The wines of northern Italy can often pull off the hard trick of being seductive and elusive at the same time. The best way to ascertain when to drink them remains asking the person who sold you the bottle (author pauses to point both his thumbs at himself in a “this guy” motion). But maybe you were gifted a bottle, or purchased a wine from the winery after a few too many “samples”? And now you’re staring at it, waiting for it to tell you when to open it (it needs more “samples” to start talking)? We can help.
What follows is a subjective, non-scientific guide to northern Italian drinking windows. I have been collecting and drinking these wines for decades, and these parameters have served me well. If I’m wrong, I am deliciously so, and I take nothing back.
Amarone Della Valpolicella: The iconic drying process that happens in the making of Amarone concentrates flavours, body and intensity, and it would certainly concentrate tannins if the grapes they used had any. Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara – the grapes that must comprise the majority of Amarones, aren’t very tannic to begin with so the resulting wine won’t elbow you in the teeth. What does get supercharged is the fruit weight, so even if we somehow ended up with lots of tannins, they would be eclipsed by the round body.
This means that almost all Amarones are good to go upon release. They will drink loudly and powerfully – that’s their M.O. – but there will be balance. Can Amarone age? Absolutely, by sheer concentration it can. But before you invest time in aging them, ask yourself these 2 questions:
1. How long are you willing to wait? Unlike other Italian reds, Amarone takes a loooooong time to show any significant development. Tertiary notes don’t generally surface until at least 15 years from harvest date. Once they do, you’ll be confronted with the next question:
2. Do you like aged Amarone? There’s seldom any out there to buy, but the two dozen or so I’ve tried were….neat? Like, academically delicious more than practically so. It’s cool how many Amarones develop a sweet soy note as they get older but it comes at the expense of fruit and, as noted, fruit is the star of the show, it’s an altogether different wine once removed. If your answer is “yes, by Merlin’s Beard I adore old Amarone” then by all means age them, but for the rest of us, I say drink it upon purchase or hold up to 10 years. Yes, even the Riservas.
Ripasso Della Valpolicella: The wines that live in the nebulous cloud between a straight Valpolicella and an Amarone can be made several different ways: maybe they’ll dry the grapes halfway, not long enough to be called Amarone, or maybe they’ll use the crushed Amarone skins to re-ferment a Valpolicella, but the wines will have one constant: with rare exceptions they drink right away.
Valpolicella: If it doesn’t say Superiore then drink it. If it says Superiore… you know what? Life is short and joy fleeting. Drink that one too.
Soave: these white wines of the Veneto, made from the noble Garganega grape, are almost always born in the zone. A precious few producers in the Soave Classico appellation will make ageable wines, but the near totality of them can drink early – even if they have the capability to age.
Lugana: These top-level Trebbiano-based whites from Lake Garda are almost always accessible, even the Riservas.
Pinot Grigio: You know the answer to this, or at least your hands do: look, you’ve already opened it.
Friuli Whites: Be they Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or other grapes, the white wines from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, criminally overlooked in our market – are gloriously drinkable now. Some of the more sublimely layered offerings can go 15 years but can still be opened with no penalty at any time.
Friuli Reds: Ribollo Gialla, Schioppettino, Refosco, nearly every one of these charming reds is good to go, at least the ones I’ve found in our market.
Barolo: OK. Deep breath. Let’s divide the room into two groups:
Team A: “I want to get granular and understand the styles and terroirs of Barolo”. Awesome. Skip to the next large paragraph.
Team B: “I came to drink good wine, not to talk about dirt. Be gone, Nerds!!”. Totally fair. In that case, remember this: Look at the vintage on the Barolo bottle and add ten years. Your window starts there, if it was traditional-style it should be just opening, if it was modern it’ll still be fresh and delicious. You’re all done, kindly skip to Barbaresco.
So, Team A nerds, the first rule is to know your producers. “Modern” houses use quick controlled pressing/ferments and age their Nebbiolo in French Barriques (225L) to micro-oxygenate the wines towards softer structure, stronger fruit and earlier drinking, although they certainly can age decades – you have the choice. “Traditional” producers allow for long macerations and fermentations before aging the Nebbiolo in large vessels called “Botti” (5000L). This makes wines with unintegrated acids and tannins – ageing is required unless you like to drink kicks to the head. Which is better? That’s a personal decision. Do Barolo bottles say “Modern” or “Traditional”? Lol no they would never do that so again, ask your merchant. There is, however, another way to make an educated guess if merchant is missing:
The soil composition of Barolo can be delineated right down the middle of the appellation: Tortonian soils in the western half can lead to softer, more perfumed wines. Helvetian soils in the east can produce much more tannic Nebbiolo with deeper fruits. Do the bottles say “Tortonian” or Helvetian”? Lol no they would never do that, but they’ll often name the commune it’s from. The Barolo appellation is split into several small communes, and the major ones might be familiar:
La Morra or Barolo communes are on the west side, so often softer, drinking 8 years past harvest date.
Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto lie eastern, thus born angry. 10-15 years past harvest date.
Is it that simple? Lol no they would never do that – you can have a Modern producer make an approachable Monforte d’Alba, or a Traditional La Morra that sucker punches you and steals your car. Triangulating the producer with the commune is the best way to figure out a target date, however, and that Team B 10 year rule is correct more than it isn’t. If it’s a Barolo Riserva however, all bets are off. Bury that thing before it goes after your cat.
Barbaresco: Barolo’s cousin from up the road can for our purposes be described as “Barolo, only slightly less so”. Barolo speeds, Barbaresco goes the speed limit, and that’s often a good thing. 8 years past harvest date is a safe bet, although the Modern/Traditional piece still applies, and Riservas are still Time Capsules. The younger, accessible Barbarescos can be sheer happiness.
Gattinara:These sub-Alpine Nebbiolo wines are generally released with functional claws but they sing beautifully after cellaring. At least 8 years unless you’re pairing them with batteries.
Valtellina: the Nebbiolo (local name Chiavennasca) from I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Switzerland is a thing of beauty, but entirely producer-dependant when it comes to drinking windows. I’ve had generously balanced young Valtellina, but some really do need time. The semi-dried Sforzato di Valtellina wines can amplify the tannins, I find they need 10 years past harvest date to settle into themselves.
Roero Rosso: Nebbiolo’s petting zoo. These round red wines are almost always ready, even the Riservas.
Roero Arneis (White): There is an argument to be made for aging these delightfully astringent white wines, but it’s a one-sided argument for whoever makes it because my mouth is full of Arneis.
Gavi: the Cortese-based white wines from Piedmont are almost always ready.
Barbera: Whether from Asti or Alba, most Barbera are round enough to drink young, even if they do boast significant tannins. Some Riservas need time but that’s producer-dependant. The main exception for Barbera is:
Nizza: If you’re Barbera, this is Boardwalk and Park Place rolled into one. Wines from the world’s Barbera Capital have a 50/50 chance of drinking early, but even if they need time it’ll be like 8 years past harvest date.
Dolcetto: If the tables were turned, this wine would drink you in a heartbeat. Dig in.