Berger on wine: A guide to Italian wine

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The term erzeugerabfüllung on a German wine label means “estate bottled.”

On a Spanish red wine label, the word “reserva” means the wine, by law, had to spend three years at the winery aging, at least one of those years in oak barrels.

On a label from a winery in France’s Alsace, “vendange tardive” refers to a dessert wine.

Obviously, understanding wine in all its incarnations calls for years of study, a great memory and lots of tasting. And though that latter requirement may sound like fun, it can also be confounding.

Just imagine your first taste of a Pouilly-Fumé. If it’s a bad example, that one “off” bottle can color your thinking for a decade or more — just as one bad restaurant experience can prompt you to avoid the place forever.

As confusing and hard to grasp as all wine regions are in one way or another, one wine-making country claims the distinction as the greatest wine region that the fewest people know much about: Italy.

Within its 20 major sub-districts are literally hundreds of different grape varieties, most of which make stellar, exciting wines. But only a tiny cluster of them are seen as excellent by most of the world’s wine press.

After the fabulous nebbiolo of Piemonte (and its star aging wine, Barolo), the charming trattoria favorite Chianti of Tuscany (made from sangiovese), the workhorse wines barbera and pinot grigio, and two or three others, the rest of the Italian countryside is, to most Americans, a vast wasteland about which they know nearly nothing. That includes me, but I’m applying myself and learning.

I can tell several tales of first experiences with supposedly great Italian wines that proved intensive study to be beneficial. However, once you get that learning in, you’ll soon find out that some wines you’ve never heard of are excellent, but some wines can be expensive.

That’s because Italy’s intellighenzia di vini knows a lot about their own stars, and they don’t let the good ones get out of town without a fight.

For instance, I saw a bottle of Barolo on a wine shop shelf recently for $20. It seemed impossible for this king of Italian wines to sell so cheaply. The absolute minimum I would pay for a bottle of Barolo would be about $50. And sure enough, the $20 bottle was woeful.

So I was amused two weeks ago when a public relations company offered to send me a 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Reserva that it wanted me to write about. The pitch letter said the wine, made from the Montepulciano grape, sells for $24.

An aged Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for so little? It sounded like a trap. I asked for a bottle. Days later, a sniff and a sip were all I needed to know how blah the wine was.

So I immediately called Santa Rosa Italian wine importer Don Chigazola and asked if he had a good example of the wine. We got together and he poured for me the 2012 DeAngelis Corvi Montepulciano d’Abruzzo “Fonte Ravillano,” which sells for $28.

Sounds like a lot of money. But one sniff and one taste gave me the aroma impact of zinfandel with loganberries, plums and tar; the silky mid-palate of pinot noir, and the aftertaste of merlot, similar to fresh blueberries.

Already 8 years old, the wine is nearly perfect drinking now. And after trying Don’s sold-out 2008 vintage of the same wine, it’s clear this 2010 bottle will benefit from two to four more years of aging.

“It’s really a star wine in Italy,” Chigazola said, “but what makes it hard to sell is that there is another (cheaper) wine called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is made from sangiovese. How confusing is that?”

The more rustic Vino Nobile typically is simpler and sells for $20 a bottle or less.

At our tasting, Don also poured for me a wine I never heard of, but which I adored:

Wine of the Week: 2013 Traverso Schioppettino di Prepotto, Friuli Colli Orientali ($30): This is a simply startlingly fine red wine from a grape (Schioppettino) that nearly went extinct 150 years ago and is slowly coming back into fashion in the cool Friulian district near Slovenia. Loads of black and white pepper, red berries and excellent acidity; serve with salmon.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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