With well over 1,000 wine grape varietals in Italy, I was due to get beyond the usual Italian wine suspects here in the U.S.. such as chianti and pinot grigio. Italian wines are made to go with Italian food I enjoy a great deal, all the more reason to learn more about its wine. So I decided to set out on a virtual tour of Italian wine, and invite you to join me on the journey. As I go, I will try to explain some of the varietals, regions and other terms that I find can be a bit daunting. Hopefully breaking down some of these terms will open some great new windows into your wine world!
I’ll start with one of the more familiar Italian wines, chianti. The term “chianti” signifies a fairly large region in Tuscany. Chianti Classico is a smaller region within the area generally thought to be of higher quality, and you guessed it, priced accordingly. Chianti is a red wine made primarily from the sangiovese grape, with other grapes allowed to comprise up to 20% of the blend. Here’s what I sampled. Note with the first two I tasted on successive nights to try to see how much of a distinction I could discern with the upgrade to a “classico”:
2006 Coli Chianti ($9) Blackberry and leather taste, with some tartness and medium tannins. Decent with a tomato-based Italian meal such as the chicken cacciatore I made, based on the recipe from Barbara Lynch of Boston’s No. 9 Park.
2005 Roca delle Macie Chianti Classico ($15) This lived up to the “Classico” credential, though a moderately priced one. More tannins and structure that the Coli Chianti I compared it with. Cherry taste and smooth finish. At least in this comparison I can see the extra $6 being justified, though some of the other basic ones below compare pretty well with this in terms of value.
2006 Melini Chianti Borghi D’Elsa ($10) Soft, fruity after an hour of breathing. A simple, enjoyable chianti; we had it with grilled pork and it was a decent match. The “Borghi D’Elsa” here refers to the place–Borghi is a municipality on the River Elsa.
2006 Strozzi Chianti ($10) Chianti is the natural choice for spaghetti, with enough acidity to match the tomatoes, and I grabbed this bottle the last time I made it. Seeing it was young, I let it breathe for a solid hour, after which it showed soft, lush plummy fruit and just a bit of leatheriness to give it some backbone. If you find this one in the store, pick up a few bottles for simple pasta or pizza meals!
Chianti is all I sampled recently from Central Italy. Brunello is a noteworthy and very expensive red wine also made from the sangiovese grape. They started at $50 a bottle at the local wine shop, and generally need to age 10-20 years…not a good match for this columnist! Montepulciano is a more accessible red wine from the region I’ve enjoyed before. Notable white from Central Italy include verdicchio and trebbiano.
Let’s move to the Northwest of Italy, the Piedmont region, for our next stop on the tour. Barbera is a medium bodied red grape grown in this area that I’ve had a number of times…a good change of pace from chianti to pair with tomato-based Italian sauces.
2006 Cantina Terre Del Barolo Barbera D’Alba ($11) Licorice bouquet and taste of of cherry. The acidity was striking at first but softend after breathing. This acidity made it work as a pair for the pork ragu with its tomato based sauce, definitely more of a food wine than something to sip by itself, true of most barberas I’ve sampled. The ragu recipe, with fresh ricotta cheese, is a standby here that I encourage you to try!
The name of this barbera is an example of the potential for confusion on Italian wine labels. Barbera on this label refers to the grape in the wine, which is native to the Piedmont area. Barolo is a town, near alba, as well as being the name of a famous wine from this area. The $11 price tage here is the tip-off that this might be from Barolo but is not a Barolo. Are you still with me? On to the real Barolo…
2003 Cantina Terre Del Borolo ($32) I figured this article was a good excuse to splurge and try a Borolo for the first time. This high-end red wine made from nebbiolo grapes in the Piedmont is expensive and typically requires 10 to 20 years of aging to reach its peak. But I didn’t have the patience and tried this one that was said to be drinkable now after a few hours of decanting. Even after two hours of decanting, it was still very tight–limited bouquet and flavor. After another hour it started opening up, with a blackberry taste and a long finish. It paired well with the grilled porterhouse with mushroom sauce I had, but was a bit disappointing after all I’ve heard about barolo. But drinking a relatively inexpensive one like this so young was probably not a fair test.
2006 Terre di Ricaldone-Piemonte Cortese ($12) A good reminder there’s a lot more to Italian whites than pinot grigio! Cortese is a white grape native to the Piedmont region. This is an interesting, food friendly wine from the Piemonte region. Light hibiscus nose, taste of lemon and a bit of grassiness. Fresh tasting and a good match for pesto lasagne (I can vouch for that!).
Read part 2 of the journey through Italy on Gather.com where I share some great Sicilian wines and some interesting Italian whites! Wine Chat is a bi-monthly feature on Gather.