Many wine lovers lean heavily on the varietals they have come to know best —California Cabernet Sauvignon, Australian Shiraz, French Chardonnays and so on.
But such habit may be keeping wine drinkers from discovering the grape varietals that form the core of Italian wines. It’s high time they learned a little bit about one of the world’s top wine-producing countries.
Wine grapes grow in every region of Italy, from the foothills of the Italian Alps to Sicily’s sun-dappled coast. Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula with more than 5,000 miles of coastline offers a temperate climate and is perfect for wine production.
The peninsula was producing wine well before the Romans established their own vineyards in the second century B.C., with Greeks growing grapes in the south and Etruscans in central Italy. By 92 A.D., vineyards were so numerous that the Roman emperor Domitian had many uprooted so as to access their fertile land for food production.
More recently, Italy topped the list of wine producing countries in 2015, producing more than 1.3 million gallons of wine, with runner-up France’s 1.2 million gallons, according to Italian Wine Central, an educational website. Italy produces about 20 percent of the world’s wine crop and accounts for 32 percent of all wines imported to the U.S.
Yet despite that high profile, many U.S. consumers are not as comfortable with Italian wines as they should be. Unfamiliar grapes fuel consumers’ confusion, and some Italian wine labels and terms are hard to interpret. But those are minor challenges compared to the bounty of aromas and flavors that await inside each glass.
It’s time to lay aside the Lambrusco and reach beyond Chianti for wines more sophisticated, and yet utterly affordable, to grace your table. Don’t worry about the labels. DOCG and DOC are both quality classifications under Italian wine law.
Here is a brief list to get your taste buds tingling.
The Cortese Italian wine grape varietal serves as the basis of the Banfi Principessa Gavia Gavi DOCG ($16). The medium-bodied dry white wine pairs well with Italian seafood, offering notes of both pineapple and green apple on the nose and palate.
The Terlano Pinot Bianco Alto Adige DOC ($16) might at first cause confusion, since the Italian Pinot Bianco is the same grape as the French Pinot Blanc. However, the effects of the different terroir on the white wine grape results in an Italian wine zippier and more acidic than the French version. In this case, that zesty-ness includes aromas of apple and chalk and flavors of citrus, apple, clove and quince, with a long lingering finish. This wine blends well with white meats, shellfish and egg-based sauces.
Garganega is one of the key wine grapes of the Veneto’s Soave region and comprises 85 percent of the Pieropan Soave Classico ($17). Balanced with 15 percent Trebbiano di Soave, this wine pours a straw yellow color shaded by hints of green and a nose reminiscent of almonds and marzipan. The palate has a soft texture and bright acidity, making it a fine accompaniment for vegetable dishes and seafood.
Sicily produces one of our favorite wine grapes, Nero d’Avola, and Tenuta Rapitala Campo Reale Sicilia DOC ($13) brings out some of its best characteristics. The wine pours a deep ruby red, with cherry and herb notes on the nose and palate. It’s nicely structured with firm tannins and delicate acidity.
The Pala I Fiori Cannonau di Sardegna DOC ($18) has a similar delivery, with more mature spice and a lingering finish. Its namesake grape, Cannonau, known as Grenache in France, is one of Sardinia’s most successful wine grapes.
Like Soave, Valpolicella is one of the distinctive wines of the Veronese district, and the Palazzo della Tore IGT 2012 ($18) is one of the better examples of the winemaking art. Produced from a blend of Corvina Veronese (70 percent), Rondinella (25 percent) and a touch of Sangiovese (5 percent), the red wine is rich and robust with a velvety mouthfeel and a full complement of fruit flavors. It pairs well with risotto, pasta dishes and red meats.
The Santi Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC Solane ($13) offers much the same characteristics as the previous wine, but for fewer dollars. In this case, some Amarone grapes, dried in the sun, are added to the fermentation vats to produce richer flavors in the ripasso style, redolent of cherry, spice and fresh earth.
In the terms of Italy’s Piedmont, the term maraia is synonymous with “rascal,” and the Marchesi di Barolo Marais Barbera del Monfferato DOC ($13) evokes that same liveliness on the palate. Produced from 100 percent Barbera grapes, the wine is dry, fragrant and robust, a fine complement to any hearty fare you may care to serve.
One of the top picks for the price, the Nino Negri Quadrio Valtellina Superiore DOCG 2011 ($18) combines the opulence of Amarone with the elegant complexity of Barolo. Produced primarily from Chiavennasca grapes (the local name for Nebbiolo) picked in the “pre-Alps” region just south of the Swiss border, the wine pours a deep garnet color with a nose of raspberry, roses and herbs and palate filled with lively tart fruits and traces of toasty oak that makes for a long, lingering finish.