The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

How to Decode Wine Labels

Getting the most from your wine’s label

Blog_Label Shots_1At one point or another while carousing through the local wine shop, we’ve all looked at a wine label and said, “What a cool label!” and purchased the wine. It’s human nature to like bright, shiny things. The label shows a lot about the wine producer and his or her personality, and sometimes it’s all we have to go on when deciding whether to buy a bottle or move on to the next one. However, as I become more and more passionate about wine, I’ve realized how important it is to look further than cool marketing. Labels can be very confusing and in some cases almost Da Vinci code-like, but they do contain information that helps make that buying decision. Depending on the country of origin, a wine’s label will hold various pertinent information like the country, vintage, producer, region, alcohol content and so on.

Some wineries give labels a lot of importance, while others do not. Some producers change their labels every vintage, while others have had the same label since they began bottling their precious juice. For example, Montevertine Le Pergole Torte is one of my favorite wines and labels. Sergio Manetti, the estate’s founder, hand selected each label, painted by artist Alberto Manfredi, an important figure of Italian painting and print-makers in Italy. There has been a new one each year since 1988, all of which features a woman’s face in a very attractive, Art Deco style. Manetti’s passion for his wine is evident in the labels he selects for that particular vintage.


Courtesy of

When I’m looking for a new wine, I narrow my search by deciding what I’m in the mood for and when I’m going to drink it—for dinner, easy drinking, or for exploring. I look at a label for a wide variety of criteria: Modern, traditional, grape varietal, country or producer. Some labels even provide tasting notes and vinification methods. But no matter what I’m drinking or how I’m basing my search, I stick with the basics and a few rules of thumb.

When available I look for the following:

09-PBB-Cab-BearThe wine name: This is usually displayed in the largest type-size and the most noticeable font. I still get a kick out of some of the fantasy names that come up. One of my recent favorites has been Pursued by Bear Cabernet Sauvignon from Columbia Valley California

The producer of the wine: There are more than 27,000 producers in Italy, so that’s not necessarily a help. However, you can always read our blog, our website and our eLetter offers for some guidance. If you’ve heard of them here, you know they’re good; of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like the wine. De gustibus non est disputandum, the Romans said, and they were right.

The wine region: This is important since I like to try to identify if the wine taste like it’s from that particular place. Italy we has 21 wine regions, and each of these has many sub-regions. For example, Piemonte is the larger region, and Barolo and Barbaresco are sub-regions. Sometimes you will see a label that combines the grapes with the region like Barbera D’ Alba, which tells you you’re drinking a Barbera from the Alba area of Piedmont. However, this information isn’t always helpful to Italian wine newbies. “Montepulciano” can be a grape or a place, but not the grape from the place (if it’s Montepulciano, the grape, it’s likely from Abruzzo, and if it’s Montepulicano the wine or the place, it’s likely Sangiovese).


Courtesy of Wine Words Wisdom

Grape Varietals:Knowing what varietals and whether it’s a blend or single varietal can be very helpful in making a decision. Last I read Italy has approximately 2,700 indigenous grape varietals. Some of the most recognizable red grapes are Sangiovese, Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, just to name a few. My favorite is Sangiovese Grosso, which is the sole grape used in Brunello. But just because you’ve never heard of a grape doesn’t mean you won’t love it!

The vintage: The year of the wine is always important of cores. A minimum of 85% of the wine must be from grapes harvested in the vintage stated, according to Italian wine laws. Having a thumbnail concept of what years are banner, bust or sleeper can really aid you in deciding on a wine.

The wine’s denomination. In Italy we have three main designations (DOC, DOCG, IGT)—or none at all. DOC is the most common; DOCG is the most regulated; and IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) are less regulated wines that often refer to non-traditional wines such as Super Tuscans, so an IGT can be an extraordinary bottle. An additional designation such as Riserva means that the wine was aged longer than usual and made according to higher legal production standards.


Courtesy of Terlato Wines, Intl.

Distributer/Importer:Maybe it’s because I’m in the industry but I find myself looking at the importer. I have found that if you like a few wines from an importer you like that palate and you can expect that name to introduce you to great wine

After these basic pieces of information, you can get more and more specific with points like whether the wine was bottled at the estate and/or if the grapes are from a cooperative and much more. The more you get into wine, the more there is to get into.

The only thing that I do not pay attention to is ratings. I like to discover on my own and stay away from the herd mentality. In today’s age, there are plenty of apps that you can use on your smart phone that gather all this information for you by just taking a picture. I find this useful and fun especially if I’m adding notes but nothing beats holding a bottle and deciphering it for yourself.

Expert Picks: Paolo Bea and…Paolo Bea!

Two expert selections from John Camacho Vidal

CamachoThere is a belief that wines made from older vines will produce a better wine. Old vines, people say, produce less fruit, typically making more intense, complex and concentrated wines than those from younger vines in their prime of production. I always thought that this was all matter of opinion, but after tasting many wines made from old vines I have found that to me there is a perceptible difference in the character of the wine.

If you look at vines from the root system, it makes perfect sense. Over time, the roots dig deep and spread out—some old-vine roots can be as deep as 25 feet, compared to younger vines, whose root system averages 6 to 10 feet. During a wet vintage, the young vines that have roots closer to the surface will tend to absorb lots of water, producing large, beautiful fruit, but that fruit will be full of water and produce thin wine. The deeper root system of an old vine means that rainwater won’t filter all the way down, and the lack of moisture helps these vines produce a more even, mature crop. In a dry vintage, younger vines do not get enough moisture and the crop may not ripen at all. The deep roots of an old vine can tap into deeper moisture supplies.

It’s as if old vines learn to work smarter, not over-producing in a wet year and producing an even crop in a dry year. Furthermore, old vines have grown deep roots that followed the path of least resistance as they burrowed into the soil, allowing them to wind through pockets of minerals and different soil compositions, and this complexity in the wine.

One of my favorite producers is Paolo Bea in Umbria. Some consider him to be one of Italy’s great cult winemakers, and I love his two white wines, Bianco Santa Chiara, which is a blend of Grechetto, Malvasia, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon from younger vines, and Arboreus Umbria Bianco, which is made from 120-year-old vine Trebbiano and is a perfect expression of place and fruit. I’ve chosen one of each of these “orange” wines for you to enjoy.

Paolo Bea 2012 Bianco Santa Chiara $49.99

This wine also spends over two weeks on the skins, giving it a nice yellowish hay color. The nose is concentrated and almost tangy or hoppy, with aromas of apricot, peach and white flowers followed by hints of tropical notes mixed with minerality. The palate is bright with balanced acidity and noticeable tannins and finishing off dry. Drink 2016 – 2020.

Paolo Bea 2010 Arboreus Umbria Bianco $59.99

This wine is made from 100% Trebbiano Spoletino, an indigenous variety of Trebbiano that grows in large bunches and has a thick skin and high acidity; Bea’s vines are 120 years old and traditionally trained on wires. The wine has a long maceration of 21 days, then two years of aging on the lees in stainless steel without temperature control and without the addition of sulfites. Even more interesting is that 2% of the harvest is left to dry in a passito style, then fermented before adding it back to the rest of the Trebbiano, which helps bring richness and intensity. The wine is powerful and elegant; the nose is at first full of river stone, with some air floral notes emerge mingling with melon, honey, orange peel and other citric notes. The palate is perfectly balanced with acidity and minerality, and the finish lingers with deep flavors that continue to expand as it coats your mouth. Drink 2016 – 2030.

Red Wine Grapes A to Z: Abbuoto to Brachetto

The first in our series looking at the grapes that comprise Italy’s best loved red wines!

Last summer, we took a look at Italian white grape varietals (here’s the last installment of the white grape series with links to each part), so it feels right to take a wander through red grapes this winter. This winter, we’re detailing the red wine grapes of Italy. From the well-known to the obscure, this alphabetical list offers insight into the grapes that make your favorite Italian red wines. Today the first installment, Abbuoto to Brachetto!

Abbuoto (ahb-BWOH-toh)

This very old and quite rare grape grows primarily in Lazio in the Frascati zone. Abbuoto is the primary component of Cecuba, a modern-day interpretation of an ancient wine of the Latium people. This dark-blue, thick-skinned grape makes an intensely ruby red wine with a slight casting of violet and possessing a palate of plums and “frutti di bosco” (or wild blueberries, blackberries and raspberries). Although once verging on extinction, the Abbuoto has recently begun to make a comeback at the careful hands of devoted viticulturers.

Aglianico before ripening

Aglianico before ripening

Aglianico (ah-LYAH-nee-kah, ah-LYAH-nee-koh)

This black grape is often called the “Nebbiolo of the South” due to its amazing range of expressions, and while for a long time ampelographers thought this grape was Greek in origin, recent genetic research suggests that it’s indigenous to Italy. Grown primarily in Campania and Basilicata, Aglianico also is cultivated in Molise and Puglia, though to a far lesser degree. The grape’s best-known vinification is in Taurasi, the grape’s only DOCG designation, and in Aglianico del Vulture, its only DOC; however, it makes its most poetic appearance as a component of Lacryma Christi, or “Christ’s tears,” a wine of great mythical status originating from the gulf of Naples. Aglianico appears in a wide variety of wines throughout Campania, including rosés, whites, sparkling and, in the passito style, desert wines. Aglianico is usually ruby to brick red, full-bodied, and characterized by sometimes imposing tannins. It has a palate of black cherry, plums, berries and a hint of violet, chocolate or black pepper. Aglianico wines can be drunk in their youth, but due to their often formidable acidity, these wines do best when vinified for ageability.

 More details Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, also known as Frederick Barbarossa, who is said to be the namesake for the Barbarossa vine in Emilia-Romagna

More details
Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, also known as Frederick Barbarossa, who is said to be the namesake for the Barbarossa vine in Emilia-Romagna

Barbarossa (BAHR-bah-ROS-sah)

This dark black, compact grape was rediscovered in 1950 by Fattoria Paradiso’s Mario Pezzi; he named it Barbarossa in honor of Emperor Frederico Barbarossa who lived in the nearby castle of Bertinoro. Although Barbarossa is also cultivated in Provence and in Corsica (where it’s called Barbaroux), in Italy it is grown exclusively in Emilia-Romagna–there is another rarely grown varietal called Barbarossa in Liguria, but it seems to bear no relation to the Barbarossa in Emilia-Romagna. Wines made from Barbarossa may be confusingly owing to their often eponymous name because wines grown in Barbarossa may or may not be made with Barbarossa. However, those wines that are made from Barbarossa tend to be garnet red, full-bodied, quite dry and somewhat austere. These balanced wines often age well, and their scent is reminiscent of roses and violets, while their palate contains notes of worn leather, earthy black fruits and vanilla.

A cluster of Barbera grapes

A cluster of Barbera grapes

Barbera (bar-BEH-rah)

A grape of astounding flexibility and breadth, Barbera is one of the two most planted red wine varietals in Italy (the other is Sangiovese). Barbera grows throughout Italy, but it’s best-known in Piemonte, where it figures prominently in eleven of the areas DOC designations. The best-known of these Barbera designations from Piemonte–Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti and Barbera Del Monferrato–are all uniformly high-quality expressions of the Barbera, and they are rivaled only by Piemonte’s Barolo in popularity. In fact, Barbera earned the nickname of “the people’s wine” because of both its high popularity and its historically lower cost relative to that of Barolo. Low in tannins, but very high in acidity, Barbera’s ruby-colored wines are surprisingly refreshing and complement a wide variety of foods from pizza to steak. While Piemonte’s versions of Barbera tend to be more ageable and more serious, the vintages from other locations tend to be lighter; there’s even a sparkling version in Emilia-Romagna. Wines made from Barbera are characterized by a fresh nose and a palate of lush fruit.

Bonarda (boh-NAHR-dah)

Bonarda is a very sly customer indeed. Most often associated with Argentinean winemaking, Bonarda is the second-most grown grape in Argentina (only Malbec is cultivated more), and it has long been considered an Italian import, though oenologists were uncertain exactly which grape it could be. There are three possibilities, and none of them are clear-cut: the Bonarda Piemontese grape, which is almost never grown and shows no genetic relationship to the other two possible types of Bonarda; the Bonarda Novarese, which is really the Uva Rara; and the grape called Bonarda, which is really more properly called the Croatina. Genetic testing has determined that the Argentine Bonarda is neither a Bonarda nor Italian; rather, it’s the Corbeau, or Charbonneau, from the Savoie region of France. However, in Italian winemaking, the Bonarda is grown in Lombardia and is also known as the Croatina, a grape that makes a soft, charming wine.

Brachetto (brah-KEHT-toh)

Cultivated in Piemonte, Brachetto makes delightful, refreshing, and chill-worthy wines that range between semi-secco and sweet. Created in small batches and exported minimally, the DOC designated light, elegant, frizzante Brachetto d’Acqui may be the best after-dinner wine you’ve never heard of. Only slightly sweet, minimally fizzy, and flourishing great bunches of berries, Brachetto d’Acqui is a perfect wine to accompany fruit and chocolate, two things Piemonte does best. Brachetto also appears in a passito style, where the grapes are allowed to dry by hanging or on lying mats; it also sometimes serves as a component of rosé.


How to Learn to Love French Wines

How to add French wines into your wine rotation

599px-French_vineyards.svgOver the past four years I have been proud to work with many clients, many of whom I now call my friends. I have worked with people who are already very aware of theirs likes and goals with regards to wine, but I have also helped shepherd newbies as they explored the wonderful world of vino and become accomplished collectors. Part of this is of course deciding if you want a cellar or some storage, and if you do, how best to balance it. Because, really, wine is like life in that to enjoy is best there must be balance in countries, regions, styles and producer. It is no secret that I’m a Burghound (lovers of the wines of Burgundy, in eastern France), so I thought I might throw out a few pointers to the readers who might be considering jumping in to the world of French wine, feet first.

One thing you must understand (and probably already do) is that France is riddled with unique climates and growing regions. In each, producers work with different weather, soil and grapes to produce profound wines. It is therefore important to explore many of these regions to make sure you identify favorites and make room for all of them on your shelves. I picked out the five areas where you should focus. If you are unsure of selection, ask your own portfolio manager or me what bottles are most “typical” or “representative” of the region.


This is the home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and I would argue that no region in the world better uses these grapes as a blank canvas to their terror. There are some selections that are lithe and nimble, others big and bold, but most are assuredly seductive delicious.


This is the home of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, two of the most planted grapes around the entire world. Not to mention the supporting cast of Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Not only are the grapes deftly blended and unique by property, the style has been copied the world over (ever hear of Meritage or Super Tuscans?). Bordeaux is where it all started.


There might be no other region where the differences in terroir are so visible. Often just looking at a hillside it is difficult to look at drainage, consider soils, and assess the lay of the land. Rhone is not like that. In the North the vines clearly struggle; they are gnarly and there is very little greenery, while in the South the foliage is much more lush. You taste these differences in the wine. Home to the brave grapes Syrah and Grenache, this growing area in Southeastern France is another must.


If you hold the idea that Champagne is solely for celebrations, you would be wrong. Unless you treat every night like a celebration, then I would agree with you. Too long this style has been reserved for special events in America. Bubbles should be brought out to be enjoyed at all times and nowhere in the world will you find sparklers as good or as special as in Champagne.

Alsace/Loire Valley/Languedoc/Provence/and more…

I owe a sincere apology to the producers for lumping them in together here, but to be truthful, I am running short on space. Alsace is home to incredible whites and possibly the best Rieslings. Loire and Languedoc offer up interesting and approachable reds and whites, while Provence is where lovers of the best Rosés focus their attention. There’s so much to love from these regions that they really deserve some of your attention.

If you have hit at least 10-20 wines from solid producers from each of these regions, you should be able to start making informed decisions based on your preferences (take notes during this period!). I am 28 years old (29 in three weeks) and I have been enjoying wine since my family purchased a wine store when I was nine years old. Of my collection I would say about 300-350 bottles are French and the breakdown would be something like 70% Burgundy, 10% Bordeaux, 10% Rhone and 10% Champagne. But that is just my tastes and preferences. You can include all regions or omit most. You can become an avid fan of Riesling and Gewürztraminer from Alsace or you can swear of white selections and only put massive Chateauneuf-du-Papes from Rhone in your collection.

Like any interest or hobby, the key is to educate yourself and find your passion. If you take the time to review all of the regions above I think you are taking a massive step forward to understanding what you like and why you like it. From there the growth of your wine stash will come naturally.

Making the Most of Your Wine Tasting

How to get the most out of your tastings

Fiorano_Dinner_Alessia_AntinoriAlmost every Saturday, IWM hosts wine tasting events, and just about every day, we have informal tastings for the staff. We introduce a lot of people to tasting wine for fun and profit, and we taste a lot ourselves. When you go to a tasting, you want to get the most out of it by experiencing it fully and by recalling what you’ve smelled, swallowed and spit.

Rules are for the Weak: We believe there are no real rules.  Wine snobs will tell you that you are doing something wrong or right.  This is false. Wine is an incredibly customizable, very personal experience.  The following tips are just loose guidelines, like the pirate code.  It’s very easy to have a great time at a tasting—and we just want to help you have the best time you can while retaining what you experienced.

Foundation is Key: It is important for perseverance that you have something in your stomach.  The perfect casual meal the morning of a tasting is an egg and cheese on a bagel.  It sounds silly, but it really is a great combination: the eggs keep your body’s metabolism going, and the bagel is a needed boost of carbohydrates. Avoid consuming spicy foods because that will certainly alter the palate. Try not to drink coffee, brush your teeth, drink orange juice, or drink anything but water an hour before the beginning of the tasting. It’s hard, but do your best.

Go with Greige: Preparation is simple, and the mouth and nose should be as neutral as possible–the nose is equally important to the mouth.  Try to avoid smoking at least 30-60 minutes prior to the tasting, and try to avoid any strong smells, as you want your nose to pick up on the subtleties and complexities of the wine.  Also, avoid all perfumes because you—and everyone around you—will smell them and not the wine.  If you find yourself at a tasting having just drunk a shot of espresso, drink a lot of water and eat bread before your first glass. Barring that, rinse your mouth with the lightest, most innocuous wine the event is pouring. Your sommelier will help you out; we’ve all been there.

Embrace Your Inner Gandhi: To maximize the learning experience it is important to approach the wines and judge equally.  Let go of prejudice. You may find that this is the day you find a Riesling you like. It could happen, but only if you free your mind. But it is best to go from fizzy to white to red, and within those categories, from light-bodied to full-bodied wines. If you’re confused, ask your sommelier for direction.

It’s All in the Wrist (and the Schnozz): Start simple with a solid swirl around the glass for a few seconds.  If you’re new to swirling, try doing it with the glass on a flat surface like a coffee table. Swirl, then stick your nose in and take your first whiff.  This is not a make it or break it moment; it’s only a small introduction.  Of course, you can tell whether or not you like the wine immediately, but really understanding takes a little digging. Try taking a sip and suck in a little oxygen so that the wine interacts with a little blast of oxygen on your taste buds.  It is best to swirl, sniff, sip a few times to really pick up on the important subtleties that describe the wines.

Try, Try Again: Challenge yourself to really whiff a little deeper, think a little harder, as it will be easy to imagine yourself in that vineyard, standing on the terroir that defines the liquid in that glass.

It’s Not the MTA: Spitting is fine. Just use the spittoons, and keep napkins handy. Everyone dribbles.

Make Like George Costanza and Do It With Food: Snacks are great when tasting, especially cheeses. Our favorite saying is “If it grows together, it goes together.” Cured meats can be glorious with medium-to-full reds.   Avoid cheeses too high in acidity (like goat cheeses) as it throws off lots of reds.

Imagine All the Questions: Wine tasting is not only a chance to socialize and have fun, but it is the opportunity to directly enjoy the often very painstaking work of an entire wine making team.  Imagine the people you’d drink the wines with  and with what foods you would pair it with.  The person pouring the wines is always full of expert level information about the wines.  Don’t hesitate to ask questions, you’ll learn a lot more this way. Everyone was a beginner once, even that person standing in front of you answering the questions so confidently.

Documents, Please: Every tasting you go to will give you a little booklet for notes. Write down your thoughts. If you find yourself tasting a wine without a booklet, take a picture with your cellphone, jot notes on a smartphone app, or just ask for something to write with. When you write things down—including your impressions—you’ll recall them later.

Take It Home: Don’t just remember what you enjoyed best; experiment with similar wines in the future.  Wine is a living, ever-changing tapestry, and discovering it is an extremely rewarding experience.

Upcoming events include not just IWM NYC’s regular Saturday tastings, but also a very special dinner honoring The Wine Bible and its author, Karen MacNeil, on October 8, 2015.

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