had enough fun, Italian wine scene is moving back toward more moderate, traditional, authentic way of making wine."
I also asked Eleonora's perspective on the last few Barolo vintages. Eleonora sees 2005 as a poor vintage but with a number of producers having made good, approachable wines. Everyone agrees that 2006 is good and structured, and will age well, but just doesn't have as much fruit as 2004. She loves the 2007, and is generally thumbs-down on 2008 (too rainy) and 2009 (too hot).
Top wines of the tasting
At the beginning of the tasting, I asked Eleonora which wines she thinks I must try. That was my politically correct way of getting the list of her personal favorites. As she pointed out a number of items in the booklet (Schiavenza, Paolo Conterno, Ettore Germano (Herzu), and a few others) and explained why she liked them, it was clear her palate was similar to mine - she preferred lighter, less opulent, more classical wines. Italian Nebbiolo over Napa Cab any day! Later on, having gone through several hours of tasting, I must concur with her. Many of the wines she pointed out were among my favorites.
But the top spot of the show, for me, goes to Ferrari - the producer from Trentino-Alto Adige (Italy's northernmost region) I've mentioned in the two previous years, who this time seemed to rise even higher. This year for his efforts at Ferrari, the winemaker Ruben Larentis was awarded Winemaker of the Year. Ferrari presented:
2004 Trento Brut Perle Nero - 100% Pinot Noir, beautiful Champagne-like brut. 6 years on the lees.
2006 Trento Brut Perle Rosé - 80% Pinot Noir / 20% Chardonnay, another beauty - delicate roses, redcurrants, raspberries, and citrus. 5 years on the lees. Wonderfully lively and perfumey.
2001 Trento Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore Brut - Ferrari's top bottling and perennial tre bicchieri winner (this year tre bicchieri plus). 100% Chardonnay. 10 years on the lees. Big, yeasty Champagne-like sparkler.
All three traditional-method sparkling wines were outstanding, and easily rivaled top Champagne. Not cheap, at $50-100/btl, but the best I've seen from Italy, showing better than the iconic Ca'del Bosco Annamaria Clementi, which in the currently released 2003 vintage seemed ripe, heavy, powerful, almost bully-like, not surprising given the obscenely hot, much-maligned 2003 vintage in Europe. Call me crazy, but the 2003 Annamaria Clementi reminded me of the '98 Krug. So how bad can that be?! But the Ferrari's were just spot on! When I mentioned my opinion of Ferrari's wines to Eleonora, she nodded like it was a no-brainer. "Of course! These are the best sparkling wines in Italy!" About 80% of the annual production of Giulio Ferrari (Ferrari's top cuvée) is sold in Italy. Only a 1000 bottles a year are imported to the US, so given the scarcity and the reputation among Italian wine connoisseurs, the wines sell, even at $90/bottle.
Amongst the reds, two Barolos from 2004 easily outshone everyone else:
2004 Massolino Barolo "Vigna Rionda" - so pure, bright, and delicious! (can be found on wine-searcher for $55-60, quite a bit lower than the 2001.)
Always a pleasure to hang with Franco Massolino, especially while grasping his juicy 2004 Barolo Vigna Rionda.
2004 Bruno Giacosa "Le Rocche del Falletto di Serralunga d'Alba" red-label Riserva - a Giacosa classic (priced at the highest end of the Barolo stratosphere ($400)) - a very complex wine with deceptively soft texture. Cured meat, tobacco, plums, raspberries, dried flowers, almost an aged character, long finish. Awarded tre bicchieri plus. "Probably the finest Barolo of recent years, on par with Barbaresco Asili '96 and Barolo Collina Rionda '89", says the Tre Bicchieri guide. Not sure that I'd pay $400 for it, given that there are other amazing Barolos in the $100 range. But $300-400 is where the iconic Italian reds (from Gaja, Giacomo Conterno, Biondi-Santi, Dal Forno, Quintarelli, and a couple of others) are these days.
Marco added another fave of his - Biondi-Santi Brunello (whose 2004 Riserva is crazy expensive ($400), named the Red wine of the Year, and not available at the show unfortunately). I asked if they liked Soldera, and they said "No".
Other very good wines
2004 Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino Riserva - smooth, elegant, spicy, leathery, impressive.
2008 Ettore Germano Herzu Langhe Bianco (Riesling) - this is the best Riesling I've had from Italy. Very tasty wine, with great acid, minerality, and fruit, completely dry, but with more body than you find in a trocken (dry) German Riesling.
2005 Guido Berlucchi Franciacorta Brut Extreme "Palazzo Lana" - from 100% Pinot Nero (Noir)
2005 Le Marchesine Franciacorta "Secolo Novo" - awarded the Sparkling wine of the Year, made 100% from Chardonnay, this wine is yeasty, more fruity and lemony than "Palazzo Lana" above.
2009 Ruggeri Prosecco Extra Dry "Giustino B" - a vintage Prosecco - a small number of Veneto producers have started making them in the last 4-5 years, taking Prosecco to another level.
The young Giustino Bisol explained that "Ruggeri" was the last name of his grand-father's partner who together with his grandfather founded the estate in 1950. Eventually the two parted ways, and the Bisol family has been running the estate for two generations, yet the original name was kept. Here Giustino is holding his eponymous vintage Prosecco 2009 awarded tre bicchieri.
2006 Pio Cesare Barolo "Ornato" - caramel plum, chocolate, licorice, tasty.
2006 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Il Poggio Riserva - a very pretty, balanced, smooth, medium textured Chianti Classico that manages not to taste like a Brunello despite its $50 (very high for Chianti) price tag.
2008 Petrolo "Galatrona" - 100% Merlot. As I already mentioned, I am not a fan of Super-Tuscans, but as far as those wines go, this is a good one. I enjoyed it far more than the powerhouse, super-ripe 2007 (98 point Wine Spectator, not surprising). The 2008 is a cooler wine, with notes of earthy veggies, and thus IMHO much more food-friendly than 2007.
2007 Tenuta Olim Bauda Barbera d'Asti Superiore "Nizza" - a bit deeper, darker and thicker than your everyday Barbera, but showing fine balance and complexity of tobacco leaf, graphite, and black cherries, with good acidity.
2008 Palari "Faro Palari" - Sicilian red made primarily from Nerello Mascalese, topped with small amounts of other native varietals, in the Messina region of the island (Messina is the third largest city in Sicily, after Palermo and Cantania), from Faro DOC. Pinot body, velvety, red and black cherries, spice and pencil lead, nice character. Similar to Etna Rosso (that I covered here).
Other promising wines
A number of wines seemed too young for me to fully access and appreciate yet, but which could turn out to be very very good.
2007 Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco 25 Anni - powerful, rich & structured, drink in 2020!
Iron Chevsky and Marco Caprai (son of the founder Arnaldo) of Arnaldo Caprai - the world's most recognized maker of Sagrantino di Montefalco, Umbria's greatest red wine.
2006 Paolo Conterno Barolo "Ginestra" - very tight and tannic right now, hard to judge, check back in September.
Giorgio Conterno (whose great-grand-father started the winery in 1886) of Paolo Conterno (no relation to Giacomo or Aldo Conterno) with the 2006 Barolo Ginestra, awarded tre bicchieri for the third time.
2007 Pelissero Barbaresco "Vanotu"
Giorgio Pelissero (the owner of the estate, founded by Giorgio's grand-father Giovanni Pelissero, with the first bottles produced by Giorgio's father Luigi in 1960) with the 2007 Barbaresco Vanotu.
2004 Schiavenza Barolo "Broglio" Riserva - very precise, great acid, needs time.
2005 Borgogno Barolo "Vigna Liste" - raw, energetic and young, very tannic.
2006 Vietti Barolo "Rocche" - a typical Vietti, with darker notes, a bit of heat, menthol, spices, and chocolate.
2006 Ca'del Baio Barbaresco "Pora" - very young and tight, spicy, needs time.
Last year, I remarked on the 2006 Barbaresco Asili represented by sisters Paola and Valentina Grasso. This year I ran into them again and was not disappointed by their Barbaresco "Pora", more structured than the Asili.
2006 Renato Ratti Barolo "Rocche" - tight, a little bitter, a little hot (14.5%), needs time.
Brian Larky (on the left), the founder of Dalla Terra (importer of Vietti and Casanova di Neri, among others, read more about him here) and Pietro Ratti (the son of the founder Renato) of Renato Ratti with the 2006 Barolo Rocche.
2007 Nino Negri Valtellina Sfursat 5 Stelle - this wine is made from matt-dried Nebbiolo grapes, similiar to the Amarone method - a wine from Lombardy, only 1200 bottles are sold in the US per year. As expected, it has a baked berries angle to it, so if you like that aspect of Amarone, you will love it in Sfursat.
2005 Massimino Venturini Amarone "Campomasua" - nice spices, cloves, veggies, root veggies, and dry fruits, high acid.
2004 Mastroberardino Taurasi Radici Riserva - spice, leather, plum, raspberry, forest floor, awarded tre bicchieri plus.
Other positive mentions
2008 Pietracupa Cupo (Fiano) was quite fascinating. A crisp white made from Campania's Fiano grape, earning tre bicchieri plus, normally thought of as a pairing for seafood, it had smokiness that made me think of charcuterie. Pietracupa's other white wine, 2009 Greco di Tufo also earned tre bicchieri for the fourth time in a row. That salty, almondy, minerally wine transported me to a warm summer day in the Mediterranean overlooking the sea, with a plate of freshly grilled fish with a lemon squeezed on top.
Sabino Loffredo (son of the founder Peppino Loffredo) of Pietracupa peeking through his 2009 Greco di Tufo and 2008 Cupo.
2007 Chianti Classico "Rancia" Riserva - always reliable and on the rounder / creamier side of Sangiovese.
2009 Ca'Rugate Soave Classico Monte Fiorentine - very enjoyable expression of Soave
2008 Pieropan Soave Classico La Rocca - almost Chardonnay-like expression of Soave, with some oak, tasting quite substantial. Very cool Alsatian-looking bottle.
2009 Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino Pietracalda - clean and minty.
There were about 160 or so wines at the tasting. I managed to get through probably half of them, based on the recommendations from Eleonora, plus my own old-time faves, friends' suggestions and whim. Apologies to anyone whose great wines I may have missed. As a result of my Tre Bicchieri coverage over the past three years, as well as drinking countless Tre Bicchieri wines at home and at restaurants, I continue to hold Gambero Rosso in high esteem when it comes to Italian wine recommendations. Though in a hurried pace of an industrial grade tasting event, I may think I found my favorites, it does not mean I would turn down any wine that has a tre bicchieri designation on it. The ultimate test comes when pairing with food, not by running through rows filled with a hundred wine producers. Thus, with all due respect to my own experience and judgment, take my assessment with a grain of salt, because that's just my palate on a given day.