Because you, like us, are craving Italian this month, you’re probably going to want some wine to go with those recipes you try.
Italy is home to hundreds of grape varieties, and becoming intimately familiar with all of them would require you to devote most of your time and energy to that project from here on out. Good thing you don’t need to know about all of them.
If the overwhelming breadth of Italian wines makes your forehead throb and causes you to shut down and decide against deciding — the laundry detergent aisle in a supermarket has the same effect on me — take comfort in knowing that you are not alone. It is reasonable to avoid buying laundry detergent — that’s what dry cleaners are for — but it is most certainly unwise to avoid Italian wines.
Pick a starting point, say, Piedmont, Veneto and Tuscany. They form a sort of triangle in the top half of the country, with Piedmont in the northwestern corner, Veneto in the northeast, and Tuscany roughly centered beneath the two of them. You can picture that triangle superimposed on the boot, can’t you? You could even use the tri-color Italian national flag to keep them straight: green for the verdant, rolling hills of Piedmont; white for the Veneto’s Soave and Prosecco; and red for the Chianti and other reds of Tuscany.
We are skipping over a lot of important wine regions in Italy here (even skipping over some wines styles in these three regions), but you have to start somewhere. There is no dry cleaner-equivalent in the wine world; you have to do the work yourself, and lucky for you, you love the work.
Piedmont is the home of legendary Barolo — the region and the wines (“the wine of kings,” to some) — and Barbaresco, which many would argue is as good or better than Barolo. It’s a Beatles/Stones argument. Hemingway/Fitzgerald. Emma/Emma (Stone/Watson).
When it comes to these wines, you can expect power and swagger, especially from Barolo. In Barbaresco, that swagger might be supplanted by a certain degree of elegance — lighter body and more ethereal notes standing in for the concentrated boldness and heft that Barolo typically offers.
In either case, aromatic floral notes are accompanied by cherry, licorice, figs, truffles, leather, earth and sometimes even tar. Both made from the nebbiolo grape variety, these are big, complex wines that historically undergo several years of minimum aging before being released. Some more modern versions of both styles — delivering, most notably, softer tannins — are now ready to drink earlier, but these are still wines that get better with time and can be aged, in many cases, for a decade or much more.
To save a little money, search out the red wines of Roero, a neighboring region within Piedmont that turns out good versions of nebbiolo at generally lower prices than Barolo and Barbaresco. While you’re at it, you could also try Roero’s signature white wine, made from arneis. Dry and fragrant, these easy-drinkers offer floral and yeasty notes that lead to citrus or stone fruits with a hint of restorative bitterness on the end.
In Veneto, the region surrounding the enchanting city of Venice, the once-ubiquitous and historically maligned Soave has been making a comeback in recent years, no longer the near-odorless, watered-down white that it used to be. Made mostly of the garganega grape variety (with trebbiano di soave and others allowed for blending), many versions of Soave now range from angular and citrusy to more round and melony — all with lively acidity. Drink them as apertifs, or with salads, fish, poultry or light pastas with vegetables.
And of course, what basic Italian wine conversation could not include Prosecco? The fun, generally beloved fizzy wine is made in the Charmat (or so-called “tank”) method, which translates to much lower prices than traditional-method sparkling wines, such as Champagne or even Italy’s most prestigious sparklers, Franciacorta. The white grape variety glera (known until 2009 as “prosecco”) must make up 85 percent of a wine to be classified Prosecco DOC and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, Italian wine designations). Expect citrus, apple, pear, peach or honey notes in your Prosecco, and feel free to drink it on its own before your Italian feast even begins. But naturally you can also pair Prosecco with dishes on the lighter end of the spectrum, as well as anything fried, and foods with a little bit of spicy heat.
Tuscany is the land of sangiovese, Italy’s superstar red grape. The country’s most widely planted grape variety, sangiovese translates to the “blood of Jove” (aka the Roman god “Jupiter”) and contributes to three of Italy’s most famous wines: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Chianti comes in a variety of styles and quality, and within the overall Chianti region, Chianti Classico is the top of the heap. Look for the “Gallo Nero” symbol, a black rooster inside a purple ring, on every bottle of Chianti Classico. This food-friendly wine offers tangy cherry, along with various savory notes. It’s great for accompanying anything from pizza to pastas with tomato-based sauces, and roasted or grilled meats. Brunello di Montalcino — capable of aging for years, even decades — is earthy, complex and powerful, while Vino Nobile di Montepluciano, in both style and price, lands somewhere between Brunello and Chianti Classico.
To save even more money, try a Rosso di Montalcino or Rosso di Montepulciano, the little siblings of Brunello and Vino Nobile. (And don’t mistake Montepuliciano, a Tuscan hilltop town, with montepuliciano d’Abruzzo, a red grape from Abruzzo. Confusing, right?)
Ready to splurge? Opt for a “Super Tuscan.” This famous renegade wine style was developed in the 1970s when Chianti winemakers began blending sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other French grape varieties, approximating a local Bordeaux-style blend. Today, some of these bottles can fetch half a year’s worth of dry cleaning, but you can also find versions at prices worth a few rolls of quarters you’ve squirreled away for the dryer cycle.
The Italian wine world is vast and complex, and getting to know it all will take some time. Thankfully, like laundry, you don’t have to do it all at once.
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