Tasting Wine: These Italian wines deserve ‘three glasses’

In the past few years, March has marked one of the best wine tastings of the year, the Gambero Rosso Roadshow sponsored by the famous Italian wine magazine, Gambero Rosso. Excited, I trekked up to Fort Mason on Wednesday, hoping to taste some of Italy’s best wines, which are anointed “Tre Bicchieri,” the name of a top award meaning “three glasses.” I did taste some great wines, but for the most part I found the wines were uniformly formulaic, with many of the reds being highly overoaked and lacking terroir.

Granted, there were nearly 150 wines at this tasting and, at best, I tasted a random sampling of half. To narrow the field, I stayed away from wines I previously tasted and tried to avoid Piedmont — though the ’01 Marcellino Barolo Rionda was one of the highlights — and Tuscany, whose ’04 Vignamaggio Cabernet Franc was another highlight. Also, this type of setting, where one tastes mass quantities in a relatively short period of time, is not a very good way to evaluate wine. That said, I’ve been doing this long enough that I can say, “If it smells like oak and it taste like oak it must be oak.”

Oak is not a bad thing. It adds nuance, body and color and can help a wine age. A number of the wines that seemed too oaky now are going to be gorgeous in about 10 years when the wine is better integrated.

However, it seemed to me as if many of the wines were made not in a modern style, but in an international style that has come to mean lots of wood, overripe and over-extracted fruit and lots of alcohol. Experience has shown that these wines often don’t improve with age. I chatted with a friend Thursday night who imports Spanish wine, and he complained that the same thing is afflicting Spain. Sad, but true.

As I went through my notes Thursday to write in my blog, I noticed that even though my overall impression of the tasting was “eh,” there really were a good dozen or so that showed Italian wines at their zenith. Before going into this, I also want to say there are a lot of terrific wines made in Italy that were not represented at this tasting.

Here are my top Tre Bicchieri wines.

Di Majo Norante Contado, 2004 (Molise, Italy)

I’m cheating here because this wine was one of the numerous “Due Bicchieri” — “two glasses” awarded wines — that were also being poured. However, it was actually better than Norante’s Tre Bicchieri wine. Made from aglianico, it has dense, ripe fruit, yet there is a sense of dusty, mineral terroir with kirsch, roasted almonds and supple tannins. Suggested retail: $20

Brigaldara Amarone della Valpolicella Case Vecie, 2003 (Veneto, Italy)

Without fail, this Tre Bicchieri wine always comes through. Amarone, the best non-DOCG wine made in Italy, has its star producers who charge a whole lot of money, and while this DOC is never inexpensive, Brigaldara’s is worth it.

Stefano Cesare, whose family has been making wine in Veneto since 1928, straddles the more traditional style with the polished quality of modernity. With intense and, by nature of what it is, ripe cherry, brandied red fruits, bittersweet chocolate, spice and gripping tannins, it is still very young but tasty. Suggested retail: $80

Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, DOCG Ghemme Collis Breclemae, 2000 (Piedmont, Italy) When I mentioned above that I was trying to avoid Piedmont, I meant the Langhe, not northern Piedmont. This was the first wine I tried, and it set the bar pretty high. This family-run estate makes nebbiolos that are as much of a treat as the best from Barolo and Barbaresco. The 2000 vintage is the current release and it is not in any way at its prime, though it is drinkable. With licorice, a hint of tobacco and dried rose petal aromas, followed by dried red currant, sour cherry fruit and plenty of acidity, it is one of the most memorable wines I’ve tried from Piedmont in the last few years. Suggested retail: $45

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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