Get To Know Italian Wine
A quick primer on Italian wine varietals
"A bottle of red, a bottle of white? It all depends upon your appetite. I'll meet you anytime you want, in our Italian restaurant." That line, from Billy Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," makes it seem fairly easy to pick a wine — red or white? — when going out for Italian food, but did you know there are allegedly more than 3,000 indigenous Italian wine varieties? Officially, there are 350 authorized wine grapes throughout Italy, so narrowing down what to offer guests on your wine list can be a little complicated if you're not that familiar with Italian wines.
But don't let that overwhelm you. According to Rachael Lowe, sommelier and beverage director at Chicago's Michelin-starred Spiaggia, there are six varietals you can focus on: Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Corvina, Pinot Grigio, Vernaccia and Garganega, the first three being red; the latter, white.
These wines tend to be the best sellers, Lowe said, and that if you want to slowly add Italian wines to your list, you can start with Super Tuscans. These wines, from the Sangiovese-rich Tuscany region, are generally Sangiovese blended with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Syrah. They're usually medium- to full-bodied reds with nice fruit represented and a decent amount of tannins to add some dryness, but not to overwhelm the palate.
"I think Super Tuscans are an easy sell, as they bridge the gap between New and Old World," Lowe said. "People who don’t know Italian wines and are concerned about dipping their toe into the pool, as they are most comfortable with California Cabs, for example, generally find these wines a great entryway into Italian wines. Though I also find that selling wines from Etna are pretty awesome, as consumers who enjoy a good Pinot Noir or Grenache, but are open to new things, usually greatly enjoy a lovely Nerello Mascalese blend from Mt Etna; they drink similarly in weight and structure."
While some people are happy drinking a glass of wine on its own, Italian wines are meant to go with food, which helps explain why Italy produces so many: Their food is as diverse as the country is long. There's incredible diversity in wine varieties in Italy, from the north to the south and even within specific regions because of altitudes, weather patterns and winemakers. In Northern Italy, red wines tend to have more tannins and higher acidity; whites also tend to have more acid. Down south, the grapes tend to be fleshier and offer hints of red and black fruit and dried herbs, while whites can offer more aromatic and tropical notes.
Going a little deeper, here are characteristics of the six main Italian grape varieties.
Hailing from the Piedmont region in northwest Italy, Nebbiolo is considered Italy's most noble grape, producing some of the most prized wines like Barolo and Barbaresco. It tends to have a light-bodied color, nice fruit and heavy tannins.
The most popular Italian varietal, Sangiovese grows throughout Tuscany but has several regional names including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Morellino di Scansano. They tend to be fruit forward, have higher alcohol content with nice structure and balanced tannins.
One of the three grapes, along with Rondinella and Molinara, that makes up the lush and gorgeous Amarone (as well as Ripasso and Valpolicella wines) from the Veneto region. Jammy, pruney and packed with dark fruit, this is a wonderful wine for grilled meats and game.
Other red Italian wines to look for:
Montepulciano d'Abruzzo; Primitivo (a.k.a. Zinfandel); Barbera; and Negroamaro.
Hailing from the northern regions of Alto Adige, Fruili and Lombardy, Pinot Grigio is one of the most popular white grapes not only in Italy, but also the world. The same grape as the French Pinot Gris, it’s a crisp, somewhat dry yet citrusy easy-drinking wine that pairs well with lighter seafood dishes.
Most closely associated with Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Tuscany, this white grape is also grown in other regions. It is crisp with nice minerality, has lovely citrus, peach and tart green apple notes and good acid to help it go nicely with seafood and vegetables.
This is the most widely grown white grape in the Soave region in the Veneto. It is a crisp, clean, cool-climate white with notes of lemon zest, peach and honeydew that goes well with rich seafood like scallops and clams as well as gnocchi and risotto.
Other white Italian wines to look for:
Trebbiano (a.k.a. Ugni Blanc); Verdicchio; Arneis; and Moscato.