Ask a wine cellar full of experts to identify the best Italian wine, and don't be surprised if their answers are from all over the map.
The map of Italy, that is, a wine empire that starts up north with the alpine aura of Trentino-Alto Adige and extends southward to the sunny shores of Sicily. In between are 20 wine regions, 21,000 wineries, thousands of vineyards and grape varieties, 2,417 brands and an annual production of 1.3 billion gallons of wine. Wine is so essential to Italian culture that the vast majority of natives don't drink cocktails, beer or soda with meals. They sip their beloved vino. And with such staggering diversity, selecting the best of the batch can be a daunting challenge.
As heralded as Italian wine is, the profusion of choices can get overwhelming and confusing. For example, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is named after a grape, while Vino Noble di Montepulciano is named after a Tuscan town. Montepulciano can be mistaken for Montalcino, and vice versa.
We reached out to the masters - professional sommeliers, wine directors and media responsible for swirling, sniffing, sipping, suggesting and selling wine for restaurants, bars, retail stores and the Internet, especially sommeliers, who are unbiased, trained and qualified to judge wine on its merit, not necessarily on personal preferences. To give the search more scope, we included one of the wine media's most respected publications.
Top Wine Choices in Rome
If you walked into a swanky restaurant years ago and asked to speak to the sommelier, the person coming to your table was likely an older gentleman. Visit the same restaurant today, and chances are he is a she. Women have succeeded in breaking down barriers in a traditionally male-dominated industry. What better place to begin than the motherland, where Marco Reitano is one of the previously mentioned elder gentlemen. He's the chief sommelier at La Pergola in Rome, a three-Michelin-star restaurant perched atop the Cavalier Hotel overlooking the city's historical scene.
Named Italy's No. 1 sommelier by a gourmet guide, Reitano is an expert among the experts. La Pergola's wine cellar is stocked with 3,000 labels, all having been sampled by him or a member of his staff. The inventory represents each Italian region and type of grape.
Sommelier Marco Reitano's Top Wine Choices
- Cadel Bosco Franciacorta Annamaria Clemti - From northern Italy, this full-bodied wine has notes of citrus that impart a refreshing finish.
- Villa Raino Fiano di Avellino - This Campania region standout is made with white Fiano grapes grown almost exclusively in southern Italy. It is dry, invigorating and mineral, with walnut and apple accents.
- Venica Ronco Dell e Cime - Closely related to Sauvignon Blanc, the Friulano grape used in this wine grows on the oldest vines in the northern Fruili sector. It's dry and fruity with a herbal focus.
Also based in Rome is Gambero Rosso, an Italian magazine specializing in food and wine that takes a non-elitist approach to wine. With Paolo Cuccia as editor, it has a four-tier critique of rating wine - extraordinary, just short of extraordinary, very good and good.
Gambero Rosso Magazine's Top Rated Wines
- Gran Sasso Pecorino Terre di Cheiti - Also the name of a cheese, Pecorino is a white grape undergoing a revival in the Marche and Abruzzo regions. With its nutty, lemony character, this wine is an option to more familiar Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay.
- Canaletto Montepulciano d'Abruzzo - This robust red won the gold medal at the 2007 International Wine Challenge. The flavor balances tart damson and sweet plum.
- Bellavista Francia Corta Cuvee - This Lombardy sparkler is a crisp, fruity chorus of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero. Aged two years before bottling, it has a distinctive peach impression.
From Rome to California
From Rome to San Francisco, where Tara Patrick has been acclaimed a rising star on the wine horizon. She's the sommelier at Mourad, a fine dining destination that blends Moroccan traditions with California ingredients. Her wine education combines sensory experience with culture, history and science. At Mourad, she has earned an enviable reputation for pairing exotic Moroccan cuisine with wines ranging from farflung regions to nearby Napa.
Sommelier Tara Patrick's Top Wine Picks
- Walter Massa Montecitorio Timorrasso - This wine drinks like Chenin Blanc meets Reisling. It offers a beautiful mouthfeel with fine-tuned minerality, notes of lemon verbena blossom and a subtle honey finish.
- Damijan Kaolaj Fruili Venezia IstrianaGuila - A mix of Chardonnay, Fruilano and Malvasia, its multiple levels of nuances include candied apricots, nectarine, saffron, Asian spice and floral aromatics reminiscent of honeysuckle.
- Campo Della Piane Boca - From the Alpine corners of Piedmont, this wine shows plenty of structure and a sweet cherry bouquet supported by notes of spicy tobacco and pine. It should appeal to fans of older red Burgundies.
On to Los Angeles, where Alicia Kemper is general manager and wine director at trendy Fundamental LA. Certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers, she has crafted a list featuring varietals from small natural producers throughout the world. She previously worked for a Michelin-starred restaurant in L.A., and has been described as a far cry from the prim and proper gentlemen sommeliers of the past.
Sommelier Alicia Kemper's Top Wine Choices
- Ronco Servo Pinot Grigio Colli Orientali - Bottled unfiltered, which extends its aging potential, it is medium-bodied and earth-driven with notes of almonds, toasted bread and orange rind.
- Vajra Freisa Kye Piedmont - Made from cultivated Freisa grapes that share the same crisp acidity and tannic structure of Nebbolio. Full-bodied, fruit-driven with cassis, black plum and spice notes.
- Bellus Frappato Scopello Sicily - Like Pinot Noir, Frappato can be finicky and difficult to master, so it is often blended with Nero d'Avolo. Medium-bodied, fruit-driven with accents of strawberry, blueberry, flower petals and dried herbs.
Next Stop: Las Vegas
Over to Las Vegas, where Ferraro's Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar is an appealing alternative to the glitz, glamour and gambling of the megahotels. The homemade southern Italian fare has been acclaimed "Best Italian Food in Town," while the wine has earned Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence. The wine guru is Paolo Uccellatori, who received his sommelier certification in Milan, Italy. From his 5,000-bottle collection, he recommends 3 of his top favorites.
Sommelier Paolo Uccellatori's Top 3 Wine Selections
- Barolo Giuseppe Mascarello Riserva d'Morissto - Tasty and interesting, though a bit on the jammy side, it could use a tad more acidity. Fragrant honeysuckle and balsamico is present on the nose.
- Mastrobardino Aglianico Radici Taurisi Riserva - Classic red from the highest point of the Montemarano estate with south-east exposure and chalky clay soil. Aged in French and Slovanian oak for at least 36 months, it is strong, dense and aromatic.
- Passopisciaro Nerello MAscalese Contrada Ramparte - A stylish Sicilian ruby red from one of Europe's highest vineyards. Lava-rich soil activates an intense fruity and floral character with notes of violet, cherry and herbs.
Pitt Stop at St. Louis
Next stop is St. Louis, where Andrey Ivanov is the sommelier at Reed's American Table (Twitter), once proclaimed the "Best New Restaurant in St. Louis." A native of Russia, he has an Advanced Sommelier Diploma and won the 2015 Best Young Sommelier competition. His 150-bottle wine list focuses on vineyards personally visited by him or someone on his staff.
Andrey Ivanov's Wine Picks
- Duca di Dolle Brt - Made from 35-year-old Glera vines and delivers a clean, crisp profile.
- Caschina Barrichi Regina di Felicita - This wine comes from grapes literally frozen on the vines and harvested in January. It is aged in French oak, then blended with unfermented Moscato. It is believed to be the only wine in Italy made with this process.
- Aziendo Agricola Pithos Rosso - is produced by the cult Sicilian winery COS with the ancient style of Amphorae aging. It is light in color, surprisingly powerful and complements meat and seafood.
New York Wine Scene
On to New York, where Michelle Biscieglia is the sommelier at the Greenwich Village farm-to-table restaurant, Blue Hill. After taking her first sip of Burgundy years ago, she decided to pursue a career in the world of wine. Her hands-on experience includes working in vineyards in Burgundy, France and Barolo, Italy. Upon returning to the Big Apple, she was the sommelier at two other dining houses before joining Blue Hill.
Sommelier Michelle Biscieglia's Wine Recommendations
- Il Pendio Contestatore Pas Dos Franciacorta - From the Lombardy region, this crisp, dry wine lets the grapes speak for themselves. The nose is rich and fluent, with notes of apple and brioche while tiny bubbles stimulate the vitality.
- Bisson Vermentino Intrigoso Liguria - This coastal Mediterranean white wine is a product of vines that are sea-sprayed and express citrus, green tea and herbal prints that connect with the mineralty and salty finish.
- Bonaccorsi Val Ceresa Etna Rosso - This wine is a fusion of white and red grapes from the northern slopes of Mt. Etna in Sicily. Fertile volcanic soil results in a rich red abundant with earth and smoke notes and soft finish.
From City to Country
From the city to the country, with a stop at the chic Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva, Wis. Overlooking 1,300 acres of lush landscape and manicured grounds, this is where the upscale Geneva Chophouse and Brissago are nestled and known as "class acts". Food and beverage director Uroyoan Vazquez's wine book favors variety over volume with labels from some of the world's preeminent wineries.
Uroyoan Vazquez's Top Italian Wines
- Pro Cesare L'aitro Chardonnay - This wine is a full-bodied, 100 percent Chardonnay with notes of citrus and apple pie.
- Lodola Nuova Vino Nobile di Montepulcia - With its harmonious core of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, this medium-bodied wine has fruity notes and a finish of plum and tobacco.
- Rufino Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva - Another mixture of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but with a complex structure of sweet cherry and red berry with notes of tobacco, leather, cedar, white peppers and flint.
Last Stop, Chicago
Our final stop is Chicago, where Jared Gelband is wine director at iconic, 88-year-old Italian Village, the city's oldest Italian restaurant. The wine collection is massive -- 30,000 bottles from throughout the world -- and annual recipient of Wine Spectator's Grand Award. From this encyclopedic inventory, Gelband selects his top three wines.
Jared Gelband's Top Wine Selections
- Le ragose Amarone Del La Valpolicello - From the clay and limestone soil of Veneto, this fusion of Corvina, Rondinella and Corvinone grapes in Slovanian oak casts results in a full-bodied, but not overly aggressive tannins with a long finish.
- Poggio Il Castellare Brunello di Montalcino DOCG - Hot, dry, sandy terrain, along with unblended Sangiovese, 30 months of aging in Slovanian oak, 20 months in French barriques and four months in the bottle create a full-bodied wine with Tuscan tendencies. it produces scents of dried cherries and leather on the nose, licorice and fig notes and an elegant finish.
- Tenuta Dell Ornellaia Masseto - Form Bulgheri, birthplace of the Super Tuscans, this 100 percent Merlot is aged in French oak to achieve a luscious mouthful with accents of blackberry, leather and tobacco plus a long, elegant finish.
That was the run down of some of the world's renown wine professional's wine picks. Try them, and create your own wine cellar filled with the whites, reds, and rosés that fill your palate with wondrous appreciation for this ancient libation.