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Malcolm Jolley: Want the best of the best of Italian wine? Try these 12 award-winning bottles

Commentary

Founded in 1986, Gambero Rosso (which translates to “red prawn”) has gone from a monthly magazine and yearly Italian wine guide to a multimedia phenomenon run out of their Città del Gusto (City of Taste) complex in Rome. Most of the Italian wine world is fiercely regional, so Gambero Rosso offers a refreshing all-encompassing national view of the republic’s wine scene. Their system of wine scoring accords wines of high quality with the honour of one, two, or three glasses. The Tre Bicchieri (Three Glasses) distinction is coveted in Italy and recognized internationally as a standard of excellence.

But for an Italian wine (or even an entire winery) a Tre Bicchieri score is not the apogee of the “red prawn” world. Among the elites, there is yet another set of twelve awards selected from the Tre Bicchieri that are given every year. It’s a bit like the Oscars of Italian wine.

I sat down and tasted the 12-wine range from the 2024 awards last Monday, curated by the journalist and broadcaster Marco Sabellico, who joined Gambero Rosso in 1990, and who explained why each was awarded their respective distinction. It is difficult to imagine a better survey of where the best of Italian wine is now.

Sparkler of the Year

Enrico Gatti, Franciacorta Millesimo Nature 2016

Don’t use the C-word when describing Franciacorta, the fancy sparkling wine from east of Milan in Lombardy. Just enjoy the fine creamy bubbles, the lean but forward citrus fruit, and the weighted mouthfeel of an eight-year-old blend of 80 percent Chardonnay to 10 percent Pinot Nero. Any event that starts with a glass of this wine is bound to be good.

Winery of the Year

Umani Ronchi, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore Vecchie Vigne Historical 2018

Marco Sabellico declared it is one of Gambero Rosso’s missions to show the world that Italian white wines can age. (They can.) So, it was this white made from the humble Verdicchio grape from the Marche that represented Umani Ronchi, which has slowly become the region’s flagship label. Bright citrus acidity is tamed by luscious honey and white flower notes.

White of the Year

Primosic, Collio Chardonnay Riserva 2018

The appellation of Collio in Friuli, north of Venice, includes some vineyards across the frontier in Slovenia, and Primosic has vineyards on both sides too. If Sabellico’s thesis of older Italian whites wasn’t proven in the Marche, then it’s QED in Primosic’s 2018 Chardonnay. Fancy and racy at the same time, this wine shows a pleasant grapefruit pith bitterness on the finish that invites another sip.

Cooperative Winery of the Year

Cantina Tramin, Alto-Adige Gerwurztraminer Nussbaumer 2021

God bless the European wine cooperative. And particularly the ones, like Traminer, in the German-speaking Sud Tyrol, where quality is the understood objective of all the members. This is a Gerwurztraminer for people who think they don’t like Gerwurztraminer. There is so much more going on beyond the telltale rose flower aromatics; it’s rich, almost unctuous, and demands attention with complex stone fruit flavours, and, at only two grams of residual sugar per litre, bone dry.

Rosé of the Year

Giuliano Pettinella, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Tauma 2022

The Pettinella’s only farm three hectares of vines high up in the cool highlands of the Apennines. Sabellico calls this a “wine that doesn’t exist” because the production is so low. In the moment that it did exist, it mesmerized with a deep and staggeringly pure red cherry immersion shooting through a faintly herbal seasoning. It’s good fun, but it’s also a deadly serious food wine navigating the border between rosé and light red. An open bottle of this wine, on a lunchtime table outdoors in the sunshine, would not last long. 

Best Value for Money

Fradiles, Mandrolisai Rosso Fradiles 2021

Mandrolisai is a high DOC appellation in the middle of the island of Sardinia, and this wine is a blend of indigenous red grapes from old vines grown at 500 metres above sea level: Bovale Sardo, Cannonau (Grenache), and Monica. In Italy, the Fragile Rosso sells for about ten euros; with mark-ups, taxes, and duties it would probably be around $30 retail in Canada. If it landed on a restaurant list for under $80, it would be a very good deal these days. It is perfectly in balance, made for food, generous in dark red fruit, and just light enough to pair with whatever was put with it. 

Award for Sustainable Viticulture

Terre Margaritelli, Torgiano Rosso Freccia degli Scacchi Riserva 2020

The very small Torgiano appellation is best known for the winery that dominates it, Lungarotti. Margaritelli is giving them a friendly run for the money, and this organic 100 percent Sangiovese would fit perfectly in the boisterous, local food-focused restaurant scene in the nearby university town of Perugia. It’s full of energy and earthy cherry fruit complexity. Margaritelli ticks all the boxes in terms of sustainability and environmental stewardship, but they are particularly recognized, explained Sabellico, for treating their workers well.

A worker harvests grapes in Colle Umberto, Italy, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. Antonio Calanni/AP Photo.
Up-and-Coming Winery

Tenuta Ceri,Carmignano Arrendevole Riserva 2020

Hub readers might recognize the Tuscan appellation of Carmignano for the column I wrote about Capezzana last October. Following tradition, the Ceri Arrendevole is made with a 10 percent complement of Cabernet Sauvignon to season the 90 percent of Sangiovese, which might account for the violet notes on the finish. Big fruit dances around a structure of fine tannins. I’m not sure if a winery is still “up-and-coming” if it’s already got a Tre Bicchieri, but I do think the Ceri label is one to look out for.  

Solidarity Award

Velenosi, Rosso Piceno Superiore Reggio del Filare 2020

Gambero Rosso was established at the same time as the Slow Food movement and carries many of the same ideas about community involvement. The Solidarity Award is meant to recognize wineries that give back beyond the production of their wine. Velenosi, in the Marche, is known for their programs involving people with severe autism. This Montepulciano and Sangiovese blend shows a real concentration of black fruit and Mediterranean herbal tones.

Red of the Year

Giovanni Rosso, Barolo Vigna Rionda Eter Canale Rosso 2019

When Davide Rosso, who makes the wine that bears his late father’s name, heard that his 2019 Ester Canale Barolo had been named the top red wine of the year, he agreed to buy back a few of the sold-out bottles from his customers, just so it could be included in the Gambero Rosso tour. I have seen the very small Ester Canale plot in the small Vigna Rionda vineyard and have no trouble believing that the mere 1,800 bottles he made from it are completely sold out. Sabellico refused to spit when we tasted through this clear and clean expression of tar, roses, and cherry Barolo. Named after the winemaker’s late mother, Sabellico lamented that he didn’t know when, if ever, he would taste it again. I followed his lead without regret.

Lady Grower of the Year

Corte Sant’Alda, Amarone della Valpolicella Val**zzane 2016

Sabellico describes Corte Sant’Alda’s owner and winemaker Marinella Camerani as a “sweet old lady, who does whatever she wants.” What she wanted was to put the place where her grapes were grown, Valmezzane, on the label of this wine. When the Amarone Consorzio wouldn’t let her, because they hadn’t yet recognized the valley as a “cru,” she did it anyway but removed two letters from the name. I’ve met Camerani, and agree with Sabellico’s description. Her wines are as headstrong on the palate as she is: look for them on better wine lists and expect bright acidity and complex forest fruit and floral notes.

Meditation Wine of the Year

Florio, Marsala Vergine Riserva

The “virgin” part of the name of this traditionally made Marsala wine from Sicily means that no additional sugar was added to it. It’s still sweet, with around 40 grams of residual sugar per litre, but it’s also bright and retains the acidity of the Sicilian Grillo and Cataratto grapes that it’s made of. Elevated in an oxidative style, like Sherry, it comes across as nutty with notes of dried fruit. Dessert in a glass, unless there’s a slice of cassata to go with it.

Andrew Kirsch: I am a former CSIS intelligence officer. It would be nice if the PM took our security advice seriously

Commentary

I first Googled “How do I become a Canadian spy” in July 2005. I was living in London, U.K. working in finance when a bus and several subway stations had just been blown up by domestic homegrown terrorists only a few blocks from my office. Fifty-two people were killed and 770 were injured. Just four years earlier when two passenger planes hit the Twin Towers murdering nearly 3,000, I was a senior at Brown University in Rhode Island. This was followed by terrorists killing 191 civilians on a Madrid train. For those who don’t remember this time period, it was the age of terrorism. It was an age where not only did you know what the threat was, but it felt very real and dangerously close. 

So, I signed up to be an intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and joined the Canadian Forces Infantry Reserves with the Queens Own Rifles of Canada. I became part of a generation of young, idealistic Canadians who, as one of my former colleagues put it, “ran away and joined the circus.” We wanted to serve Canada and really weren’t all that sure what that meant or how to do it. If I’m honest, my first Google search was actually “Does Canada have spies?”

I would go on to spend nearly a decade serving in both organizations, leaving in 2016. Looking back, I am extremely proud of where I worked, what we accomplished, and the important work my former colleagues continue to do to keep Canada and Canadians safe. I was able to share some of this in my memoir, but most of it will always be a secret. 

When I wore my army uniform in public, people used to walk up to me and thank me for my service. But my military career was mostly confined to parade nights at the armoury and the occasional weekend exercise in rural Ontario. It was while wearing my intelligence officer uniform (a generic button-down shirt and navy blue blazer) that I got to do the cool spy stuff that no one would ever know about or thank me publicly for.

Working long hours, dealing with stressful cases, and then lying to everyone I knew about what I was up to was a challenge. Occasionally you’d get a rah-rah speech from CSIS management saying things like, “The powers that be [the politicians in power] really appreciate everything you’re doing. They were so impressed with the information you were able to collect and you are making a real difference in the safety of our country.” It was a thankless job in many ways, but we did it because we believed we were making a difference.

Today, I am not sure how any executive at CSIS will be able to stand up and give that speech with a straight face after watching Prime Minister Trudeau and senior officials at the foreign interference inquiry hearings say under oath, repeatedly, that they don’t often read CSIS  briefs. That they take our intelligence with a huge grain of salt. That they don’t think our findings are worth following up on. 

“There is a certain degree of—I would not say skepticism—but of critical thought that must be applied to any information collected by our security and intelligence services,” explained Prime Minister Trudeau.

The reason this is a major problem is not the hurt feelings of former spies, but what it reveals about the government’s attitude towards its spy agency and perhaps the wider public’s views on security. It’s an attitude that poses problems for the future security of Canada. There has always been a naiveté and complacency about the threats we face in an increasingly dangerous world. Canadians just don’t think much about our security. There is a general attitude of: “What does anyone want with us?” The lack of pressure the public is applying to government to fund our military in recent years may be a good illustration of this. 

The reality is that our national security is not an accident. It is the result of thousands of men and women in our intelligence community, military, law enforcement, and corporate security, getting up each day and going to work. The safety we enjoy is on some level proof that the system is working. This also means our security is not guaranteed to continue. I believe Canada has been able to get by on the sacrifices of the few men and women who do these jobs, and that our political leadership, despite a lack of political pressure, has taken generally this threat seriously. Unfortunately, I fear that as the threats we face become more nuanced, those we entrust with our safety are increasingly unwilling or not sufficiently empowered to protect us. 

The CSIS mandate is to collect, analyse, and advise government on threats to the security of Canada. There are four main threats: espionage and sabotage, foreign interference, terrorism, and subversion. It was my job to be a “collector” of information.  As an intelligence officer for a domestic security service in the post-9/11 days, I was in the coffee and conversation business. I would often knock on doors 20 minutes from where I grew up, asking people for information and help with my national security investigation. 

Back then when we tackled enemies like the 2006 Toronto 18 terrorists and the 2013 Via Rail derailment plot, it was a pretty straightforward job. We didn’t want to see the domestic attacks we saw around the world happen here at home. They were tangible threats we could see and easily explain at those doorsteps.  

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, left, and Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), David Vigneault, right, wait to appear before the Special Committee on Canada-People’s Republic of China Relationship (CACN) on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press.

The threats CSIS is being asked to monitor today are far more nuanced and less visible. My colleagues and I used to worry about bombs going off in capital cities, but now an act of terrorism could be someone hacking into a water treatment plant to change chemical levels. In my day, foreign interference was honey traps and the attempted blackmail of elected officials. Now, we are uncovering potential state-sponsored misinformation campaigns during elections. Espionage and sabotage are rampant in the theft of IP and the hacking of companies. These threats are far less tangible and often difficult to attribute to a single source. Often we’re left with no easy answers to mitigate the risk. 

Meanwhile, during this period when threats are evolving, our security apparatus is left to contend with a political leadership that is hesitant to listen to our warnings and seemingly content with avoiding having to deal with them.

Recently the government announced legislation to counter the threat of foreign interference, including expanding CSIS powers and a foreign agent registry. While many will be applauding these actions, I can’t help but think back to how this all began and what it took to finally get government to act. The public inquiry was the result of political pressure caused by the leaking of sensitive information to the media on the growing threats and their continued inaction on foreign interference. Leaking is wrong. It’s also not done lightly. It is a symptom of an intelligence service that felt its reports and advice were not being dealt with appropriately. I hope this is a wake-up call because it’s a terrible way to make national security policy.

I worry about what all of this means for Canadian security. What has this complacency meant for the next generation of army reservists and intelligence officer recruits? 

In 2024, what is prompting their Google searches before submitting a job application to CSIS? And what are they going to encounter if they get there? In my time working for the intelligence service, it was a growing organization capitalizing off of a strong mandate, an army of bright-eyed recruits, and a risk-tolerant executive. Today, I fear that, at a time when their job is more difficult than ever, we may be losing our will to support those who are working to keep us safe. This is a dangerous direction to be going in.