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Keeping ‘the land’ in Italian wines

By Dave Buchanan
rino 4.jpg
VERONA, Italy — It only took two days to figure out traffic patterns at Vinitaly, billed as the world's largest gathering of wine producers, held this year April 3-6. With 5,000 winemakers and an expected 150,000 attendees, well, if you learn of anything bigger, let me know. It's a four-day, once-a-year opportunity to taste wines from each of the 20 Italian wine-producing area and you could spend a whole day working your way through just one of the 11 pavilions, each about the size of a football field but much more interesting. On opening day I wandered around the Friuli (north of Venice) pavilion and met Rino Russolo, a gracious man in his late 20s who's gradually becoming the fourth generation of his family to produce wine from the rocky soils of the Friuli region. We had visited the Russolo winery a day earlier, and Rino had shown us the gravelly soils and how he used the Guyot system of trellising to protect his vines. This stony plain at the foot of the Alps, only 60 kilometers from Venice, is best known for its crisp-edged and minerally whites, including sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and muller thurgau. It also produces some interesting indigenous wines such as malvasia istriana, an aromatic white wine that needs to be drank young, and refosco, a powerful and tannic red also known as terlano, with flavors of currant, wild berry, and plum. But what stood out during our tasting (I was there with Robert Prough, owner of Epic Wine Co. in Santa Cruz, Cal, who specializes in discovering and importing small production wineries) was the unexpectedly magnificent pinot noir Russolo produces. It was bright ruby red, with only a hint of the natural smokiness that's all-too powerful in most American pinot noirs. Aromatic and redolent with flavors of strawberries and cherry cola and a bit of vanilla from a light touch of oak, this was pinot noir at its best. "In 25 years that's the best pinot noir from Italy I've ever tasted," Prough said as he stared at his glass. "The flavors are true pinot flavors. I'm sort of shocked." A few days later, at a tasting hosted by Alois Lageder, I ran into Anthony Dias Blue, editor-in-chief of The Tasting Panel Magazine. Blue was walking around clutching a glass of Fattoria Zerbina's 2004 Pietramora sangiovese and offering a taste to anyone who approached. "I'm astounded," Blue said, using almost the same words as Prough. "This has to be the best sangiovese I've ever tasted. And I've never heard of the winemaker before." High praise, indeed, from too well-respected and knowledgable wine critics,but it's indicative of the care and passion shown by many Italian winemakers who strive to keep their yields low and their quality high. "We want to capture the land in our wines," said Rino Russolo, and his obvious passion for wine and creating something pure and lovely made the entire trip worthwhile. But like too many wonderful Italian wines, these probably will never see the U.S. market. Small production, the cost of importing a couple thousand cases, and the strength of the euro all contribute to these wines staying home. *Rino Russolo explaining the trellis system in his Friulian vineyard.

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