Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post reviewing the first season of Wine Masters – a new documentary series focused on five French wine regions and winemaking families. The first season was thoroughly enjoyable, cinematically breathtaking and highly educational. So, when they asked if I would be willing to write an honest review of their second season on Italy, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
My review of their first season was written during film awards season, so of course I had to give it a bit of an Oscars theme. Honestly, there was a little part of me that wondered if the Italian “sequel” by Wine Masters would be as good as their original. In other words, would it be a Godfather II….or a Tron Legacy?
I needn’t have worried – Wine Masters Italy is about as Godfather II as you can get. (Complete with beautiful Sicilian scenery . . . and locals!) 😉 The second season is on par, if not better, than the original season in France.
And since we’re now in the middle – quickly nearing the end – of the holiday season, I’m giving this post a bit of a 12 days of Christmas theme. (I say “a bit of” because admittedly several of the days below are a stretch – so bare with me and don’t be a Grinch!) Here are some highlights of Wine Masters Italy along with my own educational tidbits and new outlines (Merry Christmas to YOU!) 😉
It’s a good thing for you this is written and not a live video where you could hear me sing off key . . . without further ado – on the Twelfth Day of Christmas Wine Masters gave to me!
12 Percent of Production
Sicily is responsible for 12% of Italy’s total wine production. Much of this production used to be bulk wine, but today there is more focus on quality – as Alberto Tasca discusses in Wine Masters’ Sicily episode. Richard Hemming MW (see 2nd day of Christmas below) describes Sicily as a relatively great bargain since this region doesn’t yet have the international reputation as some of the other wine regions of Italy. The keyword being “yet” – it’s only a matter of time before this rather remote region is on the radar of wine lovers everywhere. For example – the Tasca family was recently named Wine Enthusiast’s “European Winery of the Year”!
11 Native Grapes
The number of native grapes in Italy is close to 350. Thankfully, Wine Masters Italy narrows this down to 11 to discuss in detail. At the end of the second season, viewers come away with a better, more thorough understanding of: Nebbiolo, Sangiovese (see 10th day of Christmas), Aglianico, Greco, Fiano, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara and Osleta.
10 Percent of Vines
Sangiovese is by far the most planted grape variety in Italy. It represents 10% of all vine plantings, a total of about 177,000 acres, much of this located in Tuscany. The Antinori family is highlighted in this episode and they do an excellent job of succinctly describing how Sangiovese can produce very different styles of wine depending on where the grapes are grown:
- Chianti Classico – more fruity with approachable tannins
- Brunello di Montalcino – a “supercharged Chianti” built to age (and sadly, one of the classic wines that I’m just not a fan of)
- Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – an in-between style that hasn’t reached the fame of either Chianti or Brunello
The Antinoris also stress that Sangiovese is a wine that is not designed for drinking by itself – it needs food. In my experience, I’ve found this to be true about most Italian wines . . . or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to chow down on some Italian cheeses, cured meats and pasta.
9th Generation “Founding Father”
Antonio Mastroberardino is considered by much of wine world to be the founding father of Campania’s modern wine industry. In the mid-1900s, after vineyards had been destroyed by phylloxera and the country was experiencing an economic crisis, the Italian government encouraged vignerons to plant (overly) productive grape varieties like Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano. Antonio boldly ignored this request and instead decided to remain true to Campania’s heritage by replanting his family’s vineyards with indigenous varieties such as Aglianico, Greco and Fiano.
Today, Antonio’s son, Piero, carries on the Mastroberardino tradition and is featured in Wine Masters’ Campania episode. International varieties make up a miniscule amount of plantings in Campania. Instead, this region is proudly and uniquely focused on native grapes – thanks in large part to the efforts of Antonio. And while these varieties may never have the same acclaim as international ones – as Piero so eloquently states – “the world doesn’t need another Cabernet Sauvignon.” A statement I couldn’t agree more with.
8th Century Viticulture
One of the many things I find fascinating when studying Italy is the depth of their traditions. They have traditions that go back centuries, sometimes millennia – like the alberello vine training still practiced in Sicily . . . which dates back to the 8th century!
As Richard Hemming explains, this low to the ground vine training system works well in a hot, arid region like Sicily because it helps shade the grapes from the sweltering sun. It also helps varieties that need heat to ripen (like Nero d’Avola) because by keeping the grapes closer to the ground, they are also benefitting from the radiant heat.
7 Chianti Sub-Zones
According to Piero Antinori, the Chianti fiasco is “the symbol of Tuscan wine.” This statement baffled me a bit because I think of the fiasco as something that came to symbolize cheap plonk wine you’d purchase at your local “Italian” restaurant that served unlimited salad and breadsticks (I DO love their breadsticks though!) And as Sarah Heller MW asserts: “No bottle that can be used as a candle holder could ever have had anything amazing in it.”
The Chianti region produces about 100 million bottles annually. Much of this is made by large producers within the value category – the resulting wine often being fairly boring. However, the best wines from the Chianti region can usually be found in its seven sub-zones. For more information on these – check out my outline on Chianti.
6th Generation Ripasso
Wine Masters’ Veneto episode introduces us to Sandro Boscaini, the sixth generation winemaker at Masi, a family owned winery located in Valpolicella. Over the years, Sandro has been instrumental in bringing international attention to the Valpolicella region located in western Veneto. Perhaps most notably, in the 1960s he re-introduced and popularized a traditional winemaking technique known as “ripasso” which involves pouring freshly made Valpolicella wine through unpressed Amarone skins in order to increase body, color and alcohol. The result is a wine that is somewhere in-between a light, easy-drinking Valpolicella and a rich and powerful Amarone – “the best of both worlds” according to Richard Hemming.
Valpolicella Ripasso DOC became its own DOC in 2010. Today, many producers in the Valpolicella region have a ripasso style wine in their lineup – sometimes referring to this wine as a “baby Amarone.” Just don’t use this term in front of the man who’s responsible for bringing this production method back in style: Sandro can’t stand this description.
5 Wine Regions
Italy is divided into 20 regions – each with its own, unique wine growing traditions. When I studied for my Italian Wine Scholar certification, there were a handful of regions that represented a larger chunk of the textbooks and (not surprisingly) featured more prominently on the exams: Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany, Campania and Sicily. These just so happen to be the five wine regions covered in the Wine Masters Italy series.
Having a thorough understanding of these five regions is paramount to succeeding in many wine certifications and I highly recommend the Wine Masters’ series for wine students of all levels. It’s a beautiful way to wrap your brain around this country, and the stories of these five families are so much more interesting than memorizing a list of the DOCs.
The Valpolicella region boasts four different major appellations. In addition to the Valpolicella Ripasso DOC (discussed in the 6th day of Christmas above), there is also Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG and Valpolicella DOC. The Wine Masters’ Veneto episode provides a terrific overview of the differences between these four appellations (plus the time lapsed Amarone production is fascinating to watch!) You can also check out my outline on Valpolicella.
3 Gaja Offspring
Angelo Gaja began working for his family’s winery in 1961 (it had been founded 102 years earlier by his great-grandfather). He and his three children – Gaia, Rosella and Giovanni – are the focus of the Wine Masters’ Piedmont episode. Angelo notes that each generation has made its own mark on the winery, but always with a focus on the challenging Nebbiolo grape – which he admits isn’t “a blockbuster” or “opulent.” His oldest daughter, Gaia, I think best explains the family’s loyalty for Nebbiolo by saying that it “allows the terroir to talk, it allows the vintage to talk” more so than other varieties.
And note: Angelo’s son, Giovanni, walks us through some of the family vineyards and discusses several concepts related to viticulture – more so than in any of the other Italian episodes. So, if you’re wanting to dork out on dirt, Piedmont is the episode to tune into.
2 Masters of Wine
As in the French Wine Masters, the Italian series helps guide and educate the viewer with the addition of two Masters of Wine: Richard Hemming and Sarah Heller. They are a balance of entertainment and education, and each does an excellent job of explaining difficult concepts like why a producer would declassify their wine to a “lesser” appellation and the subtle differences in Chianti’s terroir. I also appreciate their honesty on some of Italy’s shortcomings (like mass produced Prosecco and Pinot Grigio). However, I could have done without their food pairing suggestions for Amarone . . . you’ll just have to watch it for yourself.
One Unique Gift
So here we are – just a few days away from Christmas. Even Amazon may not be able to deliver your gift on time at this point! Before you pick up a crapshoot bottle of wine from the grocery store, I have a better suggestion: get the wine enthusiast in your life access to Wine Masters. You know who else would enjoy this? The travel lover, the foodie, the perpetual student, the history buff, and even the person who has everything and is such a pain in the ass to buy for (we ALL have one of these in our lives!)
I love this series and cannot wait to see what they do next. In 2020, Wine Masters TV plans to add new content like a travel-focus series, short documentaries on influencial individuals in the wine world, and wine classes. Plus Season 3 of Wine Masters will launch – this time in Spain!
So pour a glass of Nebbiolo, raise a toast to Jolly Old St. Nick, hit the play button on Wine Masters Italy, and sing along with me loudly and completely off key….
“Twelve Percent of Production, Eleven Native Grapes, Ten Percent of Vines, Ninth Generation Founding Father, Eighth Century Viticulture, Seven Chianti Sub-Zones, Sixth Generation Ripasso, Five Wine Regions, Four Appellations, Three Gaja Offspring, Two Masters of Wine, and One Unique Gift!!”
Beats the hell out of a Partridge in a Pear Tree if you ask me (Pear wine is terrible!) 🙂 Happy Holidays everyone!
Note: I received a complimentary screening of Wine Masters second season in exchange for an independent and honest review. All thoughts and opinions above are my own.