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Discovering Italian Reds

  Theme

Italian red wines are like no other wines in the world.  They’re made from grapes that don’t flourish anywhere else in the world, and they’re made to be enjoyed with food.  If you’re sitting down to a meal of pasta, pizza or more sophisticated Italian cuisine, it would be almost unimaginable not to pick an Italian vino rosso as the wine to pair with your meal.  This tasting introduces you and your guests to the wide variety of Italian reds out there and is sure to bring you back for more exploration of Italy’s fabulous red wines.

Angle

This is a horizontal tasting of red wines from a variety of different Italian grapes and wine regions.  You’ve heard the names before – Chianti, Valpolicella, Montepulciano – but we’re willing to bet you may not be exactly sure how these wines differ from one another.  This tasting will compare them side by side.  Display the wine bottles & labels and give your guests tasting notes so they can begin to get better acquainted with the ways a Dolcetto differs from a Barbera from a Rosso.  Serve them from lightest to most full-bodied.  Enjoy!

Sample Lineup

  1. Valpolicella, Masi “Bonacosta” ($9)
  2. Dolcetto d’Alba, Marchesi di Barolo “Madonna di Como” ($12)
  3. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Bosco, Riserva ($12)
  4. Barbera, Fontanafredda Piemonte “Briccotondo” ($11)
  5. Cannonau, Sella & Mosca, Riserva ($14)
  6. Chianti Classico, Isole e Olena ($12)
  7. Rosso di Montalcino, Ferrero ($16)
  8. Nebbiolo, Renato Ratti, Nebbiola d’Alba “Ochetti” ($20)

 

The Wines

This is a tasting where you’re trying to show off a range of wines made from different grapes in different parts of Italy.  We tried to pick wines at affordable price points (most are less than $15/bottle) that were recommended by some of our favorite merchants and that have won plaudits from some of the more prominent wine critics.  If you can’t find these, though, don’t worry; the varietals are more important than the specific winemakers you choose.  Your local wine merchant can provide some recommendations for wines they know and like, and that they keep in stock regularly.

Valpolicella and Dolcetto are lighter, easy-drinking wines.  Barbera, Montepulciano and Cannonau are more full-bodied but still smooth and gluggable.  Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montalcino and Nebbiolo are more complex (and often more expensive), with bracing acidity & tannins and more structure and depth.  The first two are made from the sangiovese grape – Italy’s most recognizable and popular – while Nebbiolo is a grape that produces some of the most revered and sought-after reds in the world from the Barolo region of Piemonte.

Music

For this party, you want fun background music with a decidedly Italian flavor.  Make an Italian mix of songs on iTunes.  Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” can certainly make an appearance.  But to actually go in that restaurant, search for an album called “Ciao Amore” where you’ll find tunes like “Amado Mio,” “La Dolce Vita Suite,” “Via Con Me,” “Alle Prese con Una Verde Milonga,” and “Titoli.”  There’s also an album called “La musica della mafia, vol. 3” where we’d go for “Era na sira i Maggiu,” “E lu processu,” and “Ammazzaru lu generali.”  Other albums to check out with great Italian tunes for this mix are “Gira L’Italia,” “The Italian Collection (vols 1 and 2)” and “Legends of the Italian Lounge.”

With that base of authenticity in your mix, add in some familiar tunes from classic Italian crooners.  Dean Martin’s “Volare,” “On an Evening in Roma,” and “That’s Amore” are perfect choices.  Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” will fit right in, as will Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” and Tony Bennett’s “The Best is Yet to Come.”  Then, toss in some upbeat classic Italian folk tunes & arias from the greatest Italian tenor of them all, Luciano Pavarotti. We’d pick “Ti adoro,” “Funiculi, Funicula,” “La Donne e Mobile” and “M’appari,” among others.  And finally, don’t forget Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano.” 

Mix all these tunes up – plus any others you discover in the process of searching for these – and let iTunes shuffle it into a veritable ragu of great Italian background music for your tasting.  All this might sound cheesy, but trust us – we have actually thrown an Italian party with this mix and it the music set a perfect mood for a classy yet boisterous party. 

Pairings

You’re serving wines that were made go with Italian cheeses, pasta and pizza, as well as anything and everything tomato.  So we’d go with hard, full-flavored Italian cheeses like parmigiano reggiano, aged Tuscan pecorino, and asiago.  For passed hors d’ouerves, chopped tomato bruschetta would be perfect, as would Italian meatballs served with toothpicks.  And frankly, another option that is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser is pizza!  Order up a few simple thin-crust cheese pizzas – preferably with fresh tomato, mozzarella & basil – and slice them into bite-size pieces rather than traditional-sized slices.  You might order the pizzas to arrive towards the end of your event so that when everyone’s identified their favorite Italian red, they can pour a 2nd helping to enjoy with a small slice of pie.  Mangia bene! 

Tasting Notes

Italy produces more wine than any other country – vino is an integral part of the Italian meal and Italian culture.  There are over 900,000 registered vineyards in Italy (!) across twenty distinct wine regions.  Italians drink an average of nearly 15 gallons of wine per person, per year.  Interestingly, however, the acidity and “kick” of Italian reds means they can be daunting when tasted on their own.  They’re designed to be drank with food, when that bracing, rustic acidity springs to life alongside tomato flavors, grilled meats and rich Italian sauces.  Wine writer and authority Karen MacNeil quotes an Italian friend who once told her: “If someone drinks a little too much wine, the Italians don’t say he has drunk too much; they say he hasn’t eaten enough food yet.”

Valpolicella is a light-bodied red made from blends that include the corvina grape, a wine known for some richer, dried cherry flavors.  Dolcetto is a grape from the Piemonte region which makes an easy-drinking light red wine with hints of spice and bitter chocolate.   Barbera, like Dolcetto, is a grape in Piemonte – but the similarities end there.  Barbera is a tangy, mouth-filling wine known for richer fruit & chocolate flavors.  Montepulciano is also a fuller-bodied but drinkable soft red, this one hailing from the Abruzzi region west of Rome.  All four of these wines are known as straightforward, enjoyable food-friendly reds.

Cannonau is a wine unique to the Italian isle of Sardinia and is a pleasant but strong, full-bodied red wine with licorice and strawberry hints.  Chianti is Italy’s best-known red wine, made in Tuscany from the sangiovese grape that pairs so perfectly with tomato-based dishes.  Chianti Classico is a distinct region known for producing the richest and most full-bodied of these wines, known for their cherry and plum flavors.  Rosso di Montalcino is the little brother of Tuscany’s famed Brunello di Montalcino, another big Tuscan red made from a clone of sangiovese called “prugnolo.”  Wines from Montalcino are known for dark red fruits, but while Brunello is big, rich and expensive, Rosso’s are lighter and more approachable. 

But if the sangiovese grape is Italy’s best-known red, the nebbiolo grape makes Italy’s most profound red wines – those found in the Barolo and Barbaresco regions of Piemonte.  Nebbiolo is actually considered by many wine elites to be one of the four most important red wines in the world, alongside Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah; yet it thrives almost exclusively in northern Italy.  Nebbiolo is a dark-colored, wine known for flavors of tar, leather, chocolate, figs and prunes, and many of the best Barolos need to age for years (even decades!) before reaching their full flavor potential.  If you can find one at an approachable price point, we would definitely include it in your tasting due its stature as one of (if not the) most important of Italy’s red wines.

We can recommend two great books that revel in the glories of Italian wine, food and culture.  Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun is a great read that is now well-known thanks to the 2004 movie starring Diane Lane.  But whereas the movie focused on the main character’s love life and personal journey, the book is more about the food, wine and culture of Tuscany – complete with recipes and food/wine pairings.  Also, we recently read and loved Sergio Esposito’s memoir Passion on the Vine, a great story about the author’s life, work and travel in pursuit of discovering and glorifying Italian wine and the food, culture and personalities that accompany the grape in Italia.  Esposito is the founder and proprietor of Italian Wine Merchants, a fantastic all-Italy wine store in New York City with a great website – check it out!

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