BEN'S PICK: ITALY SEES THE LIGHT
Sometime in 1973 — no one remembers the exact date — winemaker Mario Zaccagnini saw the light. "My father is a man of few words, not one who goes around smiling and telling tales," said his daughter Rosella. "Years later, when I asked him why he chose that particular barren hillside to start our Verdicchio vineyard, he gave me one of his rare smiles. 'The light,' he said, 'it was the light.'"
While Signor Zaccagnini could not have known it then, his intuition is among the factors that have plunged his region into a fierce debate that still rages today. Are the Verdicchio wines produced on the so-called right bank of the Esino River, which cuts the huge Castelli di Jesi DOC neatly in two, clearly superior to those made on the left bank, as many believe? We'll address that conundrum in a moment. What I can say unequivocally is that the Zaccagnini Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 2021 (which hails from the right bank) is superb. It's also a world-class value at the special Ben's Pick case price of just $15.99 on purchases of 12 bottles or more ($16.99 for 1-11 bottles; reg. $21.99).
As I sipped the 2021 Zaccagnini Verdicchio, it immediately called to mind the complexity and potential longevity of a fine Chablis. Of course, the varietal flavors are different (Chablis is made from Chardonnay), but the aristocratically restrained fruit, brilliant acidity, and vibrant minerality offered noteworthy class. While the wine is delectable now, the depth of fruit and lively acidity provide excellent aging potential if desired. Indeed, the winery maintains a cache of 25+ year vintages that are still going strong.
Zaccagnini's vineyards extend to 104 acres surrounding the villages of Staffolo and Ancona at an elevation of 1,500 feet on the Esino River's right bank. The marine character of this ancient chalky seabed soil, similar to the Chablis soil, provides the wine's distinctive and vibrant saline minerality.
Time appears to have proven Signor Zaccagnini's intuition regarding the light. Explained Rosella, "The Verdicchio likes light, but it doesn't like too much direct sunlight. Our vineyards are grown on the hills that roll steeply towards the sea. It is a unique location. The sea's glow can be glimpsed to the east, and while the sea itself cannot be seen, the vineyards feel its presence."
Is this luminous glow a key to the right bank's superiority? I believe so, as the left bank's vineyards do not enjoy the same exposure. I would also note that a similar situation exists around Lake Garda in Lugana, where the indirect light reflected from the lake has made its Verdicchio (called Turbiano in Lugana) among Italy's most coveted white wines.
A few years back, the region's producers organized a blind tasting that it hoped would settle the issue for the last time. To the surprise of no one, it did not. One reason was that there were simply not enough wines in the tasting to provide a statistically significant answer. The other was that the tasting apparently turned into quite a good party well before the time came to cast votes. Speaking personally, I have no problem with that resolution.
** 2021 Zaccagnini is made from 100% Verdicchio. The average age of the vines is 15 years. Fermentation takes place at a relatively cool 13-15° C. The wine is then matured on the fine lees (yeasty sediment leftover from fermentation) in concrete tank for four months with frequent batonnage (stirring of the lees) to add creaminess and weight. All the transfer operations are carried out under inert conditions to prevent oxidation.
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