Be Italian – Your Guide to Italian Wines

Italy has 20 wine regions and 96 provinces which can make understanding Italian Wine incredibly difficult—but if you focus on four of the most famous grapes, it all becomes a bit easier to swallow.

Chianti Vineyards in Tuscany
Gorgeous vineyards in a Tuscan sunset

“You may have the universe, if I may have Italy.” –Giuseppe Verdi

Italian Wines

Italy vies with France every year for largest producer of wine in the world.  They make about 20% of the world’s wine and the average Italian drinks 45 bottles of wine each year. In fact, although it’s only about ¾ the size of California, Italy has more native grapes than any other country in the world- somewhere in between 400 and 500 varietals. This variety, the climate and the passion of the winemakers makes Italian wines some of the most distinctive in the world.

Italy has 20 wine regions and 96 provinces which can make learning about Italian Wine incredibly difficult. I can’t eliminate those complications, but if you focus on four of the most famous grapes in Italy, it becomes a bit easier to comprehend.

Sangiovese

You know those bottles of Chianti wrapped in straw with handles? As it happens, I love walking into an Italian restaurant and seeing those- it is evocative of Roman Holiday and other classic movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age. These nostalgia-worthy straw baskets are called fiaschi and are made of blanched straw. In fact, they were originally used to keep rounded Chianti bottles from blowing over and to protect the bottles when shipped. I know they never really took off in the US, apparently we think that looks cheap, but I can’t get enough of that look.

Sangiovese is the main ingredient in Tuscan Chianti. Italian wine laws mandate Chianti is at least 80% Sangiovese, but may include Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and other grapes to round out the flavor profile. As it happens, wine laws in Italy are incredibly strict. Italian wines have a mandated release date, a minimum aging requirement, and only certain grapes can be used in certain wines. In the 70’s and 80’s Italian makers wanted to make Bordeaux-inspired blends, but the DOC wouldn’t allow it, calling it table wine. Soon after they began to make incredibly elegant wines that don’t fall under the laws and called them Super Tuscans.

Sangiovese grapes are the chameleon of wine because they blend so well. This grape takes on characteristics from the terroir and the blending grapes, but maintains structure and acidity. It’s also the driving force behind tannic Brunellos and Montefalco Rosso (which is very light bodied and strawberry flavored). Sangiovese is a strange wine- it’s fruit-forward with flavors of tart cherry, strawberry and tomato. Sangiovese may have heavier, rustic qualities that make it savory- flavors of oregano, baked clay, espresso and balsamic vinegar. Not surprisingly, Italian wines pair insanely well with food. The acidity, medium body and tannins work with a variety of food, but I recommend tomato-based dishes and chocolate.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo from the Piedmont region is the major grape in Barolo and Barbaresco, each named from the specific regions they come form in Italy. Their flavor profiles are each full of cherry, leather, anise and roses and are high in tannins and alcohol. If Barolo is the older, larger, swarthier beast of a wine (intensely tannic and very rich) then Barbarescos are a younger, more demure, but still elegant alternative. Barbarescos have a lighter body and color, but are still aromatic, complex and sophisticated. Lately wine collectors are searching for age-worthy wines to collect. Needing a break from the prices of California Cabs and French Bordeaux, these wines have become new fan favorites.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is originally from France but grows well in Northeastern Italy: Lombardy. Veneto and Alto Adige. It is the most popular white grape in Italy (Italian wine production is more focused on red wines which make up 60% of all wine produced in the country). Pinot Grigio is a dry, acidic wine with tons of fruit flavors packed in (think lemon, yellow apple, melons, peaches, nectarines) and is the perfect drink for a hot summer day by the pool- it also works extremely well as the base of white sangria as the fruit flavors will intensify without becoming too sweet. I personally like to use it with strawberries, oranges, white cranberry juice and chopped basil or mint.

Prosecco

We all know how much I love all sparkling wines- bubbles are just my favorite thing to drink. In recent years, I’m guessing due to the affordability of the drink and the rise of brunch, Prosecco has become crazy popular.

It’s not the only sparkling wine from Italy, but it is definitely the most famous one. In fact, the original recipe for a Bellini at Henry’s Bar in Venice used Prosecco and not its French cousin, Champagne. Side note- I’ve never understood anyone taking a $30 champagne and adding OJ to it.

Prosecco is made in the Veneto region of Italy from the Glera grape. Unlike champagne, it is made using the “charmat” or tank method. This production style means that instead of having a second fermentation in the bottle (like classic champagne), it happens in large steel tanks. This allows for Prosecco to be produced faster and cheaper. This method makes Prosecco an incredible value to the consumer, and allows for the highly aromatic grapes to really shine through in your glass.

And yeah, it’s delicious mixed with peach puree (Bellini) or in your Mimosas, don’t feel like you have to hide it with mixers. Prosecco is a light, fruity wine full of green apple, honeydew melon, pears and honeysuckle. It’s crisp and creamy, it’s light-hearted and perfect to sip on its own during your next Girl’s Night. It also makes a festive, elegant and budget-friendly pick for wedding toasts.