Italian Wine 101 for French Wine Lover?
I am well versed in French wine and tend to drink it almost exclusively (also love German whites) however when it comes to Italian wines I am hopeless. I'd like to start experimenting with Italian wines (I have had some wonderful bottles at restaurants) and was curious if anyone here could help me with a cheat sheet for the major grapes / growing regions. I tend to prefer drier, earthier wines.
If I were to say that this time of year I love Cotes-du-Rhones in general which Italian red would be comparable? What if I got more specific and said I love Chataneuf-du-Papes, which Italian red should I look for for something with some spice and power?
How about a comparison to a Cru Beajolais? What wine should I try for a lighter experience? A St. Emillion from Bordeaux? Something from Burgundy?
The basic Italian grapes that I see a lot are: Barbera, Primitivo (like Zinfindel?), Barolo, Chianti, Nero D'Avola (I had a wonderful bottle of this recently on the waiter's suggestion), Aglianico, Nebiolo.
What am I missing from this list? Thank you wine experts for all your advice!
In general, yes, Italian wines are acidic, which is a good thing. They create more saliva in your mouth, helping you chew and taste your food better. Have you heard of a wine being described as "food friendly"? That's due to a higher amount of acid, amongst other things.
Frankly, wines with low acid are unbalanced, and taste like shit to me (and, I'd imagine, most on this board. Acid is your friend).
"The basic Italian grapes that I see a lot are: Barbera, Primitivo (like Zinfindel?), Barolo, Chianti, Nero D'Avola (I had a wonderful bottle of this recently on the waiter's suggestion), Aglianico, Nebiolo."
First of all, Barolo and Chianti are NOT grapes.
Barolo is a DOCG whose wine is made from Nebbiolo.
Chianti is a wine made from Sangiovese and other grapes, or can also be the regional area in Tuscany that produces different types of Sangiovese-based wines.
You're missing hundreds of wines. But seriously, welcome to a great wine list. I'd recommend a basic book (David Lynch's Vino is a good place to start), but to address some of you your specific questions, drawing on personal favorites.
Cotes du Rhone has many analogs, at different levels, like CDR itself. At the everyday quaffer level, a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (single varietla), a Salice Salentino from Puglia, or a good Chianti would work. At higher price points, mid-weight blends like the Sicilian Cerasuolo di Vittorio, or a Valpolicella, moving up to weightier, spicier Sagrantino di Montefalco (Umbria), Carmignano form Tuscany, or a Rosso Concero (Montepulciano-Sangiovese) from Le Marche. At the very top, big, spicy, warm reds from the aglicanico grape, like a Taurasi Riserva form Campania or an Aglianico di Vulture from Basilicata or an Etna Rosso from Sicily.
For Beaujolais crus, a Dolcetto from Piedmont, or a Rossese di Dolceacqua from Liguria.
An interesting Italian white that goes very well with the seafood it is grown to accompany in the Marches/Le Marches: Verdicchio. We are pretty much limited to Fazi Battaglia from our local liquor store, but when we lived in Sirolo near Monte Conero, there must have been 10 local vintners producing this lemony, almost frizzante, white.
Speaking very broadly I will add too that Italian wines tend overwhelmingly to be food friendly. I find that where I really like the Nebbiolo based wines alone, with a steak or a hunk of hard cheese I enjoy it MUCH more. Therefore I'd suggest exploring Italian wines with food always.
It will be impossible to provide all the education and recommendations in a format such as this. I'll add my two cents, which might be the total worth, but I will also suggest you seek out some Italian wine tastings.
Cotes-du-Rhone equivalent: CdR takes many different forms since many different grapes can legally be used to produce them. From a law standpoint, Chianti also allows many grape varieties, both red and white, like Cotes-du-Rhone does. And like Chateauneuf-du-Pape does, for that matter. So if you go with a basic, run-of-the-mill Chianti, that's one option. From a body/style standpoint, I'd also suggest Nero d'Avola from Sicily.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape: Really not much grenache used in Italian wines. Or mourvedre. Some syrah exists. Again, CdP wines come in many styles since 13 grapes can be used. For what I like to drink CdP with, though, I'd push you to Barolo and Barberesco. Even Gattinara (made from the same grape). or Valtellina (also made from the same grape). Those last two don't carry the high price tag of B and B.
Spice and power: A lot of Barbera Superiore wines being produced today fall into this category. Also look to Sagratino di Montefalco for uber spice and power. Ditto some Aglianico, particularly Taurasi Radici.
Cru Beaujolais: Valpolicella
St. Emilion: Super Tuscans made with more merlot or cab than sangiovese.
Bugundy: You can find Pinot Nero wines from NE Italy. Maybe sojme of thos will have the elements you like in wines from Burgundy.
What you are missing: By all means, even though they are pricey, you need to experience Brunello di Montalcino. For whites, there's nothing like Arneis or Falanghina. And to drink with a lighter, fruit-based dessert, little beats Moscato d'Asti.
re: Brad Ballinger
Just like France, Italian wines are not normally (although sometimes) sold by varietal but rather region. The major red grapes in Italy are Barbera, Sangiovese (of which Brunello is a strain), Dolcetto, and Nebbiolo, In addition, Cabernet, Syrah, and Merlot are grown and are the components (along with Sangiovese) in the Super Tuscan IGTs. Whites include Moscato, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Trebbiano.
Much as I love Brunello di Montalcino (especially Reservas), I'd recommend you try a Rosso di Montalcino. Much less expensive, approachable young, and probably a good alternative to Chianti when it comes to Sangiovese.
Italians do make some very good Syrahs, but they are not that easy to find. You might look for Ciacci Piccolomini Fabivs if you are looking for a good Italian Syrah. While there is some grown in Tuscany, more likely it will be found in Umbria and Piedmonte.