Looking for a beginner's guide to the world of Italian wines? Trying to distill down Italy's wine regions, varietals, producers and vintages into a beginner's guide is like trying to thread a rope through a needle, but here goes...
From Sangiovese to Trebbiano and the wide viticultural variations that lie in between, navigating the wine shop shelves to find an Italian wine that will complement a Friday night lasagna can be a fun-filled experience - if you are armed with a little Italian wine knowledge.
While Italy has successfully planted the vast majority of the dominant international grape varietals, the country's domestic vines are what offer the true flavor characteristics that have made Italian wines world renown for ages. With literally hundreds of wines produced in Italy annually, it is no wonder that selecting Italian wines can be a bit intimidating. Deciphering Italian wine terms and names, interpreting Italian wine labels, learning Italian wine classification systems, understanding regional grape growing zones , and discerning grape varietals that do not always fall into the "familiar" category are all part of the Italian wine adventure.
First things first, generally speaking Italian wines can be divided into two main categories:Table Wines and "Higher End" Italian Wines
Before, we go into the nuances of the two categories, keep in mind that Italian wines are made for Italian food. The two go hand in hand, and like a good marriage both are typically enhanced by the other. That said, the Table wines are generally less expensive red or white wines that are produced to be consumed in the easy-going atmosphere of an Italian-style family dinner. They are often sold in larger jug-like bottles and are a main-stay of an Italian dining table. Table wines are often fruit-forward wines, that can lean a touch on the sweeter side, some are sparkling, most are light-medium bodied and are very compatible for first time wine drinkers. Lambrusco is likely the Table wine that comes to mind; for better or for worse. Lambrusco, a dry, red wine with a touch of 'frizzante,'(an Italian term for slightly sparkling) has had a reputation for focusing on quantity with a lackadaisical eye placed on quality. However, Lambrusco times have changed and many producers are upping their quality standards making this an ideal time to give it a try. Which to try? If you are looking for something beyond the 1970's famed Riunite Lambrusco, then check out Ca de Medici Terra Calda Vino Frizzante Rosso priced around $10 a bottle. A super wine to pair with everything from spaghetti and meatballs to backyard BBQ fare. Another good Italian table wine is Bera Dolcetto d'Alba . For some, an authenticChianti , encompasses the Italian Table wine genre. For others, they prefer to turn it up a notch, part with a few more bucks and experience a Chianti Classico. Still uncertain where to start? This list of reasonably priced Italian wines should get you started.
Beyond Italian Table Wines, the Sky is the Limit
High end Italian wines range in quality designations, from good to superior. With over 2000 native grape varieties covering varied terrain, growing in forgiving climates and all packed on one outstanding peninsula, you can imagine that the resulting wine combinations would be just as diverse as the sub-cultures that surround them.
Super-Tuscans, comprised of mostly Sangiovese, blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot or Syrah, typically quantify quality, and are thus on the upper end of the price spectrum (ranging from $25 - $100+). Due to unique blends and varied growing terroirs , Super-Tuscans cannot be easily pinned to one style or stereotype. Super-Tuscan producers to scout for include: Viticcio ,Antinori , and Tenuta dell'Ornellaia.
Barolo and Barbaresco Wines
Good Barolo and Barbaresco wines, derived from the noble Nebbiolo grape are typicaly reserved for Sunday dinners or celebrations. These wines can range in price from $35 - $100+ depending on the vintage and producer.
The vast majority of Amarone wines come from the Valpolicella area, in Italy's northeast corner. They are typically considered one of Italy's big, bold red wines, Amarone has fruit-forward flavors of cherry, raisins, plums and spice. They are made from grapes that have been partially dried and historically have had higher alcohol contents (14-16% range). Top Amarone producers to consider are: Masi, Speri, and Allegrini.
As for better quality Italian white wines, often Pinot Grigio comes to mind. For Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige has it going on. Deeply aromatic, vivid white wines with flavor and presence - Try one of the Top 20 Pinot Grigios from Alto Adige, the white wine for summer sipping. Consider Elena Walch, J. Hofstatter, Santa Margherita and Weingut Niklas for some stellar Pinot Grigio finds.
Whether you are looking to expand your wine horizons or just hoping to grab a good Chianti with dinner, Italian wines are a cornerstone of today's wide world of wine.