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.