This adorable Italian man in a Mister Rogers sweater is wine critic Daniele Cernilli (aka DoctorWine), who since 2014 has been tackling an enormous feat: creating The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine, an annual consumer guide to the best wines and wineries in every corner of Italy. Molto buono!

When you start plunging your face dipping a toe into the world of Italian wine, you soon find that the country has several thousand wine producers and 400+ grape varieties. Complicating matters, many of these grape varieties have multiple names, some of which are official titles based on where they’re made into wine. For example, the aromatic white wine Soave is made with Garganega (gar-GAH-neh-guh) grapes, but gets its name from its place of origin, the Soave district of the Veneto wine region.

Happily, Cernilli’s guide serves as a helpful cheat sheet to Italian wines. The 4th edition of his book presents a brief overview of each Italian wine region’s topography, grape varieties, and major wines, followed by Cernilli’s picks for each region’s best producers, as well as clear tasting notes for these producer’s best-quality wines. Each wine reviewed gets a price rating (A, B, C, etc.) rather than a specific purchase price, since costs will vary depending on where in the world you’re buying your wine.

Named for one of Casanova’s favorite lovers, Jermann’s Vintage Tunina is one saucy minx. (Melanie Wynne)

DoctorWine also picks top Italian wines of the year in several categories — including red, white, rosé, sparkling and sweet. His 2018 choice for White Wine of the Year is the Vintage Tunina 2015 from Jermann in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, a full-bodied, honeyed field blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana, and Picolit (a rare native varietal) that I was lucky enough to taste last year while sitting next to Michele Jermann, fourth-generation owner of the winery. I was so dazzled by this wine that I almost wept on the poor man’s shoulder.

I’m thrilled that DoctorWine also loves the Vintage Tunina, but I have additional evidence of his good taste in wine. Last year I attended an Italian wine industry trade event featuring a few dozen wineries included in the 3rd edition of Cernilli’s guide; after four hours of meeting producers from every region and tasting Cernilli’s picks from their 2017 releases, I’d learned more about what makes a good Italian wine than after several trips to Italy.

DoctorWine and Ca’ del Bosco’s Maurizio Zanella have been friends since 1979 — and the love is real. (Melanie Wynne)

During a recent trip to Washington, DC, DoctorWine was joined by representatives from seven of the wineries he’s included in the 4th edition of his guide. One of these folks was Maurizio Zanella (pictured above on the right), the 2nd-generation owner of Ca’del Bosco, a famous winery in the Franciacorta district of the Lombardy region. In a perfectly tailored burgundy suit and thick-rimmed black eyeglasses, the affably fabulous Zanella looked like he’d just strolled off the set of Mad Men and into a great DC wine bar to hang out with Cernilli, his friend of almost 40 years.

Zanella brought along a handful of wines called (wait for it) Franciacortatraditional-method sparkling wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco; the latter grape is important for, as Zanella says, “a sense of finesse.”

Pictured above, the light and delightful Ca’del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvée Prestige (about $40) tastes like a fresh croissant dipped gently in a zesty lemon curd, a refreshing alternative to Champagne. The more expensive and deeply golden Franciacorta Cuvée Annamaria Clementi (about $80) has more intense aromas, a creamier texture, and a fuller body than most Champagnes — or even other Franciacortas I’ve tried. Named for Zanella’s mother (co-founder of the winery) and aged a whopping 10 years on the lees, this headier version feels round and soft, and its aromas of biscuit and honey leap out of the glass to say, “How you doin’?”

Five Italian reds paired with lamb at 1:30pm on a Friday. #professional (Melanie Wynne)

The bigger surprise for me was that Cernilli’s crew brought a few versions of Sangiovese that I actually liked (bring it on, haters):

Le Macioche Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 ($50-ish): Bold, plummy and tobacco-y

Querciabella Chianti Classico DOCG 2013 ($25-ish): Round and spicy rather than sharp and woody

Torre San Martino Romagna Sangiovese Superiore Gemme DOC 2015 ($14-ish): Organically grown and stainless-steel-aged in Emilia Romagna, an easy-drinker with bright acidity and surprisingly gentle tannins

By the way, it’s important to note that all these Italian reds pair beautifully with a fall-off-the-bone roasted lamb shank that someone else made. Just FYI.

Bertani Domains’ Amarone della Valpolicella 2008 is all Corvina can be. (Melanie Wynne)

I was also happy that DoctorWine’s posse came bearing Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC Bertani 2008 (about $75) a rich, sexy expression of the Veneto region’s Corvina grape. Aged in both chestnut and cherry casks (cherry alone is more typical), I got aromatic hits of violets, rosemary and those Luxardo cherries you put in Manhattans, and a taste somewhere between cooked cherries and cinnamon toast without a lot of sweetness; the perfect ending to a meaty meal, paired with aged cheeses or on its own. This Amarone’s producer, Bertani Domains, is DoctorWine’s 2018 pick for Italian Winery of the Year.

 

Upshot? DoctorWine can sure as heck pick great wines. And since he feels that Campania — home to the Amalfi Coast, Mount Vesuvius, tangy white Falanghina and dark, peppery, black-fruity Aglianico — is the next wine region to watch, I’ll certainly be watching Campania.

Meanwhile, using The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine as a shopping list will assure you of purchasing bottles that are delicious, fascinating, food-friendly and/or cellar-worthy, and which fit your particular budget. I only wish there was a guide like this for adulting.