DIVING INTO ITALIAN WINE
Quite often I have customers tell me they are interested in Italian wines and want to learn more about them, but they are intimidated by our Italian wine section and don’t even know where to start.
I completely understand. Italy makes more wine than any country and mostly from grapes we’ve never heard of. And the Italian wine label doesn’t offer too much assistance either, as Italian wines are sometimes named for the appellation and sometimes named by the grape and region they come from.
Before Covid, I used to host Italian Wine 101 classes at The Wine Country where I presented guests with an affordable range of red and white wines from the major wine regions of Italy that I felt were great “introductory” Italian wines, those I want people to become familiar with when shopping for new wine options. One day soon, I hope to host others like it.
I thought it would be a nice time to share some new wines for people who are interested in learning more about Italian wines.
Rule #1 about Italian wine is that Italian wines are made for food!
The one thing I always tell people when they are first trying Italian wines is that Italians never drink wine without having food, and their wines are made for pairing with food. The wines tend to be higher in acidity and firmer in the mouth and usually not as great when just sipping on their own. They really shine, though, when paired with foods. And another thing: Italian wines are not limited to just Italian foods, but taste delicious with all kinds of cuisines.
Keeping that rule in mind, here are ten recommendations for approachable and affordable wines that are a great starting point to taking on the wonderful world of Italian wine.
2020 Kermit Lynch Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, Marche $12.99 per bottle
Verdicchio is an ancient grape grown in the hilly Marche region of Italy’s Adriatic coast, mostly grown in the Castelli di Jesi commune, and Italians from Marche are quite proud of their world class white wine. This is another dry, crisp white wine built for seafood but it also carries enough weight to pair well with a wide variety of foods. I was quite happy when Kermit Lynch began importing this great value Verdicchio from Azienda Santa Barbara. Their Verdicchio is slightly more generous and round, with more fruit than most examples of this varietal, while still offering that classic zippy minerality and freshness. A wonderful introduction to this sophisticated white wine.
Unfortunately, Pinot Grigio has got a bad rap here in the U.S. due to the insipid, cheap versions being mass produced for the American market. I’m here to tell you that excellent Pinot Grigio is being produced across the northern regions of Italy (Samantha likes to call them “grown up Pinot Grigio”) and Pinot Grigio wines from these regions are packed with flavor, complexity and stony minerality. Each vintage of Cescon’s Pinot Grigio surprises me with how good it is and always slightly different which keeps it exciting. This is not a watery or thin Pinot Grigio by any means and it never disappoints. This pinot grigio is medium bodied and packed with flavor with an elegant, silky mouthfeel. That is why it is one of our best selling Pinot Grigios in the store. The little twig on the bottle is a vine clipping from their vineyards located in the eastern part of the Veneto region north of Treviso. A great value!
Tyrsos is a classic, fresh expression of Sardinia’s prized white wine. Medium bodied with zesty citrus flavors and a hint of Mediterranean herbs. Can be enjoyed as an aperitif or fantastic with fish dishes. Contini is the oldest continually operating winery in Sardinia.
For some of you Gavi di Gavi may be an old familiar friend and for many a new discovery. Gavi di Gavi once was the most popular Italian white wine in the U.S. long before Pinot Grigio became all the rage. Gavi di Gavi is a dry, refreshing white that is perfect for drinking on warm summer nights. It’s light and fresh and can simply be enjoyed as an aperitif but also has enough character and body to pair with a variety of summer foods. It’s zesty citrus flavors pair great with salads, pesto or other herb forward dishes, grilled fish and chicken.
Bonfante’s Gavi di Gavi is a beautiful example of this classic wine. Aromas of stone fruits, citrus white flower and herbs are followed by a generous mouthful of citrus fruits and lip smacking minerality. It’s an energetic wine yet balanced and elegant on the palate.
Soave was once the most imported and sold Italian wine in American back in the 1970’s but got a bad reputation from large winemakers producing simple, flavorless, bulk style wines to feed the huge demand. Soave wines have come a long way since then and are now being recognized as some of the best quality white wines produced in all of Italy, especially when they produced in the Soave Classico region with its mineral rich, volcanic soils. This is a light, dry white wine from Northern Italy that is great for your weeknight dinners. Lovely aromas of white citrus flowers are followed on the palate with flavors of fresh stone fruits and pears. The wine finishes with the classic note of fresh almonds. Super refreshing and enjoyable!
Montepulciano is a grape grown in the central regions of Italy, mostly on the Adriatic coast in the Abruzzo and Marche regions. It’s not to be confused with Vino Nobile, the Sangiovese based wine from the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany, which has no Montepulciano grapes in it. It’s hard to find bad Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines so don’t fret too much picking one out. Most are very affordable, juicy with dark red berry & plum fruits and somewhat soft on the palate making them crowd pleasing and quaffable. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a medium bodied, rustic wine with plenty of spicy tones that pairs wonderfully with flavorful American-Italian foods, burgers, pizza, grilled meats and more. Farnese’s Fantini Montepulciano is an incredible value at $9.99 so grab a couple bottles because it will probably be gone before you know it.
You’ll often hear me say that Barbera is one of Italy’s greatest food wines. It is Italy’s third most planted grape but especially produces great wines when grown in the cooler, hilly regions of Asti and Alba in Piedmont. It’s here that Barbera retains its freshness and acidity and the vibrant red and black cherry fruits really shine. Barbera has somewhat soft tannins making it approachable and crowd friendly. This Monferrato Rosso – Selected by Kermit Lynch--was first made in 2009 using a blend of the region's red varieties. It's been a hit every year since and still an amazing value. Loaded with brambly berries, bright acidity, and soft, earthy tannins, the wine is a faithful representation of Piemontese reds at bargain cost: just what you would want in your carafe at a roadside trattoria, and the perfect weeknight red to gulp down at home. The blend is mostly Barbera with small amounts Dolcetto, Bonarda, Freisa and Croatina.
Valpolicella is another great food wine from northern Italy that is often overlooked. Valpolicella is a wine region in the Veneto region of Northern Italy. Valpolicella wines are produced from grapes you’ve probably never heard of like Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara and Corvinone and you’ll mostly likely never see those grapes on the label anywhere. The wines are simply called Valpolicella and come in different styles from light and accessible to rich and powerful. The styles, ranging from lighter to heavier, are noted on the wine labels as such; Valpolicella, Valpolicella Superiore, Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone della Valpolicella. Zenato’s Valpolicella Superiore is a medium bodied wine that delivers ripe red and black cherry fruits with hints of baking spice and herbs. It’s robust and fresh but soft and velvety. This wine is versatile enough to be enjoyed throughout an entire meal from appetizers to entrees. Always a hit with people!
Nero d’Avola is Sicily’s main red grape and is known for its bold, dark berried fruity wines. These wines can range from medium bodied, young and fresh, to full bodied and rich with oak aging. Younger wines are great weeknight wines that match well with bold flavored foods, burgers and sausages. This is an everyday style of Sicily’s main red grape. Light to medium body with fresh purple and red fruits. It’s smooth and easy drinking. Great for pizza night or a red sauced pasta. So enjoyable!
Consistently one of the finest values in The Wine Country. Dei's Rosso di Montepulciano is a lighter, fresher easy-drinking version of its more structured and elegant Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The Sangiovese grape takes the leading role in the wine expressing its floral and fruity aromas with notes of Tuscan earth in the background. Bright acidity and dusty tannins add just enough structure to pair with a wide variety of foods.