UNDERSTANDING ITALIAN WINE
In her introduction to the bible of Italian cooking, The Essentials of Classical Italian Cuisine, Marcella Hazan wrote, “Ask an Italian about Italian cooking and, depending on whom you approach, you will be told about Bolognese, Venetian, Roman, Milanese cooking or Tuscan, Piedmontese, Sicilian, Neapolitan. But Italian cooking? It would seem no single cuisine answers to that name.”
Since their cuisines are very distinct from one another, it follows that the wines produced in these areas reflect far more than their grapes’ ability to thrive in each place; in most cases, Italian wines don’t reach their fullest expression without the food it was created for.
To give an example, Panzanella, the iconic Tuscan bread salad of summer, is loaded with the acidity of fresh tomatoes and vinegar. The famous white wine of Tuscany is Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Consumed on its own, Vernaccia is a tight, wiry wine of limited charm, perfectly fine as a dry white wine aperitif if you demand little else. But when consumed with Panzanella, something profound is released in the wine. It blossoms, revealing a fruitiness you would never have known possible were it not for the food. Encountering a Vernaccia at a wine tasting will not show you any of this. A score in a wine magazine is likewise useless.
Try that same Vernaccia di San Gimignano with cured meats, like prosciutto or salami, and it performs a different function, scrubbing the mouth between fatty bites, preparing the mouth so the next bite is as vivid as the first. There is real intelligence here. These people have thought about this stuff for centuries.
Hazan goes on to more deeply illustrate the cooking distinctions between regions, which also gives us insight into the wines grown nearby:
“Take, for example, the cuisines of Venice and Naples, two cultures in whose culinary history seafood has had such a major role. Just as Venetians and Neapolitans cannot speak to each other in their native idiom and be understood, there is not a single dish from the light-handed, understated Venetian repertory that would be recognizable on a Neapolitan table, nor any of Naples’s vibrant, ebulliently savory specialties that do not seem exotic in Venice.
“Four hundred and fifty miles separate Venice and Naples but there are unbridgeable differences between Bologna and Florence, which are only sixty miles apart. In crossing the border between the two regional capitals, every aspect of cooking style seems to have turned over and, like an embossed coin, landed on its reverse side. Out of the abundance of the Bolognese kitchen comes cooking that is exuberant, prodigal with costly ingredients, wholly baroque in its restless exploration of every agreeable contrast of texture and flavor. On the other hand, the canny Florentine cook takes careful measure of all things and produces food that plays austere harmonies on unadorned, essential themes.
“Bologna will stuff veal with succulent Parma ham, coat it with aged Parmesan, sauté it in butter, and conceal it all under an extravagant blanket of shaved white truffles. Florence takes a T-bone steak of noble size, grills it quickly over the incandescent embers of a wood fire, adding nothing but the aroma of olive oil and a grinding of pepper. Both can be triumphs.”
I would add, each other’s wines are regionally calibrated as well. The delicate dishes of Venice are accompanied by the typically lighter red and white wines of the Veneto and neighboring Friuli, while the robust flavors of Naples feature the full-bodied, full-flavored Aglianicos (Taurasi being the noblest), and deeper white wines, like Greco di Tufo and Fiano d’Avellino of Campania.
The most famous wine of Bologna is Lambrusco, a fizzy, earthy red, white and rose wine for a picnic of salami and Parma prosciutto, Reggiano di Parma and Balsamico Modena, three world-renowned foodstuffs made throughout the same region. The layered foods (lasagna was invented in Bologna) are best accompanied by the local light wines, such as Sangiovese di Romagna.
The wines of Tuscany, perhaps the most famous in all of Italy--Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and the more recent creations categorized as Toscana, but popularly referred to as “Super-Tuscans”--are all more complex wines, suitable for the simpler grilled foods of the region that allow its wines to more fully express themselves at the table.
My favorite dish of Tuscany, the one I can’t get out of my mind twenty years after eating it, is Pappardelle Cinghiale, the local wide noodle, dressed in a rich wild boar ragu. I ate it for the first time in a restaurant named Il Pozzo in the tiny hilltop town of Monteriggioni. It was so good I ordered it a couple days later in another small-town restaurant in Greve-in-Chianti, and it was equally wonderful. Although I drank a modern Chianti Classico with my dish, I’m sure my pairing would have been more successful if I had followed my own rule and ordered the local house wine instead, a lighter red for the super-rich dish.
Of course, it’s possible to enjoy the flavor of various Italian wines on their own. The most obvious example is Pinot Grigio, America’s most popular imported wine—red or white--for decades. For most Americans accustomed to drinking wine unaccompanied by food, choosing a wine that pleases you is fairly straightforward: taste through a variety of wines and select the ones that make you happy.
As I demonstrated before, wine in general, and Italian wine especially, reacts with food, negatively with the wrong foods and profoundly wonderful with the right ones. The key to having a fully satisfying relationship with Italian wines is to gain an appreciation for the local cuisines and wines of a particular region and immersing yourself in them for awhile. I call it living with your wine. You will discover things about your wine, and yourself, that will delight you along the way.
My wine education was woefully inadequate when it came to Italian wines when opening our store. Thanks to some very knowledgeable mentors early on, I was able to begin to build a foundation of understanding, which would become more and more sure-footed as years of tasting and many meals and meetings with Italian vintners, and reading on the subject, help flesh out my deficiencies.
Travel and experience have been indispensable in expanding my understanding and appreciation of Italian wine. An example of the latter was attending a huge trade tasting in Santa Monica sponsored by the Consorsio of Brunello producers where I was able to sample 35 or 40 Brunelli from the top producers of the region. Before that event, I always wondered what the big deal was with Brunello—the wines simply did not reflect their high price to my mind. After an intense immersion in one afternoon, I began to “get” Brunello. (Later, while touring the region, I learned there were six sub-zones of Brunello, all providing distinct characteristics to Sangiovese Grosso. Mastering Brunello would take more than one afternoon and a two-day tour.)
Travel is the greatest way to understand wine, consuming it with the foods of the region, meeting the people who created it, walking the vineyards, and smelling the place. Add to that one’s heightened awareness while in a new and sometimes strange place, and the impression is indelible. Eating seafood in Venice and coastal Tuscany, schnitzel in Alto Adige, stuffed zucchini blossoms in Tuscany, vitello tonnato in Piedmont, all consumed with local wines authentic to their regions, gave me more insight than I could learn from books, wine magazines or even formal tastings at the store or with the trade. (As of this writing, I haven’t toured Italy south of Rome, including Sardinia and Sicily, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata or Calabria. From what I gather from customers and friends, I can expect the same delightful wine and food revelations there, too.)