We can thank the Romans for bringing the art of growing grapes and making wine to all of the areas they conquered over the centuries. But the homeland of the empire, Italy, has been making delicious wines for thousands of years. That means they know what they are doing.
Unfortunately, many of the great Italian wines are from native grapes and species we have never heard of. Many people are familiar with Barolo and Barbaresco from the Piedmont area, as well as the elegant Chiantis from Tuscany, but this barely scratches the surface of the wines available from Italy.
I recently had the pleasure of attending an exhibition of Italian wine with over 40 wines represented – many of them from smaller producers and smaller areas that most of us don’t know about but that you’d be well rewarded to learn!
I wanted to share a brief stroll through some of the wines from Italy that you might want to try to expand your palate. You’ll notice that there isn’t much of a correlation between price and the quality of the wines I mention. I also usually don’t mention the year of the wines as I think the area, grape and estate are more important than the specific year.
If you want to drink like a Roman, this white is made from the ancient and native Bellone grape. There is a seemingly bottomless well of “lost” or “forgotten” indigenous Italian varieties that are being re-discovered, lovingly cultivated, and bottled for our exploration. One of these is the white grape Bellone which is grown not far from Rome in the Lazio appellation, where in warm sandy soils tempered by a relentless sea breeze, the grape has found an ideal microclimate.
Deep yellow flecked with gold. The wine evokes sunshine and ripe tropical fruit such as mango and papaya, carefully balanced by a marked acidity which makes it suitable for long bottle aging. Rich, ample and lingering on the palate with light floral and spicy notes. Hallmarked by its pronounced acidity and zesty tang. A long finish. I found it on-line for $12.95 a bottle.
Barolo is the heavyweight champ of Italian wines – full-flavored, robust, a match for the heartiest entrees. Barolo wine comes from a group of small towns, including Barolo, that dot the hillsides of northwest Italy’s Piedmont region.
The great Nebbiolo grape is the star of Italy’s Piedmont region, where the foothills of the Alps provide craggy slopes that seem to suit this temperamental variety. Nebbiolo wines are produced throughout the region, most famously in Barolo and Barbaresco. These classic red wines are prized by collectors. With medium alcohol levels, high tannins and acidity, the powerful Barolo and elegant Barbaresco wines can age for decades, developing a range of interesting and unique flavors: rose petals, red fruits, licorice, spice and tar.
Pio Cesare makes a range of wines, but I found a 2012 Barolo for just under $70.
The 2010 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Poggio All’Oro is made with 100% Sangiovese grapes, from the Banfi estates in the heart of Tuscany. They only make it when the conditions are perfect and the wine will be spectacular.
The nose is powerful and elegance with dried cherry, grilled herb and delicate layers of spice. It is nicely balanced with a silky mouth feel. The fruit is bright and young, with a great structure of tannins that tell you it can be aged for a long time. On-line for $125 a bottle
Tuscany is the geographic and, for many, metaphoric heart of Italy, the site of so much of the country’s best-known history, culture and landscapes. What ties all of those elements together, of course, is wine.
In recent decades, Italian winemakers created the so-called Super Tuscan wines, which blend Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with their native Sangiovese grape and display a more modern style. Sangiovese varietal wines are also increasingly popular. These non-traditional Sangiovese wines carry the IGT, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, designation.
Sassicia is the granddaddy of Super Tuscans, this elegant wine is available from Total Wine at just under $200 a bottle.
Owned by the Moroder family since the 18th century, and a modern winery since the early 1980s, the estate covers a narrow strip of hilly land overlooking the sea in the heart of the spectacular Mount Conero Nature Reserve, a gorgeous natural park established to preserve the unique Mediterranean flora and fauna in this area. Marche is east of Florence on the eastern coast of Italy along the Adriatic Sea.
This refined red wine is made from 100% Montepulciano grapes and has a 14% alcohol content.
It leads with aromas of cassis, dried violet, smoke, and pepper. On the tasting, deep, classically dry and very intense on the palate, conveying lovely inner-mouth perfume to the strawberry jam, milk chocolate, coffee, and orange zest flavors. Very long, vibrant, and savory on the finish.
On-Line available for around $45 a bottle.
Also located in the coastal region of Marche, the Velenosi winery was established in 1984 by Angela and Ercole Velenosi. Together they created winery that today produces 1.8 million bottles and 45% of their turnover is in Italy. Their vineyards are in the original and most ancient area of Castelli di Jesi.
Verdicchio is a white-wine grape variety that has been cultivated for hundreds of years in the Marche region of central Italy. It is a versatile variety, used both for light, easy-drinking table wines, and for more complex, age-worthy examples. It is commonly lauded by critics as being one of Italy’s best white-wine grape varieties, and is found in vineyards across the country.
The use of Verdicchio has been documented in the Marche since the 14th Century, but there is suggestion that the variety could have originated in Veneto, where it is known as Trebbiano di Soave.
The color is a light yellow. On the nose, a floral character leads with fruit undertones. Has a medium body on the tongue with precise and elegant fruit and a bright acidity. This would pair wonderfully with a fish dish or as a drink on a summer evening. Averages around $11 a bottle
A small area in the North-east of Italy whose different landscapes and microclimate, ranging from the mild temperatures of Lake Garda to the alpine climate of the Dolomites, make for a unique quality and variety of wines. Trentino, together with Alto Adige, is the Italian region with the largest DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin) wine growing area
The soil and climate conditions of Trentino region, in particular the temperature range between day and night, give the grapes unique characteristics that come out in sparkling wines as a precious and delicate aroma. Cavit’s Charmat method sparkling wines are “youthful tasting” products, with exuberant and fresh fruity fragrances and a delicate flavor.
Müller-Thurgau is a white grape variety which was created by Hermann Müller from the Swiss Canton of Thurgau in 1882. It is a crossing of Riesling with Madeleine Royale.
This Spumanti has nice fine bubbles that rise to create a light foam at the surface on the pour, this wine has a pale yellow color with a light green hue. Aromatic aroma with almost no yeast due to the production method and a little spice at the end. Gentle flavors with a refreshing bite and a round mouth feel. Perfect alone or with a seafood dish. If you can find this sparkler, it should retail under $10 a bottle.
Frankly, this is a longer article than I normally share, but I still just barely scratched the surface of Italian wines. There are thousands of grapes and subregion, so it is a life’s work to know them all. But if you are feeling adventurous, just point to an Italian wine in your price range on the menu – no doubt you will be pleasantly surprised.