Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Back to the Boot

I'm still getting the hang of Italian wines.

When "in the know" wine folks talk about the "finest wines in the world," the debate generally centers on Italy and France. Wine connoisseurs talk about Italian wines' unmatched complexity, the wonders of aging for decades, the depth of flavor, the sheer artistry that is the ancient craft of winemaking in Italy.

The first time I tasted Barolo, the Italian "wine of kings," I nearly choked. THIS is supposed to be the best wine in the world?" Granted, I've come a long way. As time's gone by, I've worked on my learning curve of appreciation for the -- shall we say -- interesting flavors of Italian and French wine.

Also, like many people, I usually considered Chianti (as I did at the Vine's early roots) when ordering or making Italian. Of course, there's a lot more to Italian food than the familiar Tuscan recipes we often see, so don't paint yourself into a corner -- all due respect to Chianti, of course.

When the SPinC and I did our first Italian wine and food pairing cookfest, we discovered many Italian wines are either very affordable or very expensive -- there's not a lot in between. Finding wines that are decent, drinkable, and affordable is a challenge. In the $10-15 range, there's surprisingly little. You've got your very inexpensive wines, and then you've got your garden variety Barolo, which will run you $50 or more. (Although I found a very decent Barolo at Trader Joe's for $25 that was divine with a roasted lamb steak.) Research is necessary.

When I think about buying Italian wine, I keep a few simple things in mind:

1) Italians are foodies. They have been for millennia. They're also fiercely territorial. If you ever get into a food conversation with just about anyone of Italian heritage, they'll tell you the food on "Nonna's table" was REAL Italian. As I've mentioned before, people make wines that go with whatever they happen to be cooking -- so if you know the menu, choose accordingly. Italian wines, like French wines, are generally named for the place they're made, so let that be your guide.

2) Just as Italians made wine to complement the food they were making at the time, they also made their wine to go best with food. I have yet to run into many Italian wines that I would have as a "drink at the end of the day" wine. Put them with the right food, and squisto!

3) Decant, decant, decant. Italian wine is built to age, so when you open it, you need to let it wake from its slumber. A good rule of thumb for the wines we'll be looking at is to crack the bottle 20-30 minutes before you pour.

Here are a few alternatives:

Ruffino 2005 Orvieto Classico ($7-10) -- Orvieto is in Umbria, one of Tuscany's neighboring provinces. Umbria is entirely landlocked, about in the "calf" of the boot. Foodwise, Umbria is known for pork products like salami and prosciutto, lots of vegetables, and earthy additions like mushrooms and truffles. The city of Orvieto is known largely for its white wine. One of the first wine books I really looked at was by Kevin Zraly. He said, "The Italians traditionally do not put the same effort into making their white wines that they do with their reds…and they are the first to admit it." But there's money in the global white wine market continues to globalize, and the Italians are taking advantage.

The Ruffino has a nice nose -- light and floral with a scent of honey. It's fruity, slightly citrusy, but not incredibly dry -- in the ballpark of a rich Sauvignon Blanc. It had a refreshing finish with a little citrus tang and smooth flavors of melon. Like Sauvignon Blanc, this would be a very food friendly wine. Foodwise, think about light pork or rich chicken dishes, meaty fishes, or even salads. The acidity in this wine would be able to stand up to things like asparagus.

Pala Triente 2004 Cannonau Di Sardegna ($11-13) -- That's "Sardinia" to we barbarians. I've heard a lot of people confuse Sardinia and Sicily. Sicily is the island perpetually getting booted. Sardinia is the island halfway up the boot off the Eastern coast. While the cuisine of Sardegna is steeped in fish, much of it is hearty and savory, both with meat (roast boar on a spit is a national tradition) and vegetables (stews and soups with earthy vegetables and beans).

This wine is largely (95%) made from the Cannonau grape, known to the rest of the world as Grenache -- the other 5% is other native varietals. Interesting to note -- this is a macerated wine. Maceration is the same process the French use to make Beaujolais. The result is a very interesting red. When poured, it's extremely light and the nose is very fragrant. It reminds me of a Beaujolais cru. The flavor is very Italian -- earthy, with berries calling for food. The finish then turns a little bit dry. We had this with a spicy chicken chili. You could certainly have it with a red sauced pasta, aged cheese, or fish in a nice sauce.

Michele Chiarlo 2004 Barbera D'Asti ($12-14) -- First off, the "Asti" does not refer to sweet champagne here. It's a town in the Piedmont province in northernmost Italy nestled against the Alps (Piedmont translates as "the foot of the mountains"). The Piedmont produces much of the very expensive wine I mentioned earlier. The nebbiolo grape is used to make Barolo and Barbaresco, the most prized wines of Italy. Fortunately, some of the "lesser" wines are more than adequate. Piedmont cooking is very earthy. Truffles are a major export of the area. Lots of cream, butter, garlic, and cheese find their way into the meals. Olives and rice are also produced in quantity.

I find the Barbera produces a wine like a fruity, amped Cotes-du-Rhone. There's a nice nose on this wine. It's a slightly alcoholic, very fruity, floral experience. The flavor is full of bright fruit -- like a cross between Beaujolais and a Cotes-du-Rhone. The finish is easy and fruity -- cherries and blackberries. We tried this with a pasta with an olive tapenade and seared tuna -- it was wonderful, just as it was with some chocolate covered dried fruit we had. Pair it with just about anything that includes some of the above ingredients and you'll be just fine. Also, like Beaujolais or Cotes-du-Rhone, you could drink it on its own.

Until next time…buon' appetito!


1 comment:

botheyesgreen said...

Great description of some of my favorite wines :)