Geography lesson in Italy favors pauses for refreshment


Italy is basically one vast vineyard that also happens to have some people living there.

From the foothills of the Alps to the toe of the "boot," the nation is awash in wine -- most of it red. Some is magnificent, some is rotgut, but each is an expression of Italian culture in general and its native region in particular.

The famous names are legion: Chianti Classico, Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Valpolicella. Two great regions, Tuscany and Piedmont, are admired by wine lovers and imitated by winemakers the world over.

But there are a lot of Italian red wines that come from regions far off the beaten path. They bear names such as Ciro, Torgiano, Taurasi, Rosso Conero, Cannonau di Sardegna and Sagrantino. Each is as different from Chianti or Barolo as Burgundy is from Bordeaux.

Exploring the wines of these regions is a fascinating exercise. Some are great values. Some are hidden treasures. Some should stay hidden. But cumulatively they testify to the vast diversity of a land with many different wine traditions -- most of which developed with no reference to the opinions of Rome, Paris or London.

Let's consider some of these wines, starting in the northeast, in the region of Friuli, near the border with Slovenia.

Friuli, more than most regions of Italy, tries to mimic the wine traditions of other European countries. Many of the grapes grown there are French or German in origin.

Commercially, this has been a successful strategy. And artistically, some of the white wines are quite good. But the reds are often less than inspiring.

The merlot grape is a case in point. Why plant it in Friuli except that it is a popular varietal? What evidence is there that Friuli is particularly hospitable to this noble grape of Bordeaux?

You won't find it in the 1993 Primosc Merlot ($9) from Collio or the 1992 Furlan Castelcosa Merlot from Friuli Venezia Giulia ($14). The Primosic is nothing more than a pleasant everyday wine, while the Furlan's virtues are canceled out by an aggressively minty quality that distracts from the fruit. Neither is worth the price. Neither has any distinctive local character.

So let's move down the coast, skipping over the well-known Valpollicella region, until we come to Marche, known in English as The Marches. This area bordering the Adriatic is best known for its crisp white Verdicchio, but there are also some little-known reds of considerable character.

The 1992 Rosso Piceno from Boccadigabbia ($13) isn't one of them. Thin and ungenerous, it fails to live up to its witty label or its price tag. The 1990 Marchetti Rosso Conero ($10.89), a blend of montepulciano and the sangiovese of Tuscan fame, is a solid, chunky red wine with an attitude, but you won't find much complexity or elegance.

No, to taste the real potential of this region, you need to part with about $20 and taste the 1990 Rozanno from Villa Pigna. This exceptional red offers flavors of herbs, pine, earth, smoked meat, blackberries and plums. There's a light touch of bitterness that adds complexity without detracting from enjoyment. While it's enjoyable now, this unusually distinctive wine has years of development ahead of it.

Smack-dab in the middle of Italy lies Umbria, the only region of Italy that borders neither the sea nor the Alps. Here is the home of one of Italy's most famous wine estates: Lungarotti.

In recent years, Lungarotti's wines have been spotty, prompting Robert M. Parker Jr. to observe that "this firm could use a wake-up call." But the call apparently came in before the 1990 vintage, because the 1990 Lungarotti Rubesco Torgiano is the finest I've ever tasted. It is rich, complex, and long in the finish -- with layer upon layer of earthy, black cherry and blackberry flavors. The $9 I was charged for this bottle must have been a mistake.

Another Umbrian wine that has achieved some renown is the Sagrantino di Montefalco. The 1988 from Arnaldo Caprai confirmed the potential high class of the sagrantino grape, but the intense up-front fruitiness tailed too fast to justify the $15 price tag. It's worth watching, though.

Moving down the coast from the Marches, one comes to Abruzzi. The best-known wine here is Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and in the right hands it can produce some exceptional values. Many brands are imported, but you'll be hard-pressed to find better than the 1992 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Antonio and Elio Monte -- a superb companion to tomato sauces for only $6.49 or so.

Southern Italy includes the regions of Apulia, the heel of the boot; Basilicata, the instep; Calabria, the toe; and Campania, which lies roughly where the laces would be. Each has its own distinctive red wines.

In Apulia (Puglia), Dr. Cosimo Taurino makes some exceptional Salice Salentino and Notarpanaro wines that consistently rank among the finest values on the market.

In Basilicata, wine enthusiasts should scavenge for some of the 1988 Paternoster Aglianico del Vulture ($15). Aglianico is one of the world's great "unknown" wine varieties, and it shows in the fragrant, spicy, intensely fruity Paternoster. Its high, but not shrill, acidity makes it a perfect companion to tomato sauces. At its best, the Vulture region can produce wines that are among Italy's finest.

The same can be said for Campania, the region around Naples, where aglianico is also king. Here the best wines are made in the mountain sub-region of Taurasi, where the premiere wine producer is Mastroberardino.

Like Lungarotti, Mastroberardino has been a bit spotty in recent years, perhaps understandable when you're in the middle of an earthquake zone. But the 1988 Mastroberardino Radici ($20), its single-vineyard Taurasi, is a triumphant wine that needs only 5 to years to achieve greatness. With generous black cherry and black currant fruit, it is perhaps the least rustic wine of southern Italy.

Calabria, Italy's bandit-ridden version of the Wild West, boasts one notable wine: Ciro. At its best it can be a fascinating oddity with hints of anise and bitter Swiss Chocolate, such as the 1992 Librando Ciro Rosso Classico ($8.49).

At its worst, Ciro is a pale imitation of a red wine. For instance, the 1992 Ippolito Ciro ($9) comes in a light brick color seldom seen except in senile, older wine or New York State red hybrids. It's not much more pleasing to the palate than it is to the eye.

Across the Strait of Messina in Sicily, you can find one of the world's finest mass-produced wine brands: Corvo. The current release of its standard red, the 1991 Corvo ducca dei Salaputra, won't impress "label drinkers," but for about $8.49 you get a medium- to-full-bodied wine with earth and blackberry flavors that resemble a fine Cotes du Rhone. It has the virtue of wide availability.

One of the less-explored wine regions of the world is Sardinia, off the west coast of Italy. It's a rugged, wild island, better known for vendettas than for vino, but there are some exotic gems.

One is certainly the 1991 Trexenta Cannonau di Sardegna ($13). It's a lush, grapey-plummy wine with intense spiciness and hints of pine and licorice. It seems to have more in common with Greek reds than anything from mainland Italy. It's not for everybody, but it is an original.

Even the curious can skip the 1992 Perdera Monica di Sardegna ($8.49). It's a dilute wine from a trashy grape. Nothing original there.

Back on the mainland in Tuscany, there are few good wines that haven't been widely celebrated. One that is often overlooked, however, is Rosso di Montalcino, a name that is used for wines that don't quite qualify as Brunello di Montalcino. In their youth, these wines are usually more pleasant to drink than Brunello, at a fraction of the price.

We end our tour in the northwest region of Piedmont with a puzzle. In this region, famous for the nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, exists a rare grape called ruche, or rouchet. And it's hard to figure out whether it's any good or not.

The only example I've seen is the 1993 Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato from Crivelli ($15). Its structure could be described as Italo-Burgundian, with hints of old Rioja.

For now, it's quite closed, though there are glimmers of cherries and spice. Will it blossom into something wonderful or fade into tannic harshness? Only time will tell. On Crivelli's wonderful label, a reveler with an enigmatic smile seems to dare you to find out.

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