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.

Marry, Bang, Kill: Old World Wines

Oh Germany- we love you for your beer, your strudel… but unfortunately, your wine doesn’t quite make my heart sing- and that’s why I’m just going to have to kill you. Sorry, you have given us some truly delightful wines- I genuinely enjoy Blaufrankisch- (similar to Pinot Noir but with a bit more backbone, a bit more drama and spice). And your take on Pinot Noir (Spatburgunder) is almost as elegant as many Burgundies I’ve had. Silvaner sure as hell is an interesting grape (a finicky one, difficult to grow, but when done right has a passion fruit and peach flavor along with some herbaceous thyme and spice for something different)- it’s fun  one to casually toss around in conversation with wine lovers and look like a bona fide badass. I can even move past my personal vendetta against your ubiquitous Riesling and try to just respect that everyone has their own likes. (Before I start getting hate mail and pipe bombs mailed to me, look, I’ve honestly just never had one and thought, “yum, I would like to continue putting this flavor in my mouth.”)

But my dislike for Riesling isn’t really what killed you- no, I’ve spent weeks studying, reading, podcasting… and I still just can’t seem to figure out your wine laws. Seriously, I’m as baffled as ever. I mean, we’ve got pradikatswein, qualitatswein… you have 200 wineries that are “invited” to be VDPs, which seems to be like the Cru system in France, but with less history and definition. There’s Trocken, Halbtrocken, Feinherb that all tell you how ripe the grape was (how much residual sugar), and so far as I can tell, you can have up to five of these kinds of descriptors on the same label. So, basically, I’m confused- and I don’t like being confused. I’m a smart person, but you just don’t make me feel like it. And no, I’m not letting that deter me, one day I will master your weins and the 7000 laws you have to go with them, but in the meantime, I’m sorry, you’re dead to me. But hey, don’t take it too hard, it was a tough category and I think a lot of experts will disagree with me… but I’ve never minded being a rebel.

So now, who would I bang? Ummmm, easy- France. Oh France, so much temptation- we’re talking like Eliot Spitzer-level prostitute at $10k/night kind of temptation.  And where even to begin? Seriously, from the rich, intense, complex Rhone Valley GSM blends (think Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas… powerful but velvety hedonism in a bottle) to the irresistible, bubbly luxury of true, classic Champagne- is there a more beautiful sight than the perfect, tiny little bubbles beading up towards the surface? (Hint: nope, it’s definitively the most beautiful thing in the world).

And then, if I’m dabbling in the world of Sauvignon Blanc you can be damn sure I’m going with a perfectly-balanced Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume from the Loire Valley- bone dry, minerality and somewhat astringent without being too austere or overly tart. (BTW, New Zealand, you can keep your overpowering notes of “lawn trimmings” to yourself, no thank you). Then, if I’m being honest, I don’t think I can even get started on the ridiculously amazing things coming out of Bordeaux and Burgundy- I’m going to have to do an entire blog post on Medoc alone! So, yeah, France is going to be one of the best nights of your life- but not necessarily meant for the day-to-day: it’s a little too fancy, a little too perfect and exact and wonderful- even the most brilliant diamonds begin to lose their sparkle and shine after a time.

No, for longevity- for a true life partnership, for me it’s Spain. Spain is the country that never fails me; it meets every single one of my needs: food pairings, aperitifs; if I need something to sip by the pool in the summer I’ve got my slightly frizzante, tart and refreshing Verdejo from Rueda or an intensely aromatic and bracing, mouth-watering Albarino. Then, in the winter I can always count on my Priorat or Ribera del Duero blends- those spicy, tannic, fruit bombs made with the luscious, eponymous grape Tempranillo. These wines help keep me warm as I sit in the house, annoyed by the falling snow that’s going to make traffic into the office tomorrow a real bitch.

Oh, and it never hurts to remember that these wines are generally so reasonably priced- I can afford a lifetime of memories with these bottles while still managing to pay my almost crippling student loan debt, (aka another reason why I drink).

Spanish wines are something you can bring to your in-law’s Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations and they’ll please even the pickiest palates (oh, you know who I’m talking about Cramers). You can bring some to your high school reunion and impress the hell out of everyone by your refined tastes and out of the box thinking. In fact, your crush from back in the day is going to see what he missed out on when he took whats-her-face to Homecoming (but it’s cool, you’re over it). OH- and don’t forget, for any and all celebrations, bring on the Cava- it may be made with different grapes than its French cousin Champagne, but it’s made using the same method- fermenting a second time in the bottle for a rich, complex sparkling with notes of pear and melon, a hint of citrus zest- and, of course, the rich, nutty, toastiness that I just need in my life, always. There is a restaurant in London where you can hit a button for more Champagne to be dispensed- I would easily pay upwards of $5,000 to have that installed in my house but filled with Cava. And again, at $8-12/bottle for genuinely great bottles- I can, and have, counted on it on a daily basis. It’s always in my bar, in my fridge- just like sour dill pickles, tons of unsalted butter and half and half for my coffee, it’s a staple of my diet and my life.

Spanish wines got me through my divorce; the first bottle of wine I ever drank with my soon-to-be husband was a Rioja with my infamous lasagna on our third date. I have enjoyed a wide variety of Cavas over brunch with my girlfriends and toasted a dear friend at her memorial service with a particularly vibrant bottle- zesty and refreshing, just like her. And I’ll never forget the day that I turned in my thesis for my Master’s degree, instead of a fancy schmancy French, we popped open a bottle (or two or three… whatever, my Masters wasn’t in counting) to celebrate the milestone.

And that’s what I’m talking about. For all of the best and many of the toughest moments in my life, Spain was there for me- and if there is one thing I learned from my divorce, that’s what makes for the best marriages- consistency, loyalty, support. So, yeah, apologies to the future Mr. SommBitch, I do genuinely love you- but you need to know and respect that Spain will always be in my heart (and probably my stomach, liver and blood stream)-  eso es el amor de mi vida.