RISMEDIA, Feb. 15, 2008-(MCT)-Italy can pose a challenge to wine lovers who want to move beyond the familiar Chianti, Soave, prosecco and Asti. With 20 regions and some 2,000 wine grape varietals, it’s hard to know where to start. Add to this a four-tiered quality control system that doesn’t always guarantee quality and unfamiliar names on the labels, and it’s enough to make you return to the well-known charms of California wine.
Wait, though, there’s hope.
Ask any wine expert what they’d teach in a class on Italian wine 101 and the answer is bound to change from person to person. One of the more intriguing strategies is posed by Steven Alexander, beverage manager at Spiaggia restaurant in Chicago. Concentrate, he said, on his “Big 10” varietals. For whites, focus on fiano di Avellino, friulano, garganega, pinot bianco, verdicchio. For reds, aglianico, barbera, lagrien, montepulciano, teroldego Rotaliano.
“I recommend becoming familiar with the `Big 10′ varietals that are being cultivated in Italy, because when you feel comfortable with those, the landscape becomes much less intimidating as a flavor panoply unfolds before you, providing a reference point for everything else that follows,” he said.
I love this idea: Let flavor lead you along rather than a label.
Italian wine labels and wine laws are complex. Beginning in the 1960s, the Italian government sought to impose order on a chaotic system and improve quality by using the French appellation system as a guide. Winemakers in certain regions are required to plant particular grape varietals and follow certain guidelines in blending these varieties together to earn a specific designation.
At the bottom is vino da tavola-table wines. Above that is indicazione geografica tipica (IGT), which designates wines that must be representative of their geographic region. There are 118 appellations listed on the Italian Trade Commission’s Website, italianmade.com.
Next up is denominazione di origine controllata (DOC), which controls not only the geographical area but types of grapes used, production standards and aging periods. The Italian Trade Commission lists 315 DOC zones, but that number is always changing. At the top is denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG), which has the strictest rules of all. There are 35 DOCG appellations.
Trouble is, following the rules doesn’t always make for better wines. Just look at the so-called “Super Tuscans,” world-quality reds that were originally stuck with the “vino da tavola” labeling because the winemakers used grape varietals not authorized in the higher quality tiers. The IGT was created as a way to deal with the inequality to a degree, but it can still be confusing.
“Forget the Italian wine laws and all their legal jargon, which should be reserved for geeks like myself,” Alexander said. “Italian wine is just like California wine. You have some grapes and you have some places. It’s just that all these grapes and places happen to be Italian. Don’t worry about IGT or DOC or DOCG.”
Below are details on Alexander’s Big 10, which “represent most what modern consumers are looking for as far as fruit, balance, excitement, elegance and food compatibility,” he said. Check with your local wine store for availability-or likely substitutes.
Fiano di Avellino (fee-AH-noh dee ah-veh-LEE-noh): A “regal” grape from Campania in southern Italy that “produces a white with the texture of a white Rhone wine with the beautiful aromatics of pine nuts, pesto, white peach and bright minerals.”
Friulano (free-oo-LAH-no): Once known as “tocai,” this Northern Italian wine from Friuli is “light, racy, and adorned with an attractive white spice element that pairs smartly with fish preparations and excels with cured meats.”
Garganega (gahr-gah-NEH-gah): The major white grape found in Soave wines from Italy’s Veneto region. Once dissed as so-so, the best of today’s Soaves are “thoughtful, mineral-driven whites.” Alexander said strict clonal selection, low yields, late harvesting and “sensible use” of French oak barrels make these wines “food friendly and sexy.”
Pinot bianco (PEE-noh bee-AHN-ko): “Northern Italy produces some of the most memorable interpretations of this grape I like to think of as the halfway house between pinot grigio and chardonnay.”
Verdicchio (vehr-DEEK-kyoh): This white from the Marches region of central Italy “is a contender for greatness because of the grape’s ability to offer delicate aromas of fresh fruit with pervasive minerality and a classic acid-driven, zippy finish.”
Aglianico (ah-LYAH-nee-koh): “Inky and spicy with bold fruit, this is no wimpy wine. Aglianico has a similar dark fruit component to cabernet and trademark tannins that can often bite you back.” Look for it from Campagna and Basilicata, two southern Italian regions.
Barbera (bar-BEH-rah): “Some of the most food-friendly reds in the world.” Alexander offers it when guests ask for a “softer” Barolo. Notably produced in Italy’s Piedmont region, barbera is “blessed with mouthwatering acidity as well as ample, soft fruit.”
Lagrien (lah-GRAYN): This Northern Italian red is thought to be related to both pinot noir and syrah, Alexander said. As such, it wows his guests who ask for something new that resembles those famed red grapes. “This will be one of the next big grapes on the world scene.”
Montepulciano (mohn-teh-pool-CHAN-noh): Look for this red under two regional names: montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Abruzzo; rosso Conero from the Marches. Both regions are in central Italy. “It is sure to be lush and juicy with dark fruit and soft, sappy tannins that make it delicious by the glass or with a variety of foods.”
Teroldego Rotaliano (teh-rawl-DEH-goh roh-tahl-YAH-noh): From Trentino in the north, this wine “tends to be more full-bodied than its cousin, lagrien, and it’s amazing when paired with roasted lamb or heirloom turkey with gravy. Delicate tannins and a sexy mouth feel.”
Pronunciation sources: “The New Wine Lover’s Companion”; “How to Pronounce French, German and Italian Wine Names.”
© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.