Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Wine Rules: 2: If you want to drink Italian, think Italian

The Italians choose to disagree. 

About everything. They disagree about how big - or small - Italy should be. 

They disagree about who should run the country - they've had 61 governments since 1945 - worth checking at the bottom of the page in case this has changed as I write* and they disagree about who should run the country -  they've had 39 prime ministers since 1945. Again, worth checking if that's changed too**.

They disagree about which is the best football team and who should play for it. They disagree about how much they should bribe the referee.

They disagree about whether a Ferrari is better than a Lamborghini is better than a Maserati. (I've owned two of the three, the former and the latter, and go with the Maserati. Or the Ferrari.)

They disagree on their favourite variety of pasta. And variety is the operative word. Pasta comes in 158 shapes. Or is it 159? They include Scialatelli of Scilatielli. Or is it Scilatielli of Scialatelli? And there's casonsèi. Or is it Casoncelli?

You get my point. And the same applies to grapes. In common with most Old World wine nations, and many New World countries, every Italian region has its own wine styles. But it goes further than that. 

They have their own grapes too. And it's not like France, where Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon dominate the red wines of Bordeaux, while Chardonnay dominates the white wines of Burgundy. 

In Italy, that would never do. So while they do have their own take on the great claret blends in their Super Tuscans and also produce the excellent Gaja and Antinori Chardonnays, these varieties are foreign to Italy.   

And many Italian varieties are probably foreign to you and I. 

We are familiar of course with the great red wine grape Nebbiolo - it has given us two of the greatest of Italian red wines in Barolo and Barberesco. 

Sangiovese too is a household - well a wine-drinking-household - name, giving us both Brunello de Montalcino and ever-popular and highly-variable Chianti. What of Corvina? The air-dried raisin at the very heart of Amarone? Primitivo is the grape, probably originally Croatian, that many people may know only as Zinfandel.

Who has ever heard of Ciliegolo, Gaglioppo, Lagrein, Pignolo, Refosco, Schiava or Teroldego? The Italian government has approved more than 350 grape varieties for use in winemaking, and a further 500 are thought to be growing on Italian soil.

These 850-plus grapes are as distinctively regional as Italian football teams, and they demand - and command - the same loyalty from their local fans. Sagrantino is Umbrian. Nero d'Avola is the wine of Sicily. Negroamaro comes from Puglia. 

It is the sheer extent of these regional variations that makes this country's red wines some the most original, intriguing and subtle of the Old World.

Among white wines, nowadays Pinot Grigio is the grape most commonly associated with Italy - but like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay it's a stranger in these parts. 

While old-fashioned Italian whites such as Lambrusco may be most familiar - and that familiarity has certainly bred contempt - the likes of Verdicchio, Garganega as exemplified in the improving Soave, Ribolla and Greco di Tufo all deserve the attention of fans from beyond their regional catchment areas, beyond Italian borders, and beyond the continental shelf, in exactly the same way as AC Milan and Juventus have scarf-wearing, flag-waving, screaming-at-the-TV supporters across Australia, America and Japan.

That is where you will find the joy of Italian wines. Beyond the seas of Chianti and Pinot Grigio that lap at our shores are a whole raft of delicate and deserving regional varietals that reward greater exploration. 

But almost whatever the wine, whichever the region and whoever you ask, this is where the one rule comes in, upon which virtually everybody associated with Italian wine can agree:

Wine takes second place on the menu, behind the food. There, I've said it.

Italian reds can be almost crunchy with tannin, deep and powerful on the palate, or robustly flavoursome in style - Negroamaro is sometimes translated as 'black and bitter' - while some whites can come across as highly acidic, nutty, even funky and fusty. 

As a result they need accompaniment. Italian wines have historically always been created to be enjoyed alongside food. If an Italian is eating he must be drinking. If an Italian is drinking, she must be eating. 

Think of the food you most commonly associate with the country and you may think of pasta, pizza, risotto - meals heavy with carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, that need balancing acid or tannin.

Rich flavours dominate meals. Sausages, cooked meats like Parma ham and salami, ragu sauces, strong hard cheeses like Grana Padano, Parmigiano; salty Tallegio and Pecorino, or powerful blues like Gorgonzola. 

That's the clue to choosing an Italian wine. What are you going to be eating? 

Because, if the answer is 'nothing' - then slide along a shelf or two to the wines of another country and avoid breaking Wine Rule Number 2: If you want to drink Italian, think Italian.

Or, to paraphrase St. Ambrose, When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

*No it hasn't.



  1. Hi, I'm Italian (and make wine in Spain) and I DISAGREE COMPLETELY with what you say about wine taking second place after food. Wine and food have equal importance at the table - everybody ought to know that :)

  2. Thanks Fabius - very funny :)

    I stand corrected.

  3. Thanks for the follow on Twitter John. Timely and enjoyable blog post as we highlighted our most recent Italian organic wine reviews today:


  4. Great article! Italian wine has always been an overwhelming topic for me and your article demonstrates it's vastness beautifully. I'm hoping that after few years a few tidbits about the stuff will eventually sink in.


  5. I agree completely! though of course I'm not Italian....


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