VinItaly 2013, Day One: Impressions and Highlights

I spent yesterday at the world’s craziest gathering of the world’s craziest wines. The Italians like to joke about how they embrace chaos, so approaching VinItaly I was expecting mayhem. But there’s just no way to put on one of the world’s largest wine trade shows while embracing the principles of anarchy.

VinItaly is simply just another big wine trade show. The crazy part isn’t about its disorganization, it’s simply about just how big it is. I shudder to think how I’d have to approach this monstrosity if I actually had to do business here. Big buyers of Italian wine must need a whole team of people in order to see who they need to see, taste what they need to taste, and come out of the three days with their brains intact and their palates in one piece.

Did I mention it’s big? Largest wine trade show in the world apparently. 4200 wineries pouring who knows how many tens of thousands of wines made from thousands of different grape varieties.

Sound like heaven? It is. I spent about an hour this morning wandering around the Friuli pavilion delighting in the fact that I only recognized about 1 out of every 15 producers, and this from a guy who pays some attention to Friulian wine. On this first morning, I didn’t do a deep dive, but I couldn’t help stopping to taste at two producers I know and love, Damijan and Rubbia.

2005 Damijan Kaplja White Blend, Friuli, Italy
Dark gold in the glass with amber highlights, this wine smells of soft, washed-rind cheese (perhaps a young Taleggio), honey, and wet leaves. In the mouth, exotic flavors of pears, dried mango, dried papaya, and dark, aged honey mix in a kaleidoscopic blur of flavor that is wrapped in a lightly tannic, chalky texture. Excellent acidity keeps the wine bright and lively even as the flavors are rich and mysterious. Tropical notes linger in the finish along with a hint of warm candle wax. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2007 Rubbia “Leonard” Malvasia, Friuli, Italy
Dark gold in the glass with an unusual greenish sheen to it, this wine smells of bee pollen, candied lemon peel, and sarsaparilla. In the mouth, flavors of wet leaves and dried exotic citrus like bergamot and Budda’s Hand mix with more waxy tropical flavors like dried mango and grilled pineapple. Excellent acidity accentuates the stony underbelly of the wine that balances the exotic richness of the fruit. Made from 100% Malvasia that is macerated for 20 days on the skins. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

I also spent a little time wandering around with my friend Doug Cook (the guy behind the world’s greatest wine search engine Able Grape). Doug knows a lot about Italian wine and he was on the hunt for some of its more obscure nooks and crannies.

I found him exploring the world of Lessini Durello, a small section of the Veneto north of Soave which makes sparkling wines made from the local Durella (don’t ask why it ain’t ‘Durello’) grape. The wines ranged from mediocre to pretty damn good, especially those metodo classico / metodo tradizionale wines that spent some time on the lees before disgorgement. While these wines don’t make it outside of this region much, they vinitaly_details-2.jpgprobably should. At a few Euros a bottle they’re among the best value sparkling wines I’ve ever tasted. The one producer whose wines sometimes appear in the US is Fongaro, but the late disgorged wines from Marcato were the best I tasted.

Continuing in the obscure department, I also got a chance to taste Timorasso, a somewhat obscure white grape from Piemonte. While this grape makes a quite pleasant, minerally wine with bright floral notes, it also seems to age beautifully and develop some of the more interesting secondary characteristics that Riesling or Assyrtiko do with time — layering on savory notes of paraffin and gaining some more of a saline character.

I particularly liked this wine from producer La Colombera:

2007 La Colombera “Derthona” Blanco di Colli Tortonese (Timorasso), Piemonte, Italy
Light gold in color, this wine offers an interesting nose of petrol and candied orange peel aromas on top of a wet cement minerality. In the mouth stony flavors of parchment, wet cement, and chamomile have a nice savory, even saline quality to them, as more tropical notes emerge, touching on dried papaya and dried mango before finishing with more of that deep minerality. Unique and compelling. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

My itinerary for the day (graciously put together by the folks at Vinitaly) had me eating lunch at the fancy restaurant on site called Restaurant l’Autore. Except the restaurant didn’t think I belonged there. To be fair, I was one of the only people trying to get in the door that wasn’t wearing a suit, but it took two attempts to convince them that I actually belonged at this luncheon where at least two people were very senior looking military officials with medals and bars and all sorts of things all over their uniforms, and where a government minister showed up every few minutes (welcomed by rounds of applause by all attending) to join us. I had no idea what was going on, but apparently neither did some other people, so we just ate our (very nice) lunch and enjoyed ourselves.

The last thing I put in my mouth before heading back to the expo was so good I could still taste it minutes later as I headed back to the halls for more tasting. The Veneto isn’t particularly known for dessert wines (apart from Recioto, and please no sweet Amarone jokes), but this wine is particularly well known (though not to me until now). After tasting it, I can see why some might call it the Chateau d’Yquem of Italy. While it may not be the best dessert wine I’ve ever had from Italy, it was certainly close to it.

2009 Maculan Torcolato Dolce Breganze, Veneto, Italy
Light amber in color, this wine smells of ripe apricots, peaches, white flowers and the cement after a rainstorm. In the mouth the wine pulls off that knife-edge of balance that so many of the best dessert wines manage to offer: between flavors of apricots and peaches and honey and the deep, stony, acid-driven minerality that gives the wine a crystalline quality. Fruit dipped in honey and then washed in the purest of rain water? Metaphors don’t really do justice to the vibrating depths of this mouthwatering wine that is no doubt VERY sweet, but thanks to great acidity only tastes moderately sweet. Extraordinary balance and length. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

Finally, I popped into the Sicily pavilion towards the end of the day and was introduced to the wines of Abbazia Santa Antastasia, a biodynamic estate in the commune of Castelbuono near Palermo. The estate makes several good wines but I particularly enjoyed their Nero d’Avola, which was quite light on its feet.

2009 Sensoinverso Nero d’Avola, Sicily

Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has bright floral aromas mixed with notes of cassis and blackberry. In the mouth it is lithe and smooth with cassis and blackberry flavors staying juicy even as they mix with more leathery and earthy tones that one expects from this grape variety. Velvety tannins aren’t too aggressive and the earthy finish retains some floral notes. Good acidity and nice balance, with an overall lighter feel than many renditions of this grape. Excellent. Score: around 9.

Today I get to take part in a panel about Social Media, towards which managing director Stevie Kim is dragging the Italian wine industry kicking and screaming.

More to come.