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Digging Up the Gems of '90s Italian Vintages

February 29, 1996|MICHAEL DRESSER | Dresser is wine columnist for the Baltimore Sun

There were a lot of geniuses in the Italian wine importing business in the early 1990s. Where do you suppose they've all gone?

It's easy to be Einstein when you have vintages like the 1988 to 1990 Piedmont wines and the 1988 and 1990 Tuscan wines to sell. But when you run into a stretch of four unexciting vintages like 1991 to 1994, a lot of folks in the wine business dumb down in a hurry.

It's vintages like these, especially such bona fide stinkers as 1992, that truly separate the savants from the schlemiels.

Judging by the wines he's bringing to this country, Marc de Grazia is one smart guy.

For more than a decade, the dynamic de Grazia has been prowling the Italian wine country, seeking out the small producers with exquisite vineyards and the expertise to get the most out of them.

His success can be measured in the list of once little-known producers whose wines have become prized possessions among devotees of Italian wine--Elio Altare, Luciano Sandrone and Domenico Clerico from Piedmont; Pertimali and Podere il Palazzino from Tuscany.

Producers like these do not excel in only the great vintages. They have the will and the wisdom to overcome the trials nature sends their way in the poor years.

By sticking with producers who share his rigorous standards, de Grazia is not only weathering the recent drought of great vintages, he is also enhancing a reputation that ranks among the best in the business. He is to Italy what Kermit Lynch is to France or Terry Theise to Germany and Austria.

Consider what de Grazia's red wine producers have accomplished in Italy's two greatest wine regions in 1992--a vintage most consider poor to middling.

The 1992 Podere il Palazzino Chianti Classico ($17) might be a few steps behind its usual excellence, but its quality would be envied by most producers in a great vintage. It's a full-bodied Tuscan wine with the full complement of black cherry and Italian herb flavors. It will probably mature earlier than a 1990, but is that such a problem?

An even finer performance comes from Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona. This excellent producer's 1992 Rosso di Montalcino ($14) is a deliciously elegant, medium-bodied wine with much of the complexity of a $35 Brunello di Montalcino. The main difference is that it doesn't have the high level of tannin found in a Brunello.

One of the lesser known Tuscan regions is Carmignano, where winemakers were blending Cabernet Sauvignon with the native Sangiovese long before the mix became fashionable. The 1992 Ambra Carmignano combines excellent structure and precocious black cherry fruit. There is no sign here that 1992 is anything but an excellent vintage. It's a superb value at $14.

The 1992 Rocca di Montegrossi Chianti Classico ($14) represents a rare stumble by a de Grazia producer. Its harsh tannins seem to overwhelm the fruit.

There are no duds among the three 1992 Piedmont wines I tried. The 1992 Paolo Scavino Barbera d'Alba Affinato in Carati ($35) is a burly, old-fashioned wine packed with flavors of chocolate, herbs and roast meats. Its wild, rustic qualities might offend more delicate palates than mine, but devotees of fine Barbera needn't hesitate because of the vintage's reputation.

Even more amazing is a pair of wines from Elio Altare, who surely ranks among the top five producers in Piedmont. His 1992 Vigna Larigi ($37) is a magnificent Barbera with full, rich flavors of bacon, black cherry and herbs. It starts strong and keeps getting better in the glass.

Altare's 1992 Barolo Vigna Arborina ($40) is a superb wine even by the standards of a great year. The bouquet is awesome, and the flavors of black cherry, blackberry and even blueberry come in waves of intensity. Amazingly, there are reports of retailers turning down their allocations of 1992s from such producers as Sandrone and Altare because of the reputation of the vintage. Any merchant who can't sell these wines should consider a new line of work.

The same observation applies to many of de Grazia's 1991 Barolos, also wines from what is generally considered to be a poor vintage.

The 1991 Clerico Barolo Ginestra ($33), 1991 Manzone Le Gramolere and 1991 Azelia by Luigi Scavino are all full-bodied, ripe and structured wines with loads of flavor. Maybe they'll last only 15 years rather than 30, but they will be much more attractive in their youth than wines of great vintages.

Another de Grazia Barolo, the 1991 Corino Vigna Giachini, falls a little short of the others but is still a pleasant wine, though pricey at $30. Two weak 1994s from Corino, a Barbera d'Alba and Nebbiolo delle Langhe, indicate that de Grazia might want to reconsider his representation of this producer.

The 1993 Tuscan wines are only beginning to come into the market, but there are already some on the shelves that show signs of being a reasonably decent vintage.

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