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Getting Comfortable with Italian Wines

Getting Comfortable with Italian Wines

VINO BLANCO: Italian whites are much different from the highly oaked Chardonnays common in the U.S.

When you are offered wines like Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Fiano di Avellino or Ribolla Gialla, is it any wonder why a wine buyer would be confused? These famous Italian wines have names that are unfamiliar to most, so it's no surprise that many wine lists feature a few comfortable Italian choices, such as Chianti Classico or Pinot Grigio. These two will sell, but your wine program needs variety. Here is a quick primer on some famous Italian wines.

Two things make Italian wines so appealing for restaurateurs: variety and harmony with food. Italy is a land of indigenous varieties, (i.e., grapes that are native to the country and often one region). Instead of the same six to eight varieties you see in most countries that produce wine (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.), Italy offers several hundred wine types. This can be confusing, but you offer your customers variety in the menu, so why not the same for wine?

Also, most Italian wines —white and red—have good natural acidity, which is critical in pairing with foods. Lively acidity in a wine can stand up to almost any type of sauce and also leaves your palate refreshed and ready for another glass.

For whites—and Italy has many excellent ones —look for the aromatic, non-oaked versions from the northeastern region of Friuli, such as Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco and Ribolla Gialla. These are intensely flavored wines with vibrant acidity and work best with lighter seafood. Best consumed within 2-3 years, these are entirely different from the highly oaked Chardonnays many drinkers are used to consuming. First-rate producers include Villa Russiz, Giovanni Puiatti and Livio Felluga.

Campania in the southwestern reaches also produces excellent dry whites that are crisp with a light earthiness. The leading wines here are made from native varieties, with the two most famous being Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino. The former is perfect with linguine with clams (a local specialty), while the richer Fiano can stand up to pastas, seafood or poultry. Not heavily promoted, these tend to be less expensive. Look for wines from Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Terradora and Caputo.

Don't forget Soave either for a lovely white wine. While few consider this wine type with their meal, the best examples have wonderful texture and a long, subtle finish with flavors of melon and apples and are ideal with snapper, whitefish or lighter chicken preparations. These are also excellent values; the best producers available in the domestic market include Pieropan, Gini and Ca' Rugate.

For red wines, there are many fine values, especially if you are looking for glass pours. Puglia in the southeastern corner of the country is home to some pretty spicy and flavorful reds at value prices. Primitivo is a bold, tangy red (similar to Zinfandel) and Salice Salentino is a long-time local red that has earthy, spicy notes. Producers worth seeking out include Rivera, Feudo Monaci and Cosimo Taurino.

Most veal, pork or poultry dishes tend to harmonize perfectly with wines made from the Sangiovese grape. This is the major red grape of Tuscany and there are several famous versions, ranging from Chianti Classico to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to Brunello di Montalcino. While a simple Chianti is a pleasant red wine with a very soft finish, a Chianti Classico generally has more weight and spice. But as the Sangiovese grape has moderate tannins and striking acidity, these wines have a natural affinity for foods, especially when tomatoes or mushrooms are in the mix.

A key tip here is to look for the producers. Chianti Classico is such a famous name and, unfortunately, there are some producers that live off the name of the wine and not on their own quality. For consistency, it is hard to beat the finest producers in Chianti Classico, such as Rocca di Montegrossi, Ruffino, Villa Calcinaia, Brolio or Fontodi.

These last two producers offer value even in a difficult vintage such as 2002. While many buyers may think about skipping Tuscan reds from this vintage altogether, they would be missing some fine values. Brolio and Fontodi among others did not produce their highest quality reds in this vintage, opting instead to use the grapes normally reserved for those wines in their Chianti Classico normale. These so-called regular wines are quite flavorful and prices are moderate. They may not have the staying power of the finest vintages such as 1999 or 2001, but they are well-made wines.

As for other Tuscan reds, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano —again primarily made from Sangiovese— is generally richer than Chianti Classico and pairs with the same foods, including veal chops and pork loin. These wines are often priced according to the prestige of the producer, so expect to pay more for the most famous vintners, which include Dei, Avignonesi (very big wines that need time) and Poliziano (extremely ripe, powerful wines for lovers of the more modern style of Tuscan reds).

Brunello di Montalcino is the most famous—and longest lived—Tuscan red. This is 100% Sangiovese (actually Brunello, a clone of Sangiovese) and is quite expensive. You really shouldn't drink one less than ten years old, but that doesn't stop the people who have to have one! You probably need a few glamour wines such as this on your list, so you won't disappoint with a Brunello from Banfi, Caparzo (the La Casa bottling is especially great, though difficult to find) or Il Poggione (a more traditional, elegant style). You will probably have to sell a Brunello di Montalcino for $100-200 a bottle (or two to four times more than a Chianti Classico or Vino Nobile), but they do represent a lot of class and luxury for an Italian red.

Finally, Piemonte is an important region for Italian red wines. Perhaps the most charming red in all of Italy is Dolcetto, which has upfront flavors of black raspberry and plum with moderate tannins and acidity. Once thought of as a simple quaffing red, today's examples (especially Dolcetto di Dogliani) have more depth and are quite simply delicious! This is a red wine most consumers love, especially as youthful bitterness is not a problem. You can sell these by the glass or by the bottle (usually no more than $40 on a wine list) and some of the best producers include Pio Cesare, Luigi Einaudi and Pecchenino.

A traditional Piemontese grape with quite different characteristics is Barbera. This grape has very high acidity and the wines are quite spicy, so pair these with everything from pastas to game. Many are fine values and will sell for $35-$40 on a list, while the most famous producers will cost another 20-30% more. Look for Elio Grasso, Seghesio, Michele Chiarlo and Vietti.

The most famous red grape in Piemonte is Nebbiolo, which produces powerhouse red wines, such as Barbaresco and Barolo. Tannin is a major component of a Nebbiolobased wine, so it is best to let these wines age, though a lot of hype for these wines translates into sales for customers that have to have them.

Today's versions, though still big wines, are softer upon release than examples from 20-30 years ago. So they can work well upon release, but only with a roast or filet.

While these are very expensive reds (most will sell in the $100-200 range on a wine list), there are a lot of followers out there. Producers that make elegant Barolos (yes, they do exist!) include Fontanfredda, Cavalotto, Rocche Costamagna and Marcarini (especially his “La Serra” bottling). The 2000s are a bit more polished and drinkable than usual so look for these, but don't miss the more refined and classic examples from 1998, which are usually better values (often 15 to 20% less than the 2000s).

One great advantage to a well-thought-out Italian wine program is that so many consumers love Italian wines. They may not understand them, so if you have good background knowledge of these wines, you will have the upper hand. Your customers will trust you and you will sell more wine. And isn't that what it's all about? —Tom Hyland

Tom Hyland is a Chicago-based freelance writer and educator who specializes in Italian wines. The publisher of the email newsletter Guide to Italian Wines, he can be reached at [email protected].