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Great Wines of Italy You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

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There’s another Renaissance happening these days in the fabled Italian wine country of the Old World. To experience it fully, however, you have to look in places where you’re probably not looking.

 

One of the best wine events that takes place in Los Angeles every year is one put together by world-renowned critic James Suckling, which he appropriately calls “Great Wines of Italy”—usually taking place in a posh, boutique hotel in the heart of the city of posh-dom named Beverly Hills. Graciously, Mr. Suckling invites members of the wine trade and media to his best-of-the-best Italian wine tasting, and I hardly miss a chance to attend. It’s one of the best ways, short of spending a month in Italy, of seeing what’s coming down the pike from many of the great names in Italian wine as well as some of the brightest young estates. 

Sure, you could spend your hours at the Great Wines of Italy tasting focusing only on the names everybody knows, such as Valdicava, Antinori, Conterno, Giacosa, Ornellaia, Flaccianello, Redigaffi and so many more, but I think these things are best used as opportunities to discover names hitherto unfamiliar and/or those that fall in the category of “I’ve heard of them—but I haven’t yet had a chance to taste their wines.” Italian wineries that fall into this latter category are present in droves at Mr. Suckling’s event, making this a quintessential wine event for Los Angeles. 

Following are, what I felt, the top wines of the event—attended by more than 80 wineries and with more than 160 wines available to taste. Again, bear in mind that the following list does not include the most familiar names in Italian wine, because I purposely avoided them (really, does Valdicava need any more good press?—I love their wines, but you don’t need me to tell you they’re great). Also, as always with our publication, price matters. There are no overpriced wines on this list. 

I am in love with white wines I’m tasting from Italy today—give them a chance, and you’ll be hooked forever. Also, the 2015 vintage in Tuscany, which is being called one of the vintages of the century, is actually one of the vintages of the century. There are many, many mind-blowingly great wines from here amidst one of those “you can throw a dart and find a good wine” vintages. 

Most of the following wines should just be arriving on U.S. shores, if not already. For fun, I’ve included James Suckling’s scores next to mine for comparison’s sake. Enjoy! 

 


BEST OF ‘GREAT WINES OF ITALY’ 2018 | BEVERLY HILLS 

 

BAROLO

PARUSSO Bussia 2013 | $75–80

Starts with a lithe nose of cherry, strawberry and raspberry then, wow, transforms into a Nebbiolo of such richness and intensity while maintaining its medium-bodied weight. The fruit is of superb quality, and every nuance is coaxed out within a pristine structure. Superfine, silky tannins bring grace and elegance to a beautiful expression of Piedmontese wine.  

Corkscrewer score: 97 pts   Suckling score: 97 pts

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BRUNELLO

ALTESINO Montosoli 2013 | $90–100

Ripe and concentrated dark berry and plum flavors but highly balanced with the nice acidity of red berry notes. Quite intense for a wine that is more medium-bodied than full. Single-vineyard Sangiovese that fully delivers on depth of experience and pleasure for its comparatively fair price point.

Corkscrewer score: 96 pts   Suckling score: 98 pts

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CELESTINO PECCI 2012 | $45–50

For those who like it very, very rich and concentrated and ripe (it was a warm vintage)—and almost full-bodied for a Sangiovese—this Brunello is very reasonably priced and offers considerable bang for the buck. A pronounced note of rusticity and minerality brings forth character amidst the generous notes of rose, violets and dark cherry.

Corkscrewer score: 93 pts   Suckling score: 95 pts

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SASSETTI LIVIO Pertimali 2013 | Around $70

With intensely forward notes of ripe fruit—dark plum, orange jam, strawberry preserves and other sweet red fruits—along with a dash of sweet spices, you would not expect such silkiness on the wine’s exquisite mouthfeel. Such is the beauty of contrast and contradiction in this elegant, lengthy Brunello. A Napa Cab lover’s Brunello?

Corkscrewer score: 95 pts   Suckling score: 98 pts

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TUSCAN REDS

BIBI GRAETZ Testamatta 2015 | $100–110

Stunningly brilliant 100% Sangiovese from one of the greatest and most individualistic Italian winemakers of the last 10 years. Starts with an amazingly floral nose and powerful notes of black and red cherry then exposes your palate to stellar fruit quality that’s rivetingly fresh and succulently delicious. Gorgeous structure and balance that makes the wine seem to float in the mouth. Such a marvelously pretty Tuscan red.

Corkscrewer score: 100 pts   Suckling score: 99 pts

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BRANCAIA Il Blu 2013 | $75

The flagship Super Tuscan from one of the great modern Italian estates offers ample rewards for the money. Classic Tuscan character is here in spades—bigness, boldness and silkiness, along with a diaspora of purple, blue and red fruit-forward notes. Crowd-pleasing and fundamental.

Corkscrewer score: 95 pts   Suckling score: 96 pts

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CAIAROSSA Aria di Caiarossa 2013 | $35–40

A unique Super Tuscan blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, the Aria over-delivers with its striking song. A robust, rustic, terroir-driven wine with notes of bright red fruit, licorice and sweet spices that’s rich and velvety on the palate. Quite a steal.

Corkscrewer score: 94 pts   Suckling score: 94 pts

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CAIAROSSA Toscana 2013 | $50–60

A contemporary estate (est. in the early 2000s) puts together a fine Tuscan blend of seven grape varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Alicante. It’s a showstopper—silky textures, fine tannins, wonderful balance, tremendous purity, complex structure and bright minerality, with notes of strawberry, raspberry and cherry. Joyfully stays in the memory.

Corkscrewer score: 96 pts   Suckling score: 95 pts

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MAZZEI Castello di Fonterutoli Concerto 2015 | $80–85

Mazzei is a legendary name in certain circles, but even after nearly 600 years of winemaking, the Tuscan estate is still under-the-radar on U.S. shores. Let it be, as the song goes. Meanwhile, the Concerto in 2015 is absolutely lovely. Terroir-driven, earthy and mineral, this is supremely expressive Super Tuscan (80% Sangiovese, 20% Cab) that’s vibrant, rich and positively alive.

Corkscrewer score: 96 pts   Suckling score: 96 pts

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MAZZEI Siepi 2015 | Around $100

One of the great modern Super Tuscans (first vintage was 1992), the Siepi is a showstopper in the very great 2015 vintage. The wine, equal parts Sangiovese and Merlot, is a rush of power, richness and expressiveness—effulgent with generous dark red and blue fruit flavors and endowed with absolutely beautiful texture that’s plush and pristine. Finishing on a bright note of acidity, the wine could not possess more character nor be more complete.

Corkscrewer score: 99 pts   Suckling score: 98 pts

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ORMA Passi di Orma 2016 | $38–45

A great entry point into the special quality of Tuscan reds from the Bolgheri. Comprised of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc—three wine varietals in a character of which Italy produces unlike any other part of the world—the Passi has unparalleled texture, balance and lift at this mid-tier price level. Silky and very pretty with perfumed red fruit notes, it’s a gratifyingly complete wine.

Corkscrewer score: 93 pts   Suckling score: 93 pts

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ORMA Toscana 2015 | $65–75

When it comes to premier Super Tuscans from the Bolgheri region, one need not be limited to just Sassicaia, Ornellaia or Messorio. There is Orma, a wine of gorgeous opulence (that comes at a more affordable price than its famous neighbors). Generous, plush and sophisticated textures of dark purple and red fruit flavors and underlying richness of mocha, this is a WOW wine in all aspects.

Corkscrewer score: 99 pts   Suckling score: 98 pts

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PETROLO Galatrona 2015 | $90–105

Established only as of the mid-90s, Petrolo is a name you need to get on your radar now. This is one of the greatest wines of Italy you probably haven’t heard of, giving the greatest Merlots of Italy, such as L’Apparita and Redigaffi, a run for the money. Amidst graceful notes of dark berries and baking spices, as well as evocative earthiness and minerality, there’s stupendous balance, structure and complexity at work here. And, oh, those delicate, fine tannins… essential.

Corkscrewer score: 99 pts   Suckling score: 99 pts

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PETROLO Torrione 2015 | $27–30

The clearest indication of a great estate is how well they do with their entry level wine. 80% Sangiovese and 15% Merlot, this is a robust, Old World-feel yet contemporarily relevant Tuscan red with oaky character and appealing plum, violets, brown sugar and fig notes. The fundamentals are thrillingly aligned—balance, structure, mouthfeel and length. Terrific accomplishment.

Corkscrewer score: 93 pts   Suckling score: 94 pts

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POGGIO AL TESORO “Dedicato a Walter” 2013 | Around $100

This hasn’t arrived yet on western shores, but look out for it. From a contemporary estate, created in 2001 by the renowned Allegrini family, comes an incredible 100% Cabernet Franc to rival those revered of the house of Antinori, Le Macchiole and rarified others. Sexy, peppery, luscious, bold and succulently lengthy—who said you couldn’t get down to Cab Franc? As Borat said, “Let’s make sexy time.”

Corkscrewer score: 98 pts   Suckling score: 96 pts

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POGGIO AL TESORO Sondraia 2013 | $40–45

A dark wine of enchantment. It’s cassis, pepper and spice sumptuousness. Supple, velvety, savory, structured and balanced Bordeaux-inspired blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc with substantial depth of expression—far exceeding what you would expect for the price, showing that in today’s world great Super Tuscan doesn’t have to mean exorbitant.

Corkscrewer score: 95 pts   Suckling score: 95 pts

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SAPAIO Volpolo 2015 | $27–30

To see how a Bordeaux blend is done in Bolgheri—the Volpolo is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot—check this out, from an estate whose first vintage was in 2004. Rich, juicy plum and blackcurrant flavors with an accent of white pepper and rustic tannins. Old World values with contemporary leanings—exemplary of what the new Italian Renaissance in wine is all about. Extremely solid value.

Corkscrewer score: 92 pts   Suckling score: 93 pts

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OTHER REDS

ALTO MORA (CUSUMANO) “Guardiola” Etna Rosso 2014 | $45–49

An absolute steal. From Sicily, a red wine from a native Sicilian grape called Nerello Mascalese—and from 120 year-old vines to boot—there’s an amazing amount of character in the bottle. On the nose, the volcanic soil and mineral influence is obvious and the chalky texture on the palate is wonderful. With notes of white pepper, rose, cherry, raspberry and young pomegranate, this is very distinctive stuff—eclectic and delicious.

Corkscrewer score: 96 pts   Suckling score: 96 pts

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WHITES

ALTO MORA (CUSUMANO) Etna Bianco 2016 | $20–25

Made from an obscure Sicilian white wine grape, Carricante, you might be fooled and think this is a high-end Sonoma Chardonnay with its full-bodied depth of flavor—notably, lemon pie and bright peach—distinguished by a racy finish of minerality and acidity. Complex and layered, a wine to bring out the adventurer in you. Lovely, and what a price!

Corkscrewer score: 92 pts   Suckling score: 93 pts

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CANTINA TRAMIN “Nussbaumer” Gewurtztraminer 2015 | $30–35

A perfumed nose of peach, apricot and exotic white and yellow flowers transports the senses to an otherworldly place. The wine’s thick, pleasing texture and attractive sweetness is like entering a chamber of pleasure. You won’t soon forget the experience.

Corkscrewer score: 93 pts   Suckling score: 93 pts

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FONZONE “Sequoia” Irpinia Fiano 2016 | Around $32

From the southern region of Campania, the Fiano grapes for this wine aren’t picked until late November, which makes it a late harvest wine but not a dessert wine. This is a steel-fermented white that’s lean, persistent and beautifully structured yet soft, creamy and rich on the palate. Voluminous notes of peach, orange and other citrus, and chamomile. Lux and in vogue.

Corkscrewer score: 92 pts   Suckling score: 94 pts

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JERMANN “Dreams” Venezia Giulia 2015 | Around $60

Made from 97% Chardonnay—and if you haven’t yet woken to the discreet charms of Italian Chardonnay, it’s time—this is as exotic and voluptuous as the classic varietal gets. The senses are practically assaulted—jasmine, acacia, honey, apricot, citrus, white peach and vanilla notes to name a few. But it all comes together exquisitely focused and finely structured, with a pleasing hint of tannins on the finish.

Corkscrewer score: 95 pts   Suckling score: 96 pts

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JERMANN Pinot Grigio Venezia Giulia 2016 | $20–22

I like to joke that Pinot Grigio from Italy is Pinot Grigio you can actually drink. Here’s an excellent example why—elegance of bright citrus, apple and stone fruit notes and extra weight and richness on the palate that gives an often pedestrian wine a certain amount of class. Jermann is one of the great Italian white wine specialists, so don’t miss this treat that sheds light on a classic but forlorn grape.

Corkscrewer score: 90 pts   Suckling score: 91 pts

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NALS MARGREID Pinot Bianco “Sirmian” 2016 | Around $30

The northern Alto Adige region beholds many wonders and mysteries, and Nals Margreid, a cooperative of 140 growers, is the first place one should start. A sexy, floral nose of acacia and jasmine perfume is the scent of a woman—enchanting and seductive. The wine’s structure is exquisitely pristine while focused and persistent. No way this is a thirty-dollar wine!

Corkscrewer score: 95 pts   Suckling score: 95 pts

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SCHIOPETTO Friulano Collio 2016 | Around $25

To call Schiopetto a rising star when the estate established themselves as a true pioneer of modern Italian white winemaking in the late 60s only demonstrates how much catching up to do there always is in the wine world. If there’s one white Italian wine you try in your lifetime, make this one it. You will be hooked. Dressed so fashionable and so strikingly aromatic in its jackfruit, pineapple and peach stylings—nerds will call this “phenolic complexity”—this is completely irresistible and classic Friulano.

Corkscrewer score: 93 pts   Suckling score: 94 pts

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SCHIOPETTO Pinot Grigio Collio 2016 | Around $25

When it comes to Pinot Grigio, Schiopetto is da man. Few, maybe none, compare to this Pinot Grigio’s epic scale of romance and opulence. Rich, fleshy, chewy notes of honey, white and yellow flowers, apricot and white peach emanate exuberance, sophistication and class. Just stunning, and defying expectations layer upon layer of deliciousness and luxuriousness.

Corkscrewer score: 94 pts   Suckling score: 95 pts

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June 27, 2018

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