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High-flying, High-altitude Italian Wines

Vineyards protected by cold northern winds at Tenuta San Leonardo, Italy's answer to elegant, first-growth Bordeaux

When I chose the 14 wines for this round-up, I thought that the only things they had in quality was exciting quality and that all were from single estates. It was only as I reached the end that I realised that all but two of the estates had altitude in common: vineyards lying at over 400 meters on Etna, in Chianti Classico, in Brunello di Montalcino and in Valpolicella. A sign of climate change. A sign of the times.

Three whites come first, then 11 reds. All except the Rosso di Montalcino and two Brunellos of Poggio Antico have been released: they will be released in 2024.

Duca di Salparuta Lavico Etna Bianco 2022, Sicily

The second vintage of this 100% Carricante from the Vajasindi Estate in Passopisciaro, Castiglione di Sicilia, on the northern side of Etna. The vineyards, at an altitude of 600–800m, catch refreshing sea breezes, while the brown volcanic soils are typically well-drained and rich in iron, copper, phosphorous and magnesium.

To me, this is essence of Etna bianco. Translucent, pale straw with a glint of green. Vibrant and full of energy, with citrus and floral aromas, then fresh pear and peach flecked with beeswax and honey, a lees-aged, creamy, silky roundness, an emphatic iodiney mineral core and sustained citrus finish with salty acidity. 12.5%. Empty bottle weight: 651g.


£21.67, Tannico UK; wine-searcher for stockists in Canada, Italy, Switzerland

Tenuta di Tavignano Misco Riserva Castello di Jesi Verdicchio Superiore

The Riserva comes from one hectare of the 4-ha Misco vineyard lying at 300m asl and planted in 1992 with Tavignano’s best Verdicchio clones. The southeast-facing vineyard in alluvial limestone and clay soils overlooks the Musone river and benefits from a microclimate influenced by the Apennine mountains and a cold, strong sea wind, La Bora, which is rich in iron. The particular microclimate gives the Riservas their potential to age. The wine sees no oak and starts fermentation with indigenous yeasts before being innoculated with selected cultures. It’s aged in stainless steel for 18 months on fine lees without bâtonnage. The estate has been organic since 2015.

Tenuta di Tavignano Misco Riserva 2018

Pale, bright lemon. A lovely, expressive nose of herbs, including dill, spice, apricot, white flowers and grapefruit. Creamy, textural palate with spice, almond nuttiness and pithy grapefruit around a fine spice of acidity. 13.5%. Empty bottle weight: 627g


£48, Petersham Cellar; wine-searcher for stockists in Germany, Italy, Japan, USA

Tenuta di Tavignano Misco Riserva 2016

Pale, bright lemon with a glimmer of green – slightly younger looking than the 2018, but that may just be the particular bottle of each I tasted. Similar aromas of dill and other herbs, spices, white flowers and stone fruit, but with the nuttiness of Côte d’Or Chardonnay, a savoury richness, and delicate honey tones. On the palate, chalky and creamy with almond, minerals, rich apricot fruit and a long, bitter-fresh salty grapefruit finish. Assured, complex, balanced and in a very happy place. 14%. Empty bottle weight: 597g


£60, Petersham Cellar; wine-searcher for stockists in Belgium and USA

San Leonardo 2018, Vigneti delle Dolomiti

The flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Merlot blend (60:30:10) from the 300ha Trentino estate (30ha of vineyard) of the Marchesi Guerrieri Gonzaga family, Italy’s answer to elegant first-growth Bordeaux. Each variety is fermented separately with indigenous yeasts in small concrete vats and aged separately for around 24 months in new, once and twice-used French oak barrels.

Ripe blackberries, crushed juniper berries, the alluring spicy, green sweetness of freshly picked bay leaves, dark-chocolate elegance and bitterness and a hint of woodsmoke. Wonderful intensity, precision, balance and finesse, with superfine, chalky tannins and vital, barely-there (but it is there) acidity. Balanced and approachable now but a wine with a 15-year future, or more. 13%. Empty bottle weight: 663g.

The 2018 vintage marks a new project promoting “a dialogue between the history and character of the San Leonardo estate… and contemporary art.” The first fruits are a limited edition Libro d’artista (book) and etichetta d’artista (label) by Simone Berti, who was artist in residence at the estate during various periods in 2022 and who took as her theme L’Attesa non è tempo sprecato (waiting is not wasted time). A total of 999 bottles were labelled and 200 three-bottle wooden boxes were offered on-line earlier this year.


Azienda Agricola Brigaldara, Valpolicella 

Brigaldara produces very good Amarones (see below), but owner Stefano Cesari, a former president of the Consorzio della Valpolicella, believes that the pendulum has swung too far in favour of producing Amarone and Ripasso at the expense of Valpolicella Superiore (made from fresh grapes only). Brigaldara and some like-minded wineries are now focusing on individual vineyards – in the case of Brigaldara, its high-altitude Casa Vecie vineyard, an area of 65ha, of which 9 ha are vineyard, at 450m asl in Grezzana-Valpantena.

Brigaldara Case Vecie Valpolicella Superiore 2020

A blend of 39% Corvina, 30% Corvinone and 31% Rondinella from the south-facing Casa Vecie vineyard planted in 1996 and 2009 and lying at 450m. The grapes are hand-harvested in October and the wine is aged for 8–12 months in large oak barrels.

Medium light ruby. A very pretty, sappy, delicately spicy, smoky, cherry perfume. Fresh, round, softly chewy, chalky, cherry-acccented palate. Harmony between juicy, sweet fruit, savoury tones, sappy freshness and the gentle grip of well-knit tannins. 14%. Empty bottle weight: 375g

91 £20.45, Tannico UK; wine-searcher for stockists worldwide

Brigaldara Amarone della Valpolicella Cavolo 2017

A blend of 59% Corvina, 21% Corvinone, 17% Rondinella and 3% unspecified. Vines planted in 1980 and 2010. The grapes dried for about 120 days and the wine aged for two years in small wooden barrels and two years in large barrels.

Intense, complex nose with spicy black fruit and cherry with dashes of clove, black olive, vanilla and nutty, almondy oak. Multi-faceted but bright and polished palate, with lift, acidity and deft tannins. Suave and poised, carrying its weight effortlessly. A ballet dancer of the Amarone world. 16%. Empty bottle weight: 726g


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Brigaldara Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2017

A blend of 47% Corvina, 39% Corvinone, 6% Rondinella and 8% unspecified. Vines planted in 1980 and 2010. Grapes dried for about 120 days and the wine aged for one year in small wooden barrels and two years in large barrels.

Although it spent less time in oak than the Cavolo, the oak is slightly more evident here on the nose and in the dark chocolate richness of the palate. Plush, bright fruit – dark-cherry and dried-cherry – Christmas cake spice, orange peel and a whiff of incense, with firm but velvety tannins. 16%. Empty bottle weight: 718g


£36, XtraWine; wine-searcher for stockists worldwide

Brigaldara Amarone della Valpolicella Case Vecie 2016

A blend of 39% Corvina, 30% Corvinone and 31% Rondinella from the high (450m) Casa Vecie vineyard where Brigaldara also produces a single-vineyard Valpolicella (see above). Picked in the first half of October – the other Amarones are harvested in September – and dried more slowly in the season's cooler conditions. Aged for two years in small wooden barrels and two years in large barrels.

Bright ruby, going towards garnet. Intensely perfumed, the aromas almost tripping over each other (incense and sandalwood, cherries and plums, clove and cinnamon, tobacco, marzipan, orange, chocolate, balsamic notes) but coming together in a harmonious whole. Filigree tannins. Power and concentration, but elegant, and uplifted by its acidity. 16.5%. Empty bottle weight: 730g


£45.36, Xtra Wine; magnum £94.95, St Andrews Wine Co; wine-searcher for stockists worldwide

Castello di Querceto, Chianti Classico

Lying at 400–500m asl in schist soils on the slopes of Monte San Michele in Greve, Castello di Querceto’s 65ha of vineyards are among the highest and coolest in Chianti Classico. The terroir gives wines of notably high acidity that the François family, owners of the estate for more than 125 years, marshal with great sensitivity. The straight Chianti Classico and the Riserva are about 90–92% Sangiovese blended with other local varieties.

Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico 2021

This wine sees no oak: it’s fermented in stainless steel, then aged in cement and steel for eight months, followed by at least two months in bottle. The 2021 growing season was not without its challenges, but produced very good quality in the end.

Deep, bright ruby. Fragrant floral aromas combined with savoury forest and earth notes. Lively, focused and rounded palate with tangy red-cherry intensity, pine resin freshness, refined tannins and a high-acid saline finish. Lively, elegant and already a good wine with food, but it will develop well over the next 4–5 years. 13%. Empty bottle weight: 602g.


£16.95–£19.99, Mumbles Fine Wines, Addison Wines, Carringtons Wines; wine-searcher for stockists worldwide

Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva 2020

After fermentation and maceration in stainless steel for around 14 days, the 2020 Riserva was matured in used oak for about 12 months, then three months in bottle. Simone François explains that they have decided to “pull back a bit on extractions and to reduce oak” for their Riserva. The 2020 crop was smaller than usual but quality was excellent.

Dark ruby. Perfumed with sweet woodsmoke and violets. Red cherry and dark fruit concentration with a ripple of bitter chocolate, a nut-sweet hint of oak and an underlay of ripe, fine-grained, structural tannins and characteristic saline acidity. Depth, intensity and complexity carried with a light touch. 13.5%. Empty bottle weight: 596g.


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Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2017

Volpaia’s vineyards rise even higher than Querceto’s. Coltassala, the oldest, is planted with superior, old clones of Sangiovese (and 5% Mammolo) at an altitude of 520m and the wine is aged for 24 months in new French oak. 2017 was a year of extremes, with damaging spring frosts and record heat and drought, yet the wine has come through combining intensity and concentration with springy lightness, ripe red fruit with warm sandalwood tones, and silk-chiffon texture with a fretwork of sleek tannins. It’s perfect now and will be for the rest of the decade and probably beyond.


£34.99, Adnams; wine-searcher for stockists worldwide

Il Caggio Ipsus Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2018

An all-Sangiovese Gran Selezione from a 6.5ha vineyard now incorporated within the Fonterutoli estate in Castellina in Chianti, but made separately from the Mazzei family’s other wines. The vineyard, facing southeast to southwest in clay-schist soils with calcareous marls and albarese rock fragments, lies at 320–350m. Four of the clones are exclusive Mazzei massal selections. There were 16 microvinifications in 2018, all spontaneously fermented in stainless steel, followed by 22 months’ ageing in a mix of tonneaux (80% new), 15hl barrels and a portion in ceramic, then 14 months in bottle. Coopers are mainly Burgundian, but also include Stockinger and there's almost no toast.

An alluring, lifted floral perfume – irises mainly – with red berries and cherries, sandalwood, fruitcake spices, incense and cedarwood. The palate is intricate, graceful and fluent, with the silkiest of tannins, a fresh note of pine, deeper mocha-chocolate flavours and a suggestion of sloe.  Very long, suave and confident. 14%


£330, Petersham Cellar, Hedonism Wines; wine searcher for stockists worldwide and in bond

Poggio Antico, Brunello di Montalcino

These wines, which include the first vintage of the single vineyard Vigna i Poggi, are not being released until next year, but they deserve to be flagged up now. Poggio Antico is a 200ha, mainly forested estate with 35ha of organic vineyard on Montalcino’s highest hill, to the south of the town of Montalcino. The altitude (480–570m) means that the vines are constantly ventilated and cooled by sea breezes from the Tyrennian sea about 50km to the west. The soils are ancient, stony and varied, but mainly galestro and palombini limestone. A zoning project in 2017–2018 identified 14 individual ‘units’ of soil, five of which are in the 2.5ha I Poggi vineyard. Yields are low.

Poggio Antico Rosso di Montalcino 2022

Aged in half and half stainless steel and large French oak barrels, this is a wine that defies the extreme heat of the summer. I tasted a barrel sample.

Bright, lustrous purple-ruby. Vibrant, floral, briary, fresh plum and black fruit bouquet. Smooth, round and full of vitality on the palate, with blackberry and red cherry fruit, touches of liquorice and black pepper and a delicate herbal note on the finish. Svelte and polished; a wine in its own right rather than trying to be a mini Brunello. 14.5%


Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino 2019

From a balanced, much less extreme growing season than 2022. Fermentation in stainless steel and concrete (10 days, then 15 days maceration); ageing for 30 months in 25–40hl Slavonian oak, then 18 months in bottle.

Deep ruby. Fragrant, floral aromas with spicy red and black cherry fruit, exotic incense notes and a rich tahini character. Great depth of flavour and expressive, pure fruit all bound with seamless tannins. 15%


Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino Vigna i Poggi 2019

The new Brunello from a single vineyard at 500–570m asl in calcareous soils with 35% gravel ensuring very good drainage and rich in nutrients. Vinification in 60hl, tulip-shaped concrete tanks for four weeks; 30 months in Austrian oak barrels, then blending followed by 6 months in concrete before bottling. 7,750 bottles.

Deep ruby. Beautiful sweet-fruit fragrance and clarity – black cherries, wild plums and floral notes. Graphite freshness stealing through supple, creamy, vanilla-flecked richness, made complete by gossamer-fine tannins. Long, flowing and expressive. 15%


Bottle photographs by Joanna Simon


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