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Italian Reds with Italian Food--A Perfect Marriage
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 5, 2010
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The temperature is hovering between 10° and 24°F. in the frigid Northeast U.S. as I write this early January column, and my thoughts are on red wine.  Like so many Americans, I consume lots of Italian dishes, this country’s overwhelmingly favorite ethnic cuisine.  Consequently, I find myself drinking more Italian red than any other type of red wine.  During the holidays, my Italian-American relatives have treated me to many plates of pasta, lasagna, sausages, broccoli rabe, eggplant parmigiano, and so forth.  As the designated wine expert in the family, I invariably provide the wine, and it’s invariably Italian red. 

Why does Italian red wine go best with Italian cuisine (especially when the food involves tomatoes)?  The explanation begins with the fact that Italians have always consumed their wines with food, and the style of wines that has evolved in Italy over the centuries is one which complements food.  Italian red wines are typically very dry, with crisp acidity and subtle flavors that blend with rather than overwhelm Italian food.  Many of today’s red wines, especially from New World regions such as California and Australia, are brash and fruity, and compete with--in fact, often overpower--so many cuisines.  Tomato-based Italian dishes, for example, need wines with lively acidity and subtle fruitiness to do well at the dinner table.  Frankly, I cannot recall a satisfying pairing I’ve ever had with tomato-based Italian  food and a New World wine.

Fortunately, Italy, with twenty regions all making wine, produces more different kinds of red wine than any other country in the world.  And so we always have an incredible variety of Italian wines to choose.  Italy makes lots of fine white wines as well, now more than ever (the production ratio in Italy is roughly two-thirds red to one-third white).  But because it is winter and cold, at least where I live, I’ll confine this column to Italy’s red wines. 

I have chosen what I consider to be the nine most important regions in Italy for red wines, and I will discuss the most renowned wines of these regions, with some general suggestions of food pairings. 

Two Italian regions truly stand out for red wines, Piedmont and Tuscany.  The other seven regions I’ve selected are Veneto, Umbria, Marche, Abruzzo, Campania, Basilicata, and Sicily.  I purposely left out Puglia (my bias: please excuse me, my Pugliese friends) because I’m not a fan of the hefty wines based on Negroamaro and Primitivo from this warm region.  Also, I will just touch on wines with pizza here, because I devoted an entire Wine Review Online  column in April 2009 to pizza and wine  (to read it, hit “Archives” in the masthead and scroll down).

The amazing thing about Italian red wines is that wine producers throughout the world have never been able to come close to duplicating them successfully in other regions.  Take Piedmont’s two great reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, made entirely from the Nebbiolo variety.  Pinot Noir might be a difficult grape to grow, but at least we do have decent examples of wines made from Pinot Noir in various wine regions of the world outside of its home, Burgundy.  The tannic, high-acid, slow-ripening Nebbiolo variety is a different story.  It reaches its zenith only in the fog-ridden Langhe hillsides of southern Piedmont, where it produces incomparable Barolo and Barbaresco.  And yes, Nebbiolo is also the basis of a small amount of Gattinara and  Ghemme in northern Piedmont, lighter-bodied wines than Barolo and Barbaresco, but also less expensive.  In Piedmont, these Nebbiolo-based wines are served with main courses such as wild boar, braised beef, and rabbit, but also with firm, flavorful Italian cheeses.

Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo that’s made outside of the Barolo and Barbaresco zones (lighter-bodied and ready to drink sooner) are the red wines of choice for antipasti, pasta dishes, pizza, and vegetables. The highly acidic, low tannin Barbera, typically from the Asti and Alba districts, is in fact my choice for the best wine in the world with pizza.

Tuscany’s two great red wines, Chianti (especially Chianti Classico) and Brunello di Montalcino, almost demand to be consumed with food.  Both of them, based on the Sangiovese grape, are very dry-textured and naturally tannic.  Chianti Classico, as well as Chianti Rufina (another excellent Chianti district), work extremely well with pasta and leg of lamb as well as steak.  The powerful Brunello di Montalcino, a wine known for its longevity, complements venison and beef entrées, and also hard cheeses.  But Brunello, like Barolo, usually needs about eight to ten years in most vintages to develop.  On the other hand, Rosso di Montalcino, a younger and less-expensive (baby) Brunello, is enjoyable after a few years.

Lighter-bodied Chianti wines, produced outside of the Chianti Classico region, are fine with pizza and light pasta dishes.  Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a Sangiovese-based wine similar to Chianti Classico, is another option, as well as its youthful brother, Rosso di Montepulciano.  Recently, another Sangiovese-based wine, Morellino di Scansano from the Maremma region in southern Tuscany, has become more popular.  Morellino has the advantage of a reasonable price and being ready to drink soon.  Two popular Morellinos are Moris Farms and Le Pupille.

Venice is the Veneto’s most famous city, but Verona is its wine capital.  Verona centers around three popular wine districts, Soave--one of Italy’s top white wines--plus the two red wine zones, Valpolicella and Bardolino.  Amarone della Valpolicella, a powerful, concentrated wine made from dried grapes, is a wine just made for cold winter nights, a fireplace, and a hunk of Parmesan cheese.  The medium-bodied Valpolicella Classico goes well with pasta as well as pizza.  Bardolino, fairly light-bodied, is a good apéritif red wine; it’s just delightful with salami, for example.  Corvina is the main grape variety in these Veronese reds.

Umbria, a region which borders Tuscany, has two renowned cities, Perugia and Assisi, and one of Italy’s most underrated, important red wines, Sagrantino di Montefalco.  Sagrantino, a grape that has been around since the Middle Ages, makes dry, robust reds which complement steaks and other red meats.  Another top wine from Torgiano, a town 12 miles north of Montefalco, is Rubesco Riserva, made by Lungarotti.  Rubesco Riserva, a complex, finesseful red which ages extremely well, can accompany subtle dishes such as pork roast.

Marche is one of Italy’s many secret treasures, a beautiful region on the country’s eastern coast, facing the Adriatic Sea.  Many Europeans go to its beaches in the summer, but few Americans know it.  First of all, food here is fantastic!  Its best-known wine is the white Verdicchio, but Marche also produces two very good reds, Rosso Cònero and Rosso Piceno.  Rosso Cònero, the better of the two, is made mainly from the Montepulciano grape.  It is quite tannic and full-bodied, and a good value, mainly because it’s really not well known outside of Marche.  Rosso Cònero goes well with game birds such as quail or pheasant, but also is great with most pasta dishes.

Just south of Marche is mountainous Abruzzo, another region with superb food and hearty red wines.  Its popular red, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, is one of the world’s great value wines.  Despite its value, this wine reaches unexpected heights in the hands of top producers such as Valentini, Masciarelli, and Cataldi Madonna.  Abruzzo also produces one of the world’s great rosé wines, Cerasuolo, from the Montepulciano grape.  Cerasuolo, deep cherry pink in color, really resembles a light red wine in appearance, and it needn’t be enjoyed only in summer.  It is dry, full-bodied (for a rosé), and delicious.  Cataldi Madonna and Valentini make exceptional Cerasuolo wines.  Drink Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with pasta, and Cerasuolo with seafood.

In southern Italy, I have chosen three regions south of Rome that make fine red wines.  Campania, one of this beautiful country’s exceptional provinces, grows perhaps the greatest produce in Italy.  Naples, the Amalfi Coast, and Mount Vesuvio, with the nearby ruins of Pompei, are “must” visits.  Campania’s great red wine is Taurasi, a long-lived, full-bodied, tannic wine with exceptional acidity.  It is made from the Aglianico grape, which is often compared to Nebbiolo because of its similar nature.  Taurasi is a wine to accompany hearty stews and meat entrées such as roast beef.  Three exceptional Taurasi producers are Mastroberardino, Terredora, and Feudi di San Gregorio.

South of Campania is one of Italy’s lesser-known regions, mountainous Basilicata.  This region must be included in a discussion of Italy’s top red wines because it is the home of Aglianico del Vulture.  Grown in vineyards around the extinct volcano, Monte Vulture, Aglianico del Vulture is very similar to Campania’s Taurasi, except perhaps that it does not need so much time as Taurasi to mature.  You can enjoy it after a few years of aging.  D’Angelo and Paternoster are its leading producers.

Our red wine tour of Italy concludes with Sicily, home of the greatest Greek architectural ruins outside of Greece.  Sicily, an island, actually makes more white wines than red, to accompany its wonderful fish and seafood dishes.  But Sicily has a number of fine red wines.  Its most renowned red variety, Nero d’Avola, is a versatile grape that produces both medium-bodied and full-bodied wines, all of which are dry.  Another red variety to look for, Frappato, produces lighter-bodied wines with a distinct aroma of cherries.  Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a potent, fuller-bodied red made from a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato.

For me, Sicily’s finest red wines come from the northeast part of the island, in the Mount Etna area.  Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcanic mountain, puts on quite a show every now and then.  From its cool slopes, vineyards produce lively, aromatic red and white wines with crisp acidity.  Etna Rosso is made mainly from Nerello Mascalese--a little-known but excellent variety--along with the similar Nerello Cappucio.  Benanti and Tenuta delle Terre Nere are leading producers.  Another excellent red wine from northeastern Sicily is Faro, produced around the slopes of the city of Messina.  Made mainly from Nerello Mascalese, Faro is a regal, velvety red with great length on the palate.  A memorable wine.  Palari is one of Faro’s top producers.

There you have it, a red wine tour of Italy, unquestionably one of the great wine-producing countries of the world.  For me, only France can rival it.  One thing for sure: when you dine Italian, drink Italian, for the finest culinary experience.