Since we are celebrating Columbus Day this week, it seemed like a perfect time to talk a little bit about Italian wines. For many people, discovering wine (and great food) is synonymous with Italy – my own love of wine was initially sparked by a trip to Italy when I was 17 (where the drinking age is 16, so I was completely legal!). But although many of us might have tried a wide variety of different Italian dishes, when it comes to wine, too often people get stuck drinking the same wines over and over.
So to help you set off on your own exploration of Italy, here is a guide to some Italian wines that are well worth discovering.
If you ask for an Italian white wine, there’s a good chance you will end up with a bottle of Pinot Grigio. You could actually think of the Pinot Grigio grape as the wine world’s version of Madonna. The wines can be uncomplicated, inexpensive and fun, and one can find real pleasure in the light, fresh, citrusy flavors. Mixed in among all the simple pop music, I mean wine, there are numerous well-crafted hits. For the wine virgins among you, seek out the best examples by looking for wines from Friuli, Alto Adige and from top quality producers in the Veneto.
I have to admit that every time I say the word Soave, I can’t help but follow it with “Rico Suave!” Since Soave is located near Verona, you could almost say that it is “Romeo Soave!” And while Soave (the wine) is a smooth operator, the comparisons do stop there. Soave is a commune located in the north east of Italy in the Veneto region. It is a dry white wine made predominantly from a grape called Garganega. While there is a good amount of basic Soave produced, the best examples typically have crisp, mouth-watering acidity and lovely aromas and flavors lemons, almonds and a hint of spice.
Brunello di Montalcino
You’ve probably heard of Chianti and its main grape, Sangiovese. Also in Tuscany is the commune of Montalcino, which has been famous for its red wines since the Middle Ages. The main grape used in Montalcino is a clone of Sangiovese, locally called Brunello. Brunello di Montalcino is typically a dry, full-bodied, rich and tannic wine that ages extremely well. You could say that it is a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio, whose dynamic film career seems to get better with time.
Nero d’Avola is Sicily’s most important red grape. It produces deeply colored, rich wines that typically have flavors of plums, leather, spices and red fruits. I suppose it is somewhat of an obvious comparison, but I can’t help but think of the great actor Robert di Niro when I think of Nero d’Avola. There’s a rustic, tough quality to both, but an underlying depth of character and quality. If you are looking for a wine to pair with a sausage pizza and your favorite Godfather movie, this would be one to try.
I’ve always loved the classic descriptor for the wines of Barolo: tar and roses. But the juxtaposition of these two smells represents more than just the aromas in my mind. To me they signify the layered complexity that is to be found in Nebbiolo, the grape used to make Barolo. The combination of the savory and perfumed notes brings to mind the great Sophia Loren. Like Sophia, Barolo has a certain earthy sex appeal as well as the ability to age gracefully for decades thanks to Nebbiolo’s intense tannins. If you are want to discover one of the truly great wines of Italy, perfect for pairing with grilled meats or full-bodied stews, try Barolo.
There’s just something about Moscato d’Asti that makes me smile. It reminds me of Roberto Benigni’s Oscar speech in 1999 – joyful and playful. Low in alcohol, slightly sparkling, intensely perfumed and easy to drink, Moscato d’Asti is one of my favorite wines to serve with dessert – or as dessert. Made from the Moscato grape and grown in the commune of Asti in the Piemonte, I think Moscati d’Asti is one of those wines that makes life beautiful – and fun.
The exciting thing about Italian wines is that this is only the start of the journey – there are so many other terrific wines to discover. Let me know what you think of my suggestions and I’d love to know if you have any favorite Italian wines that you have tried recently!