This week’s column is being filed from Vinitaly, the biggest wine show on the planet, which happens each spring in Verona, Italy. Picture an open area the size of a couple of football fields, each with a half-dozen convention-centre sized buildings. Those buildings showcase Italian wine regions like Tuscany, Piedmont, Sicily, and so on. In each building there are a few hundred different spots for wineries and subregions to show their stuff.
The idea is to sell Italian wine to the world, and that’s who shows up. Importers from around the globe meet with wineries they already work with and have introductory powwows with those for whom there might be business. The rest of the crowd is filled with sommeliers, media, and a smattering of consumers, each one darting from building to building and booth to booth, trying to taste as much wine and chat with as many folks as possible. The footwork is relentless; I’ve been over the 12,000-step mark each day.
A big focus for me was to gauge the buzz from fellow attendees as to what’s hot and happening in Italian wine. It was an easy task to keep in mind: each time I ran into global colleagues, I was pointed in various directions to the areas that excited them the most. Although this was more of an anecdotal exercise, a particular trio of favourites became quite evident. The big three consistently coming up (by a long shot) were wines from Mount Etna in Sicily, the sparklings coming out of Franciacorta in Lombardy, and the legendary Barolos and beyond out of Piedmont.
Those Sicilian Mount Etna wines made from indigenous grape varieties have certainly garnered much buzz over the past few years among the young-sommelier crowd. While it’s exciting enough to think of the challenges of winegrowing along the side of an active volcano, the wines made from many of these historic red and white varieties offer incredible value and stylistic components that one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. For a good example of what’s on offer in the region, look to Pietradolce Etna Rosso 2017 ($28.99, B.C. Liquor Stores), grown on the north side of the volcano and made from the red Nerello Mascalese grape. Think of a slightly rich Pinot Noir–type structure, buoyed by plenty of red berry fruit, a serious crack of clove, and dried Italian herbs.
The Franciacorta DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) wineries are solely dedicated to traditional-method sparkling-wine production, where 85 percent of each wine must be made from Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Blanc allowed to carry out that remaining 15 percent if a producer so chooses. Often discussed is how these wines are starting to rival those coming out of Champagne. For those who want to play judge and jury on that, perhaps look to Villa Crespia Millè Franciacorta Brut 2009 ($47.99, B.C. Liquor Stores), wholly made from Chardonnay, with creamy and nutty lime-laden waves cresting the palate.
And, finally: yes, wines out of Piedmont continue to be the crown at the top of Italy for many. Of all the producers I met, among the best at expressing the many intricate components of the region were Luigi Scavino and his son Lorenzo of Azelia wines. They are the fourth and fifth generation to be at the helm of this property, farming everything organically in their estate vineyards. A good selection of their wines is available all around Vancouver, particularly at B.C. Liquor Stores and Marquis Wine Cellars in the West End.
Azelia Dolcetto D’Alba 2017
($27.99, B.C. Liquor Stores)
This is an incredible, juicy single-vineyard wine, coming from a mere two hectares of calcareous and sandy soil with vines that are more than 50 years old. It’s fermented in stainless steel with no oak aging to both preserve and express the natural character of the fruit, resulting in bright purple fruit with lovely acidity and dusted with dried thyme.
Azelia Langhe Nebbiolo 2014
($47.74, Marquis Wine Cellars)
This is another example of a grape showing its true colours when done in stainless steel, without any oak getting in the way. Twenty-year-old vines bring pretty rose-petal and violet notes, with lively cherries singing.
Azelia Barolo 2014
($62.99, B.C. Liquor Stores)
It’s made from hand-selected fruit sourced from seven different estate vineyards with an average vine age of about 50 years. Twenty-four months in large oak barrels put all of that purple and black fruit on a lightly toasted pedestal, with some nice savoury olives on the finish.
Azelia Margheria Barolo 2012
($129.99, B.C. Liquor Stores)
Of the single-vineyard cru Barolos I tasted, this was my favourite. I’d actually tried the 2015, which made me quite excited to race home, go without the next time or two dining out, and nab myself a bottle of this gently aged bottling while it’s still available, before that 2015 hits our shores in the future. Clay and calcareous soils and 60-year-old vines from less than two hectares—coupled with a long ferment of about 50 days—brought mouthwatering complexity, purple fruit, prunes, and a hint of salinity, keeping the palate lively. I’d want to lay it down a few years, which makes the prospect of a ready-to-go 2012 mighty tempting.