Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy's 89 Finest Wines
For an introduction to Italian wine, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, is a good choice. Once one has read that book and has a sense of the different regions of Italy, the next choice would be Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines, which comes out every year and reviews about 18,000 wines and over 2,000 producers, and which is arranged by region. But if one finds the scope of that book daunting, and even the 391 wines that Gambero Rosso rates highest too many to choose from, then Joseph Bastianich’s newest book, Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy’s 89 Finest Wines, is a good way to narrow down Italian wines to seek out.
Grandi Vini is also arranged by regions, and Bastianich manages to find at least one wine to like from almost all of the regions—only Calabria and Molise are left out. Still, 43 of the 89 wines are from two classic regions, Piedmont and Tuscany, allocating the other 46 wines to 17 other regions.
The wines that Bastianich has chosen tend not to be cheap. Using WineSearcher.com’s average prices for the most recently available vintages, his wines average $104 each. To buy a case of all 89 wines would cost over $111,000. For all but the very wealthiest of us, some additional narrowing of choices is necessary.
The good news is that 24 of his wines cost less than $50, and 4 cost $25 or less (again, these are simply average WineSearcher.com prices—actual prices do vary considerably). Thus, one can read about the $400+ wines, and then seek out the less expensive ones. Unfortunately, Bastianich does not indicate price levels for his wines, except to occasionally note when a wine is particularly expensive. At least a general range, as he and David Lynch do in Vino Italiano when giving particular wines one, two, or three dollar signs, would have been helpful.
There is not much of a discussion of each of the wine regions, except in passing—that is what Vino Italiano is for—so the book makes a certain amount of assumptions that the reader already knows the basics. Instead, Bastianich devotes two to three pages to each of the 89 wines, writing first about the owners and/or winemakers. It is apparent that Bastianich knows many if not most of the winemakers personally, and he describes how the winemaker got started, and how he has evolved, providing a good amount of personal color.
Bastianich then describes the vineyard management and winemaking techniques that went into the particular wine, assuming that the reader already knows the impact of the vinegrowing and winemaking decisions. For example, for La Spinetta’s Barbaresco Vigneto Starderi, he simply writes: “The grapes of the vineyard (which covers 16 acres, with vines that have an average age forty years) are harvested toward mid-October. The maceration lasts seven to eight days, and the malolactic fermentation occurs in small casks. The wine rests in barriques, of both old and new French oak, for twenty to twenty-two months before moving into stainless steel tanks for three more months. Once bottled, the wine is left to age for a year.” All of these data points give hints as to how the wine will taste, if one is reasonably familiar, for instance, with what maceration means and what is the likely result of seven to eight days of it. Otherwise the reader will just glaze over this section.
Each wine discussion ends with a description of what Bastianich thinks the wine tastes like. One problem with descriptors of wine aromas and flavors is that everyone perceives them differently, and it is not a good indicator of how much one will like the wine. For example, Bastianich writes of the Cepparello by Isole e Olena: “Seductive on the nose with the essence of ripe cherries, Cepparello lingers into notes of leather, licorice, and sweet tobacco, with a lingering finale of star anise and cardamom. The palate is fresh and elegant, never muscular and overpowering.” He is not writing about any particular vintage of any wine, so we can suppose that this description can be generalized about Cepparello of any vintage.
We have a few of Bastianich’s 89 in our collection, and the one arguably ready to drink was the 2001 Ceparello, so it was opened and tried out on a number of tasters. Our notes read: “On the nose, earthy, baked cherry, oak. On the palate, relatively high acidity, medium body, good tannin, rich, earthy, spicy, some flowers. Very well-developed, elegant.”
Other tasters’ descriptions varied significantly. Gambero Rosso’s 2009 edition wrote of the 2005 Ceparello: “The wine is a well-defined ruby colour and flaunts an aromatic spectrum that ranges across sensations of violet-like violets [sic] to cherries, beautifully underpinned by fine spices and aromatic herbs. The soft, supple palate reveals a refreshing vein of acidity and appealing, flavor-rich finish.” Aside from the commonality of cherries, either ripe or baked, and perhaps some sort of spice, it is hard to tell we are all talking about essentially the same wine. The same disparity arises when comparing Bastianich’s description of how the La Spinetta Barbaresco Vigneto Starderi tastes to our notes on the 2003 vintage of this wine when tasted at the winery.
This difficulty is certainly not unique to Bastianich, but it may be more useful to simply write about levels of acid, body, and tannin, and the like. These are characteristics that experienced tasters are more likely to agree on, and would give an idea to people who have discovered that they either like or do not like an acidic wine, for instance, of whether they are likely to enjoy the wine.
A dream use of this book would be to take it to Italy for a trip to vineyards. Grand Vini includes six maps that show the location of each of the 89 wineries. Unlike most wineries in the United States, one cannot simply drop in on most Italian wineries. Bastianich does not indicate the visitation policies of his wineries, but does provide the web site address for those that have one, making it easier to research policies and try to book reservations at the wineries one is interested in.
Are these the 89 best wines from Italy? There is a general correspondence between these wines and Gambero Rosso’s ratings of “three glasses” (the highest rating). Only one wine had only two glasses in the 2010 Gambero Rosso (although several had two glasses for the most recent release but three glasses for previous vintages). But as the title indicates, this is an “opinionated” selection. Readers will probably note several personal favorites missing from Bastianich’s list, but they will come away likely knowing much more about whichever of these wines they already have in their collections or have tasted, and will likely come across a fair number of wines that they did not know about but sound intriguing enough to seek out.