You think you know Italian wine. You spend ten years studying and tasting. You research, you write, and you spend every spare moment immersing yourself in the topic. You also taste with individuals that share your passion, and you meet with visiting producers on a regular basis. Over time, you start to feel as if you have become an authority on the topic. Your friends believe you have mastered it, and you may have even have convinced yourself of this. Then you go to Collisioni, and you realize that all you know is just the tip of the iceberg.
My first introduction to Collisioni was through an e-mail I received from Ian d’Agata, who if you don’t already know is something of a jack-of-all-trades within the wine world. You can imagine that, with his experience as a wine writer and critic for Decanter, International Wine Cellar and now Vinous media, author of the Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Scientific Advisor for Vinitaly, and creative director of Collisioni, an email from Ian d’Agata is not something you ignore. Over the years, I’ve received many invitations to be included in trips and tasting tours, but this one really stood out. In fact, I was sold the second I read the invitation.
Collisioni started as a festival for music and literature, but it grew in a short time to encompass food and wine. What started as a small event hosting 10,000 in 2009 has now grown to expect 150,000+ attendees that fill the streets of the small town of Barolo. The preparation for such an event is a massive undertaking, and being one of the guests, I was able to watch as the town of Barolo went from sleepy streets to a bustling festival over the course of only a few days.
The best part is that the who’s who of Piedmont winemaking turned out for the event. Even producers who weren’t involved in the myriad of tastings, round tables and tours could still be seen walking the streets and taking in the many sights and sounds. As this was a festival born from music and literature, it seemed as if every corner held an attraction, with onlookers amassed throughout each nook and cranny of the cobblestone streets.
On one night, the entire city gathered to watch Elton John. If you can imagine the streets of Barolo, completely empty, as the sounds of “Rocket Man”, “Candle in The Wind”, and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”, echoed throughout. Every soul seemed to be aligned that night with Elton John’s timeless setlist. It amazed me how everyone there seemed to connect during the show. Even people who didn’t seem interested in attending the concert earlier that day were found singing along. It was a magical evening.
The entire experience was something truly special.
However, what we are here to talk about is wine, which Collisioni excelled at, as it provided its guests with a selection of regional tastings from around Italy that were as challenging as they were interesting. We aren’t talking about the average room full of tables with which professionals tour in search of the handful of wines that stand out. Instead, this was five days of intense tastings, each done in a round table style with producers in attendance to answer all questions and a panel of specialists to comment and drive the conversations.
My attendance placed me tableside with producers in panel discussions and accessing wine in front of the crowd on a regular basis. Each night followed with a visit to a winery, where we were able to soak in the gorgeous surroundings of the region and taste with some of Piedmont’s best and up-and-coming producers. All this while surrounded by fellow professionals and experts from around the world. The days were long and not a moment was spent waiting for something to do–but you know what? I loved every second of it.
I’ve decided that the best way to honor this experience is to showcase a number of the standouts and most memorable moments.
One of the main topics throughout our Collisioni experience was how Nebbiolo was slowly replacing all other varieties throughout the villages that make up the Barolo appellation. It’s believed that the days of seeing a Barbera or Dolcetto d’Alba will soon be over. This will leave a large void for lovers of Piedmont’s other great varieties. However, in the case of Dolcetto, Dogliani has us covered.
First let me say that if you’ve tasted Dolcetto from anywhere else and decided that it’s not for you, then you owe it to yourself to taste a Dolcetto Dogliani.
Keep in mind that Dogliani has the same diverse terroir and rolling hills that your find throughout Barolo. The difference is that these producers take advantage of the best expositions to plant Dolcetto, not Nebbiolo. It’s difficult to compare Dogliani Dolcetto to one from any other location.
The best part is that, after tasting a number of wines from the 2015 vintage, now is the perfect time to jump into this region. These are tremendous examples of the variety, and the vintage is so easy to like. As for recommendations, I was smitten with examples from Addona Marziano, Chionetti, San Fereolo, and Einaudi.
Top Wine: San Fereolo Dogliani Superiore 2007 – The bouquet was positively refreshing and exotic with a mix of blackberry, and crushed raspberry fruits, followed by dried flowers and both sweet and savory spices. On the palate, it was alluring in it’s soft yet rich textures, and lifted by vibrant acidity and minerals, giving way to blackberry and plum fruit. It finished long and fresh as the fruit faded slowly to reveal fresh inner floral tones. Really this is just a pleasure to drink. (93+ points)
What’s a Lucana?
This was one of those moments when you realize that you knew much less than you thought you did. Sitting at our lunch pavillion (think of a buffet at a movie set, but make all the food Piedmontese), I stared at my schedule and noticed that the Regionale Lucana tasting was to follow. I asked the other guests at my table, “What’s a Lucana?”, and they all shrugged.
In the end, this was one of the best focus tastings of my trip. Lucana, otherwise known as Lucania, is also known as Basilicata (starting to make sense now?). Basilicata is a region of Southern Italy which borders Campania, and it is one of the few regions that has a coast on two sides of the boot. What it is also well known for is Monte Vulture, an extinct volcano, that gives its name to Aglianico del Vulture.
Aglianico del Vulture is a DOC that I’ve taken a lot of interest in over the years, since I believe that it has all of the potential and ingredients to be a world-class wine, but no one has come along as a champion for the region. The ingredients I speak of are first and foremost the variety, Aglianico, which is renowned for its use in creating Taurasi in Campania. Add to that the diverse volcanic soils, moderating influences from two seas, a large range of altitudes and degrees of elevation, and you’d think that Aglianico del Vulture would be the next big thing in Italy–but it’s not.
Why? Well that was what I was here to find out. Unfortunately, the reason seems to be more about growing pains and devotion than it is about a quick fix. If anything, this tasting revealed that there are a small number of quality-minded producers who are working very hard to put Aglianico del Vulture on the map. The problem is that there are many more who aren’t giving it their all.
That said, out of 28 wines tasted, the cream did rise to the top. Elena Fucci, Cantina di Venosa, Donato D’Angelo, Cantine del Notaio and Madonna delle Grazie all deserve your attention. (Tasting notes: Cellar Tracker)
Top Wine: Elena Fucci Titolo 2013 – The nose was wonderfully expressive, showing tobacco, earth and ash up front, followed by focused blackberry and notes of fresh herbs. On the palate, I found dark red fruits, pepper, violet florals, leather and youthful tannins. The finish was youthfully austere, yet complex in it’s black fruit, savory spice and fine tannin. I would love to see this wine again in five years. (93 points) Find it at Morrell Wine!
In Italy, wine is food. It’s created to be enjoyed with a meal, and going back through history, it was often used as a way of surviving and fortifying oneself for a hard day. However, wine is seldom thought of in Italy as a “drink.” When dinner is over, and the time for a drink is upon you, Italians in the north reach for Grappa.
That’s not to say that Nonino Grappa should be thought of as just another spirit, because frankly it is so much more than that.
Located in Friuli, Nonino is a family-run company with a history going back over 100 years and can lay claim to the fact that they put Grappa on the map. Their success in the media and worldwide markets opened the minds of consumers and placed Grappa on their tables.
Yet, to this day, there is Grappa and then there is Nonino. After this experience, I believe it’s safe to say that much of this is the passion of the family who’s running the show. We tasted through six different variations of Nonino Grappa, each made from the pomace of varying grape varieties. For my tastes, it was the Grappa Nonino Monovitigno Il Moscato that stole the show, with its unending array of aromatics. In fact, each time I returned to the glass, there seemed to be an entirely new and exotic mix of aromas. This tasting made me a believer.
Okay, in all honesty, I don’t think I could build a better Vajra Albe than Aldo Vaira himself, but I couldn’t help but try. This was one of the best tastings of our entire trip. After a day full of tasting and regional focus groups, we were sent off to Locanda in Cannubi, a restaurant located in the heart of Cannubi. The cuisine was phenomenal, with traditional regional specialties that were given a contemporary twist. The Bertolini-Boggione family do an amazing job here, since after a week of eating traditional foods, I found myself salivating over each plate that was placed in front of me.
However, the real honor was in sharing my table with Milena Vaira (Aldo’s wife), Ian d’Agata and two Masters of Wine. Seriously, how could we fail?
To be honest, it was a cutthroat competition, right up to the final announcement that our time was up. We took the more logical approach of blending by the percentage of Vajra’s holdings throughout the three vineyards that produce Albe (Fossati, La Volta, and Coste). In the end, Ian gave a last-second splash of La Volta that rounded our blend out nicely.
We were victorious.
But it bears mention that Levi Dalton, of “I’ll drink to that” fame, demanded a rematch in 2017.
For the Love of Amarone
I have to admit, as difficult as I find it to keep Amarone in my personal rotation, I truly do love these wines. For many years now, I’ve been attending tastings with the Famiglia dell’Amarone d’Arte, and with each vintage I find myself enjoying them more and more. Frankly, they are easy to love. Especially since the organization was created to showcase the classical zone of the region and unite producers who were dedicated to upholding tradition and quality production. In the end, they are hedonistic wines of pure pleasure, but the hard part is maintaining refinement amidst all of the richness and intensity of Amarone. These are the producers who have mastered the art.
One thing I will say is that as we all become aware of two distinctly different styles of Amarone (the rich going on confectionary, versus the rich going on bitter and savory), I have to ask if there will ever be an official way to identify them on the shelf. A perfect example is the conversing styles of Speri (who I love for their classicism and poise) and Zenato (who I love for their ripeness, intensity and richness). If you are looking for a wine for a fatty steak, grab the Speri. If you are looking to pair something with a chunk of blue cheese, then Zenato is a match made in heaven. So how does the consumer tell the difference?
These are questions for another time. For now, my standouts were Tommasi, Speri, Tedeschi and Zenato. (Tasting Notes: Cellar Tracker)
Top Wine: Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva 2009 – The nose was deep, rich and intense with ripe cherry giving way to notes of orange peel, brown spice, dark chocolate, and hints of undergrowth. I found broad and silky, palate-coating textures contrasted by zesty bright cherry and spice. It finished with fine, classic tannins, bitters, sweet herbs and dried black cherry. It was big, rich, intense and hard to resist. An unapologetic Amarone. (95 points)
We’re in Piedmont; what about Barolo?
So, yes, I did taste a lot of Barolo. Probably the most important data point I can provide is on the 2012 vintage, of which I tasted quite a bit. There are many publications that have gone on about the vintage conditions, so I won’t rehash that here, but I am happy to share some general observations.
The 2012 vintage falls into a shadow that is being cast by the power of the 2011s, the classicism of the 2010s, and the speculation over the much-touted 2013s. These are good wines, but the fact remains that they possess neither the vibrancy and drive of a warm vintage, nor the structure and refinement of a cool vintage. They are pretty wines that display the purity of nebbiolo fruit. Most have beautiful aromatics, but they lack the details on the palate that would round out the experience. There are standouts, as there are in all vintages, but the bulk of the wines lack any thrill factor.
We backfill classic vintages (’04, ’06 and ’08) and look at the often overlooked 2011s. Many Barolo collectors have been conditioned to shun warmer vintages, but I believe this is a huge mistake when considering the 2011 vintage. They are ripe and often intense, but beneath all of that fruit is a structure of sweet tannin and a bold acidity that carries the wines gracefully. My opinion is that we will be drinking these wines twenty years from now and wondering why we didn’t buy more.
My 2012 Barolo Standouts: Giuseppe Rinaldi, Rocche Costamagna, and Giacomo Fenocchio. (Tasting Notes: Cellar Tracker)
Top Wine: Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Brunate 2012 – The nose was soaring from the glass with a display of deep, dark red berry fruit, dried roses, tobacco, leather and savory spice. On the palate, wonderfully pure, silky textures ushered in ripe, bright cherry fruit, minerals and inner violet floral tones, as fine spicy tannin settled in and dried the sense. It finished more on subtle tannin, with fresh plum, cherry, and inner floral tones. There’s a Pinot Noir like elegance here, showing remarkably pretty and pure. (94 points)
Tidbits and outtakes (since I felt this was verging on a novelette):
- A person can live on a diet of Carne Cruda, Vitello Tonnato, e Pomodoro con Buffalo Mozzarella twice a day for a week straight.
- Verdicchio deserves more attention (See: Notes).
- I know just enough Italian to get into a lot of trouble.
- There’s a rumbling in Abruzzo; check out Tiberio (you’ll thank me later).
- Donnafugata Ben Rye may be the greatest dessert wine on earth.
- Tasting 32 Grignolinos sounds a lot worse than it really is. (See: Notes)
- Donatella Cinelli is doing some exciting work in Orcia.
- Senza Glutine doesn’t work as well in Piedmont as you might think.
- There’s more to Gavi than La Scolca.
- There’s a underground Terracotta aging movement in Piedmont (check out Rivetto).
- Piedmont is most definitely the most beautiful wine region on earth.
That’s all. In closing, I would like to thank Ian d’Agata for including me and the Collisioni team for all of their hard work. This was an undertaking of immense proportions. Well done!
Article, Photos, and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido