A Beginner's Guide to Italian Wine
Explore different regions through their grapes, glass by glass.
Wine plays a key role in Italy's food culture. Bread, wine, and olive oil are the country's culinary staples, and wine is seen as a part of the table, with the whole family sharing bottles from local wineries. Get up to speed on the basics of Italian wine by exploring these four iconic wine regions via a few good bottles.
Think of Italy, and dreamy images of Tuscany come to mind―gently rolling hills covered in vineyards, gorgeous sunsets with rustic villas and cypress trees dotting the horizon. Tuscan wine is characterized by the red sangiovese grape, which is grown throughout the region. The grape is used in several iconic wines: Chianti, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Since sangiovese expresses itself slightly differently depending on the soil and microclimate where it's grown, it's fun to taste these regional variations and note the differences.
Across the board, whether you drink Castello di Gabbiano Bellezza Chianti Classico DOCG 2016, $39.99, or Poliziano Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano 2015, $22, the wines will be medium to full bodied, with bright cherry notes, echoes of Italian herbs like sage and thyme, a hint of dusty earth, and in the more delicate styles, even pretty violet aromas. These reds pair well with simple grilled steak or other meats as well as crostini or classic spaghetti pomodoro and other pastas.
White wine is far less common in Tuscany, but there are whites like Rocca di Montemassi Vermentino Calasole 2017, $15, made with the fresh, crisp Vermentino grape. These are medium bodied and full of citrus and orchard fruit flavors. Sip them before dinner or enjoy with proscuitto and melon.
Northeast Italy: The "Tre Venezie"
Love white wine? Look no farther than this northeast corner of Italy, which actually comprises three regions―the Veneto, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and Trentino-Aldo-Adige―and is anchored by Venice. You'll find the festive sparkling wine Prosecco like Cavaliere dʹOro Prosecco Veneto DOC, $11.99, as well as crisp, fresh, dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, such as Mezzacorona Cliffhanger Pinot Grigio Mezzacorona Cliffhanger Pinot Grigio, $18. Copy the locals and enjoy seafood or risotto or crisp salads with these wines. Added bonus: These whites are incredibly well-priced!
For regional reds, you'll find light-bodied ones like pinot nero (otherwise known as pinot noir), lagrein, and schiava. From around Verona, comes one of the most famous red wines of Italy: Amarone della Valpolicella. Amarone, like Tommasi Amarone 2013, $50, is made from a blend of grapes (corvina and rondinella) that are dried on straw mats to concentrate the flavors, the result is a splurge-worthy rich, full-bodied, voluptuous red wine that's perfect with savory meat dishes like short ribs.
Picture the "heel" of the "boot," and you're in Puglia, at the southern tip of eastern Italy. The region has a Mediterranean climate of short, mild winters and hot, dry summers. There's a relaxed bohemian culture here, boating and surfing are common pastimes, and the land is full of lush olive groves. At the market there are incredible fruits and vegetables but historically Puglia hasn't been known as a notable wine region. As a result of an influx of young, passionate winemakers drawn by the potential of the land, this is an upcoming wine region ready to be discovered.
Look for juicy, smooth, easygoing reds made with the primitivo grape, such as Cavaliere D'Oro Primitivo Puglia IGT 2017, $9.99, and the negroamaro grape, like Tenute Rubino Marmorelle Rosso Negroamaro 2013, $13.99. These easy-going wines pair well everything from pastas like cavatelli with spinach and fried eggs to crisp fried eggplant.
The Italian island of Sicily is not only a top vacation destination but also one of today's trendiest wine regions. Go to any hip wine bar, and you'll find they offer plenty of selections from Mount Etna as well as the areas surrounding Palermo. The volcanic soil gives a very distinct earthy and mineral quality to Sicilian wines.
The reds are based on grapes varieties Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese, both generally medium-bodied wines with dark fruit-driven flavors. Tami Nero d'Avola 2016, $19.99, is a fresh Sicilian red to enjoy year-round with the famous pasta Penne alla Norma or an Eggplant, Tomato, and Mozzarella Salad in the summer. The other main style of red wine in Sicily is frappato; Cos Frappato 2017, $24.99, is a good example of frappato which has a light and lively, red raspberry and wild strawberry notes.