For residents of Pennsylvania, the PA LCB Chairman’s Selection program is the one and only (legal) lifeline to interesting wines at reasonable prices, so it’s easy to get excited when they bring in some of the more uncommon varietals or styles that we read about online but rarely get the chance to purchase. As an Italian-American who’s obsessed with vino from the homeland, I’ve been especially stoked to try the plethora of non-mainstream Italian varietals that they’ve been offering over the past few months. Of course, as is the curse of the Chairman’s program, there are some highs, and some lows. Here’s what we’ve found so far:
Passerina (the grape here) is so rare that it isn’t even mentioned in Vino Italiano, the bible of Italian Wine. This is a versatile, interesting white wine, which combines lovely tropical fruit flavors (banana!) with a vibrant acidity that makes it very food-friendly.
2010 Zona Pecorino ($11)
Another almost unheard-of white varietal, this grape was once the favorite snack of the local sheep, hence the shared name with everyone’s favorite sheep cheese. This grape was actually thought to be extinct until some wild vines were found in a gorge about 25 years ago! Another brightly acidic wine, this one has a streak of minerals on the finish that adds a touch of bitterness. Interesting, though not as good as the Passerina.
2006 Vigneti Massa Barbera Cru Monleale ($16)
Barbera is not exactly an uncommon varietal (as referenced above), but this one is from Monleale, whereas most Piedmontese Barberas found in these here parts hail from either Asti or Alba. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch for rarity, but this is the best Italian wine I’ve purchased in PA lately, so it had to make the list. It’s got a wonderful balance of savory notes and bright red fruits, with just a touch of oak and a vibrant, food-friendly acidity that is perfectly integrated into the finish. Pair it with a tomato-based ragu.
2010 Santa Barbara Rosso Piceno ($10)
Rosso Piceno is a blend of Sangiovese and Montepulciano (in this case, 40/60) from Le Marche, a region on the east coast of Italy. These are two of the classic Italian grapes, which is why this wine was so disappointing. It had some nice earthy aromas, but in the end was a bit thin, watery and overly acidic. A pass, even at $10.
Conti Brandolini Treanni Friuli ($10)
This wine is all about three: the blend (33% Refosco, 33% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Franc), which is also a blend of three consecutive vintages (“Treanni” = three years), resulting in a non-vintage release (even though the PA website lists this as a “2006?). The vintner claims that this offers the vibrancy of a young wine with the elegance of a mature wine, but I found the elegance minus the vibrancy. A decent buy at $10, but not worth seeking out.
2008 Layer Cake Primitivo ($15)
Not a Chairman’s Selection, but worth a try for Cali Zinfandel lovers (Primitivo is a near-identical clone of Zinfandel). It’s more rustic that its American brethren, with an emphasis on fruit over oak.
2007 Bacio Divino Pazzo ($15)
Not technically an Italian wine, this is a California wine made in the Super Tuscan style. It has aromas that certainly capture the essence of Italy, but the oak and chalky tannins were out of balance. Ok but nothing special.