Elevating Italian blends show elegance

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Being half Italian, and having traveled to Italy more than a few times (but never enough), I have a particular fondness for Italian wines.

Here in Washington, more and more winemakers are experimenting with Italian grapes such as barbera, Dolcetto, nebbiolo and sangiovese.

Meanwhile, the Italians have been blending French varietals -- especially cabernet, merlot and syrah -- into some of their own wines.

In places such as Tuscany, where there is no official DOC (appellation) for such blends, they are simply labeled IGT -- Indicazione Geografica Tipica -- a catchall phrase that loosely translates as "don't ask, don't tell.''

These are often outstanding wines, Supertuscans if you will, and include the priciest and most prestigious efforts from the region.

Ornellaia is one such Supertuscan IGT, and I was fortunate to taste it with Ferdinando Frescobaldi, patriarch of the Marchesi d?´ Frescobaldi estate wineries.

He was recently in Seattle as a special guest of the Poncho auction, and spent a day in Walla Walla also, touring wineries and hosting a dinner at Corliss Estates.

The Frescobaldi empire includes nine estates, roughly 2,300 acres in Tuscany alone.

The family has been growing wine for more than 700 years. Its portfolio is imported to the U.S. by Michael Mondavi's Folio Fine Wine Partners.

Though most of the wines are estate-grown, some are simpler, everyday wines from purchased fruit, and a few come from Italy's northeast, under the Attems label.

Now, seven centuries of expertise does not necessarily guarantee great wines, but it's definitely a leg up.

Throughout the portfolio, and not just at the extreme high end, these wines show a mix of fragrance, elegance, richness and depth that is aristocratic, at times magisterial. I have had the pleasure of tasting through many of them and always find them elevating.

The 2008 Attems Estate Pinot Grigio ($16) is far richer than most imported pinot grigios, a potpourri of flowers and honey and waxy fruit, with the sort of shimmering depth you might find in a mountain pool.

The 2007 Pomino 'Benefizio' Riserva Chardonnay ($37) is barrel-fermented and comes from a tiny DOC northeast of Florence.

It reminded me that the best Italian chardonnays -- and surely this belongs with the best -- seem to be both underappreciated and, in this instance, a superb value.

When you consider what the most prestigious California chards go for (think Peter Michael or Kongsgaard), never mind premier cru or grand cru Burgundy, this is a bargain, rich with lemony, lightly candied fruits and backed with generous acidity.

Among the reds we tasted were a pair of Chiantis from the Nipozzano estate (in the Chianti Rufina region).

They showed the influence of vintage: the 2006 Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva ($22) leathery, astringent, layered with tobacco, licorice and pie-cherry flavors; while the 2005 Nipozzano 'Montesodi'($50) was much bigger and more forward, with distinctive mint and pepper highlights, along with the tobacco, licorice and black cherry more characteristic of the region.

First of the IGTs we tasted was the 2008 Tenuta di Castiglioni($24), a cabernet/cab franc/merlot/sangiovese blend done in a Supertuscan style, but priced for everyday consumption. Its lush aromas, loaded with spice and incense, led into a wine with beautiful definition and breed.

The 2007 Le Volte IGT ($25) is produced by Ornellaia. It's a light, leafy blend of cabernet, merlot and sangiovese, with raspberry fruit and accents of lemon grass.

Both stood up nicely alongside the much pricier 2006 Mormoreto IGT ($64) and the 2007 Ornellaia ($180), a sleek Bordeaux blend with decades of life ahead.

Young's-Columbia distributes all these wines.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries.'' Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

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