Ahhh, how I love Italy with its golden hillsides sleeping lazily in the summer sun; its ancient villages with buildings that seem to lean on each other over narrow cobblestone streets; shop windows filled with hanging sausages, fresh pasta, and local cheese; bustling market squares with carts full of fresh flowers and seasonal vegetables; and the warm afternoon air filled with the scent of herbs.
And then there’s the wine: fruity, dusty, complex, charismatic, full of everything that is Italy in all its ancient splendor. Italian wines were meant to be enjoyed with food, and it is when paired with food that these wines truly shine.
There are so many fantastic types of wine produced in Italy! A wine lover could drink only Italian wines for a lifetime and never get bored. But if you don’t know Italian wine, where do you start?
My suggestion: Tuscany. This beautiful region in central Italy is the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. It was home to some of the Western world’s finest poets and artists. Its cities are studded with breathtaking cathedrals and lazy, garden-filled villas – and on its beautiful landscape grow some of the world’s finest wines.
The Sangiovese grape is king here, and this venerable red grape (whose name comes from the Latin for “blood of Jove”) is the primary grape in the traditional wine of Tuscany’s Chianti region. A Sangiovese wine from Tuscany will have aromas of dust and cherries, red plums and a whiff of herbs. The taste is very distinctive and is reminiscent of herbs, tart cherries, and a hint of that beautiful Italian dust. The finest Sangiovese wines will offer deep, rich aromas and flavors of plum, black cherry, and black currant, perhaps with exotic hints of violet and spice.
With a little searching, it is fairly easy to find a nice Chianti for a very reasonable price. Toscolo Chianti DOCG 2012 (Italy, $12.99) is just such a wine, with a very reasonable price tag for a DOCG wine. DOCG is the highest quality-assurance level in Italian wines. Aromas of earth, leather, violets and bright cherry follow with rich, deep flavors of dusty cherries and herbs. This little wine is a delightful introduction to the beautiful wines of the Chianti region.
Retromarcia Chianti Classico DOCG 2011 by Monte Bernardi (Italy, $22.99) might be a bit harder to find but is well worth the search. A Chianti Classico comes from the most select parts of the Chianti region and is subject to stringent quality standards. This is apparent with one taste of this gorgeous Chianti with its rich, intense dark berry and plum flavors and delicious hints of spice. As with most European wines, it really comes into its own when enjoyed with food from the same region: try Retromarcia with pizza, pasta, or Italian-seasoned meats. The bright acidity of the Sangiovese grape cuts through and balances even the heaviest tomato-based sauce.
Later in the season we will look at some crisp Italian white wines – and perhaps even discover some grape varietals you never heard of. Americans have more access to high-quality Italian wines than ever before, so it is a great time to begin exploring the delicious wines of this beautiful and ancient land.
Jennifer Wolkonowski is a wine professional specializing in consumer education. A longtime Mt. Juliet resident, she currently owns Vin Fine Wine & Spirits in Lebanon. For more information, contact her at 615-784-4111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.