by Gordon and Jean Leidner
It’s Italy night! You’ve been invited to a friend’s wine party and asked to bring an Italian red. You’d like to bring something classic, intriguing, and …(ahem) not too expensive. What should you get? Let’s talk about that.
Italy is the 3rd largest wine producer in the world, with twenty wine regions and two thousand varieties. That’s an impressive number, but we will limit our discussion to five Italian varieties, a few popular wines from each, and what to expect in the way of taste. When finished, you’ll have enough basic knowledge of Italian wines to head to the store with confidence.
Sangiovese is the largest produced grape variety in Italy and is the pride of Tuscany, its primary growing region.
Popular Sangiovese wines are Chianti and Super Tuscans. Typically these wines are 70-80 percent Sangiovese, blended with lesser-known varieties such as Canaiolo or the more popular Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah. Sangiovese-based wines typically have an earthy aroma with notes of rose, tobacco, leather, or oak. Fruits such as tart cherry, red plum, or raspberry are dominant. They have medium to high acidity and medium tannins.
The cream of the Chianti wines is called Chianti Classico, which proudly displays a label with a black rooster on the neck of the bottle. Although you can get Chianti wines for less, the Chianti Classico wines are typically $20+ per bottle. Learn more about Chianti wine and our trip to Italy which we wrote about earlier this year.
Montepulciano is the second most cultivated grape in Italy, grown in all of central Italy and much of the southwestern regions. The most popular wines of this variety are Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Offida Rosso.
Compared to other Italian wines, Montepulciano wines have a lower acidity and milder tannins. It’s a ruby-colored wine with scents of ripe blackberry, wild berries, cherry, and tobacco. Montepulciano is widely recognized as one of the most affordable Italian wines. A good Montepulciano d’Abruzzo can be bought for less than $15. Zaccagnini Montepulciano D’Abruzzo produces an easily available and affordable wine that pleases the palate.
The adaptable Barbera grape encourages widespread cultivation and is the third most cultivated grape in Italy. Although grown in multiple regions of Italy, the best Barbera is commonly thought to come from the northern (Piedmont) region. Two excellent wines of this variety are Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti.
These wines are very drinkable. They are meant to be enjoyed young, and they are cheap, thus their popularity among the locals. The high acidity and low tannins make it a food-friendly wine, perfect with dinner. The fruit typically tends towards juicy, red or black cherry. Barbera wines have a spicy flavor, and the low tannins give it a silky smoothness.
A top-rated Barbera d’Alba is the Marcarini Barbera d’Alba Ciabot Camerano.
If cost is no issue, consider a Nebbiolo. Like Barbera grapes, Nebbiolo grapes are also grown in the Piedmont region. Though small amounts of Nebbiolo grapes are grown world-wide, Italy’s Piedmont region remains its dominant growing region. Unlike Barbera, Nebbiolo grapes are finicky and challenging to grow, and significant aging (decades) is required for the wine to reach its peak. It is for these reasons that Nebbiolo wines carry a large price tag.
Nebbiolo is both the name of a grape and the name of a wine made from that grape. It is also the primary grape in the popular wines Barolo (sometimes called “the king of wines”) and Barbaresco, named after the zones in the Piedmont region where the grapes are grown.
Nebbiolo wines tend to be intensely aromatic giving off the scent of roses, violets, woodsmoke, herbs, and tar. The wine is complex with a subtle fruitiness. It is highly acidic and, until well-aged, highly tannic. Aging produces a brick-orange hue.
If you are interested in purchasing a Nebbiolo but don’t want to wait 10 years before opening the bottle, consider one of the modernist Nebbiolo wines. Some innovative winemakers are using techniques to make a more affordable Nebbiolo that doesn’t require significant aging. You can read more about the Barolo Wars at Wikipedia.
So, if you want to really impress your friends, bring an aged bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco—but check the credit limit on your card before going to the store. Or try one the modern Nebbiolo wines.
If you want try something a little different, consider Aglianico (pronounced ahl-YAH-nee-koe). It is actually one of Italy’s oldest varieties, having been brought to Italy by the Greeks around the 5th century, BC. In recent years, it has become more popular in Italy, with some of the trendy wine producers picking it up. It is grown in Southern Italy.
Aglianico wines, like Nebbiolo wines, age well, allowing their high tannins to mellow. It’s a classy wine, deserving more attention than it receives. Descriptions that are often repeated are well-structured and earthy with a deep crimson color and black plum fruit. Other tasting notes include smoky, ash, tobacco, dark chocolate, prune or licorice.
You can find delicious Aglianico wines for reasonable prices ($15 and up). Azienda Bisceglia Winery makes a great Aglianico named Gudarra, which translates “enjoy.” It sells for $16-$38 a bottle with earlier vintages costing more.
There you have it! Five great Italian wine varieties to choose from. We’d love to know which one is your favorite.
Gordon and Jean Leidner have been wine enthusiasts for years. They enjoy visiting wineries, hosting wine parties, and have even dabbled in making wine from kits. Gordon has been a history buff for most of his life, and blogs at his website Great American History.