In a recent article, I discussed some of the best-known Super Tuscan wines. Tuscany is just one of Italy's world-renowned wine regions; in fact, every region of Italy is capable of producing world-class wines. The passion winemakers bring to the art and science of creating a top-quality wine of distinction is alive and well throughout Italy.
In this article, we'll take a look at some of Italy's best red wines, excluding the Super Tuscans.
Azienda Agricola Valentini
Edoardo Valentini, who died in 2006, was so closely associated with winemaking in the Abruzzo region that he was nicknamed "Lord of the Vines." Scion of a winemaking family that traces its history back to the 1600s, Valentini devoted himself to traditional winemaking methods, creating an amazing Montepulciano d'Abruzzo in the process. During his lifetime, Valentini refused to discuss his production techniques and studiously avoided modern innovations like email and websites.
(The company still does not have its own website.) After Edoardo's death, his son, Francesco, who had worked with his father for many years, took full control of the estate.
Valentini Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is difficult to find in the U.S., as very few cases are exported. (You can, however, find Valentini Cerasuolo Montepulciano d'Abruzzo fairly easily.) A bottle of 2001 Valentini Montepulciano d'Abruzzo sells for $225 to $240.
Like Edoardo Valentini, Bartolo Mascarello dedicated himself to traditional winemaking methods. When other Barolo producers switched over to barriques and modern technology, Mascarello continued producing wine the way he always had – with meticulous care, according to the principles learned from his father and grandfather. By the time Bartolo Mascarello died in 2005, wine critics had ceased to ignore his emphasis on tradition and started to award him the recognition he deserved for his superb Barolo wines.
Today, Bartolo's daughter, Maria-Teresa, runs the winery. She remains dedicated to the Mascarello family techniques and practices, eschewing email and barriques in favor of labels featuring her father's artwork and large Slavonian oak barrels. Expect to pay $112 to $125 for a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello Barolo 2001; you'll pay much more for older vintages.
Azienda Agricola Allegrini
Moving west to the Veneto, we come to Agricola Allegrini, best known for its Amarone della Valpolicella Classico. The Allegrini family bought irrigation rights in Valpolicella in the mid-16th century and farmed there for centuries before turning to winemaking. Under the expert guidance of Giovanni Allegrini, the winery prospered. Today, Giovanni's two surviving children, Marilisa and Franco, continue to produce top-notch wines. You'll pay $80 and up for a bottle of Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2001, and over $100 for a bottle from the late 1990s.
Bruno Giacosa, another legendary figure in the world of Italian wine, began his winemaking career before most of us learned to drive. Giacosa is one of the three key Barbaresco producers who brought this wine into the international spotlight during the 1960s. Giacosa is known for his perfectionist habits; if a vintage does not meet his exacting standards, he will not bottle it. His 2001 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco D. O. C. G. Santo Stefano di Neive currently retails for $130 to $200 per bottle; if you're lucky enough to find a bottle of the 1978, expect to pay at least $600 to add it to your collection. You'll find, too, that the single-vineyard Barolos and Barbarescos from Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa command equally high prices.
For many lovers of Italian red wines, Angelo Gaja personifies Barbaresco. A fourth-generation Piemontese winemaker, Gaja inherited a great winemaking tradition that began when the estate bearing his surname was established in 1859. His well-documented innovations, which include aging his nebbiolo wines in both barriques and Slavonian oak barrels, don't stop with nebbiolo grapes, however. Among other accomplishments, Angelo Gaja introduced the first cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc plantings in Piedmont.
Gaja produces many highly-rated wines, including Gaja Sorí San Lorenzo and Gaja Sperss. Gaja's flagship wine, Gaja Barbaresco D. O. C. G., traces its roots back to the winery's founding in 1859. Today, you should expect to pay $210 to $250 for a bottle of 2001 Gaja Barbaresco D. O. C. G., while a bottle of the 1978 vintage will set you back at least $285.
Poderi Aldo Conterno
Aldo Conterno grew up in a winemaking family, but struck out on his own in 1969 rather than remain at his ancestral winery. For Aldo, this turned out to be the best possible decision. He owns three flagship cru vineyards in Bussia, on which he grows the nebbiolo grapes used in his Granbussia Barolo Riserva wines. Conterno carefully manages every aspect of growth, harvest and production, and the award-winning results of his efforts have earned him the title "King of Barolo."
A bottle of the 2001 Granbussia Barolo Riserva D. O. C. G. costs anywhere from $200 to $320, while older, rare vintages sell for three or four times that amount.
Azienda Agricola Rabajà
Innovative Barbaresco winemaker Bruno Rocca owns vineyard property in well-known Rabajà. Rocca is known for his incorporation of international winemaking techniques, which have brought his wines onto the world stage. His Bruno Rocca Barbaresco Rabajà, surely one of his best-known wines, reflects his willingness to modernize and experiment as well as his dedication to quality. You'll pay about $90 for a bottle of 2001 Bruno Rocca Barbaresco Rabajà.
No discussion of Brunello di Montalcino, the distinguished wine from Tuscany, would be complete without a mention of Biondi Santi. The winery dates back to the mid-19th century, and its original owner, Clemente Santi, won prizes for his wines in both London and Paris just a few years after his winery opened. Clemente's grandson, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, invented Brunello di Montalcino as we know it today. In accordance with family tradition, Ferruccio's grandson, Franco, has dedicated himself not only to producing world-class wines but also to preserving his family's unique heritage and special place in winemaking history.
In 2010, Italy's Gambero Rosso magazine named Biondi Santi Tenuta Greppo Brunello di Montalcino 2004 Riserva its Italian Red Wine of the Year. This wine is only made during the most exceptional years. As you might expect, a bottle of Biondi Santi Tenuta Greppo Brunello di Montalcino Riserva commands investment-level prices. You'll pay about $400 for a bottle of the 2001 vintage, and $430 and up for older vintages.