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A Year of Crisis for Italian Wines : Il Vino Competition Seeks to Restore a Tarnished Image

January 29, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

For Italy's wine community, 1986 was a crisis year plagued by scandals that tarnished the image of even the best vintners. To restore the Italians' stature, the wine competition Il Vino was launched, featuring only Italian wines commercially available in the United States. There were more than 100 different categories, resulting in 30 superb Gold Medal winners.

At the Four Seasons Clift Hotel in San Francisco, a panel of 12 wine judges spent three days selecting the award winners. The judges included Darrell F. Corti of Corti Brothers of Sacramento; Burton Anderson, author of the Italian wine book "Vino;" Piero Selvaggio, proprietor of Valentino and Primi restaurants in Los Angeles, and Sam Sebastiani, former chief of Sebastiani Vineyards and now a Sonoma vintner.

As a group, the wines were incredibly fine representatives of Italian wines. Most are priced from $3.89 to $40. Even without scandals, it seems that Italian wines are required to demonstrate their range, power and complexity more often than other imports. Apparently, Americans still associate Italian wines with the poorly made Lambrusco, the darling just a few years ago of those who like sweet, inexpensive semi-bubbly wines. Because of scandal-generated prejudice, fine, non-tainted Italian wines are finding it unduly hard in the marketplace.

All the wines I tasted were Gold Medal winners. Two whites were fascinating, notably Soave Classico Superiore, Santa Sofia, 1985, which is nicely styled with fresh, rich flavors, especially for a Soave. Featuring a dry, crisp finish and ample but not unattractive acidity, its luscious, medium body provided easy access and generosity. This is a must buy at $4.99.

Roots in 16th Century

Azienda Agricola, Santa Sofia (the winery), was founded in 1811, although its roots can be traced to the first half of the 16th Century. The estate also produces Bardolino Valpolicella and Reciote della Valpolicella Amarone.

Equally good, but higher in price at $10, is Pomino Bianco Il Benefizio, Marchesi di Frescobaldi, 1983. This had a less assertive nose, yet was richly flavorful with a short but interesting, spicy finish that cries out for food mating. The Pomino Benefizio is an innovative modern Italian blend, which contains 60% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Bianco, 20% Pinot Grigio and 5% Trebbiano from vineyards on the highest elevation. Aged for five months in French oak, this is a nicely styled white wine, also done in an easy access style.

An exciting red is Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone, Campolongo Forbe, Masi, 1981. The term "Recioto" denotes a special wine of Valpolicella made from partially raisined grapes, whereas "Amarone" designates late-picked grapes, often stored indoors on racks after harvest to become like raisins with little water content but with considerable sugar. This is a big-styled, rich, powerful wine with immense flavor and a measure of heat finish derived from its expected higher alcohol. Sporting a nutty nose, it is unquestionably robust and good with game and roast. Worthy of aging, it is priced at $19.75.

Another good wine, although with considerably greater elegance, is Barbaresco, 1982, Angelo Gaja. Here again is a powerful yet excellent structure that is showing some mellowing and softness and a kind of complex austerity characteristic of the type. Priced at $30, Barbarescos are among Italy's best reds made in and around Piedmont's famous white truffle town of Alba, where the spotlight is shared with Barolo, another Nebbiolo-made wine.

Earthy Tasting Wine

Earthy, spicy and most attractive as a bigger-styled wine is Brunello di Montalcino, Riserva, Val de Suga, 1978. This has ample flavor, featuring an assertive, earthy taste and a finish showing characteristic high acidity. Fortunately, the wine is beginning to show agreeable softness and suppleness, which makes it a solid choice for sumptuous formal dining. The wine is produced from Brunello, a strain of Sangiovese Grosso grapes from choice vineyard sections, which qualify for Riserva standing. There are only 57 acres of vines on the estate, now owned by Leonello Marchesi. This wine merits long-term cellaring.

Not to be confused with Brunello is Rosso di Montalcino, Il Poggione, 1983, which is in a lighter, fruitier mode made for earlier drinking, but in a rather big style. This has a complex aroma with a dry, somewhat robust taste. It is a generous wine without the tannin and complexity of Brunello. This is a relatively new appellation in the Montalcino area. The wine was made from Brunello grapes grown in the Montalcino region, but was not aged long enough to qualify as a Brunello. Tasting alongside a Brunello makes an interesting comparison.

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