Three Kings: Spotlight on the Italian “Noble” Grapes

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“Noble” is a term used (especially in France) to denote the grapes from which the most exceptional wines are produced. The noble French reds are well known to most people who own a corkscrew: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir.

The Italian “nobility” are less talked about, which is odd when you consider how much impact the Roman Empire had on the art of winemaking. Rustic table wines are made all over Italy from a staggering number of grape varietals. But Italy also has its viticultural monarchs, wines that have incredible structure and intensity, are cellar set-pieces, and make rather incredible special occasion drinks. In fact, open one of these guys and that is your special occasion.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG

Not to be confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (made in the Central/South Italy from a grape called Montepulciano). This wine comes from the vineyards surrounding the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, and its foundation is the great shape-shifter grape known as Sangiovese.

Sangiovese means “blood of Jove,” to give you an idea of its character as well as its importance to Italian winemaking. The Greco-Roman god of the sky was a notorious shape-shifter himself, often transforming into a human or animal in order to have his way with mortal women. One such encounter resulted in the birth of Dionysus, the god of wine. Sangiovese is the building block for every roughneck straw-basket Chianti you’ve ever encountered. It also makes some of the most sublime wines on earth.

Sangiovese is a deep purple grape that tends to make wines with very high acidity, moderate to high tannin content, and a relatively light color. Many winemakers blend it with other grapes to soften it. But when handled right, there is no need. This grape is the most widely planted in Italy for a reason.

Exemplar: Avignonesi 2011 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG

Avignonesi is a really old winery in Italy’s oldest DOCG. But today the winery combines its sense of history with a fresh, modern, sustainability-forward approach, and is creating wines that are 100% organic and biodynamic. Whether that accounts for the epic tastiness of this wine I cannot tell you. Vino Nobile de Montepuciano is required by law to contain 70% Sangiovese, and many, if not most, producers do cast a few supporting players. Not these guys. The Avignonesi 2011 Vino Nobile is a 100% Sangiovese wine from about five different vineyards in the Montepulciano DOCG. Their vines range from 10-40 years old and tend to sit on the kind of alkaline soil this grape happens to love. The wine features intense aromatics (for me, sour cherry with some spicy sub-notes and a vague hint of mint). This wine is delicate but by no means timorous—medium body, a strong cherry character grounded by herbaceous notes, and a very soft, very lingering finish. Youthful, accessible, wonderful. And of the three, a great value for beauty and sophistication without breaking the bank.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG

Once I was travelling in Rome with a cadre of poets. I had gone out for a special, not-writer-price-point, once in a blue moon kind of dinner, and when I told one of my poet friends we’d splurged on a bottle of Brunello, his eyes popped. Not the most accessible for the budget-constrained—something poets won’t generally treat themselves to—a good Brunello is something poets arguably should all treat themselves to at some point. Because this stuff is poetry in a bottle.

Brunello is a clone of Sangiovese, but it is a completely different wine from the Vino Nobile style. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which are hotly-debated theories and some of which are not. Like most of Italy, Montalcino has a dizzying number of micro-variations in its climate, soil type and elevation and every single factor seems to make a huge difference in the result. Brunello grapes come from the hotter spots, where they ripen faster and have less acidity and denser flavor. Also, unlike Montalcino’s other wines, Brunello is aged for a long time—It has to age at least four years before it can be released, and it will cellar for a long, long time after that.

Exemplar: Frescobaldi “Castelgiocondo Brunello” di Montalcino DOCG 2008

This wine has the hallmark brunello garnet tone in the glass and a strong aroma of ripe plums and sweet violets. These develop with a little air, bringing spice and mineral tones. This Brunello is mature, but it isn’t stodgy. It’s dense but clean on the palate, with softened tannins and stony and leathery undertones.

Barolo DOCG

Traveling northwest from Tuscany brings you into Piemonte, one of Italy’s northernmost wine growing areas surrounded on three sides by the Alps (the region’s name means “foot of the mountains”). This region produces a lot of really great wines, and it is the home of Italy’s other red Noble, the glaucous blue grape called Nebbiolo. Wines made from Nebbiolo are considered some of the finest in Italy. They’re notable for a bright, clear ruby color and aromas of tar, herbs, and roses. Barolos must be 100% Nebbiolo by law and only vines planted in calcareous clay soil on especially favorable slopes are chosen for this wine.

Exemplar: Damilano “Cannubi” single-vineyard Barolo DOCG, 2010

Damilano has been turning out beautiful Barolo wines for over a century, and the “Cannubi” vineyard from which these grapes are selected is one of the most prestigious in the region. This wine is, simply put, a hottie. I mean it’s explosively intense when opened (in a good way) and does well with a little airing out so you can really get the whole amazing bouquet. The wine is ruby colored with the Barolo’s signature amber or orange “reflection” in the glass. This is an intense, full-bodied wine with a bouquet of plum and cherry but also tobacco and chocolate. It has a long finish, which is nice since you’ll still have it firmly in mind during the seconds it takes you to pour yourself another glass and experience it all over again. A powerful wine with a big personality. Save it for something special…if you can. Otherwise,, uncork it whenever you want to, and you’ve got your special occasion right there.

The diversity of Italy’s landscapes and climates, and the diversity of grape varietals grown there (there are thousands, and at least 350 that are considered “commonly” used) makes experiencing Italian wine a lifelong adventure. These three “Kings” of Tuscany and Piedmont have been turning out beautiful wines for a long, long time. I think it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing.