Five Red Wines to Taste Your Way through Italy
I think we all know about Chianti—a great red wine to sidle up alongside your lasagna at Christmas dinner. With no disrespect meant to this worthy variety, Italian wine is far too often reduced to tumblers of this giant. By all means, please continue to enjoy Chianti, but don’t stop there. I have recently come to find so many wines to adore all throughout Italy, from the introverted schiava in the northern region of Alto-Adige, all the way down to bold, tannic aglianico in the southern regions, like Campania.
My hope for you is that you’ll discover some of these beautiful gems for yourself and grow your own curiosity for the wines of this beloved part of the Old World.
One note before we dive in: if you’re used to bold, juicy, fruity wines from the New World (think jammy reds from warmer parts of California, Australia, Argentina, etc.), jumping into the reds of Italy may be a bit of a sharp contrast. Typically, Italian reds are great with food, and thus they can at first seem a little tart, bitter, or dry to the unaccustomed palate, especially if enjoyed on their own. Thus, my tip: enjoy Italian reds with food. Food and wine are made for one another. With these wines in particular, do them both a favor and bring them together.
(While I may offer a couple of distinct wine pairing recommendations below, don’t sweat the details too much. Drink any of these with a savory dish that isn’t crazy spicy. Alcohol, especially without much sweetness, exacerbates spiciness.)
Barbera – Piedmont
While Barolo is the big name in the Piedmont region, running anywhere from about $20 to several hundreds per bottle (!!!), barbera is the darling that graces the weeknight dinner table. Barbera is unpretentious, both in its presentation to your palate and its price. For about $15 – $25 you can sip on this light, approachable, food-friendly red. Like pinot noir? Give barbera a try. Lower in tannins than many reds, this high-acid wine is a delightful refresh to the palate. Barbera is known for its cherry-forward notes on both the nose and palate, but this is only the beginning. As an Old World wine, barbera brings lots of complexity beyond fruit, including herbacious notes and minerality. Give this lighter bodied red a bit of a chill (serve at 60–65 F).
*Note: give all your reds a slight chill; they should be served between 60–68 F, as “room temperature” these days tends to be a bit warmer than ideal serving temperature, especially in summer months. Pop your bottle into the fridge for about 15 – 30 minutes before serving to accomplish this.
Valpolicella – Veneto
Wines in this part of the Veneto are made with a variety of grapes, typically corvina, rondinella, and molinara. The region is well known for its scrumptious Amarone—a wine made with these grape varieties which have been slightly raisinated, giving rich, concentrated flavors of dried fruit. Amarone, while highly recommended, can cost a pretty penny (this is a great splurge for a special celebration; my parents got one to celebrate my master’s graduation). Valpolicella does provide an affordable, very approachable offering in its Valpolicella Classico. For under $15, you can enjoy this delightful wine characteristic of tart cherry, which may also showcase notes of chocolate, pepper, even almond! If you enjoy this wine, also keep your eyes peeled for a Bardolino; very similar in price range and grape composition, this wine is simply named for its particular region of origin.
One step up from the Valpolicella Classico is the Valpolicella Ripasso, which passes the Classico over the pressed skins used for making Amarone. (Think of it like re-steeping tea leaves or aging a beer in a Bourbon barrel.) The Ripasso ends up with a bit more richness and complexity than its original makeup as a Classico. The cost is slightly more for this style, around $20 – $25, but the step up is worth the extra bit.
Montepulciano D’Abruzzo – Abruzzo
This is a great pizza wine. But not that you have to limit its pairings to that. This wine is made from the montepulciano grape, and hails from the region of Abruzzo, hence its name. Don’t be confused by wines labeled “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano”—these wines are typically made with sangiovese (think “Chianti”) grown in the region of Montepulciano. So, yes, “montepulciano” is a grape, but it is also the name of a (different) wine region. The more you know.
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo begins to get into some darker fruit than the previous two wines, known for flavors of plum and blackberry, among others. Also, coming from the warmer, middle of the “boot,” this wine won’t be quite as high in acidity as its northern neighbors, barbera and the Valpolicella blends. Montepulciano brings delightful spice and herby characteristics. Try with pizza, for sure, and with anything else you fancy!
Cannonau – Sardinia
Made somewhat famous by Dan Buettner’s studies on the “Blue Zones,” this (typically 100%) grenache-based wine is made on the island of Sardinia. You may have had grenache before blended into a French Côtes du Rhône or as a Spanish “garnacha;” Cannonau emphasizes grenache and lets it shine on its own. Because these grapes are grown on an island, you’ll pick up characteristics unique to maritime climates. Looking back at some tasting notes I wrote for a Sardinian Cannonau, I said it tasted “oceany,” and that it smelled like pu’erh tea, which, because the tea is fermented in the ground (this is desirable, I promise!), can have some “peaty” aromas. The palate is fruity (expect red fruits), but not without that characteristic minerality the Old World showcases so beautifully. Grenache can also show some unique floral characteristics. Grenache grapes are also lower in tannin than some of the grapes more commonly known in the New World like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, so it’s a good choice for those interested in a more moderate tannic grip.
Nero d’Avola – Sicily
Rich and dark, nero d’Avola doesn’t just taste like dark fruit. Like Sardinian wines, it reminds one of the sea. Made from grapes grown on the island of Sicily, this robust red variety takes on the distinctiveness of its home. While these maritime influences are similar to that of Cannonau, this is largely where their similarities end. Nero d’Avola hails from the southernmost region of Italy, so its fruit characteristics will be riper and more rich, featuring notes of black cherry and black plum alongside non-fruity characteristics like tobacco. It is certainly the richest of these five wines. If you’re fond of cabernet sauvignon, this Italian red would be a good place to start.
Cheers! And, as the Italians say, saluti!
Want to learn more about wine? Some of my go-to resources include Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible and Madeline Puckette’s Wine Folly: The Master Guide (Magnum Edition).
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