'What's in a Name' Is New Game of Italian Vintners

Times Wine Writer

A curious thing is happening to Italian wine these days. A term that once applied to the lowest quality of Italian wine can now be seen on wines of the highest quality.

It is a confusing and tumultuous time for Italian wine producers and American wine buyers, and it's a time in need of some explanation.

Once upon a time there were no rigid laws governing the production of Italian wine, and marketing of the disparate elements was a nightmare, especially since quality and quantity were increasing at the same time and the Italian domestic market was unable to absorb all the wine that was made.

Yet marketing overseas with little uniformity of type was so confusing that something had to be done to offer a more homogeneous view, and that came about in 1963 with implementation of the Italian wine regulations called Denominazione di Origine Controllata, DOC. The regulations specified grape varieties and production limitations for each region of Italy.

The DOC laws initially applied to only 12 million cases, a fraction of the wine then being produced. Most of the rest was termed vino da tavola, and that phrase was applied to inexpensive table wine with no guarantee that any fine-quality grapes were used in production. (An old joke was that some vini da tavola actually used some grapes.)

Opposition to Laws

But the DOC laws were opposed by some vintners who felt them too restricting, and in some regions--notably in Tuscany, where Chianti is king--some innovative, far-thinking and dynamic producers felt they were being limited in the quality of wine they could produce. They felt they could compete with the greatest red wines of France, and that the DOC laws tied their hands.

Still, DOC became the standard designation found on top-quality wine; vino da tavola came to be known as plonk. Italian trade organizations, backed by the Italian government (which hoped foreign trade would absorb the wine domestic buyers wouldn't) promoted DOC as the top of the line. And as wine quality improved dramatically, DOC wines were truly excellent. Today more than 100 million cases of wine have DOC on the label.

Still, that didn't solve all the problems, and wine authorities in Italy looked for another approach to market even higher-quality wine. That led to development of the DOCG status, with the G standing for Garantita, a guarantee of quality even higher than DOC. As wines such as Brunello, Barolo and Chianti qualified for the DOCG designation, it added a level of quality to the consumer's options.

Still, some producers were unhappy that they couldn't grow Cabernet in Barolo, they couldn't grow Chardonnay in Alba and they couldn't even make a wine that was all Sangiovese and still qualified for the DOC designation. Yet vino da tavola wouldn't work for a $20 Cabernet.

Affected Barrel Choice

Also, some producers wanted to age their wines in new French oak barrels instead of the old tradition of aging in old walnut and chestnut barrels. And the law was restrictive there too. It required certain aging; producers wanted a free hand to decide, based on the wine quality.

One example of the irritation they felt: Italian law required that small percentages of two white grapes be included in anything called Chianti. Yet the Sangiovese grape alone is the heart and soul of Chianti, and many producers felt it should be unsullied by some low-quality white wine.

The laws were, in fact, modified--slowly--and recently the amount of the white grapes required has shrunk to an absolute minimum, 5%. Moreover, the law now also permits up to 10% of "other grapes"; frequently that meant that Cabernet Sauvignon, the great grape of Bordeaux and California, became all of the "other grapes" that were used in Chianti.

Yet DOC remained an irritant to many, and by 1968 there was a swing away from DOC. It came first with Sassicaia, made by the firm Marchesi Incisa della Rochetta and bottled and distributed by the large firm of Antinori. The wine is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Cabernet Franc, aged in small French oak barrels, and it is atypical of the wines of Tuscany--rich, powerful and more like a Bordeaux.

Not only does it bear no resemblance to Chianti, and not only is it a mere vino da tavola, it also sells for $60 a bottle. No other Chianti sells for that much. And Sassicaia sells out each vintage rapidly.

The wine that may be credited with forever changing the face of Chianti, and all Tuscan wines in general, is called Tignanello. It is another product bold enough to defy the DOC regulations and simply be called vino da tavola.

Making a Challenge

Piero Antinori fashioned this wine from 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and by 1975 he was challenging the established order by getting high prices for Tignanello when DOC riserva wines were getting a fraction of the price. This helped convince a number of top producers that the time was ripe for a secession from the DOC establishment.

After all, Italian wine had gotten only so far in the world's prestige department.

--In Michael Broadbent's "Great Vintage Wine Book," in more than 400 pages of tasting notes, not a single Italian wine is evaluated. Broadbent said he hasn't tasted enough great Italian wine to add an Italian section. (The implied message: Broadbent doesn't consider Italian wine intriguing enough to review.)

--Wine collectors I know will admit they don't have much, if any, Italian wine in their cellars. "It's too confusing," said one. (The implied message: He's spent his time worrying about which Bordeaux to buy, so hasn't tasted Italian wines with any attention.)

--At wine auctions around the world, rarely are Italian wines offered.

In fact, only in the last few weeks has the phenomenon of Italian wine at auction even become an issue. In the Sept. 15 issue of the Wine Spectator, a wine industry newspaper, writer James Suckling, in an article tracking auction pricing trends, lists prices for Chateaux Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion and the others, and notes that "some Italian wines are beginning to establish themselves at auction." It's a crack in the wall.

It's no coincidence that this trend, of greater worldwide acceptance of Italian wine, is occurring at the same time that more than two dozen producers of exceptional vino da tavola are making some of the finest wines ever seen in Italy. And they are doing so by bypassing the traditional DOC system and simply calling their wines Tignanello, Sassicaia, Solaia.

Prices are high ($20 to $60 a bottle), but they are exceptional wines.

Now wines the quality of Monte Vertine Le Pergole Torte, Prunaio Il Viticcio, and even something called, curiously, R&R; have become targets of a tiny coterie of wine lovers who feel these wines may be the sleepers of the future. And they're excited not only because the wines are very good but because the current vintages, 1985 and 1986, are excellent.

Exceptional Vintages

"I wonder if, 10 years from now, we'll all look at Le Pergole Torte and say, 'Wow, it was only $37.50, why didn't we stock up?' We all love the wines."

That statement was made last week by Ed Masciana, wine merchant with Bristol Farms, after he staged a tasting of 12 of what he called the Super Tuscans at Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach. Sixteen guests evaluated the wines blind, with dinner, and found an array of excitement few expected.

Choosing a best wine of the evening was difficult: virtually every wine was attractive for some reason or other, even though some were all Sangiovese, some were blends, and others had no Sangiovese at all.

Sobering Prices

The only surprising thing was the tariff. The least expensive wine was $19, and prices ranged up to the Sassicaia at $60. And the sobering fact is that, although Italian red wine once was considered the bargain of any wine list, today the best are fetching prices that make folks wince. What's good news is that the wines do offer good taste for the money.

Among the top wines of the tasting on my score card was 1986 Le Pergole Torte ($37.50). I bought the 1985 of this vineyard at $22, but demand for this excellent wine from a small (seven-acre) property has shot the price for the '86 skyward. There is deep fruit, a spice from French oak, and a long, deep, complex finish in this version, a most stylish wine.

Right up there in terms of richness and power was the 1985 Castello di Gabbiano Ania ($22 to $25), which exhibits an aroma of the new French oak in which it was aged, with loads of spice and a deep, complex finish.

I also loved the R&R; of Castello di Gabbiano ($26 to $30), a wine made up of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and $20% Sangiovese. There was a surprising similarity between this wine and the Le Pergole Torte, and I preferred it in some ways to the all-Sangiovese wine because of what I felt was a greater potential to age into a classic.

The 1983 Sammarco from Castello di Rampolla ($35) was another blockbuster at this event, with a huge, deeply concentrated level of fruit and fairly strong tannins that will require extended aging. This wine is a monster, having progressed little in its six years of life.

More a wine of finesse and potential than power was the fragrant 1985 Prunaio Il Viticcio ($18 to $20), which had an intriguing aroma akin to roasted pine nuts and tar. This wine, all Sangiovese, is more delicate and less obvious at first.

Slightly richer, with a dried cherry and tar sort of element, was the 1985 Vinatierri Rosso ($16.50 to $19.50). This all-Sangiovese wine has an attractive, concentrated finish.

Other wines that scored very well included 1986 Flaccianello della Pieve from Fontodi ($25 to $28), with a raspberry/cherry aroma and a bay leaf/tarragon hint in the finish; 1985 Fontalloro Felsina ($24 to $26), a concentrated, fairly dense wine with a faint tea leaf note in the aroma; 1985 Isole e Olena Cepparello ($17 to $20), which has rich, deep fruit, but a slightly shy finish.

We also evaluated the great 1986 Sassicaia ($55 to $60), and found it wonderfully complex, loaded with toasty and tarragon notes, and with grand potential, but most tasters felt it was overpriced.

"Well, are they equivalent to the First Growths?," asked Masciana after tasting through most of the wines.

No, not by a mile. But if you ask this question: Are they as good as most classified-growth Bordeaux, the answer would be an unqualified yes, and with prices that are competitive.

There is no question that the new, upscale vino da tavola is here to stay. In looking at the phenomenon, writer Daniel Thomases, in his Italian publication the Veronelli News, wrote:

"( Vino da tavola ) has come to mean a rigorous selection of grapes and, in the vast majority of cases, the utilization of the barrique (small oak barrel) in the creation of the wine. This reflects the fascination with the new (for Italy) aging techniques introduced in the early and middle '70s, and it also reflects the pleasure that Italian producers found in being able to compete on equal terms with the fine wines of France and California . . . ."

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