Consider some of the great cultural contributions made by the Italians: Michelangelo’s statue of David, the works of da Vinci, Dante’s "Inferno," Ducati motorcycles and the finest leather shoes on the planet. Let’s add Barolo, Chianti and sparkling prosecco wines to the list.
Many Italian wines are simply beautiful. Fabled Piedmont, a growing region in the northwest portion of the country, is home to Italy’s best red wines.
They’re chewy, earthy, balanced and terrifically complete. You cannot mention Bordeaux, Napa and Rioja without including Piedmont among the world’s premier growing areas. My feeling is that Chianti and Chianti Classico, two regions north and east of Rome, should be added to the list as well. These wines are widely available, affordable and built for food.
When shopping for Italian wines, you want to look for all those mysterious letters on the labels again, like DOC (denominazione di orgine controllata) and DOCG (denominazione di orgine controllata e garantita). Better wines come with these governmentally regulated designations. So, you might see Soave DOC, which means the mix of grapes come from within the specific Soave region of northern Italy. DOCG means the same thing, but under stricter requirements and more specific areas. This is a good thing. The labeling ensures that what is in your glass is what you think it is and from where you thought it came from.
Sounds confusing, I know. Here’s more vernacular you need to know: Grape varieties. The most widely planted red varieties include sangiovese, nebbiolo and barbera. Trebbiano is the dominant white variety of central and northern Italy. Malvasia, montepulciano and primitivo (related to California’s zinfandel) are also widely planted. I love the style and flavor of Italian grapes, as they are typically picked near the height of ripeness, but not overripe, as this produces too much sugar and, later, too much alcohol. Most European wines have lower alcohol percentages, which makes them good partners with food. Try a pinot grigio from California, and another from Italy, with a steaming bowl of linguine and clams and see what I mean. I’m reaching for Veneto every time.
As much as we love reality TV, SUVs and all things American, it may be time to work in some Italian stallions at the dinner table. Here’s a few worth exploring.
• Gabbiano 2003 Sangiovese-Merlot, $10. This is the winemaker’s new attempt at American-style labeling, which focuses on grape variety rather than region, but its contents are basically solid Chianti with Tuscan-sourced grapes. The wine is full of ripe red fruit aroma and flavor that has a nice, soft feel and well-integrated tannins. Soft enough to sip on its own, or pairs well with pasta dishes.
• Campanile 2004 Pinot Grigio, $10. If Burgundy makes the best whites in the world, my feeling is that northeastern Italy arm-wrestles with California for a close second. This value-focused bottle includes fruit sourced from the top districts in the area: Trentino, Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. I love the pear and honeydew nose and citrus-green apple palate. An excellent expression of harmony between fruit and acid. Great starter wine, or with seafood pasta dishes or piccata-style dishes.
• Allegrini Amarone 2000, $65. OK, big spender, here’s your payoff. This deep, dark, concentrated (yes, they let the grapes go beyond ripe with this one) wine blows your mind with its intense yet velvety composition. This wine is important to Italian viticulture as it’s produced only in the Valpolicella region in the northeast, and is traditionally paired with game, roasted or grilled meats, casseroles and well-aged cheeses. This wine sees 18 months in barriques (small barrels), then an additional 14 months in bottle before release. All that babying explains why this huge, 15 1 /2 percent alcohol wine goes down like nectar.
So, the next time you’re strolling the supermarket aisle with a frozen lasagna and can of minestrone soup, consider pairing your meal with one of Italy’s other gastronomic works of art.