As you might remember from our Italian Wine Primer, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 grapes indigenous to Italy. Variety may be the spice of life, but that much variety makes the initially-confusing Italian wine nomenclature a straight must to keep the musts straight.
(Yes, yes. I know you’re not supposed to explain your own puns, but in case you’re wondering, “must” is WineSpeak for “freshly pressed grapes.”)
Luckily for us, there are only a few dozen commonly used grapes in Italy, so the major grapes aren’t usually that difficult to keep straight. Most of the others are grown in relatively small quantities and used in local table wines. However, as winemaking technology improves and becomes more and more available to smaller growers, some of these lesser known varietals – each with their own unique characteristics – are starting to find their way off the Boot.
If you’re looking for a change of pace, some of these wines can make very interesting alternatives. I suggest speaking to your local wine guy or gal about them. Also, since they’re not as well known, they tend to be pretty good values for some reasonably tasty juice. Here are a few that I’ve tried recently:
Mustilli 2008 Piedirosso Sannio – Sannio is a subregion of Campania, situated northeast of Naples. Piedirosso is the grape, used almost exclusively in this region. The wines made from Piedirosso tend to be on the lighter side. On a warm summer evening as I was whipping up some marinara from garden tomatoes to serve over some gnocchi, this seemed like a pretty good match to me. I wasn’t disappointed. It is indeed very light – about on the level of a Beaujolais-Villages. In fact, I’d certainly throw this out as a substitute if you like that sort of wine. I’d recommend a slight chill on it, just like a Beaujolais. It’s got a very nice cherry/pomegranate flavor with only a hint of tannin. There’s a little bit of that Chianti-ish “chalk” flavor as well, but only a hint. With I may have “over-basiled” the sauce a little (if such a thing is possible), and it was able to tame that flavor without getting overwhelmed by everything else. A really nice light red alternative with any kind of tomato-ish dish. $13.
Feudo Arancio 2008 Stemmari Grillo Sicilia – Sicilia, obviously, is Sicily. Grillo is a white wine grape. Stemmari is…well…the name of the product line. Sicily has extremely hot growing conditions and Grillo works well in those climates. Grillo is best known as one of the grapes used to make Marsala. (Marsala is a place, not a grape…surprise!) Hot weather grapes often have very strong flavor profiles. It’s quite aromatic with strong floral and lemon aromas. I thought it started just a bit sweet and then tails off into a moderately citrusy flavor. There’s a bit of oiliness to it similar to Viognier. The finish is semi-dry with a few lemony flavors on the aftertaste. It’s a pleasant enough quaffing wine. It held its own with a pseudo-vichysoisse that we created one night and served alongside some “everything” bagels with smoked salmon. A very flexible food wine. You’ll find it for under $10 – an extremely solid value.
Cascina Gilli 2006 Freisa d’Asti – Freisa is a lesser-known red varietal in Piedmont. It’s overshadowed by Nebbiolo, from which Barolo and Barbaresco come; and by Barbera & Dolcetto, the more common “drinking wines.” Freisa yields a tannic, acidic wine like Nebbiolo, but it lacks the power and fullness you’ll see from that grape. This isn’t a bad thing. You end up with a wine that can stand up next to fairly heavy food without being heavy and overpowering itself. Case in point, I recently made eggplant parmesan – one of my specialties. It calls for a muscular wine. The Friesa reminded me of a light Zinfandel with a little Chianti “chalk” thrown in. It pointed up the pepper and the garlic in the sauce while still cutting through the earthiness. I would imagine it would also pair nicely with anything Zinfandel would work with – like barbecue or ribs. Besides, any grape varietal that Robert Parker describes as “totally repugnant” is worth a try in my book. $15-18.