By Thane Peterson A sophisticated wine taster isn't supposed to swallow. That's why there were little silver spittoons on the table when I tilted a few glasses with Angelo Gaja the other day. Gaja is a charming, silver-haired 62-year old who some people consider the most important innovator in the Italian wine business.
Indeed, the excellent new book Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy dubs Gaja "the top name in Italian wine, period." So when Gaja asked me to taste five of his wines --including his signature and justly famous Barbaresco -- while we chatted, I swallowed far more from each glass than a disciplined connoisseur would have. When I got up to leave, I caught my reflection and noticed my face was an embarrassing shade of pink.
BARGAINS ABOUND. Tasting Gaja's wines is a great treat because he's a key figure in the emergence of Italian wines as among the world's best in just about any style and price category you choose. Gaja wines are so expensive and in such high demand that you can probably find them only at top-tier restaurants like Daniel in New York and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, where a bottle of the Gaja Barbaresco we tasted would go for about $300. But check out the Italian section of any decent wine store and you'll now find many good-to-excellent selections for $8 and up.
"The biggest improvements in all of winedom in the last 15 or 20 years have been in Italy," says Kevin Zraly, author of The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, the best-selling of all the wine guides.
If your idea of a fine Italian wine is a cheap Pinot Grigio or a bitter Chianti in a straw-wrapped bottle, you're in for a big surprise because because more and more of the best wines that hit the stores over the next few years will be Italian. "It has the greatest potential of any wine-producing region in the world," contends Ronn Wiegand, a well-known California wine consultant who publishes the newsletter Restaurant Wine. Already, he says, "some of the values in Italian wine are extraordinary."
NO MORE JUGS. Italy's wine industry is the biggest in the world -- several times the size of America's. And Italy's warm climate and varied terrain make it perhaps the world's best natural growing area for just about any type of wine. Plus, the country has been blessed with fantastic wine-growing weather every year since 1996, so almost every vintage in the stores now is good.
On top of all that, Italian producers have been radically improving their wares as they move away from jug wines. Over the last 15 years or so, nearly all the better-known Italian wine producers have adopted modern techniques such as fermenting their wines in expensive steel vats and aging them in small, French-style oak barrels. And many one-time jug-wine producers have replanted their vines and improved their growing techniques to grow fewer, higher-quality grapes.
Italian wine production has actually fallen 17% since 1988 as more and more producers have shifted away from jug wines. Meanwhile, the number of Italian premium wines has soared, as have the country's wine exports.
BARGAIN ACRES. One reason many premium Italian wines cost less than $12 per bottle is that much of the replanted land is in sunny southern areas like Sicily, Puglia, and Calabria, where costs are low. Wiegand notes that wine property in Sicily goes for as little as $5,000 per acre, compared with as much as $100,000 per acre in California's Napa Valley. As big Northern Italian wine makers like Piero Antinori have expanded into Southern Italy and local southern producers have improved their techniques, the quality of wine from these regions has soared even as prices have remained far lower than from better-known northern regions like Tuscany and Piedmont.
I don't necessarily think it's a good trend, but many Italian producers also have shifted to merlot and cabernet blends that appeal to U.S. consumers. Even in my little state-owned liquor store in rural Pennsylvania, I found a number of such blended wines in the $8 to $20 range. And two of the four red wines Gaja served were merlot blends from Ca'Marcanda, his new estate in the Maremma district of Tuscany.
His Ca'Marcanda Magaris is 50% merlot, 25% cabernet sauvignon, and 25% cabernet franc, while his Ca'Marcanda Promis is 55% merlot, 35% syrah, and 10% sangiovese, the most popular Italian grape. These new offerings are also cheaper than most Gaja wines, at $60 and $38 per bottle respectively. Within four or five years, Gaja plans to more than double Ca'Marcanda's production to 40,000 cases annually.
CONVOLUTED CLASSIFICATIONS. Personally, I think it's far better to take a chance on wines made from traditional Italian grapes such as sangiovese (the basic grape in Chianti Classico) and nebbiolo (Barolo and Barbaresco). They tend to be bolder and more interesting than the bland Merlots Americans always seem to go for. Both John Byrne (my BusinessWeek colleague who tasted the Gaja wines with me) and I found Gaja's new Ca'Marcanda blends very plain after tasting his more traditional Barbarseco and Brunello di Montalcino. Over the weekend, I found in my local store a very nice full-bodied 2000 Santa Christina Sangiovese made by Antinori that cost just $11, several dollars less than the price for comparable French and California reds.
The trouble is, Italian wine classifications are at least as convoluted and hard to understand as French ones. All told, Italy has 21 separate wine regions growing some 800 kinds of grapes. Some wines are named for their main grape variety (Sangiovese, for instance), some for a place (Chianti and Barolo), and some for their producer (Gaja, Antinori).
To add to the confusion, some of the very best wines are blends that don't fit any of the Italian government's classifications, so they're simply labeled Vino da Tavola (table wine). It used to be that you could narrow things down by focusing on wines from the three major growing regions in the north: Piedmont (Gaja's home base), Tuscany (best-known for Chianti), and Veneto (known for Soave, Valpolicella, and Bardolino). But these days, the best bargains are often from others regions.
SIMPLE LOWDOWN. If you really want to get into Italian wines, I suggest consulting Vino Italiano (Clarkson Potter, $35), which just came out. It's co-authored by Joseph Bastianich, who owns several Italian restaurants, as well as the Italian Wine Merchants retail store in New York City. It gives a detailed, easy-to-read lowdown on Italian wine. Otherwise, try asking for advice in a good wine store. There's a list of some of the best ones in the back of Vino Italiano -- including Sam's in Chicago, Cirace's in Boston, and Wally's in Los Angeles.
In the meantime, here are a few of Wiegand's favorite Italian reds at various price levels (approximately):
2000 or 2001 A Mano Zinfandel from the southern area of Puglia, $10 to $12
2000/2001 Santa Anastasia from Sicily, $12
2000 Fuedo Monaci Salice Salentino, "a wonderful wine for the money," $10
2000 Poliziano Rosso di Montepuliciano, from the area next to Chianti, $20
1999 Peppoli Chianti Classico (one of Antinori's labels) from Tuscany, $22
1998 or 1999 Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepuliciano, $28 Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online