Why Italian Wines Are the Most Romantic
The wines of Italy conjure up classic images of love and romance. We have three Calgary restaurant pairings and six bottles you can buy to enjoy at home.
Super Tuscan and Rack of Lamb at Centini.
Photography by Jared Sych
What’s not to love about Italian wine? Maybe it’s that iconic image of a Tuscan villa nestled in rolling hills, surrounded by vineyards, that fills your lottery-winning daydreams. Or maybe it is the classic, yet stereotypical image of a rotund Italian waiter bringing a bottle of Chianti (in the straw-bottomed bottle, of course) and a steaming plate of spaghetti to your table with the red-and-white checkered tablecloth. Yes, I saw Disney’s Lady and the Tramp as a boy, and, yes, it still colours my impressions of both Italian cuisine and Italian wine.
But what is it about Italian wine that evokes such imagery? Simply put, more so than any other wine region, Italy evokes that sense of place, of verdant hills and lush vineyards, coupled with easily recognized cuisine and candlelit tables.
Vineyards in Italy
Italy’s location in the Mediterranean is perfect for winemaking — cool and wet in the winter, warm to hot in the summer, with soils ranging from volcanic to alluvial. Add to that centuries of experience knowing what should be planted where and what to serve it with, all of which makes for stunning wines at any budget.
Geographically, we all know Italy resembles a boot kicking a soccer ball (geography purists will note the “ball” is, in fact, Sicily). The capital, Rome, is located about mid-shin, and Tuscany, Italy’s most famous wine region, is just to the north. In Tuscany, the sangiovese grape is king. Wines such as Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and the famous Super Tuscan wines are all made here. Chianti and its far more elegant sibling, Chianti Classico, are on almost every Italian wine list. It’s based around Italy’s flagship wine grape, sangiovese, with a small portion of other grapes permitted in the blend.
Around the mid-1970s, a few Tuscan wineries started making premium-quality wines based around grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, rather than sangiovese. Drinkers (and press reviews) were very excited by these “new” wines such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Tignanello. After a few years of minor embarrassment, during which the new wines were prevented from using the higher-quality description Chianti or Chianti Classico, these wines were finally able to use a newly created IGT (Indication of Geographical Typicity) tier and let consumers know for certain that these were indeed Tuscan wines, but also so much more.
Wines from the north of Italy
Moving north from Tuscany, you may end up at the “knee” of Italy in Piedmont. This mountainous region is home to some of the biggest guns in the Italian wine pantheon. Here is where we get the full range of wines, from summery moscato d’Asti to bold and structured barolo. The biggest reds are made from the nebbiolo grape, although a number of grapes are in play here including some stunning whites made from grapes like arneis and moscato.
Veneto, around the back of the knee, is probably the second most well-known region of Italian wine. Encompassing the famous city of Venice, Veneto is also the home of valpolicella. This supple blend is among the most quaffable of the reds from Italy, but the region also boasts some of the most intense and sought-after reds called amarone. By slightly drying the grapes prior to vinification, the fruits become more raisiny, imparting into the wine flavours of dried cranberries, cherries or blackberries, and often earthiness and dark chocolate. Veneto is also the home of Italy’s most famous sparkling wine, prosecco. Made from the glera grape, these often-inexpensive bottles of bubbly are nearly a staple on every wine list and are worth stocking up for any large gathering. Some do, in fact, prefer it over Champagne.
Lesser-known wine regions of Italy
Outside of the more well-known regions of Italy’s wines are a few that should be tried if you haven’t yet. From the volcanic slopes of Sicily come wonderful wines made from everything from nero d’Avola, to smoky syrahs and the uncommon nerello mascalese. The bounty of the wines and cuisine of Abruzzo must be explored with the white grape pecorino or even the famous Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which is perfect for game meats or hearty fare. Puglia, near the heel, is well known for excellent value offerings, but also for its primitivo, which was recently determined to be, in fact, the same grape as zinfandel.
Regarding serving Italian wines, it is a disservice to think of them only when enjoying pasta. The reds can wow with red meats and game, as well as with all types of cheese. White wines are usually excellent with poultry, seafood of every shape and type and, yes, cheese. Unless it is a sweeter white such as moscato or an inexpensive quaffer such as soave, beware of serving whites too cold. Reds are best enjoyed at a cooler room temperature, but often warm up nicely in the glass.
As for aging, the sky is the limit. Less-expensive reds are released ready to drink, but most can benefit from a couple of years in the bottle before enjoying, while expensive examples really start to shine after five years or so.
Just like true love, Italy knows no bounds and can continually surprise you with greater depth and passion than you thought possible.
3 local pairings
Centini: Super Tuscan and Rack of Lamb
Maybe it’s time for a night on the town you want to remember. Consider getting a double magnum (3 litres, $385) of Le Volte — the hot, younger sister label of Ornellaia — paired up against the superb rack of lamb from the kitchen at Centini.
Open Range: Sicilian reds and Lamb Shank
The Sicilian Cerasuolo di Vittoria ($54) is a blend of nero d’Avola and frappato, but the palate is bursting with ripe, silky fruits, mixed spices and a little kick on the back palate that’s perfect for Open Range’s lamb shank with that awesome chorizo.
Toscana Grill: Pasta Pescatore with Pinot Grigio
I’m a fan of the Tiefenbruner pinot grigio ($38 for the bottle) from Alto Adige. Crisp and delicate, but still versatile; a solid match with the seafood flavours and white wine sauce of the pescatore. Everyone loves the grigio!
6 Italian wine picks
Talamonti 2010 Tre Saggi Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Abruzzo, Italy
An excellent bottle of Montepulciano at an excellent price, with big plum and black cherry fruits, a tart edge and some mid-weight tannins. It’s good to drink on its own, but should really shine with bigger red-meat dishes — perhaps one served with a saskatoon berry reduction. $16.
Santadi 2011 Carignano del Sulcis “Grotta Rossa,” Sardinia, Italy
One of the best wines I’ve had from Sardinia, it’s packed to the roof with black cherries. It’s also got plum, cedar and graphite flavours along with mid-weight tannins balancing what could otherwise have been excessive fruits. I paired it with a roast, but it could easily handle meaty, tomato-based sauces. $18.
Collevecchio 2009 Offida Pecorino, Abruzzo, Italy
A somewhat unusual grape typically found in Marche and Abruzzo, the nose is bright and floral, with spice and tropical fruit notes. Crisp and dry, with lifted apple fruits and touches of honey, it’s perfect for seafood or dishes with creamy sauces. $38.
Gelso Nero 2012 Nero di Troia, Puglia, Italy
Full-flavoured with sour cherries, blueberry, cola and a pleasing dusky/earthy character, this well-priced bottle has big fruits with prominent tannins and a long, earthy finish, with bitter coffee flavours. I’d pair it with lamb or beef and maybe something with mushrooms. $24.
Cascina Adelaide 2013 Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba, Piedmont, Italy
Lush and perhaps a little forward, this dolcetto is generous with its blackberry fruits along with licorice and the right amount of tannin to keep it serious, and seriously good. Pair with charcuterie or top-quality cheese. $25.
Montresor 2011 Valpolicella Ripasso Capitel della Crosara, Veneto, Italy
Ripasso is made by essentially steeping the wine in the dried grapes left over from making amarone. This ripasso is full-flavoured with intense spices, plum and black cherry, without being too easygoing. Very drinkable on its own or as a pairing with game or hard cheese. $20.