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Italy's Renaissance Moment

June 04, 1997|MATT KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's not news to hard-core wine lovers, but news it is: France no longer holds irrefutable title to the fine-wine pinnacle. Right alongside, fetching comparably breathless prices, is Italy. The change has been so swift that the reality leaves one blinking in amazement.

For many wine buyers, the Italian achievement is a revelation. After all, it's only been in the last few years that the average Barolo has cost as much as a good Burgundy, $50 to $100. Or that a good Chianti has sold for $20 to $30 a bottle. You don't need old bones to recall when these wines sold for much less.

And it's not just money that shows the change, convincing though that is. There's a new vocabulary of appreciation. For the first time in living memory, Italian wines are now internationally spoken of in the same fashion once exclusively reserved for French wines.

For example, when wine lovers talk about profound place specificity, Barolo pops up alongside Burgundy. Glossy magazine layouts are now as likely to show Chianti's lovingly restored Renaissance villas (and their rich owners) as the famous fairy tale Bordeaux cha^teaux.

It was a revolution, and the good growers won. Stick a candle in someone else's wine bottle, they triumphantly declared.

But a residue of Italy's old wine image lingers. While the phrase "French wine" connotes quality, distinction and privilege, "Italian wine" still has a whiff of the old folkloric image of checkered tablecloths and straw-wrapped bottles. Fans of Italian wines bristle at this, as well they might. It now seems as antique and out-of-date as a cavalry charge.

The newest generation of wine drinkers sees Italian wines differently. What they--and we--are witnessing is an explosion of labels, grape varieties and small family producers issuing distinctive, lovingly individual wines.

It's overwhelming. So many of the names are unfamiliar. Who can blame anyone for returning to the blissful simplicity of ordering a California Cabernet Sauvignon? Or with sticking with the name-brand reliability and familiarity of a Bordeaux chateau?

But the Italian wine game is worth the candle (in someone else's bottle, of course). It's a renaissance moment. No wines--not even California's--are more momentous. Consider the following wines, which are superb examples of what one observer memorably called that "fine Italian hand."

1988 Giulio Ferrari Brut "Riserva del Fondadore" ($32): There's a tasting group in Phoenix that meets once a month to savor all sorts of high-end wines that snare high scores in various wine magazines and newsletters. They're a jaded group. They fly me in once a year to beat up on them. I show up with wines that (a) I'm pretty sure they haven't tasted and (b) that I consider great. This is one I recently presented. Few wine lovers see Italy as a source of great sparkling wine. There's a reason: Italian sparkling wine can be unimpressive. Oh, there are plenty of good Italian bubblies out there, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many that speak with the same profundity as French Champagnes such as Krug, Veuve Clicquot or Louis Roederer.

Yet the 1988 Giulio Ferrari Brut "Riserva del Fondadore" does just that. It is Italy's finest sparkling wine, bar none. To be fair, Ferrari has competition. Italians love sparkling wines, and several expensively outfitted houses like Ca' del Bosco and Bellavista are striving for supreme quality.

Ferrari is a small sparkling wine producer founded by Giulio Ferrari in 1902. Situated in the town of Trento in northern Italy, about 100 miles from the Austrian border and well in sight of the Alps, Ferrari issues a range of bottlings. Its best bubbly is its "founder's reserve."

Composed entirely of Chardonnay, this bubbly has remained on its fine-textured bottle sediment for nearly eight years before these flavor-enriching lees were disgorged or removed and the bottle subsequently corked and packaged for release. That's a phenomenally long aging process. Most French Champagnes see only three years of aging.

Yet 1988 Giulio Ferrari Brut "Riserva del Fondadore" is stunningly fresh, filled with a depth of flavor one rarely associates with sparkling wine, and has a creamy texture rare among sparklers made only from Chardonnay. In short, it's one of the world's great sparkling wines. With the best French bottlings selling for more than $100 a bottle, getting something as good--and, yes, comparable--as this for $32 is simply a steal. The Phoenix tasting group, by the way, was mightily impressed.

1995 Michele Satta Vermentino di Bolgheri "La Costa di Giulia" ($16.95): The obscurity of Italian wine is nowhere better exemplified than in this delicious dry white wine. The grape variety is Vermentino, a white grape most widely grown in Sardinia. But this wine comes from Tuscany.

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