Posts Tagged Italian Wines

Intro to Italian Wines

Theme

Everyone loves Italy, and Italy loves wine.  This tasting is entirely dedicated to Italian wines and is designed to introduce your guests to the range of grapes & flavors bottled with amore in Italy.  This party will take your guests on a tour of Italy and may just reveal to them a new wine to accompany their favorite pasta.  You’ll all soon be confidently asking for the wine list at your favorite Italian restaurant and raising a glass to toast la dolce vita!

Angle

This tasting is a “horizontal” tasting of many of the basic wine varietals of Italy.  A “horizontal” wine tasting means you taste very different wines one after the other and learn how to tell one apart from the next.  You don’t hide the bottles (as in a “blind” tasting) because you want your guests to see what they taste and learn as they go.  The angle of the event is to educate your guests on the major types of wine from Italy and to help them learn which they prefer.  You’ll also learn what region of Italy each wine is most associated with, and what foods make the perfect pairing!

Sample Lineup

  1. Tocai Friulano, Ermacora ($15)
  2. Pinot Grigio, Alois Legeder ($15)
  3. Soave, Allegrini ($12)
  4. Valpolicella, Masi “Bonacosta” ($9)
  5. Barbera, Fontanafredda Piemonte “Briccotondo” ($11)
  6. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Bosco, Riserva ($12)
  7. Chianti Classico, Isole e Olena ($12)
  8. Nebbiolo, Renato Ratti, Nebbiola d’Alba “Ochetti” ($20)

The Wines

With this tasting, the range of varietals is more important than the specific winemakers.  The lineup above includes recommended versions of each from some of our favorite merchants, and all in the $10-15 range (with the exception of nebbiolo, which is worth including if you can find one just a bit pricier than $15).  Work with your local wine merchant and find a version of each varietal that they carry regularly and recommend.. 

Starting with the whites, Tocai, Pinot Grigio and Soave are probably the best Italian whites to introduce to your guests.  Tocai is a bold, flavorful, tangy white from Friuli that will go great with prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe.  Soave is a light, fresh and smooth (literally, “suave”) white from a town located just west of Verona (of Romeo & Juliet fame).  Pinot Grigio is a versatile white that at its best can be tangy & minerally.  Some of the best come from the Trentino-Alto Adige region in the Italian Alps, just south of Austria. 

 

For the reds, Valpolicella is a lighter, easy-drinking wine from the Veneto region (around Venice, as the name suggests!).  Barbera and Montepulciano are more full-bodied but still smooth and drinkable.  Chianti Classico and Nebbiolo are more complex (and often more expensive), with bracing acidity & tannins and more structure and depth.  Chianti is 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

Italian cheeses are delicious – we’d recommend putting a cheeseboard together with some soft, lighter cheeses (for the whites) as well as some hard, full-flavored Italian cheeses to pair with the reds.  Taleggio and fontina are delicious cheeses for your whites.  Parmigiano reggiano and asiago are crowd-pleasers that will go wonderfully with the Italian reds you’re serving. 

For passed hors d’ouerves, you can prepare a variety of lighter and heavier apps with an Italian flair.  Prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe is one of our favorites and will pair very nicely with whites like Tocai or Pinot Grigio.  We’d cube the cantaloupe in advance, wrap each bite-size piece with a bit of prosciutto and serve with toothpicks.  Another fun finger-food appetizer you can make in advance would be mini-Caprese skewers, using a toothpick to skewer a halved grape tomato, a fresh basil leaf and a small mozzarella ball.  Along the same lines, halved fresh figs topped with a fresh basil leaf and a dab of goat’s cheese make a great summer-time finger food that would complement your theme and your wines perfectly.  Of course, to pair with your reds you can’t go wrong with chopped tomato bruschetta, and Italian meatballs served with toothpicks are sure to be a hit.

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.  Italian whites are light, versatile crowd-pleasers, but arguably lack the stage presence of other white wines that are perhaps more popular when tasted in the absence of food (e.g. chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Riesling).  Similarly, the acidity and “kick” of Italian reds means they can be daunting when tasted on their own.  The fact is, all Italian wines are designed to be enjoyed with food, when their acidity springs to life alongside cured meats, tomato dishes, and rich Italian sauces. 

We recommend printing out a map of Italy (or finding a map in a book) where you can highlight for your guests the regions from which the various wines hail.  Wine tasting is a form of world travel in between vacations, and we’ve always found guests enjoy connecting the various wines they’re trying to the far-off and (particularly in the case of Italy) romantic places the wines were made.  Tuscany, the Italian Riviera, Verona, the Italian Alps… In the same vein, highlight the types of foods unique to each region, as Italians tend to eat primarily local meats and produce and to pair them with local wines. 

Italian wines can be daunting to get to know because the wines can be named either for the region/village where the wine is made, or for the grape itself (which in most cases you probably aren’t familiar with).  Soave, for example, is made primarily from the trebbiano and “garganega grapes.  Tocai and Pinot Grigio, meanwhile, are the names of grapes, the former native to the Friuli region, the latter known as “Pinot Gris” elsewhere in the world.   Valpolicella is made from the corvina grape, while Chianti is made from the sangiovese grape.  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.  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. 

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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Discovering Italian Whites

Theme

Ask many people to name an Italian white wine and the conversation starts and ends with “Pinot Grigio.”  In fact, the various regions of Italy produce a wide variety of delicious whites that vary quite a bit in style and taste.  If you and your guests prefer white wines and want to do an Italian-themed event – or if you love Italian food and white wine but want to move beyond Pinot Grigio – then this is the tasting for you!

Angle

We’d recommend doing this as a “blind” tasting of a range of different Italian white varietals.  Disguise the wines and let your guests see how the various wines taste and which ones they prefer, using only their nose and their palate to tell them apart.  When everyone’s tried all the wines once and noted their preferences, unveil the wines and distribute some “tasting notes” describing each wine and the region it comes from.  It should be a fun, laid back tasting that introduces your guests to some new summer whites!  Bellissimo!

Sample Lineup

  1. Vermentino, Mancini, Vermentino di Gallura ($15)
  2. Tocai Friulano, Ermacora ($15)
  3. Soave, Allegrini ($12)
  4. Pinot Grigio, Alois Legeder ($15)
  5. Gavi, Broglia “La Meirana” Gavi di Gavi ($15)
  6. Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Le Rote ($13)
  7. Orvieto Classico, Ruffino ($9)

 

 The Wines

With this tasting, the range of varietals is more important than the specific winemakers.  The lineup above includes recommended versions of each from some of our favorite merchants, and all in the $10-15 range.  Work with your local wine merchant and find a version of each varietal that they carry regularly and recommend.  The eight white wines above hail from regions throughout Italy, and providing your guests this sense of geographic diversity is half the fun of the tasting. 

 

Vermentino is a dry, floral white that hails from two seaside areas: Liguria (the Italian Riviera) and the isle of Sardinia.  Not surprisingly, it pairs really well with seafood.  Tocai is a bold, flavorful, tangy white from Friuli that will go great with prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe.  Soave is a light, fresh and smooth (literally, “suave”) white from a town located just west of Verona (of Romeo & Juliet fame).  Pinot Grigio is a versatile white that at its best can be tangy & minerally.  Some of the best come from the Trentino-Alto Adige region in the Italian Alps, just south of Austria. 

Gavi is a dry, crisp wine with notes of citrus & minerals that hails from the Piemonte region in the shadow of the Alps.  Though Piemonte is better known as a land of serious reds (notably Barolo and Barbaresco), Gavi was considered several decades ago to be one of the great wines of Italy.  Vernaccia is the great white wine of Tuscany, hailing from a town called San Gimignano referred to as “the Manhattan of Tuscany” because of its tall medieval towers.  Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a lively, flavorful dry white and the best ones can be mouth-puckering beauties.  Orvieto is the best-known white wine from Umbria, the region in central Italy that was the home of St. Francis of Assisi.  Orvieto is light, crisp and peachy and is often made into a higher-end version called Orvieto Classico.

Music

This is a relaxed tasting of light white wines that would accompany a summer picnic perfectly, while the fact they’re all from Italy imbues the event with a sense of romance and la dolce vita.  We’d pick easygoing music that wouldn’t be out of place at a romantic summer picnic for two. 

Start with Norah Jones’ debut album “Come Away With Me.” From there transition into Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits album, which picks up the energy a bit just as your guests are getting a spring in their step from the wine and the atmosphere!  By the time “Cecilia” plays as the final track, everyone should be having a blast.  From there you could go anywhere; Sting’s “Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984-1994” might be a nice bridge to something more contemporary, with a good collection of recognizable easy-listening pop tunes that still wouldn’t be out of place at a picnic.

Pairings

Italian wines deserve Italian cheeses, though we’d stick primarily with softer cheeses.  The crispness and acidity of the wines help cleanse the mouth in a way that works very nicely with cheese like Taleggio, fresh Ricotta, or Fontina.  Throw in some Asiago as a nice contrast, and you’ve got a beautiful light Italian cheese board to complement your tasting.

A perfect appetizer for this event would be prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe.  Many crisp Italian whites (like Tocai) complement prosciutto perfectly, and prosciutto and cantaloupe make a fantastic combination for a summer picnic-type event.  We’d cube the cantaloupe in advance, wrap each bite-size piece with a bit of prosciutto and serve with toothpicks.  Another fun finger-food appetizer you can make in advance would be mini-Caprese skewers, using a toothpick to skewer a halved grape tomato, a fresh basil leaf and a small mozzarella ball.  Along the same lines, halved fresh figs topped with a fresh basil leaf and a dab of goat’s cheese make a great summer-time finger food that would complement your theme and your wines perfectly.

Tasting Notes

This tasting explores the subtle differences among a variety of light, refreshing Italian white wines.  Whereas some “blind” tastings focus on comparing the same type of wine at a variety of price points, all of the wines presented here can be found for $10-15/bottle.  It’s fun to discover wines that are a little bit different.  I still remember the first time I ever ordered a bottle of Soave; it was on a date, we loved it, and we felt as though we were the only people in the world who had discovered the secret of this wonderful wine’s existence.  Wine tasting can be like that – the sheer variety of wonderful wines out there makes for a sense of ongoing adventure, discovery, and virtual world travel as you explore new grapes and bottles for the first time.

We recommend printing out a map of Italy (or finding a map in a book) where you can highlight for your guests the regions from which the various wines hail.  Wine tasting is a form of world travel in between vacations, and we’ve always found guests enjoy connecting the various wines they’re trying to the far-off and (particularly in the case of Italy) romantic places the wines were made.  Tuscany, the Italian Riviera, Verona, the Italian Alps… In the same vein, highlight the types of foods unique to each region, as Italians tend to eat primarily local meats and produce and to pair them with local wines. 

Italian wines can be daunting to get to know because the wines can be named either for the region/village where the wine is made, or for the grape itself (which in most cases you probably aren’t familiar with).  Orvieto, for example, is made primarily from the “trebbiano” grape.  Soave blends trebbiano with the “garganega” grape.  Gavi is made from the “cortese” grape native to Piemonte (Gavi itself is a village).  By contrast, Vernaccia is a grape; the town San Gimignano in Tuscany is the only place in the world where it’s produced with fanfare.  Tocai too is a grape, one native to the Friuli region.  Vermentino is also the name of a grape, while Pinot Grigio is the grape known as “Pinot Gris” elsewhere in the world.    

And when it comes to Pinot Grigio…we recommend you try to find a bottle of the Alois Lageder if you can.  They make consistently great versions of Pinot Grigio, a wine that can be mediocre if not made with care, at a price that won’t break the bank.  Alois Lageder is a fantastic producer in the Alto Adige region of Italy, and you may find you want to explore some of their other delicious wines as well.

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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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