As wine collectors look beyond Bordeaux and Burgundy, their attention is turning to Italy's finest.
Classics from Barolo to Brunello and Bolgheri – not forgetting the dried-grape wines of Valpolicella – have long been on the lips of wine lovers worldwide. But with the prices of France's top selections soaring beyond the pockets of many, Italy's best wines look like good value. And this hasn't escaped the world's wine merchants: in August, Italian wines represented a record 10 percent of all trades made on the fine-wine exchange Liv-ex.
"If the focus in 2012 was on Bordeaux's demise, the focus in 2013 has been on the rise of other regions," said Liv-ex in its September market report.
The stellar reputations of Italy's top estates, scarcity of the most coveted single-vineyard wines, and rising demand will only serve to push prices higher – as will strong critics' reviews.
The release of Antonio Galloni's 2010 and 2011 scores put the spotlight on Italy, but only "cemented what many buyers already knew: the quality of Italian wines generally is on the rise," said Liv-ex.
Jamie Ritchie, CEO and president Americas and Asia for Sotheby's Wine, reports that "New York is the most important of the auction centers for Italian wines, and we have seen increased demand for Super Tuscans, Barolo and Barbaresco from the top producers."
He adds: "The secondary market and perceived value drive the price." Ritchie believes that Italian wines are seen as offering "exceptional value for money," as Bordeaux and Burgundy prices have increased.
Marc Smoler, marketing manager of Hart Davis Hart in Chicago, is also seeing price increases at auction for older vintages of the top Italian wines, adding that "rare single vineyards and riservas have seen the largest gain."
Like Ritchie, Smoler believes that "price increases are driven by the secondary market – limited supply of the top single vineyards and overall growing demand for the category. Recent vintages have been released at very high prices, and therefore have stayed relatively flat."
Here are the top 10 producers on Wine-Searcher's Most Expensive Italian Wines list as at October 31, 2013.* The breakdown is ordered by producer rather than individual wines, as several have more than one label in the premier league.
No. 1. In pole position is Bolgheri's Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, whose limited-edition Vendemmia d'Artista Special Edition Bolgheri Superiore is in first place. Priced at an average $978 per 750mls, each vintage since 2006 has had a different theme, with leading artists drafted in to design the labels for the large-format bottles.
For the 2010 vintage – released for Ornellaia's 25th anniversary in 2013 – top contemporary artist Michelangelo Pistoletto created a design featuring mirror-like designs. The salmanazar bottle in the collection was additionally enveloped by a spiral sculpture and was sold at auction for $121,925. Regular bottlings of Ornellaia Bolgheri, the estate's flagship red, have an average price of $199.
Tenuta dell'Ornellaia was founded in 1981 by Lodovico Antinori, who drafted in the "father of California cabernet," André Tchelistcheff, as his consultant.
The estate's general manager, Leonardo Raspini, told Wine-Searcher: “Ornellaia is the quintessential expression of Bolgheri and its terroir." In his view, it "represents Bolgheri’s fantastic predisposition for Bordeaux blends that have made this area famous throughout the world."
Tenuta dell'Ornellaia also produces the fourth most expensive Italian wine in our database: Masseto Toscana IGT ($692). According to Raspini, it's "the ultimate expression of a single vineyard planted with a single variety [merlot]."
Sotheby's Jamie Ritchie says that Masseto has become "a much sought-after 100 percent merlot, with a cult-like following. It occupies a unique niche, like Screaming Eagle or Petrus."
No. 2. Bruno Giacosa, Piedmont
Famed for his modesty, Giacosa has nevertheless been dubbed "the man with the golden palate." One of Italy's most respected producers, he was among the first in Piedmont to produce single-vineyard wines.
His Collina Rionda Barolo DOCG ($963) takes second place in our "most-expensive" list. Giacosa stopped producing it after the 1993 vintage because the grower who supplied him with the grapes began making his own wines. But it still has a cult following, fueled by its rarity.
Giacosa owns two brands: Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa (wines from single estate vineyards), and Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa (wines from grapes sourced from a network of growers). His single-vineyard Falletto di Bruno Giacosa "Falletto" Riserva Barolo DOCG ($669) is listed in fifth place, while Bruno Giacosa Villero di Castiglione Falleto Barolo DOCG ($331) is at number 20. In total, his wines account for seven of the top 50 highest-priced slots.
At the end of July, the exacting Giacosa controversially revealed that the estate will not be bottling its top reds from the 2010 vintage, choosing instead to sell the wines in bulk. His daughter, Bruna, told Wine-Searcher: "2010 was a good vintage but my father did not appreciate them enough to bottle them." A similar decision in 2006 sparked anger from other local producers who said it would damage sales.
© Giuseppe Quintarelli/Giacomo Conterno |
No. 3. Giuseppe Quintarelli, Veneto
Described by leading U.S. importer Kermit Lynch as "the late, great Maestro del Veneto," Quintarelli died in 2012 at the age of 84. As the "father of Amarone," he was an inspiration to younger Valpolicella winemakers, including Romano dal Forno (see No. 6), who described him as "my path, my illumination."
Ritchie reports that prices for the wines "have increased in the wake of Giuseppe Quintarelli's death, and the fact that there will be no more wines made in his lifetime."
The Quintarelli winery in the hills above the town of Negrar is now managed by Giuseppe's eldest daughter, Fiorenza. Her husband, Giampaolo, and sons Francesco and Lorenzo also work at the winery, along with veteran winemaker Roberto Ferrarini.
"Keeping the very high quality standards that Grandfather set for his wines is for us a responsibility that we want to honor," Francesco told Wine-Searcher.
This means following Giuseppe's rules: "Low yields in the fields, respecting nature both in the vineyard and in the wines, keeping high acidity, and understanding when it is not the case to call a wine Amarone. In some lesser vintages we bottle it as Rosso del 'Bepi' [Giuseppe's nickname]."
The flagship Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone Riserva is aged for 10 years in the barrel and made "only in the very best vintages, on average two to three times in a decade, so it has to be very special."
As children, Francesco and his brother helped in the vineyards and in the cellar. "We remember that Giuseppe was very sweet-hearted with us, but also very exacting and strict with the quality of his work. He was making things very slowly and in the most perfect way he could manage, so we were pushed to do the same."
On the wall of the tasting room hangs a sign declaring “Quintarelli Giuseppe la tradizione che dura nel tempo” (the tradition that lasts throughout time).
Francesco adds: "Included in our history is also Grandfather's conviction that every bottle contains years of long work and a 'piece of heart.' For this reason he never considered his prices too high."
Also in the top 50 are the estate's Recioto della Valpolicella Classico DOCG (no. 15/$382) and Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG (no. 16/$380).
No. 4. Giacomo Conterno, Piedmont
Monfortino Barolo Riserva DOCG ($592), in sixth place, is the crown jewel of the Giacomo Conterno estate. Ritchie attributes the high price to increased demand.
Italian wine expert Nick Belfrage MW wrote in his 1999 book "Barolo to Valpolicella": “If I was given the choice of one bottle of Barolo before I die (I have more than once maintained that Barolo will be my deathbed tipple) I would choose Monfortino."
This is not the only Monforte d'Alba estate to carry the name "Conterno." After their father, Giacomo, handed over the reins to his two sons, Giovanni and Aldo, in the 1950s, the brothers went their separate ways. Aldo set up the separate Poderi Aldo Conterno, whose Granbussia Barolo Riserva DOCG ($313) is at no. 22.
Monfortino Barolo Riserva is made only in exceptional vintages, from a selection of the best grapes grown in the estate's Cascina Francia vineyard. Winemaker Roberto Conterno employs long maceration times, followed by years of aging in large casks. According to critic Kerin O'Keefe, this produces Barolos "of stunning depth and uncommon complexity."
Roberto fights shy of making any radical changes, such as using barriques or rotary fermenters. "Basically, I make wine the same way my father did," he told Wine-Searcher.
© Biondi Santi |
No. 5. Biondi Santi, Montalcino
When Franco Biondi Santi, grandson of the inventor of Brunello, died earlier this year, tributes called him "Italy's most iconic winemaker," who had made wines from the Montalcino region prized all over the world.
Bondi Santi's Tenuta il Greppo Riserva Brunello di Montalcino DOCG takes seventh place in our list, with an average price of $541.
Kerin O’Keefe, who authored of a biography of Franco Biondi Santi, says the Montalcino legend "refused any wine making techniques that would change the typicity of his beloved Brunellos –so no selected yeasts, and no aging in barriques or new wood. His wines beautifully express the best of sangiovese and the best of Montalcino."
Biondi Santi was enormously proud of his heritage, telling O'Keefe: “A century before it was an accepted practice in other parts of Tuscany, my grandfather Ferruccio began making full-bodied wines solely from sangiovese." The estate's celebrated riservas are made only in outstanding vintages and only from plants over 25 years old.
© Romano dal Forno |
No. 6. Romano dal Forno, Veneto
This Venetian producer is not alone amongst winemakers in claiming that he was initially reluctant to work the land. But when the alternative appeared to be driving a bus, he changed his mind.
Dal Forno now has 27 hectares of vines, producing wines that include Vigneto di Monte Lodoletta Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG ($470) at no. 10, and Vigneto Monte Lodoletta Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG ($414) at no. 13. He says the Recioto is "closest to my heart," although some wine lovers are confused by the fact that it's sweet. When he opened a magnum of the 1994 he could "hear the angels singing." Recioto is only produced in exceptional vintages: six in the last 30 years.
Production of dal Forno's Amarone has changed in recent years. The length of time the grapes are dried (appassimento) has been reduced to cut the risk of oxidation, and the molinara grape is no longer included in the blend in a bid to raise quality. The result? "Sublime," claims dal Forno.
No. 7. Miani Calvari. Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Leading London merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd calls winemaker Enzo Pontoni "arguably Italy's finest winemaker, responsible for the uncompromisingly taut, minerally precise wines of Miani." Critic Antonio Galloni says Pontoni's wines are "profound, monumental."
Formerly an engineer, Pontoni returned to the land in 1985 to take over his family's 10 hectares of hillside vines in Friuli. This reclusive winemaker's yields are astonishingly low and he produces fewer than 700 cases of wine per year from a remarkably unassuming cellar.
The combination of reputation and scarcity leads to high prices for the wines. According to New York-based Italian Wine Merchants' Sergio Esposito, "demand always outstrips supply for these cult Friuli wines." He adds: "Pontoni doesn't just grow his grapes organically, he grows them maniacally. It's fair to say that he knows every vine on a first-name basis, and his wines illustrate that intimacy in their sheer beauty."
© Case Basse |
No. 8. Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera, Montalcino
Soldera's Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG ($435), takes 12th place on the list of most expensive Italian wines.
This controversial winemaker suffered an attack on his winery last year, in which a disgruntled former employee opened the taps on his tanks. Soldera lost 62,000 liters of wine, and was left with only tiny volumes from the 2007 to 2012 vintages.
Other Brunello di Montalcino producers offered to dip into their own wine cellars to help replenish his empty barrels, but he refused. Soldera then abruptly resigned from the appellation's consorzio, accusing its members of attempted fraud.
There has been speculation that his departure was already on the cards in the wake of the Brunellogate affair, in which some producers were investigated over the use of international grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot (Brunello wines must be 100 percent sangiovese). Soldera was firmly against the inclusion of international grape varieties in the region’s wines and some suspected that he was a whistle blower.
In spring 2013, Soldera released his 2006 Sangiovese, bottled before the attack.
Casse Basse normally produces about 15,000 bottles, with the entire output designated as Brunello Riserva in good years. Wine-Searcher contributor Paolo Tenti says his "luminous" Brunellos offer "a restrained voluptuousness, more floral than fruity."
© Giuseppe Mascarello | Berry Bros. & Rudd
No. 9. Mascarello Giuseppe e Figlio, Piedmont
This estate dates back to 1881, when the first Giuseppe Mascarello purchased land in the village of Monforte d'Alba. His great-grandson, Mauro Mascarello, is now in charge, while the next generation – his children Giuseppe and Elena – are both involved in working at the winery.
Monprivato Cà d'Morissio's debut vintage was 1993 with full production starting in 1995. Just 2,500 bottles of the wine are made and it's only produced in vintages deemed good enough, making it a collector's item. Between 1998 and 2002, the fruit did not make Mascarello's grade.
Their high standards are rewarded with the former Wine Advocate critic Antonio Galloni giving the wine scores as high as 97.
Stephen Bitterolf, buyer for New York-based Crush Wine & Spirits describes it as one of the great Barolos, matching those produced by Conterno and Giacosa. "The wines share a similar spirit: Intensely aromatic – flowers turned into fireworks – a purity of fruit matched to leather and earth, and a mouthfeel that is at once layered and tensile."
Bitterolf adds: "Mascarello's Cà d'Morissio is finally beginning to get its righteous recognition as one of the great wines of the Piedmont, and prices are rising accordingly."
Barolo has been split between the traditionalists and modernists when it comes to making wine in the area. While modernists have adopted small, new oak barrels, Mascarello has remained a true traditionalist, aging the Cà d'Morissio for around four-and-a-half years in large format oak.
"We work in the most traditional way: the greatest care in the vineyards, soft macerations and wines aging in great barrels of Slavonian oak into the cellar, to obtain elegant wines able to express in the most authentic way the great terroir they come from," he told Wine-Searcher.
© Gaja |
No. 10. Gaja, Barbaresco and Barolo, Piedmont
Angelo Gaja is one of Italy’s most famed and outspoken wine personalities and has won numerous "man of the year" awards.
His 154-year-old winery in Piedmont slips in at the tail end of the top 10 producers list, with three wines represented: Sori San Lorenzo Barbaresco (no. 17/$374) Sori Tildin Barbaresco (18/$371), and Costa Russi Barbaresco (19/$356). In total the company has eight wines in the top 50 most expensive list.
In 1967, the Sori San Lorenzo vineyard – named after the patron saint of Alba – was Gaja's first single-vineyard bottling, which was soon followed by Sori Tildin in 1970.
Sori San Lorenzo is seen as the most powerful and austere of all Gaja’s single-vineyard wines, taking a long time to fully develop – 20 years or more. Made from 95 percent nebbiolo with 5 percent barbera, it is aged in barriques for 12 months followed by 12 months in large oak cask.
There’s even been a book dedicated to the wine: “The Making of a Great Wine: Gaja and Sori San Lorenzo," which follows the 1989 vintage from grape to glass.
Angelo Gaja made headlines earlier this year by warning that Italy could soon face a wine shortage. Italy's output fell by 8 percent in 2012 following a very hot and dry summer. People "ignore the fact that wine is a natural product and the sky is the roof of the vineyard," Gaja said.
* Compiled from the average prices of wines that have been produced over five consecutive vintages, and which have a minimum of 20 different offers on Wine-Searcher.