Millennials are lucky when it comes to wine.

Unlike their parents, whose early exposure to northern Italian wines consisted primarily of plonk, today’s younger generation has access to an almost endless array of delicious, expressive Lambrusco, Soave and moscato d’Asti.

In the 1970s and ’80s, basically all that was available in those categories was Riunite, Bolla Soave and Asti Spumante. Those wines were marketed heavily; the “Riunite on Ice” ads probably have prompted more earworms than an album’s worth of Neil Diamond songs.

And they suited us just fine, partly because most of us (and our palates) didn’t know any better, but mostly because nothing much of quality was available even in Italy, much less on these shores.

What a difference a generation makes. By the 1990s, many younger Italian vintners had decided they didn’t want to just supply large operations with grapes from the flatlands as their elders had. Instead, they started moving into the hillsides (much more suited to growing high-quality grapes), settling for lower yields and making distinctive, evocative wines, according to Italian wine guru Marc Mackondy.

A change for the better

Today’s offerings, Mackondy said, “are all about the transition from big houses to growers and where the growers are located. This started completely in the fields.

“It’s sort of the story of Italy,” added Mackondy, portfolio director at local distributor Rootstock. “At some point the growers wanted to bottle, and as more bottles came from growers, the quality started to rise. It really comes down to grape sourcing.”

Working at higher elevations, where the cooler nights help keep the grapes’ acidity levels higher, has been a particular boon in the Asti area in Piedmont and in the zone designated Soave Classico in the Veneto region.

Lambrusco emanates from flatter terrain in Emilia-Romagna, so the improvements in these effervescent offerings have been more in winemaking techniques and style exploration, especially in terms of residual sugar.

Today there are four levels of sweetness; Secco is the driest, sometimes to the point of bitterness, and Semisecco is more off-dry. For many of us, the most balanced and approachable setting is called Amiable, where the fruit really shines, while Dolce Lambruscos are more like dessert wines.

On local shelves, the Cleto Chiarli and Ariola brands provide a tasty look-see at the wide range of methods, from Lambruscos with backbone to those with spot-on balance to lush, often opulent offerings.

Bottles to buy

Luciano Saetti, Puianello, Zanasi and Medici Ermete are other labels worth sussing out. And upon popping the cork, have a plate of cured pork products handy for one of those perfect pairings, the bubbles cutting through the fat delightfully. Lambrusco also plays well with the rich pasta sauces of its home region, but as Mackondy notes, it’s “a really great kick-off-the-night wine. There is really nothing like it with a great plate of salumi, mortadella, prosciutto.”

Some of Italy’s best iterations of another bubbly delight, moscato d’Asti, actually have a storied history. A century ago, Mackondy said, they were making world-class wines in that area, but by the 1970s, bulk production ruled, as Martini & Rossi’s Asti Spumante tickled millions of palates.

In the late 1990s, a few wines that Mackondy calls “more linear and crunchier,” such as Saracco, started emerging, and “over the last few years these wines have gotten progressively drier.” Best of all: “The sweetness is because of ripeness of fruit, not added [sugar],” he said.

Easy-drinking brands such as Risata and Luccio are great for holiday parties, while Monsignore, Elio Perrone and Borgo Maragliano provide more complexity and depth. These can be “cocktail wines” and work with mildly spicy ethnic foods, but they really shine with fruit desserts. “Any fruit tart, pie, crème brûlée, panna cotta; it’s magical,” Mackondy said.

Just as magical, he said, is what has happened in a once-maligned region to the east. “If Soave isn’t the most important white-wine designation in Italy, it’s in the top five,” Mackondy said, adding that consumers who love Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio absolutely should try similarly priced Soave Classicos.

Compared with the Bolla wines of yore, “There’s so much more of everything: higher acid, denser, richer fruit, gorgeous honey, but also there’s great mineral in there.”

I’m a big fan of the wines from Coffele, Vincentini Agostino, Ca’ Rugate, Suavia and especially Inama and Tamellini. These come from growers who more recently headed for the Alpine foothills, especially above the town of Soave, for the volcanic soils that yield grapes with energy and intensity, besides being insanely delicious.

These vintners, by the way, were hardly pioneers. As Mackondy noted, “the Roman legions were the first to plant there, and they always sought out volcanic soils.”

Two thousand years later, consumers young and old can relish the legionnaires’ wisdom.


Bill Ward writes Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.