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Riccardo Cotarella is Italy's leading wine consultant. He now consults for over 50 different Italian wine producers as well as estates in France, America, India and Israel. The son of a wine producer on the Lazio/Umbria borders, the estate (Falesco) produces stunning red wines crafted by Riccardo's brother, Renzo, who also happens to be Antinori's winemaker.


But Riccardo never really wanted to become a winemaker - he wanted to study to become an engineer. So his father made him a deal - "you can go to university to study" he said, "but you will have to study œnology!" Well, he did, and he liked it, and thus his penchant for the academic side of winemaking was born.


He was convinced that Italy, especially in the south, had the terroir to produce great wines, even though hitherto only mediocre wines sprung forth from those areas. His important task was to change the mentality of the average Italian wine producer - to look for quality instead of quantity and to market their wines in such a way as to show the consumer that no other country in the world, in terms of wine can boast tradition, innovation, art and natural beauty like Italy can.


Fortunately for him, there were some producers in the south of Italy who were already fired by the ambition to lift their wines out of mediocrity. The revolution really started when a lovely Roman lady, Silvia Imparato asked Riccardo to do something about her few family vines in the hills above Salerno in Campania in 1987. He completely replanted the estate with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Aglianico and in 1991 produced the first vintage of what has now become an Italian cult wine - Montrevetrano. It's a single estate, single wine blended from Cabernet Sauvignon (60%), Merlot (30%) and Aglianico (10%). This convinced him that in Campania you had the climate and the soil to support international varietals.


With this wine Riccardo realised what he wanted - a wine of near perfection in a world that is full of mistakes. Of course, he made his own mistakes, but he has certainly been big enough to learn by them. In all his time as a consultant - he has never lost a single client who have all been happy to share his joys and disappointments and who have grown up with him over time. Tradition and passion for his work is his hallmark.


His consultancy business has grown to a team of 12 people, led by his daughter Dominga Cotarella who will carry on Riccardo's philosophy into the future. Riccardo still manages to spend three months each year teaching œnology at Viterbo university which serves to stimulate his academic mind.


But what is his philosophy? His goal is to concentrate on producing the greatest expression of terroir from indigenous grapes by using advances in new technology to improve the cultivation of these grapes. Varietals such as Nero d'Avola, Negromano, Montepulciano, Aglianico, Piedirosso, Barbera, Sagrantino, Nebbiolo and above all, Sangiovese have been transformed from workhouse grapes into international stars. But he has also realised that the terroir of southern Italy will also enhance, in the right hands, international grape varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Malbec.


The character of the grape is contained in the skin. Those grapes with the highest percentage of skin to pulp have the greatest potential to turn out great wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Aglianico, Nero d'Avola and Barbera are prime examples.


Riccardo's greatest concern at the moment and something to which the winemaker must now pay particular attention to is climate change. Climate change presents major problems for some areas and varietals and opportunities for others. On the positive side, varietals such as Falanghina, which in the past had been extensively used in the production of Vermouths on account of it being so bland that it wouldn't fight with the herbs, are now with climate change having a great deal more character, brought on by the longer bunch hanging time and the fuller use of the terroir. The same can be said for the local reds such as Piedirosso and Aglianico.


But it is the Sangiovese from Romagna which has seen some of the best benefits of climate change. Sangiovese could be awfully harsh and acidic in that area, but now, over the past few years it's going towards softness and elegance, producing beautifully balanced wines. It has also benefited those grapes which had hitherto found difficulties in reaching ripeness at the time of the harvest. Sagrantino from eastern Umbria is another example of this.


The other side of the coin, however, is that some of the stronger, sweeter varietals now have a problem of becoming over alcoholic. Here, the winemaker has to be careful that oak is used judiciously and the wine is not over extracted.


On recent Italian vintages, Riccardo feels that 2001 was one of the greatest years ever, followed by 2004. 2003 was a bit too hot, but so far, 2007 looks to become hotter still. Higher alcohol wines are on the cards.


What of the future for Italian wines? Riccardo thinks that the love for wine will never die in Italy - passion is increasing continuously as the younger wine producers realise the potential of the terroir they have beneath their feet. There is still, however, a problem in marketing. How to get across to the consumer this great potential for Italian wines still seems to be a problem. Aspects of labelling is something that Riccardo feels needs to be addressed by the authorities. 20 years ago, only three regions of Italy produced wines of any note - Piemonte, Toscana and Fruili Venezia Giulia. Now great wine can be found all over Italy. If that's the legacy Riccardo can leave when he retires, he will be a very happy man.


‘Wine Behind the Label’ is the world’s top wine reference book.

See it online.