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NORTHERN ITALY 3
BACK TO THE
- NINO NEGRI
Valtellina is probably one of the least-known wine areas of northern
Italy. It's in Lombardia and is a mountainous region north of
The main grape variety is Nebbiolo. If you can read the town names on
the map to the left, you'll see one is called Chiavenna. To confuse
unsuspecting American wine drinkers (and even those who might actually be
suspicious), they change the name of the Nebbiolo grape here to Chiavennasca. The
name is said to be a corruption of the dialect words "Ciu vinasca,"
translating to "the best for wine."
The most normal bottlings are "Valtellina" while a step up
gets you "Valtellina Superiore." The best of these take a
site-specific name such as Grumello, Inferno, Sassella or Valgella.
One of the most prestigious wines of the area is the powerful Sfursat or
Sforzato wine. This is the Valtellina's version of an Amarone.
The wine is made of dried grapes and has higher-than-normal
One of the most prominent, if not the most important cellars in the
Valtellina is Nino Negri. It's no longer owned by the Negri family,
but the place is in good hands and run with an eye towards quality.
This old advertisement is displayed in the courtyard near their offices
We made the pilgrimage to visit the Nino Negri winery and were greatly
impressed by the terroir of the region and the dedication to
Lots of "inox" (stainless steel tanks)...
Large, neutral cooperage.
This is quite a showplace, but it's far from a museum.
That's an oak barrel adorning the wall in the cellar
The cellar full of small French oak has a wonderfully spicy and woodsy
Yet, when we tasted their famous, lavishly-oaked "Cinque Stelle"
Sfursat, the wine was not woody! The Nebbiolo character took center
Paolo Bombardieri pours several Nino Negri wines.
A view from the hills looking at the Valtellina vineyards.
Nino Negri's grapes are often ferried to the winery during the harvest by
We typically have Nino Negri's "Inferno" wine in the shop.
This is a nice example of Nebbiolo and has more interest (to us) than many
costly Merlot wines made north of the border in Switzerland. I am
often surprised at how many people actually know this wine. It's a
step above their entry level bottling and carries the name "Mazer"
on the label. "Mazer" translates loosely to
"amazing," but more precisely "good" or
"pretty" (the locals say it translates to 'buono' or 'bello').
The Inferno wine takes its name from the steep slopes and rocky
soil...the rocks reflect the heat and make the place rather hot.
In the grand scheme of things, Inferno is a small production item and not
something most shops or restaurants in the U.S. would even bother
Negri's Mazer displays a light garnet color with a hint of rusty
brown/orange on the robe. It's a bit leathery in fragrance and has a
mildly tannic 'bite' on the palate. This is a traditionally-styled red
wine, so if you're looking for a "gobs o' fruit" sort of bottle,
this won't be a good choice. On the other hand, a plate of a wild
mushroom pasta or grilled sausages and you're living right!
Having such a traditionally-styled red, I was totally unprepared
for their white wine blend called "Ca' Brione." The name comes
from a vineyard site in the Fracia zone within the village of Teglo (like you're
going to remember this and recite it for guests at the dinner table!). The
wine is based on two, maybe three, familiar grape varieties. Most
well-known are the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But they pick these
early and dry them a bit...a process which would horrify most U.C. Davis-trained
enologists. Then, when they're ripe, Nino Negri harvests its Nebbiolo
(yes, the red grape Nebbiolo plays a supporting role in this show) along with
the grape known as Incrocio Manzoni, an old hybrid from the Veneto. It's a
cross (incrocio) of Riesling and Pinot Bianco. The wine is
fermented in French oak and spends more than half a year following in
We have not had this wine in the shop for a few vintages...need to buy a
bottle from the distributor to taste the latest release...stay tuned on that.
I served this with an antipasti plate and it was superb.
"Cinque Stelle" (5 Star) Sfursat that's in the shop is from the 2013 vintage. Where to start? Nebbiolo, 100%. A long
fermentation period on the skins, so the wine has plenty of structure and
can age well. It spends about a year+ in new French oak. It's as
intense as a good Barolo, but there's less tar and more 'sweet' notes.
Clove spice, vanilla, violets, etc.
This is now in the same price neighborhood as many Amarone wines and it's as
costly as a good number of Barolo and Barbaresco wines. This will
probably come as a shock to old-timers (of which I am one), since these
didn't use to cost an arm and a leg.
Deep, rich, mildly jammy and showing
a touch of oak, you'll want to pair this with some sort of rich cheese or a
regal roast of lamb or beef. Be sure to give the wine an hour in a
We opened a bottle of the 2004 in early 2018 and it was showing beautifully...a touch of
wood spice...medium-bodied...very elegant.
These age handsomely and they're rather showy upon release.
"Quadrio" is a lovely example of Valtellina Nebbiolo. It's
90% Nebbiolo and we understand they blend in a really obscure variety called
Merlot. This may sound strange, but Merlot is actually a fairly common
variety in northern Italy and in Switzerland's Ticino region.
The wine takes its name from a castello which is named "Quadrio
di Chiuro" and was owned, some 500 years ago, by the governor of the
We found this to be a nice expression of Nebbiolo...I couldn't detect,
frankly, that there is some other variety in the wine. It's
medium-bodied and mildly tannic, so pairing it with red meats or a
slow-simmered meat sauced dish would be ideal.
- There's also a really good example of traditionally-made Sfursat. We
have the 2012 vintage and this is showing quite nicely. Fairly full in
body and ripe, mildly jammy notes on the nose.
Currently in stock: 2013 Sfursat 5 Stelle $86.99
2011 INFERNO SALE $25.99
2012 Sfursat (List $60) SALE $49.99
- BIDOLI ~ FORNAS
- Back in the
1980s we met the Bidoli family from Friuli.
Dad was still alive and his young son Arrigo was working in the
cellar. Daughter Margherita was handling sales and administrative
issues in the office.
Dad passed away a few years back, but his "kids" are still
making delightful wines with modest price tags.
- They purchased a new facility. Well, new to them. It's an
old brick factory, so many of their wines wear the label "Fornas,"
a reference to the old brick furnace.
When you walk into the building, you'll see an old photo of three
generations of the Bidoli family, Arrigo, his grandfather and his dear old
Their wines are not fancy and they don't cater to trophy hunters. If
you're looking for 90+ point wines, they don't make them. And you know
what? They don't care.
Actually, though, Arrigo and Margherita DO care about their customers
and they make some really good little wines. But they work for
"wine drinkers," not "collectors." Most of their
wines are probably consumed within 18 or 24 months of the vintage.
I always liked their Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Franc. We bought those
wines back in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Years later I'd suggest the Bidoli wines to various importers. Most had
no interest, since they were searching for wines to sell to stores and
restaurants for whom "points" matter. It's easy to say
"I've got a 92 point Chianti which costs $160 a case. How many
cases do you want?" More difficult selling is to approach a buyer with
something like "Say, please try this dynamite Cabernet Franc that's
bargain-priced, ready to drink and see what you think."
I dragged some importers at Italy's circus-of-a-wine-fair, VinItaly to show
them these are good wines and they're inexpensive, delicious and will find
Well, one of the importers I'd introduced and who'd said he wasn't interested
went back to taste.
"You know," he told me as though he'd discovered these on his own,
"those wines are really good and they're great for such a small
Really? Ya' think?
In 2011 I brought a friend who's the buyer for a Southern California
shop. He was blown away buy the wines we'd tasted, doubly so when he
heard these sell for about ten bucks a bottle!
There's a cellar for some reds...but the wines we buy don't see any oak.
They have a modern, fancy bottling line.
Arrigo Bidoli...he's one of Italy's best, "unheralded"
We have a crisp, light, fruity and dry Pinot Grigio. It
sells for all of $9.99. Bidoli owns no vineyards. They've been
buying grapes from good growers for decades, so producing a fresh, crystal
clear wine is easy for Arrigo.
They make a Cabernet Franc, too. This is a fairly common grape in
Friuli, along with Merlot. But they don't seek to make an
"important" wine from this fruit. Instead, the Bidoli crew
produce a simple, easy-to-drink "picnic wine." It's the color
of a fresh Beaujolais and nearly as fruity on the nose. On the palate,
it's a medium-light bodied wine with virtually no tannin. This is
the sort of red wine you serve lightly chilled.
The winery is only a few kilometers from the town of San Daniele and this wine
is wonderful with the famous, locally-made Prosciutto.
We've found it pairs well with chicken, pork, red meats, pizza and pasta, too.
If you have a ten dollar bill in your pocket and are looking
for satisfying and simple vino, keep the Fornas name in mind.
Currently in stock: 2018 FORNAS Friuli PINOT
2010 FORNAS Friuli CABERNET FRANC Sold Out
- Emilia-Romagna remains well in the shadows of Italy's top tourist
places. It doesn't attract the volumes of tourists that flock to
Tuscany, Rome or Venice. And yet it's somewhat the gastronomic
heartland of Italy. You'll find top Parmigiano-Reggiano
cheese. There's exceptional Prosciutto di Parma (and its cousin,
Culatello di Zibello). Don't forget Aceto Balsamico! The
Balsamico di Modena can be remarkably delicious. We should also
mentioned the Mortadella that hails from Bologna. While there are
famous pasta-makers all around Italy, you can find some exceptional Tagliatelle
to pair with the famed Bolognese meat sauce that is copied
all over the world.
And then there are Tortellini...the towns of Bologna and Modena argue
over which is the birthplace of tortellini.
The region is also a hub of Italian motor sports. The Ferrari
company has its test track in Emilia-Romagna and there's a splendid
museum which tells the amazing story of this company. But there's
also a Maserati museum and one for Lamborghini, too.
Bologna, by the way, is home to what is said to be Europe's first
university, the school having been established in the year 1088!
And so what about wine to pair with the grand cuisine of
Emilia-Romagna? Most wine guides gloss over the wines from
this region, much like the area is by-passed by tourists. Emilia-Romagna's
two top appellation wines, if those garnering the DOCG designation are
considered prestigious, come from white grapes: the Pignoletto used
for the "Colli Bolognese Pignoletto" and the Albana grape used in the
Romagna Albana wines.
Of course, the enological ambassador for Emilia-Romagna over the past
half-century would be the Lambrusco wines. Many years ago the
mass-produced plonk of the Riunite and Cella brands were wildly popular
and often described as the "Coca Cola of Wines." These
days we have easy access to "real" Lambrusco and these can be
delightful accompaniments to a salumi platter.
There are numerous grape varieties cultivated in Emilia-Romagna...you'll
have difficulty thinking of some grape that isn't grown there!
Fiano, Friulano, Garganega, Marsanne, Grechetto, Riesling and MŘller-Thurgau
can be found in the region. So can Syrah, Dolcetto, Cabernet, Petit
Verdot and Montepulciano for reds.
Our friend Valentina Davide explains the northwest area near Piacenza is
where you can find a typical Emilia wine called Gutturnio, a blend of
Barbera with Croatina (or Bonarda if you prefer to use that name for the
grape). In the areas around Bologna, she explains, you can find
many of the "international" grapes being cultivated. As
one heads southeast, you come to the "Romagna" area and this
is where she says "Sangiovese is king and the Queens are the Albana
and Trebbiano Romagnolo grapes."
But Sangiovese might, one of these days, distance itself from the rest
as a specialty of Emilia-Romagna.
There are well more than a hundred clones of the Sangiovese grape.
- The University of California at Davis identifies two major types of
Sangiovese, one being "Sangiovese Grosso" (typically found in
Montalcino where it produces the famous Brunello wines, along with the
Chianti regions) and Sangiovese Piccolo (which they say is the
Sangiovese di Romagna).
Most wine drinkers who enjoy Italian reds will have had some experience
with Sangiovese Grosso wines, having tasted Chianti, Vino Nobile or
something such as a Rosso or Brunello di Montalcino.
Less well-known is the Sangiovese di Romagna and that's what we have
from the Noelia Ricci winery. UC Davis indicates this is
The great and studious grape guru, Ian D'Agata points to old writings
about the grape, one in 1877 distinguishing between the Sangioveto
of Tuscany and the Sangiovese di Romagna. He states that
some vintners contend that Tuscany's version should be called Sangioveto,
while the grape grown in Emilia Romagna (and everywhere else) should
then be called simply Sangiovese.
Good luck with that!
This is a small, family-operated winery located just north of a little
city called Predappio (south of Forli and 45 miles northeast of Florence
in Tuscany. It's approximately 42 miles southeast of Bologna.)
It's in the Valle del Rabbi di Predappio to be precise.
The Ricci story begins in the city of Forli, though, with Giuseppe Ricci
back in the 1930s, as we understand things. He ran a little
hardware store and happened to sell "LPG," Liquid Petroleum
Gas, amongst other normal items. He was a smart businessman and
made a nice living it seems.
In the early 1940s he purchased the Villa Pandolfa which has history
going back to the 1400s. Ricci had enough resources to buy two
neighboring estates, so there's plenty of land for growing grapes,
olives and a range of fruit trees.
Ricci became quite wealthy as the founder of a company called Ultragas
and now his great-grandson runs this small winery. Noelia
Ricci was Giuseppe's daughter and the winery is named after her, in
honor of her vision of the site being a potentially good one for wine
Noelia's daughter, Paola Piscopo, runs Ultragas today and co-owns the
winery with her son, Marco Cirese.
They actually have two brands, the Pandolfa property or brand as well as
the Noelia Ricci line.
There are some 9+ hectares of vineyards for the Noelia Ricci brand which
are in the process of being totally converted to organic viticulture.
By the 2023 harvest, all of the Noelia Ricci wines will be from
The Noelli Ricci brand does not use any "international" grape varieties in
its wines. They're not interested in making Cabernet Sauvignon or
blending that into wine made with their special, "local"
grape, Sangiovese di Romagna.
The vineyards are in a special site called San Cristoforo at about 200
to 340 meters above sea level which gets sea breezes from the Adriatic,
some 30 miles away. They cultivate only autochthonous
varieties: Trebbiano di Romagna and the Sangiovese di Romagna.
Mr. D'Agata cites the T-19 Clone (T for Tebano) as usually being
responsible for the best Sangiovese wines. "But," he
writes, "it is a diseased clone, virus-affected, and therefore
planting it is not officially allowed. Of course, that doesn't
stop anyone in Italy. Even more ironic is that both T-19 and R-24,
another worthwhile clone, are of Emilia-Romagna origin which clashes a
tad with those who uphold the superiority of Tuscan Sangioveto."
D'Agata later states "My hunch is that if the Sangiovese grapevines
from Emilia-Romagna have such a poor reputation today, this has less to
do with their intrinsic qualities than with a paucity of truly gifted
winemakers in the Sangiovese di Romagna wine-production area."
We've tasted a number of Sangiovese wines from Emilia-Romagna and have
yet to find one that's particularly complex. Yes, it's easier to
find more compelling Sangiovese in Tuscany.
- But we have high hopes for the Noelia Ricci winery, as they seem to be
on the right track and perhaps one day will have a wine rivaling the
top, "pure" (not "fortified" with Cabernet, Merlot or
Syrah) wines from Tuscany.
The soils of Noelia Ricci are a unique mix of chalk, sandstone and
Presently we have a young red called simply "Il Sangiovese."
It's an uncomplicated red, made without the use of oak as they seek to
put Sangiovese di Romagna in the spotlight. The label depicts a
wasp from some old art work they found in an archive of 18th Century
natural sciences materials and they explain its choice for
this wine is because the Sangiovese has a mildly "stinging"
quality (thanks to its acidity).
This is not a "cocktail" red wine as some wineries make here
in California. They produce this with the idea it's going to be
paired with food of some sort.
You could pair it with a pasta & Bolognese Sauce, of course, but it
can easily partner with a pizza, burger or grilled sausages. It'll
match nicely with a savory, well-seasoned roasted chicken. Pork
We arranged a dinner in San Francisco in early 2020 of modern dim sum
dishes and Signorina Davide suggests this Sangiovese could certainly
have been paired with a number of those.
Serve this at cool cellar temperature and pour it into nice, big
stemware and give it a good swirl in the glass...you'll see it opens
nicely with a bit of airing.
A number of Weimax customers have returned for an encore purchase of
this. It's well-priced and has some character.
Currently in stock: 2018 NOELIA RICCI SANGIOVESE
DI ROMAGNA "Predappio" IL SANGIOVESE $19.99
- This is a relatively young winery owned by a part of the Sartori
family, a famous name in Veneto area winemaking. But unlike the
other Sartori family which makes 15 MILLION bottles of wine annually,
this little enterprise produces approximately 40-thousand bottles.
Located in Mezzane di Sotto, they have a couple of vineyard sites.
La Broia is devoted to the Garganega grape for the production of
Soave. Then the main red wine vineyards are on the hills of San
Briccio and it's there you'd find a vineyard called Roccolo
Bruno Sartori's kids now run the place. Marco is the
winemaker and his sister Francesca also works in the
business. They view their main job as taking care of the
vineyards. Small yields. Volcanic soils for the red
grapes. Attention to detail.
Perfectly maintained cellars...
And below ground, there's a cellar with wooden barrels and tanks.
We're fans of their Amarone especially, though they do make a wonderful
and "important" style of Valpolicella.
The 2007 Amarone is currently in stock. It's a fairly high-octane
red wine, as most Amarone wines are...but despite its strength, you
might not peg it as being as potent as it is.
The blend is something like 60% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 15% Corvinone
and 5% Croatina. The grapes spend nearly two months drying before
they set about making the wine...
The wine is vinified at a fairly warm temperature, as this usually
brings out deeper color. The length of skin contact is fairly
substantial, too, typically the wine spending a bit more than a month on
the skins with punch-downs and pump-overs. Depending on the
resulting wine, the maturation period in wood can be from 26 months to
nearly 36, with 32 being the average. The 2007 vintage was kept in
wood for a shorter time period, though. The wine is aged in small
French oak and we like their handling of the wood...it's noticeable, but
The 2007 is a showy wine now, in its youth and it can probably age well
for another 5 to 10 years. Pairing it with game or braised/stewed
meats is ideal, though a grilled steak is not out of the question,
either. It offers hints of dried cherry and tobacco, with lightly
woodsy, vanillin tones. Quite complex...
Currently in stock: 2007 ROCCOLO GRASSI Amarone della
Valpolicella SALE $79.99
CASA VINICOLA ALDO RAINOLDI
- This smallish producer dates back to 1925 and they're one of the top
producers in the Valtellina. Of course, there are less than two
dozen wineries in the Valtellina, so being amongst the top 25 is not
- There's a mix of traditional wine production and a bit of modern
You can see the old school large tanks on the left in the cellar, while
in the distance there are small oak barrels.
- Nebbiolo, of course, is the focus at this cellar, but they're dabbling
in white wine production and in producing a wine of Sauvignon Blanc
blended with Nebbiolo that's vinified as a white wine.
The place is run by Giuseppe Rainoldi and his winemaker nephew
Aldo. They produce a modest quantity of wine, making about
17-thousand cases of wine annually (using American 12 bottle cases as a
yardstick). The firm owns about 7 hectares of estate vineyards and
they rent nearly 3 more hectares in the area.
- We tasted some interesting wines on our visit here...including a
curious Spumante made predominantly of Nebbiolo, vinified as a pink wine
with a small amount of Pignola and Rossola grapes...
Sassella and Grumello and Inferno wines are solid here, but the star
standout of the Rainoldi line-up is their Sfursat di Valtellina called
"Fruttaio Ca' Rizzieri." We tasted a 2004 a few
years ago...perfectly nice with some stony notes and a mildly leafy tone
reminding me a bit of tobacco.
But the current release from the 2007 vintage is a serious wine.
There's still a hint of tobacco but the wine has more sweet fruit and
woodsy notes. It's a robust red and as they dried the grapes for a
few months before vinifying them, there's a jammy theme to the
wine. Blackberries and dried cherry notes are on top of a cedary,
woodsy quality. It's pretty showy right now and we expect it to
hold nicely, well-stored, for another five to ten years.
- Giuseppe Rainoldi.
The founder of the house, Aldo Rainoldi.
Young Aldo, the winemaker, pouring their Brut Rose.
Currently in stock: RAINOLDI 2007 SFURSAT DI
VALTELLINA "Fruttaio Ca' Rizzieri" (List $70) SALE $59.99
- The Skerk winery is located a short toss-of-the-cork away from
Slovenia, in what's called the Carso region. From Venice, you'd
drive an hour and 40 minutes northeast of Venice towards Trieste and you'd
find the little hamlet of Duino Aurisina, home of a couple of prominent
Being so close to the Slovenian border, you'll notice the street signs are
in Italian and Slovene.
This is tough, rugged land if you're a grapevine and the rocky, hard soils
force the vine to really struggle to survive. In fact, land there doesn't
have much of what we'd call "topsoil," so if you want to plant
some vines, be prepared to order truck-loads of topsoil to be brought in
to allow you to put a vine in the ground! Well, the wines made
in the region tend to be fairly hearty souls as a result.
It's a region where historically those brave enough to make wine would
ferment even the white wines incorporating the grape skins as somewhat of
a measure for preserving the wine.
And today there's a lot of chatter, especially amongst those promoting
so-called "natural wines," to make white wines which are given a
period of skin contact. Many of these are called "orange
wines" as they tend to have a brassy, somewhat golden hue to
Some are out and out schlock and some are rather intriguing wines.
And they're not for everybody.
I was at a tasting where a local wine critic asked what I thought of some
wines from a famed estate near the border town of Gorizia. My
comment was "You know, when the Merlot and the Pinot Grigio have the
same brownish color to them, Houston: We have a problem."
And yet some people seem content to pay ridiculous sums of money for this
soft of dreck. Others sing the praises, willing to remain oblivious
to the flaws in the winemaking, finding a measure of beauty and pleasure
in wines most people would flat-out reject as undrinkable.
Sandi Skerk and his family have about 6 hectares of vineyards in the Carso
region. They recently built or remodeled a winery close to the Skerk
enclave where friends, family and customers gather to enjoy some wine and
Mama Skerk's culinary artistry. Much of the wine production is
consumed right at the cellar door, as it were, by thirsty folks who come
to eat, drink and hang out with the locals.
Mama Skerk has a bunch of Prosciutti dangling from the ceiling, along
with a cooler full of various other salumi which are consumed with the
Skerk wines at picnic tables in the courtyard of the family digs.
Take your pick of the language, but the prices are universal!
You can see the color of Skerk's "Ograde," one of the best
"orange wines" you can hope to taste.
A photo of Sandi Skerk and his Pop (Boris) hangs on the wall...
The winery is just down the hill from their reception area and you
can see the water towards the Adriatic from their little perch on the
They have done a fair bit of work to have a
well-appointed, somewhat modern cellar for the vinification and aging of the
- Not many wineries were selling bottled wine in the 1980s...this was a
Most wine was sold in bulk or by-the-glass at the cellar door.
Skerk has a few old bottles in the "library."
You can see the remarkably rocky terrain of this area. Imagine
digging a wine cellar in such rock!
And then, imagine if you're a grapevine and have to plunge your roots into
We're especially fans of Skerk's blended white wine called
Ograde. We understand the wine to be a blend of four varieties in
roughly equal proportions: Vitovska, Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc and
The wine does get the typical fermentation-on-the-skins for so-called
But Skerk avoids the oxidation and spoilage elements of many of these
currently-fashionable bottlings, producing a wine some may find
"quirky," but others will find to be quite exciting and unique.
We prepared a starter course with polenta, tapenade and some smoked trout
and paired the Ograde wine alongside Jermann's famed Vintage
Both wines were terrific, though the Ograde seemed to handle the olive oil
and savory qualities of the tapenade and smoked trout quite handily.
At the Skerk cellar, tasting through the wines, I remarked how good the
Ograde wine was showing, especially given its being one of those
Mama Skerk, who clearly knew what I was talking about, remarked "Well,
you know...my son knows how to make wine!"
We also have Skerk's 2010 Terrano. This is an appellation for wines
made of a grape said to be identical to or related to the Refosco grape and
grown in a delimited area of the Carso region. It's a wine which tends
to have a moderate level of astringency, so pairing it with steak or lamb is
Currently in stock: 2010 SKERK "Ograde" White wine
2010 SKERK TERRANO $34.99
A short distance from Skerk's village is the old
Slovenian border crossing...I went over just to see the "ghosts"
of those old days.
Old labels tailored to the German-speaking market.