Wines of the Month

March, 2001

Sangiovese Steals

It was a little more than a year ago (January, 2000) when I first wrote an article on the great deals to be found among Italian reds. And you know what? Even though it was one of the most popular columns I've written, it didn't set off a stampede of wine enthusiasts rushing to snap up these terrific bargains. Not that I really expected any such reaction, given the monthly average of only a few thousand pageviews on this site...

I'll admit to being somewhat torn by conflicting desires regarding these wines -- I'd love to spread the word about these wallet-friendly gems, but I'm also fond of knowing that I won't have any trouble finding them whenever I stop into a local shop. What the masses don't know is good for the rest of us who do, right? Still, I'm going to tempt fate again, and tell you about a few more bottles that should please both your palate and your pocketbook.

Italy produces more wine than anywhere else in the world, and, although the highest-priced bottles seem to command most of the press, Italians also offer some of the greatest bargains. Sure, you can find many examples of Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, and the new Super-Tuscans which seem to have fallen victim to a rapid upward pricing spiral. However, for every example of these famous or trendy wines, you can probably find five or ten wines of more humble origin that will enhance your meals and keep your wine budget in the black.

Where should you look? Well, the first thing I recommend is checking out the many '97's left on the shelves. I rarely go wrong picking a '97 from Italy, since the vintage was so good in so much of the country. While many of the big names are snapped up as soon as they reach the shelves (or even before), there are lots of less-famous producers who made excellent wine that year. In a banner year like 1997, the conditions are so good that it almost seems like producers could make good wine without even trying (yes, I know, they still had to work hard to succeed...). In difficult years, a good strategy is to stick with reliable producers if you want good wine; in great years, you can afford to experiment, because you'll have so many more hits than misses.

Another recommendation is to look for lesser-known wines. For example, instead of always heading for the Chianti section, check out Barco Reale di Carmignano, like the one I recommend below. Instead of sticking with Tuscany or Piedmont, try branching out into Umbria, Marche, Molise or Puglia. And instead of limiting yourself to Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC or DOCG) wines, check out the bargains offered by some of the new Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) bottles. Italy offers a huge array of different wines, and I think it's a shame that so many people limit themselves to only the few that they have tried before or that sound familiar to them.

My advice is to go to your local wine shop and look around for some unfamiliar, inexpensive Italian reds from 1997, and remember to drink them with food. They won't all be hits, but if my experience is any guide, many will be. Searching for an unknown bargain -- and the thrill of discovery upon finding one -- just adds to the fun. To get you started, this month I'm recommending three Italian reds. All cost less than $15 (two are under $10), and none are from famous producers or appellations!

Zaccagnini Sangiovese Marche IGT '97 -- The first thing you notice is the aroma of meat, and then the the nose really kicks in, with cherry, plum and leather. There's certainly plenty of fruit on the palate, with prominent cherry and plum flavors, but this isn't a fruit-bomb, either, with enoubh leathery and earthy notes, along with a slight hint of violet, to add some complexity. Medium finish, with cherry and plum fruit, along with just enough tannin and acidity for structure. Not as acidic as many Italian reds, and quite food-friendly. An excellent deal at $9.50 (full retail).

Ambra Barco Reale di Carmignano '97 -- OK, so this isn't entirely Sangiovese, but there is plenty in the blend, along with the "international-style" Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. This Tuscan beauty offers generous leather, tar, tobacco and cherry aromas, with just a touch of menthol. Quite flavorful, with plenty of tobacco, leather, earth and dark cherry. Moderate tannins and fairly high acidity suggest that this wine could age for a while. From start to the long tobacco, leather and cherry-laced finish, this wine offers a well-integrated, complex package of flavors, yet remains very food-friendly. And even at full retail, I still got change from a $10.

La Cerraia Sangiovese Umbria IGT '97 -- This wine seems big for Sangiovese, with a powerful plum and cherry dominated nose. Some leather and coffee aromas add complexity. This lush, easy-drinking red offers flavors of cherry, a little blackberry, plum, leather and earth. A touch of volatility comes through on the finish. Unlike many Italian wines, this one is fairly low in acidity, and doesn't have much tannin. Still, it fares well with food, and is drinking nicely now. I wouldn't keep it for too long, though. Purchased for $12.99.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2001 by Marcel Lachenmann.