Collecting on a budget – Italy

old Chianti bottles

The third in the series, following similar guides to collecting bordeaux and wines from the rest of France. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

Italy can field multiple examples of wines that deserve a place in a decent cellar, because they really do improve with time in bottle, and not just reds.

The most obvious candidates are the Bs: Italy’s most famous wines Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino. Each of Barolo and Montalcino produces some wines, such as Monfortino and Mascarello in Barolo and Biondi-Santi in Montalcino, worth ageing for years and years, perhaps decades. But Barolo’s neighbour in Piemonte Barbaresco, also based on the hauntingly perfumed Nebbiolo grape, almost invariably produces wines that mature much faster and rarely need more than five years in the cellar before drinking whereas the most serious Barolo from the most tannic vintages, might require 10.

That said, many a Barolo from lighter vintages such as 2014, 2018 and 2020 were already charming almost on release. In general, wines from the twin zones of Barolo and Barbaresco in the Langhe hills are much more approachable nowadays than they used to be when kept for years in cask, but they typically benefit from a few years in bottle, developing gloriously autumnal aromas as the tannins recede.

Now that Barolo and to a certain extent Barbaresco are so fashionable, however, better value can often be found in Nebbiolo-based wines grown north of the Langhe hills in the so-called Alto Piemonte, where Colline Novaresi, Gattinara, Lessona, Ghemme, Boca and Bramaterra are the names to look for. They may not offer the consistency of the more famous zones to the south but there are some gems.

And then, almost in Switzerland, there is Valtellina made from Nebbiolo, called Chiavennasca here, grown on steep, south-facing subalpine slopes which produce tantalisingly small quantities of lively, mineral-fresh wines very much in the current fashionable idiom.

Although there are some cellar candidates elsewhere in northern Italy, the other major concentration of them is in central Italy, notably Tuscany, where the much-improved, savoury Sangiovese grape rules. Montalcino is one of the warmer wine regions of Tuscany so it’s not surprising that Brunello di Montalcino represents the most concentrated example of wines based on Sangiovese, albeit much less concentrated nowadays than in the late twentieth century, when too many producers beefed up their wines with French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Fine Brunello combines richness with finesse and can repay 10 and occasionally more years’ ageing in bottle.

Brunello has long been admired as one of Italy’s classic wines. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from a zone south-east of Montalcino is still playing catch-up. But the development I am most thrilled by is the recent rehabilitation of the reputation of Chianti Classico, wine from the heartland of Chianti country. Italophiles need no reminding of the beauty of the Tuscan hills, where Chianti Classico vineyards, olive groves and cypresses are interspersed with famously, casually beautiful estates.

The wines, nowadays, like Brunello, much more likely to be based entirely on top-quality Sangiovese vines, are serious cellar candidates today. (At one time they were leavened with pale-skinned grapes and often depended on heavier reds imported from warmer regions to give them colour, heft and blur their personalities.) They still tend to be less expensive than Brunellos but, because many of the Chianti Classico vineyards are higher and cooler than those of Montalcino, they are arguably better equipped to withstand climate change.

I love the fact that Chianti Classico uniquely expresses Tuscany, unlike the other major group of Tuscan reds that are prized by many wine collectors, Bordeaux blends made on the Tuscan coast in the image of trailblazing Sassicaia, especially around the hilltop village of Bolgheri. The zone is generally considered too warm for Sangiovese, and Cabernet Franc is an increasingly popular ingredient, but these Italian answers to classed-growth Bordeaux certainly respond well to a bit of bottle age – though probably less than traditional red bordeaux. Summers are hot here. Ornellaia, its stratospherically priced Merlot offshoot Masseto and Sassicaia are the jewels in the Bolgheri crown but new producers continue to flood in and their wines are not (yet?) as expensive.

One very similar wine, inspired indeed by Sassicaia, made in cooler climes and much less expensive, is San Leonardo, made on a family estate near Lake Garda in the north.

Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon with thick skins that are high in the preservative tannin make wines that are obvious cellar candidates and Umbria to the south of Tuscany can field a prime example, Sagrantino, the speciality of the commune of Montefalco.

Further south in the hills inland from Naples is the land of one of my favourite grape varieties, Aglianico, whose tannins need such a long ripening period that the harvest can be as late as November. Taurasi is the classic, longest-lived wine based on Aglianico but Aglianico del Vulture is a useful substitute whose quality varies considerably but it can mature a bit earlier.

And even further south in the no-man’s land of Calabria, old grape varieties are being discovered that can produce classic, long-lived wines, too. Walter Speller, Italy editor on, cites Sergio Arcuri’s Aris Classico Riserva Cirò specifically. 

Sardinia produces a few superstar reds such as Barrua and Terre Brune but the focus in the last decade or two has been on Sicily and especially on wines grown on lava-formed terraces on the slopes of Etna. The main red-wine grape here is the transparent Nerello Mascalese but I’m not convinced that the wines need that long in bottle. These are gorgeous wines that would be fun to have in a cellar but you could also drink them pretty soon after purchase.

With all this choice of reds it would be easy to overlook Italian white wines but that would be a shame. I have been lucky enough to taste proof of the impressive longevity of Pieropan’s Soaves, Umani Ronchi’s Verdicchio, Mastroberardino’s Fiano di Avellino, Querciabella’s Batàr and of course the extraordinary Peter Pan of a wine that is Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. There are many, many more Italian white wines such as those based on Etna’s Carricante grapes and Villa Bucci’s Verdicchio that are serious enough to deserve a place in any curious collector’s cellar.

Some Italian cellar candidates that don’t cost an absolute bomb

Prices are per 75-cl bottle duty paid unless otherwise stated.

Luciano Sandrone, Valmaggiore 2019 Nebbiolo d’Alba 13.5%
£32 Roberson, Focus Wines

Massolino 2019 Barolo 14%
£35.90 per half Hedonism

Produttori del Barbaresco 2020 Barbaresco 14.5%
£32.61 Lay & Wheeler (or, ideally, wait for the longer-lived 2021s)

Nervi 2015 Gattinara 13.5%
£40 in bond Cuchet & Co

Ar Pe Pe 2021 Rosso di Valtellina 13.5%
£27.50 The Wine Society

San Polino 2018 Brunello di Montalcino 14.5%
£50.25 VINUM, £63 Reserve Wine Shop

Fontodi 2020 Chianti Classico 14%
£25 The Wine Society, £26.01 Lay & Wheeler

Castell’in Villa 2018 Chianti Classico 13.5%
£24.70 VINVM, £28 Chanctonbury Wines, £31.50 Mother Vine and others

Le Macchiole 2021 Bolgheri Rosso 14.5%
£27.95 Lea & Sandeman

San Leonardo 2018 Vigneti delle Dolomiti 13%
£73 Honest Grapes

Elena Fucci, Titolo 2019 Aglianico del Vulture 14%
£39.21 Lay & Wheeler

Sella & Mosca, Cabernet Marchese di Villamarina Riserva 2019 Alghero 13.5%
£37.80 XtraWine UK

Federico Graziani 2019 Etna 13%
£37.65 Shelved Wine

Tasca, Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2016 Contea di Sclafani 14%
£65.50 NY Wines

Photo by Emma Innocenti via Getty Images. 

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