Posted on | March 28, 2012
Written by | Christy Canterbury MW
Italy is a fascinating peninsula of vinous goodness. There is, however, so much diversity that it is easy to get twisted-up between regions, varieties and styles. This is more and more true as the diversity of Italian vineyards and the creativity of Italy’s winemakers send more and more types of wines to our shores. So, here’s a handy reference chart for the basics and the classics as well as notes on recent trends to keep up with what is hurling down the turnpike.
Skyrocketing Wine Diversity and Quality
As we become more and more familiar with the land that used to send us little more than Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, we are starting to spread our wings and look at other Italian varieties that have always been enjoyed by the Italianos. Freisa, a light, zippy, floral red from the northwest is one. It’s perfect for antipasti and at its loveliest when slightly chilled. We’re also witnessing the delights of the Marche’s Verdicchio saline, minerally and nutty; it should be every seafood lover’s go-to Italian white.
Furthermore, there is a resurgence in the quality of certain classic wines. Soave and Bardolino are two prime examples from the Veneto. Many imbibers weaned on Moscato à la Asti Supmante are now drinking Moscato d’Asti. Perhaps the most exciting example, however, is Lambrusco. I was just at Gramercy Tavern with a famous California wine producer who turned up his nose at a glass, saying the last time he drank it was 25 years ago…and he didn’t enjoy its sweetness. It’s a shame he refused to taste this version as the wines we see today are most frequently dry and delightfully food-friendly.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, a renaissance has swept across Italy as producers have invested in bringing back—or at least in experimenting with—grape varieties they were previously content to allow to wither to extinction. These autochthonous grapes were shunned for their better-known colleagues like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Campania has rebirthed the four-square Pallagrello Bianco and red Casavecchia. A few Piedmont producers are playing nice with the floral white grape Nascetta. It’s now common to hear Carricante and Nerello Cappuccio when traveling across Sicily. Italy is going back to its roots…its grapevine roots, of course!
Orange: It’s the New Color in Wine
The trendiest trend in white Italian wines is the “orange” wine, or a white wine that has been exposed to oxygen and turned copper-hued. These wines gain their orange color from aging in one of the original wine production tools: anfora. These clay vessels of various sizes were the original fermentation tanks, aging and holding wine before barrels and glass bottles came about. Anfora tend to give wine texture on the palate, somewhat like barrels do, and because they are porous and producers do not keep them full to limit oxygen exposure, their resulting white wines are copper-hued. Orange wines are often served warmer than white wines and frequently have tannin, as producers who use anfora often allow the juice to spend time with the skins.
Many of Italy’s top wineries are making noteworthy second labels. This is particularly true in Tuscany, the home of the “Super Tuscan.” The intention of these second labels is usually multi-fold. Among the reasons are that producers want consumers to be able to enjoy the second label while the first label ages as well as to offer a second wine at a lower and more accessible price than the first. It’s a great way to discover a winery’s style. Luce, whose top wine is of the same name, makes Lucente. Solengo is Argiano’s numero uno, and its numero due is called Non Confunditur.
Some, perhaps inevitably, take it a step further. Tenuta San Guido (maker of Sassicaia) makes a second label, Guidalberto, as well as a third label, Le Difese. Tenuta dell’Ornellaia’s second label is named Le Serre Nuove and its third label is Le Volte. By the way, there’s no reason to worry that a third label might not be good. These producers are at the top of their game, and every bottle they make is a very fine wine indeed.
For a long time, even collectors kept their Italian wines over the stove. Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne garnered all the respect. While it can’t be claimed that Italy has received the full credit it is due for its ageworthy wines, many collectors have done an about-face. Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Amarone and the primo Super Tuscans top the list, and I would make an argument that Taurasi should be classified in this camp, too. Interestingly, while the grands vins of France did some pretty tricky nose-diving in price since the recession hit, Italian investment-grade wines have held onto their value.
Some of the country’s most impressive wine bars feature Italian wines, with lots of options by the glass. Top destinations in New York City include Anfora, I Trulli Enoteca, Peasant, ’inoteca and Lupa. If cruising around Atlanta, stops into Veni Vidi Vici and Pricci will take you on an extensive tour of the Italian “boot.” In Chicago, Café Spiaggia, Picolo Sogno and Prosecco beckon. Down south in Texas, there’s Villa-O in Dallas and at Coppa in Houston. Finally, in San Francisco, Bar Bambino has an extensive by-the-glass list while Uva Enoteca boasts a smaller but super trendy list. The plentitude of Italian-rich wine bars are integral both in keeping Italy on wine lovers’ radar and encouraging more experimentation among budding vino enthusiasts.