Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Naked Vine Italian Wine Primer

Ah, Italian wine. Love it. Love it. Love it. As the foodie that I am, I’m hard pressed to come up with wine that goes better with a meal than Italian wines. After all, one of the few things that Italians do better than making wine is cooking, and because they’ve been making wine as long as they have, winemakers in each region have been tailoring wines to cuisine for centuries.

As such, each region’s wine varieties tend to be fairly consistent as far as the basic flavor profile goes. I wouldn’t choose to drink a lot of them on their own for one reason or another, but line up some steamed mussels next to an Italian pinot grigio or a Sangiovese with marinara-sauced pasta and you’ve got yourself a little slice of heaven.

The trick, though, is figuring out which of these heavily vowel-labeled bottles is the right wine. Like France, Italy’s gotten a little bit better about putting the names of grape varietals and/or descriptive blurbs in English on the bottle for the “ordinary American consumer.” For the most part, however, the traditional convention still holds. The names on the bottle are generally the producer and the region. The grape is often nowhere to be found. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent most of my pre-Vine life thinking that “Chianti” was a grape varietal instead of a region in Tuscany.

Further confusing matters are exceptions to this rule. Some Italian wines do put the name of the grape on the label as a matter of course. The name of the grape is usually followed by the name of the locale, so you’ll see wines like Moscato d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, etc. The first one, for instance, translates as “The Moscato (grape) from Asti (the town).” You’ll even run into “Montepulciano d’Abruzzo” vs. “Vin Noble di Montepulciano.” The first is a fruity, easy-drinking table wine made from the Montepulciano grape. The second is a somewhat complex Sangiovese-based wine from the town of Montepulciano.

But why? Why stick to an antiquated, confusing system of nomenclature, especially now that the world has grown much more wine savvy? Why not just label the bloomin’ bottles with whatever the heck is in there?

The answer?

Two thousand.

There are at least 2,000 indigenous grape varietals in Italy. Gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of all the grapes in the Boot that go into their bottles of yummy would be next to impossible. So, how do you know what you’re getting?

The Italian government simplified matters for us a little. They created a classification system somewhat similar to the ones in France. If you look at most bottles of Italian wine, you’ll see “DOC” or “DOCG” somewhere on the label. Without going into too much detail, the DOC/DOCG designation shows that a wine was made in a certain region using pre-determined methods containing certain grape varietals. This usually aligns with the geographic region, but a grape will sometimes be included in the designation if the varietal is a specialty of the area – like the aforementioned Moscato d’Asti, et al.

In my experience, Italian wine is an experience where you largely get what you pay for. This isn’t to say that there isn’t really good inexpensive wine from Italy. Think about it this way -- if you blindly choose $30 Bordeaux, there’s a chance that you’ll end up with a wine inferior to the $10 dollar one on the rack nearby. Italian? $15 Chianti will be perfectly drinkable, but also usually consistent with its brethren of the same price point. If you splurge on a $30 bottle, you can usually tell a difference in quality (although you may not feel that difference was worth the extra moolah).

There are hundreds of DOC/DOCG growing regions, but many of them are extremely small and you probably won’t run into them very often. Here are some of the more common regions and DOC/DOCG designations you’ll run into at the local wine stores for your reading and drinking pleasure…

Region: Campania
Common wines you’ll see: Taurasi, Fiano, Falerno
Major grapes: Aglianico, Piedirosso, Primitivo (red); Falanghia (white)
General info: Campania is the region around Naples. The best known wine from there is a robust red called Taurasi made from the Aglianico grape. Fiano is a seafood-loving white and Falerno is another big wine made from Primitivo (Zinfandel). Much of the rest of the wine from there has traditionally been known as fairly generic, although it’s improved greatly in recent years.

Region: Tuscany
Common wines you’ll see: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vin Noble di Montepulciano, Rosso di Montalcino, Rosso di Montepulciano, IGT Toscana
Major grape: Sangiovese (red – not many whites in Tuscany)
General info: Ah, Tuscany – home of some of the most famous reds wines in Italy. Most Tuscan reds are backboned by the Sangiovese grape. Brunello di Montalcino is also Sangiovese, but a specific clone of that particular grape. There’s also “Vin Santo” – a sweet dessert wine. You’ll also find “super Tuscan” wines that are bigger and heartier. These are almost always Sangiovese blended with a non-indigenous varietal like merlot or cabernet, often to please an American palate. If you see “IGT Toscana” on the label, it’s probably a Super Tuscan of some stripe. The wines tend to be very flexible, since Tuscan cuisine is some of the most varied (and delicious) food in the world. However, in my opinion, these wines are not the best to drink by themselves. They need food to show their full potential.

Region: Piedmont
Common wines you’ll see: Barbaresco, Barolo, Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti, Dolcetto d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Asti, Moscato d’Asti, Gavi
Major grapes: Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato (red); Cortese (white)
General info: Piedmont is the mountainous region in the northwest corner of the country. The bulk of Italy’s hearty reds come from this region – especially Barolo and Barbaresco. They’re some of the most famous of the world’s wines. Barbera is a big, juicy red and Dolcetto is a lighter, acidic red – both of which make excellent everyday wines in their “generic” form. The versions from “named” places (like Barbera d’Alba for instance) have more complexity. Gavi is a crisp white made from the Cortese grape (not to be confused with Dan Cortese) which makes an interesting contrast. Piedmont wines are built to stand up to heavier meats and sauces. Even the whites handle cream sauces easily. There’s also Moscato d’Asti – a low alcohol, sweet sparkling wine which may be the best brunch wine in the world.

Regions: Sardinia & Sicily
Common wines & grapes you’ll see: Cannonau (red); Malvasia, Vernacchia, Verdicchio, Moscato (white)
General info: The islands of Italy usually end up putting the names of the grapes on the label, so you can generally run with those. Both islands, especially Sardinia, produce quantities of dry, crisp white wines made from Vernacchia, Malvasia, and Verdicchio that go perfectly with shellfish. Sicily produces a huge amount of dessert wine. The most common red is made from Cannonau, which is currently getting a great deal of publicity for its hypothesized life-extending properties. Cannonau is similar to Grenache and often makes for powerful wines, but on the islands, they’re made in a much lighter, more aromatic style.

Region: Veneto
Common wines you’ll see: Bardolino, Valpolicella, Soave, Prosecco
Major grapes: Corvina, Sangiovese (red); Prosecco, Garganega (white)
General Info: The region around Venice cranks out a huge amount of wine. The reds are usually blends backboned by the Corvina grape. These reds tend to be some of the lightest bodied in the country. Many are often served slightly chilled, much like Beaujolais. There’s actually a “Bardolino novello,” made in a similar style as Beaujolais Nouveau. The whites, like Soave are usually fruity and more or less dry. The Valdobbiadene district is the home of Prosecco, Italy’s most famous sparkling wine. It resembles Spanish cava in many ways. Interestingly, with all the light reds produced in Valpolicella, it’s also home to the most powerful red wine in Italy: Amarone. Amarone is made from raisinated grapes, which yields a concentrated, potent (upwards of 15% alcohol), tannic, tasty wine.

There are 14 other major wine growing regions in Italy and literally hundreds of DOC & DOCG designations. It’s worth it to explore. Ask for your Italian wine expert at your local store. There’s usually one major “Italophile” in every shop. They’ll usually steer you correctly. But for basics, this should take care of you for right now. Hope it helps!

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