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Jun 11, 2004 12:05 PM

Italian wine advice

  • d

So I'm planning the little outdoor August party...Italian theme, olives, bread, figs, caprese salad, grilled mini pizzas, shrimp and pasta main dish. I know nothing of Italian wines so I thought I would begin sampling those that are available locally and see what I like. I want to offer a white and a red.

I would appreciate suggestions for wines that are widely distributed and less than $20.

I like California style pinot gris, but the Italian pinot grigio I have tried have not been my favorites. In reds I generally like very full bodied Syrahs, Petite Syrah, Cab Sauv blends, Rioja,etc. although I know that may not be a great match w/ the shrimp.

thanks in advance for any ideas

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  1. for a white wine to go with the shrimp dish, i would suggest a vermentino (preferably from sardegna). this grape is very underrated and most people never have even heard of it. since sardegna is an island, the soil is rich with minerals and salts from the ocean. if i remember correctly, it's also inhabited by wild growing fennel. so wines from grape tend to have a nice citrus and light anise quality to them, as well as a finish that tastes like a dash of seawater on the palate. this is perfect for shellfish such as shrimp, lobster, crab, oysters, etc.

    6 Replies
    1. re: rebs

      Thumbs up to the Sardinian vermentino recommendation. My husband and I brought back 10 bottles of wine from our trip to Sardinia last summer (all bought in the grocery store there for six euros or less each) and we were happy, happy drinkers all winter. The label Argiolas is the only Sardinian wine I usually see in my area (Boston), but many stores carry it. It's quite good, crisp and minerally as the previous poster said, thus good with shellfish, and very cheap (about $8-$10 a bottle).

      1. re: Sarah W-R

        There are so many great Italian grape varieties that are little known that can be had for pittance. Vermentino is one great choice. Pecorino, arneis, greco, and gavi can all produce very pleasant whites with character that pair well with food. Arneis can be like a zippy Pinot Grigio or a subtle gewurtztraminer ... or somewhere in between. Pecorino is a rarity, but it's nicely fruity and floral. Greco is usually pretty subtle ... peachy, appley, but with some zip. Gavi can taste slightly fizzy, melon, apples, some creaminess to it even ... beautifully aromatic possibilities. In the north, Italy grows some great German/Austrian wines ... muller-thurgau (rich, dry, aromatic) and gewurtztraminer. You might also see vernaccia (San Gimignano ... hot days and seafood), tocai friuliano (nutty and citrusy, a little more body), trebbiano (more body, can be nicely floral), or verdicchio (tart ... almond, citrus, "elegant").

        For reds, take a look at aglianico. Spice, cherry, plum, herbs, coffee, and cocoa are the common descriptions. Tastes like a place ... it has character and intrigue. The best examples are in the 30s - but when you're priced out of Barolo, that's a bargain - but good wines are definitely available below 20. Barbera is similar in body, but a little less robust, more purely fruit driven. Dolcetto is a little lighter, more fruit and berry flavors, and usually less expensive. For an inexpensive red, usually pretty uncomplicated but with a local character (in this case, Sicily), Nero D'Avola can be a great bargain.

        And do pick up some prosecco for an aperitivo. Not at all a clone of champagne or other sparklers ... prosecco is a light, refreshing, drink all its own. Spike it with peach necter if you're feeling particularly summery.

        I know ... that's a alphabet soup of foreign, hard-to-pronounce names. The point is, the native grapes will give you great variety and value and you should explore. Many very good wines from these grapes are available for $10 - $15.

        Happy tasting,


        1. re: rien

          I'll pile on for Vermentino too. Especially since the OP's preference for Calif. over Italian Pinot Grigio suggests a desire for more weight, body and intensity, all of which can be found in Vermentino, especially the ones from Corsica.

          Love Greco, mentioned Fiano above, so let's not forget their companion, Falanghina.


          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Falanghina??? Non conosco. Che cosa, e dove? Campania?

            1. re: mrbarolo

              Si, è un vino della Campania Felice... This is the variety that is used in northernmost Campania (Horace's beloved 'Falernian'). I know this wine primarily from what my relatives make from their little production on Monte Massico (the old Falernus ager) but it's grown elsewhere in the region (in central Campania).

              Here's a little quote from the site whose address appears at the bottom of this post. Hopefully, someone with deeper knowledge can talk about producers and what's available here in the States (my cousins' wine, alas, is not :-)).


              "Antico Vitigno" molto apprezzato dai Sanniti e dai Romani che lo chiamarono anche Falernina, per la sua grande diffusione nel Falernus Ager.


    2. There are some really good red wine values to be had from Puglia, in southern Italy, and they should dovetail nicely with your preferences for other red wines- rich, full bodied, dry, and perhaps even a little bit funky. They should also go quite nicely with the olives, pizza, etc.

      I'm really fond of Taurino's Salice Salentino and, in northern NJ, at least, it seems to be getting easier to find each year. Terrale Primitivo (said to be the source grape varietal for California's Zinfandel) is also quite nice.

      1. d
        David "Zeb" Cook

        Two whites I've had recently that were very good that fit in your price range :

        Zenato Lugano San Bennedetto 2003-- very buttery and tasty.

        Roberto Anselemi San Vincenzo 2003 -- a soave, sharper and crisp

        Both should be readily available and are very good.

        David "Zeb" Cook

        1. you may want to put yourself in the hands of a good local purveyor of Italian wines - if you are in So. Cal - Wine Expo in Santa Monica stocks a number of excellent red and white italian wines under $20, and I am sure they would work with you to match wines with your menu. There probably is a similar vendor in your region, at least if you a near a major met area

          1. In general I don't find Italian white wines to be that interesting nor do they seem to travel and store that well.

            IMO, the best white to serve with a wide variety of "white-wine oriented" Italian foods is Chardonnay. This applies to italian seafood, dishes with italian cream sauces, etc. A good $20 bottle of chardonnay is usually a very good or great match. Consider the '01 California Chardonnays here.

            As for a very good italian red wine in the $20 area, consider Valpolicella Ripassas.

            A great inexpensive "boost" to the dinner is to have a few cheese matches for the wine. For Chardonnay consider a plain goat cheese and a gruyere or comte and for the Valpolicella consider parmesan reggiano and provolone.

            10 Replies
            1. re: Chicago Mike

              What kind of Italian white wines have you tried?

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Apparently, not any of the good ones! (Of which, in my opinion, there are many.)

                1. re: Kirk

                  Well, Kirk, perhaps you can give us that long list of the "Monumental White Wines" of Italy since there are many.

                  One further note to Chardonnay and Italian food... at a recent tasting we compared a richer buttery Calif. Chardonnay vs. an '02 white burgundy against a creamy Italian Clams Vongole pasta.

                  The lighter burgundian style was clearly a more interesting matchup with the Vongole. HOWEVER, you're going to have a relatively shorter list of excellent white burgundies under $20 than you will nice California Chards.

                  1. re: Chicago Mike

                    Chicago Mike:

                    I don't wish to be contentious here and also concede up-front that I'm sure you've tried more wines than I have but...

                    As always, one should drink what one likes (and can afford), but I think buttery California chardonnays are not good matches for any tradiitional Italian food (as opposed, perhaps, to Italian-inspired California style dishes, but then that's a different thing altogether).

                    Italian wines have developed with the regional cuisines over many centuries and I think it ill-advised to think the aesthetics involved in the traditional matches can be easily bested. That's not to deny the validity of taste tests of pairings which is, I'm sure, a fine way to figure out what combinations you prefer. But I have always found that pairings of, say Roman dishes with wines from Central Lazio work, and the same goes for most other regions-- perhaps there's a psychological element involved for me and the like-minded that others wouldn't share but perhaps too there is something fundamental and inherent to the natural regional pairings of certain recipes and wines. I would, however, add that I would much prefer to drink a good Frascati or Orvieto with some Neapolitan dish I make at home or order in a restaurant than some (to my mind) over-wrought Californian -- the aesthetics of Lazio are a heck of a lot closer to those of Naples than those of the western U.S.

                    Italian tastes in wine, i.e. what most folks over there think is good basic wine, are quite different from what many people elsewhere would expect, I think. And as you noted above, many of those wines don't travel well. Very young, sometimes somewhat sweet local wines are still very much appreciated there and I strongly suspect that there has been a certain continuity in this regard that reaches all the way back to classical times. Obviously, such wines are not available here but, returning to the main point, I just want to throw my two cents in to say that the generally very unobtrusive Italian whites are unobtrusive precisely because Italians often don't want anything that would interfere with the food. Sort of the same principle that inclines them to avoid using cheese in most seafood dishes.

                    Finally, for the original poster in this thread, I concur to a degree about Italian Pinot Grigios-- pretty dull stuff. Unfortunately, they're popular here and the Italians are starting to neglect production of traditional regional varieties in order to fill the American demand for the familiar and dull.


                    1. re: Antonius

                      Excellent post, Antonius!

                      From reading several of Chicago Mike's postings on wine with food, the pattern I see in his tastes seems to be what's called "mirroring". That is, choose wines that have similar flavor and texture to the dish in question to create a multiplier effect, e.g., buttery chardonnay with creamy sauce. That's very different from the Italian approach, as you point out, where contrast in flavor and texture and/or cleansing the palate with crisp and refreshing wine between bites of intense and direct flavors in food is the objective. I'm not saying one or the other approach is right or wrong, they're just different ways of putting wine together with food. Maybe that helps to put Chicago Mike's taste preferences and the "matching" vs. "pairing" method in perspective.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong


                        Thanks for the compliment and also for the very well-stated and helpful perspective on matching/pairing approaches.

                        I also will chime in agreement with a number of the recommendations mentioned in the last few posts in the thread, especially the Sardinian, mentioned by several, and the Fiano which you mentioned. (The last couple of years, I've had the Sardinian white on Christmas Eve to accompany our Neapolitan seafood feast.)

                        My relatives in Italy produce their own 'Falernian' wine (most of them live a stones throw from Monte Massico and several have little plots over on that mountain). It's a rosé and admittedly quite rustic but boy is it good with food.


                      2. re: Antonius

                        In general I agree with posters who disparage Italian Pinot Grigios. But if you can find one from Alto Adige instead of the ubiquitous ones from Friuli or Veneto, you might well enjoy it. Unfortunately, those are the pinot grigios that run closer to $20 than $5.


                        1. re: e.d.


                          Point well taken, but for me they're overpriced at $20-$25. There are lots of other enjoyable alternatives at that price range that I would sooner allocate the resources to.


                      3. re: Chicago Mike

                        I don't think I termed anything "Monumental," Mike, but here are a few that I think I wouldn't mind quaffing on a nice summer evening or with the right dish:

                        Some of the new Friuli sauvignons
                        Selected Inzolia
                        Some Moscato d'Asti
                        Vernaccia di San Gimignano

                        I am not a big fan of pinot grigios, but I have had some that are good aperitifs.

                        I hope these stand up to your inspection.

                      4. re: Kirk

                        I guess I was thinking for that investment of $20 in a mid-level chardonnay, I'd much rather have a gorgeous Fiano d'Avellino from Campania with my seafood. The posts below recommending Vermentino and especially Rien's have some very good suggestions.

                        A few months ago one of SF's chowhounds opened a restaurant and wine bar called A16 which features Southern Italian wines and foods. I've linked the opening wine list (it's even better now!) below to offer some help with specific labels that you might find in your market that are well worth trying.

                        [disclaimer: A16's principals are personal friends.]