Dominic Nocerino oozes luxury and style, from his tailored suit and silk ties to the triple-digit prices in the portfolio of wines he has built for Vinifera Imports, the company he founded in 1979. Yet along with the good-natured instant friendship of the salesman, there is a note of exasperation in his voice as he discusses the current state of Italian wine.
“There is an overwhelming amount of industrial wine that comes here,” Nocerino says as he describes what sets his line of exquisite high-end Italian wines apart from the competition. “Cheap, cheaper, cheapest!”
His comment seemed aimed at an economy that discourages luxury wine purchases, a clientele that perhaps is not as willing to spend as it was a few years ago, and maybe even wine writers who concentrate almost exclusively on the lower end of the price range. (Though I’m sometimes accused of having expensive tastes when I recommend – ahem – a $20 wine.)
Nocerino was speaking to a group of 50 thirsty wine lovers who were willing to shell out more than $100 for a tasting and dinner at Brabo by Robert Wiedmaier in Old Town Alexandria late last month. The pre-dinner tasting included 12 wines, four each of Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, and Amarone – a triumvirate Nocerino dubs “The Three Kings of Italian Wine.” This was followed by a six-course dinner (with more wine) prepared by Wiedmaier and his Brabo crew. I mention this not in a don’t-you-wish-you-were-me sort of way, but to point out that splurging on an evening like this can be a tremendous experience and really a great value for anyone exploring wine.
The Vinifera Imports portfolio includes mouth-watering names such as Rinaldi, Fontodi, Pra and Valdicava. It’s a line of small producers, family owned wineries that have resisted the siren song of corporate buyouts, much as Nocerino has kept his own company small in an industry that has consolidated greatly over the past decade. While some of the wines tasted modern in style, the emphasis is on traditional winemaking methods, often with indigenous yeasts. These winemakers reject the idea that inky and oaky are signs of quality in red wine.
“These wines are not opaque, thick or dense, yet they pack some power,” Nocerino said.
That quality and power was apparent from the beginning of the Brunello flight. Brunello is Tuscany’s top wine, produced from a special clone of sangiovese. (The region has been scandal-prone of late, with charges by Italian authorities that some producers spiked their wines with cabernet sauvignon. You can do that in Tuscany, but not if you want to call your wine Brunello.) The sleek and elegant Donna Olga 2006, a current release, burst from the glass with cherries and earth, and a lovely minerally texture. This was followed by the Valdicava 2004, more expressive and gamey on the nose, with a floral note and massive tannins to promise a long life. The Castello di Romitorio Riserva 2004 showed beautiful fruit in a more modern, polished style.
Barolo, made from nebbiolo grapes in Piemonte, in the mountainous northwest of Italy, tends to be earthier in aroma and flavor than Brunello. Think forest floor, mushrooms and white truffles, the region’s famous luxury gourmet item. The Giuseppe Rinaldi “Brunate le Coste” 1999 still showed bright, fresh red fruit flavors under its layer of shrooms. The Martinetti 1998 “Marasco,” named for the marasco cherry (think maraschino), left me speechless: My notes simply say, “Wow. Earthy.” But that’s “earthy” in a good sense.
The Amarone flight showed more variety in flavors and styles. Amarone, from the Veneto region, is exceptional in that the grapes are dried to raisins before pressing. This can result in sweet flavors, though these are not dessert wines. The Brigaldara 2007 smelled of chocolate and dried cherries, while the Reserva Cru “Case Vecie” 2005 from the same producer reminded me more of chocolate syrup – despite Nocerino’s claim about the style of his wines, this was powerful and thick. And delicious. The Pra 2006 (the first Amarone from this famed producer of Soave), had piney aromas that reminded me of Christmas, while the Monte Faustino 2000 was spicy with cinnamon and clove and what I could only identify as root beer. These were winter flavors, compared to the autumnal notes of Barolo.
Regular prices for the wines we tasted that night would range from $68 to $270 a bottle (the wines were offered at discounts of about 33%). They are clearly wines for collecting and saving for special occasions. But they are also reminders of the heights Italian wine can reach.
This article originally appeared on The Washington Post’s “All We Can Eat” blog on Oct. 19, 2011.)