Importing wizard manages to find Italian sunshine even on cloudy days Importer: Amid the ups and downs of the wine business, Marc de Grazia continues to discover and send home prizes.

VINTAGE POINT

February 21, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

There were a lot of geniuses in the Italian wine importing business back in the early 1990s. Where do you suppose they've all gone?

It's easy to be Einstein when you have vintages such as the 1988-1990 Piedmont wines and the 1988 and 1990 Tuscan wines to sell. But when you run into a stretch of four unexciting vintages such as 1991-1994, a lot of folks in the wine business dumb down in a hurry.

It's vintages such as these, especially bona fide stinkers such as 1992, that truly separate the savants from the schlemiels.

Judging by the wines he's bringing to this country, Marc de Grazia is one smart guy.

For more than a decade now, the dynamic Mr. de Grazia has been prowling the Italian wine country, seeking out the small producers with exquisite vineyards and the expertise to get the most out of them.

His success can be measured in the list of once little-known producers whose wines have become prized possessions among devotees of Italian wine -- Elio Altare, Luciano Sandrone and Domenico Clerico from Piedmont, Pertimali and Podere il Palazzino from Tuscany.

Producers such as these do not excel in only the great vintages. They have the will and the wisdom to overcome the trials nature sends their way in the poor years.

By sticking with producers who share his rigorous standards, Mr. de Grazia is not only weathering the recent drought of great vintages, he is also enhancing a reputation that already ranks among the best in the business. He is to Italy what Kermit Lynch is to France or Terry Theise to Germany and Austria.

Consider what Mr. de Grazia's red wine producers have accomplished in Italy's two greatest wine regions in 1992 -- a vintage the Wine Advocate ranks as 74 for Piedmont and 72 for Tuscany on a 100-point scale.

The 1992 Podere il Palazzino Chianti Classico ($17) might be a few steps behind its usual excellence, but its quality would be envied by most producers in a great vintage. It's a full-bodied Tuscan wine with the full complement of black cherry and Italian herb flavors. It will likely mature earlier than a 1990, but is that such a problem?

An even finer performance comes from Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona. This excellent producer's 1992 Rosso di Montalcino ($14) is a deliciously elegant, medium-bodied wine with much of the complexity of a $35 Brunello di Montalcino. The main difference is that it doesn't have the high level of tannin found in a Brunello.

One of the lesser-known Tuscan regions is Carmignano, where winemakers were blending Cabernet Sauvignon with the native Sangiovese long before the mix became fashionable. The 1992 Ambra Carmignano combines excellent structure and precocious black cherry fruit. There is no sign here that 1992 is anything but an excellent vintage. It's a superb value at $14.

The 1992 Rocca di Montegrossi Chianti Classico ($14) represents a rare stumble by a de Grazia producer. Its harsh tannins seem to overwhelm the fruit.

There were no duds among the three 1992 Piedmont wines I tried. The 1992 Paolo Scavino Barbera d'Alba "Affinato in Carati" ($35) is a burly, old-fashioned wine packed with flavors of chocolate, herbs and roast meats. Its wild, rustic qualities might offend more delicate palates, but devotees of fine barbera needn't hesitate because of the vintage's reputation.

Even more amazing was a duo of wines from Elio Altare, who surely ranks among the top five producers in Piedmont. His 1992 Vigna Larigi ($37) is a magnificent barbera with full, rich flavors of bacon, black cherry and herbs. It starts strong and keeps getting better in the glass.

Altare's 1992 Vigna Arborina ($40), a Barolo by another name, is a superb wine even by the standards of a great year. The bouquet is awesome, and the flavors of black cherry, blackberry and even blueberry come in waves of intensity. Amazingly, there are reports of retailers turning down their allocations of 1992s from such producers as Sandrone and Altare because of the reputation of the vintage. Any merchant who can't sell these wines should consider a new line of work.

The same observation applies to many of Mr. de Grazia's 1991 Barolos. Yes, the Wine Advocate chart gives the Piedmont vintage a 76, but wines such as these are the reason Robert M. Parker Jr. always includes a caveat with his charts about skillful producers transcending the vintage.

Three who did so were Mr. Clerico, Luigi Scavino (who uses the brand name Azelia) and Giovanni Manzone. The 1991 Clerico Barolo Ginestra ($33), 1991 Manzone "Le Gramolere" and 1991 Azelia are all full-bodied, ripe and structured wines with loads of flavor. Maybe they'll last only 15 years rather than 30, but they will be much more attractive in their youth than wines of great vintages.

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