I’ve written quite a bit about specific Italian wines, from Piemonte in the north to Sicilia in the south, but today I thought I’d step back a bit and discuss the unique characteristics of Italian wines in general. I hope you enjoy this post! – TH
What makes Italian wines so fascinating? There are many explanations, but for me the primary reason is the fact that Italian wines are unique, a world apart from the follow-the-leader- wines being produced by so many estates today, eager for consumer acceptance.
The world of wine is becoming homogenized these days. Just look at the most famous offerings from France and California and you’ll discover that they are made from the same six varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay (the chocolate, strawberry and vanilla of the wine world), Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. I’m not forgetting about Zinfandel from California or Gewurztraminer, Riesling or Pinot Gris from Alsace in northeastern France, but they take a back seat in the press and in retail selections to the previously mentioned six.
Now think about the countries around the world that have become a major force in the wine world over the last decade. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and now South Africa. What grapes are their most famous wines made from? You guessed it- the Big Six. You can’t blame the producers in these countries for taking the lead of France and California, as success breeds success. What will a winery in South Africa have a better chance of selling to the American public – Pinotage, which is a local specialty or Cabernet Sauvignon? If you don’t know the answer to that, say hello to Santa Claus for me this Christmas as he comes down your chimney.
That’s what makes Italy so special in the world of wines. Producers in Campania might be able to make a name for themselves if they planted Chardonnay, but they continue to craft lovely white wines from grapes such as Greco, Fiano and Falanghina. The same holds true for the vintners of Abruzzo, who are beginning to see the intricacies of the Montepulciano grape and are creating more complex versions that more consumers want as they move away from quantity and towards quality.
This is not to say that international varieties (such as the Big Six) are not planted in Italy. Tuscany has adopted them in some of their most lavish bottlings (the so-called Super Tuscans often contain Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot in large proportions) and there are thousands of acres of Chardonnay and Merlot in the Veneto that are used for inexpensive bottlings. But international varieties are not what Italy does best; it is the indigenous varietals that represent the heart and soul of Italian viticulture.
Try a Soave made from the Garganega grape planted in vineyards in eastern Veneto. When made by an artisan producer, this is one of the country’s loveliest whites with aromas of honeydew melon, pear and lilies and offering beautiful texture and a light note of minerality in the finish. Or go with a Pecorino (yes, the wine, not the cheese) from Abruzzo or Marche. This grape yields a lovely dry white with flavors of peaches and cream that is lovely for pasta primavera or white meats such as chicken, veal or pork.
One of the most interesting native red varietals in Italy is Dolcetto from Piemonte. While too many wine publications focus on the famous Piemontese red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape (Barolo and Barbaresco), the natives pay a lot of attention to Dolcetto. This is the everyday red wine in the same locales where Barolo is produced and it is a great choice for lighter pastas and meats. The Barbera grape, the most planted grape in this region has plenty of spice with naturally high acidity. Vintners are experimenting with this varietal today, with versions ranging from the traditional, high acid, rustic styles (perfect for salumi) to riper, more oaked, slightly less acidic versions that stand up to roast veal and pork.
The best way to experience these indigenous varietals is with food. The publications that are obsessed with scoring wines on a 100-point system miss the point as their scores represent a bigger-is-better approach. If you truly believe that concept is true, then awarding a wine points might make sense. But as a winemaker once told me, “Bigger isn’t better, it’s different.” Or as a winemaker in Soave told me recently, “There are wines for tasting and there are wines for drinking,” In other words, some wines are just better with food because the winemaker isn’t interested in power or making the wine as rich as possible, but instead is interested in balance and finesse. The better balanced a wine is – white or red – the more foods it can accompany. And isn’t that why we drink wine in the first place? A humble Primitivo from Puglia that sells for $10-12 per bottle may not stand up to prime rib, but drink it with a slice of pizza or spare ribs and you’ve got a great partnership and one that brings pleasure.
There are literally hundreds of indigenous varietals from the entire country – far too may to mention here, even if I knew all of them. Fact of the matter is, no one in Italy knows all of them either; it turns out that varietals thought to be extinct are being discovered in vineyards from Piedmont in the north to Sicily in the south. But that’s the charming thing about Italy and its native varietals; there’s always something new – and different – out there for our pleasure.