Advice on Italian wine requested
The wife and I are headed to Rome this fall. Our second trip, but it's been many years. We've had Italian wine here and there, but we're looking forward to the opportunity over the next six months to taste Italian Vino in a much more comprehensive way. The trip gives us a great excuse to get a deeper understanding of these wines. So, the question is, how do we approach it? We'd love some advice on how to get our arms around the topic. Thoughts?
Jeff , I can't really help you , other than to advise you to get a list of grape varieties and start tasting your way thru them ......do it by grape type , not by label names , which will be the names of places . But , what I can tell you is that there is no more fun place anywhere to fool around with wine than Italy . I remember a restaurant once where I ordered a bottle of Gavi di Gavi because that was all I could remember from the book I had been reading . As soon as the waiter told the tuxedoed owner of our order , the owner sped to our table to deliver an impassioned speech on why he would never again serve Gavi di Gavi in his restaurant . ( All I got out of it was that the winemakers had taken a price increase , and the owner decided to never serve their wine again.) So , we drank what he wanted us to drink , and it was marvelous and we had a memorable time . I could go on with Italian wine stories , but they always end well , and you always have fun . Sort of like Italy itself .
Wine in Italy varies greatly by region and there are likely very many obscure grapes you've never heard of, so you may want to focus on one region at a time. The two most popular and respected wine regions are Piedmont and Tuscany, although you'll find many many delicious wines anywhere in Italy.
In most areas, you get a few different levels of wine. So you could start with the cheap grape and slowly move up. For example, in Piedmont, you start off with the simple Dolcetto, move up into a more fruity Barbera, upgrade to fuller Barbaresco and then eventually enjoy the wonders of a complex Barolo. You'll enjoy each step up more if you "get" its other cousins first.
I'd also say that 99% of Italian wines taste better with food and aren't really meant to be sipped alone. Another benefit of focusing on a region is that you could learn what wines go well with what dishes from that same area and thereby bring out the best flavors in both.
This might be a good place to start:
I highly recommend getting a copy of either Burton Anderson's book "Vino" or the book on Italian wine by Joe Bastianich. Reading them will give you a solid background for the wines you will encounter in Italy. Fred Plotkin's "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler" also has a couple of paragraphs in each chapter about the wines of each region.
The wines in Italy are VERY regional and different grapes are grown in different regions, so it really helps to do a little homework.
"Vino" by Burton Anderson may no longer be in print. Any of the other books on Italian wine he has written would be worth reading.
Joe Bastianich's book Vin Italy is a very good overview of almost all Italian wines, and enjoyable to read, with some of Lidia's recipes included. The OP mentioned going to Rome, and Rome is actually the best place to taste more regional wines than any other one place in Italy. Here's a link to my wine report, from our visit to Italy in Oct 07, which has some suggestions:
What's your itinerary?? Depending on where you intend to travel, I'd recommend approaching Italian wine REGIONALLY... Tuscan wine with Tuscan dishes, Piedmont wine with Piedmont cuisine, E-R with E-R, and so forth... this is your best experience, IMO....
Along the way you may develop a particular fondness for this red or this white in which case you branch out a bit and start mixing it up... Lastly, Italian wines can be fairly vintage-critical, so I'd recommend you learn the better vintage years BEFORE you go so you're getting better vintages, particularly of the more expensive bottles you buy.
Mastrobernadino is a producer in Avellino. They have great whites and reds. Some sicilian Nero's are really great hearty reds. Have fun!
Believe me you will have a way better understanding when you are in Italy! Lucky you!
In Rome you should set up a tour or drive yourself to Tuscany. It is amazing! It will be the highlight of your trip. The big places are Antinori, Banfi and Gabbiano, then there are plenty of other places to visit. Depending on how long your stay is, you should visit Montalcino, home of Brunello! If you have more time, take the train and go to Venice, Verona or Florence. People might poo poo about Venice, it is very touristy, but it is amazing, if you can get past the crowds. You will have the best food in Italy.
Or you could work backwards:
Read up on these Roman wine bars before you go, and figure out which ones interest you: Casa Bleve; Vineria Reggio; l'Angolo Divino. There are many more, but I can personally recommend these three (the first being very upscale, the other two being more neighborhood-y).
There aren't too many grapes indigenous to Lazio, but there are plenty of grapes grown and producers that active in that area. Here's a list:
Casale del Giglio
Castel de Paolis
Lazio DOC Apellations:
Aleatico di Gradoli
Cesanese del Piglio or Piglio
Cesanese di Affile or Affile
Cesanese di Olevano Romano or Olevano Romano
Colli della Sabina
Colli Etruschi Viterbesi
Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone
I suggest that you set aside one day to visit a couple of wine estates that do tastings (you'll need to set this up beforehand) - it's the fastest way to learn about and appreciate wine. It is also a most enjoyable way to relax :) You say you will be traveling there in the fall, which is wine harvest season- the best time of year for access to wineries. To get info on wine tours and tastings, try googling the Producers I listed above.
In case you would like to know more about Sicilian wines, here is a link to a CH thread on that subject:
Finally, check out Winecountry.it for Italian wine info.
As a practical matter, you may ask yourself how much of your Italian food/wine experience you like to be easily "translateable" back to the U.S.
For example, the typical reasonably well-stocked U.S. wine shop is going to have a fair amount of nebbiolo, sangiovese of various varieties, some super tuscans, alot of pinot grigio... and everything else starts tapering off from there... a few bottles of valpolicella, barbera, amarone, a few soaves, couple moscatos... but then things really get thinned out. Point being that alot of the food/wine combos you'll enjoy in Italy won't be as easy to replicate in the states...
As one objective for your trip (you can have more than one objective:)You may want to familiarize yourself with the varietals most available from your U.S. vendors, then along the way in Italy focus on learning "authentic local" food pairings that match those varietals the best... When you get back to the States you'll be able to re-create those meals over and over and "re-live" your adventures...
re: Chicago Mike
I think that what you write may be true in some parts of the country, but in larger cities (and certainly here in the NY area), this has not been true for some time. Sicilian, Piemontese and even Campanese and Pugliese wines have been all the rage here for several years now. I am seeing more and more Refosco, Primitivo, Nero d'Avola, Aglianico, and even Prosecco, all the time. I do agree that it would be wise to look into what is available through local wine dealers, but I don't think we need to expect the worst (and by worst I mean Pinot Grigio).
I agree with all this... it's just the "skew" of it... you're going to find 10 bottles of Barolo for every bottle of Nero d'Avola... and probably 20 of Pinot Grigio for every Verdicchio or Tocai :)
the winery and vintage selections will be better to much better in some varietals that others...
re: Chicago Mike
I definitely see where you are coming from, and you make a valid, practical point. I just don't think that it is a good reason not to immerse yourself in a good thing while you can :). If the OP does decide to do some homework on the subject before he leaves, he'll probably be a much better judge of what is "special" or "souvenir worthy" while he is there, as well as recognize what he likes at his local shop when he gets back home. Actually, to be on the safe side, what I should have suggested was this:
Check out Italian producers on as many Italian wine-oriented sites as you can find, and compare what you find there with what is available through US distributers such as Italianwinemerchant.com and Vinosite.com!
The nice thing about being familiar with what wines are available in your home country is that when you see something different in Italy, it will really stand out. It gives you more of a knowledge base, so you can appreciate when you see a really unique product. It also helps me to pick out my wine souvenirs. So rather than coming home with a standard bottle from Antinori, maybe I'll choose one of the rarer bottles from the region that would be much more difficult to find back home.
Whew. All the posts above make great sense--it seems like you're best off with an introduction to regions, wines, and styles, in a book like the Dummes', Anderson's pocket guide (now replaced in a new, less valuable edition prepared by another writer) or Matt Kramer's Making Sense of Italian Wine: Discovering Italy's Greatest Wines and Best Values. Go to the best wine shop you have, ask about for recommendations in a style you like and a price point you're at ease with, and start reading and drinking and taking some notes to locate favorite regiions, styles, and producers. If you're going only to Rome, any one of the wine bars/enoteche listed above (also, try Trimani's) are essential stops. The wine towns in the Castelli Romani and Colli Albani (Frascati, etc) are all very close by via rail. If you're headed to other regions, why not start with those wines--otherwise, I think you'll be overwhelmed by the variety. Buon soggiorno e beve bene!