A revolution is taking place in Italian wine--a French revolution. Over the past three decades, whole vineyards in Italy have been ripped up and replanted not with the traditional Piedmontese Nebbiolo or Tuscan Sangiovese but with French varietals. Many of these newly reconstructed vineyards are still too young to give their best. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and especially Pinot Noir vines generally produce their finest grapes when they are older. (Mature is 10 years; great begins at 25.) But there is plenty of good news for French varietals in Italy: Italian vintners in the Nineties were raising their quality standards, and--thanks to more sophisticated winemaking techniques, new state-of-the-art facilities, the participation of top-notch French wine consultants and, wonder of wonders, a succession of first-rate vintages from 1995 onward--their wines have become more and more impressive. If you want to sample some of these French-accented Italian wines, there are a lot to choose from. Here's a rundown of the best bottles.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the preeminent grape of Bordeaux, where it's almost always blended with Merlot and, sometimes, with some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Think Mouton, Latour, Lafite. Cabernet is the French grape that's had the greatest success in Italy, which has produced a wealth of great Cab blends--the so-called Super-Tuscans. Choosing the best is a hard call. Piero Antinori's Solaia (75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Sangiovese, 5 percent Cabernet Franc) is brilliant, but so is his brother Ludovico's Ornellaia. If pressed, I'd choose instead Sassicaia and take the '96. (It needs time.) We're talking about a lush, concentrated Cabernet, creamy but with fine acidity. Expensive, yes--$140 a bottle--but also great. Choosing an inexpensive Cabernet is harder. Most of what's on offer at $20 and under is dross. Try the '97 Tenuta Sant' Antonio Capitello. It's $40, but taste it and you'll call it a bargain.
Most Saint-Emilions and Pomerols are Merlot based. The heavy clay soil of Saint-Emilion particularly favors this grape. The Merlot being cultivated in Friuli, in the northern part of Italy, where the climate is cool, produces a very different wine, something more like a Cabernet Franc from the Loire. Friulian Merlots are generally herbaceous and dense, with a certain underlying bitterness--and you like them or you don't. Merlots from elsewhere in Italy tend to be a good deal rounder and less herbal. In Umbria, enologist Riccardo Cotarella makes what is probably the best of the lot, Falesco's Montiano. The '97 ($70) is lush, rich and full of sweet fruit. But I'm also partial to Cotarella's Radikon (the '97 is $80), a wine of great style and finesse, with a surprising delicacy for an Italian Merlot. In the good-value category, the '97 Lavischio from Biondi Santi is a steal at $18. The fruit is lush, even if the finish is a bit short.
Great white Burgundies are subtle wines, and Chardonnay, of course, is the great white grape of Burgundy. I've rarely been overwhelmed by Italian Chards--too many are too oaky, without the structure to absorb all that oak. Aldo Conterno makes an excellent exception. His '98 Langhe Bussiador ($70) is big, dense and complete. Piero Antinori's 1997 Cervaro della Sala is even better. It's not 100 percent Chardonnay, and at $50 it's certainly not cheap, but it lasts. I've had 10-year-old Cervaros that were rich, round, still youthful and still exciting, and I expect this one to make that grade. If you're looking for a good affordable Chardonnay, try G. Viberti's, from the Piedmont ($20). It's light, toasty and a bit earthy, too.
Syrah, the grape of Hermitage and the Côte-Rôtie, produces long-lived, exotic, mouth-filling, rich, gamy wines--in Italy as well as France. The 1995 Isole e Olena ($40) is full of ripe, hugely extracted fruit. Also from Tuscany, but at the other end of the price spectrum, is Villa Pillo's Syrah, a wonderful value. It costs just $16, and for that you get a chewy, round, rich wine that's almost like a California Petite Sirah.
Pinot Noir remains the hardest grape to make a go of outside Burgundy. In Italy it's known as Pinot Nero, and the best example I've encountered is the restrained and elegant Fattoria di Felsina Berardenga. It tastes like a cross between Oregon and Burgundy, and at $30 it's a good buy. Also nice, if not great, is the 1997 Pinot Nero from Giorgio Grai ($20). I'd put it in a league with village wines from the Côte d'Or.
Tasting a huge variety of these French-inflected Italians, I came away with some distinct conclusions. The Italians are doing great work with Cabernet Sauvignons, and their best Syrahs are pretty tremendous, too. The Merlots, the Chardonnays and especially the fickle Pinot Noirs still have a way to go, but I'd say their French accents are getting better and better.
John Anderson is the deputy editor of American Lawyer and the wine columnist for Boston Magazine.