Vino Italiano - An Italian Primer
Here’s a sneak peak into Italy. We’re not going everywhere, we’re just starting with some good stuff, and we’ll build on it. It’s iterative, in startup terms.
If you just want good Italian wine though, and reading can happen later, find our Italian wines here!
“I was saying this afternoon that I don’t want to be that wanker who bangs on about how much he loves Barolo now. But I am, I am that guy. And I’m OK with it, I f*cking love the stuff. Especially when paired with lamb cutlets, chocolate birthday cake and the finest of company on a Sunday afternoon.”
So wrote my mate Mikey on Instagram on the weekend. I also recently found two rosés that I actually love (and I don’t even usually like the pink drink), one a Sicilian made from nerello mascalese, and one a sparkling rosé made by an Italian.
Maybe you’re beginning to see a theme: there are things worth exploring when it comes to Italy and its wine. From the wondrously textured Soave, fantastic Champagne-challenging Franciacorta, singular Brunellos and Barolos and classic Chiantis (plus the rule-breaking Super Tuscans) of the north, to the often obscure and potentially even more exciting wines of the south, there is both supreme comfort and enthralling adventure to be had in every sip of Italian vino.
So let’s cover off the basics and kick off this viaggio into the hitherto unknown (or perhaps known, but you need to start somewhere). Today we’re only just beginning, in the north, with a couple of regions, along with just a few good drops you should start with, and we can deep dive another time.
It starts with food
Of course it starts with food. Italians make hand gestures that look like they’re cooking, shout apoplectically about someone bumping their coffee like someone spilt their mama’s 12-hour ragout on the floor, and have more meal breaks than Hobbits (I can relate). Wine is also a non-affair in Italy. It’s expected. The smallest lunch has wine, not because it should, or someone thought to bring it, but because the concept of lunch without wine doesn’t really exist. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Even the cheap carafes of vino di tavola served at the tourist spots are perfectly passable, and seemingly made for the restaurant’s cuisine. What might be a simple rustic red comes alive when you take your first mouthful of margherita pizza.
Italian culture is food, wine, and family. The order is debatable, but they’re inextricable, and you must begin with food.
There’s something we don’t have in Australia: a symbiotic relationship between local dishes and local wine. Piedmont is all about truffles and Barolo, of course, but forget the unaffordables and you can have mushroom risotto and barbera — or a gavi, if you’re more into whites — ’til the cows come home (and then you can crack out the taleggio). Chianti can’t walk down to the shops without inadvertently wrestling a T-bone to the ground. And Sardinia’s vermentino is potentially the only reason to have sardines, ever. But it’s a good reason.
We’re not covering off everything today, so let’s ease you into Italy with a few of the potentially more familiar wines and wine regions of the north, and journey south into a few of the lesser known but up-and-coming areas…
Piedmont means ‘foot of the mountain’, because it’s at you know where.
So, Barolo. Barbaresco. Langhe. It’s all nebbiolo, you know. Nebb is king here, and could even be crowned King in the North. People will gush about its “peacock tail tannins” and how long it was kept on skins, and those people… are my friends. Please come over and bring a bottle. No one should ever turn away a nebbiolo. The sheer effort that goes into getting the wine into bottle, let alone making something magnificent, is worth celebrating. The wines can be truly next level, and consistently are, with flavours and complexity that unfurls over multiple days, thanks to the grape’s innate protection from oxidation, and its formidable but delectable tannins. Nebbiolo can be tough to get into because they’re often price prohibitive, but once you’re on the hook, there’s no going back.
Then there are the little siblings, barbera and dolcetto. These are juicy, punchy reds with much less tannin, much more fruit, and high acidity. There’s often a raspberry jam doughnut flavour that threads these wines together. Dolcetto’s more on the blueberry spectrum of fruits, while barbera is all the red fruits. Again, they’re food wines through and through, with the high acidity set to cut through fatty meats, so bring on the salumi plates.
Note that when you see terms like ‘Barbera d’Asti’, ‘Dolcetto d’Alba’, they simply mean barbera from Asti, and Dolcetto from Alba, respectively. Pronounce as if the apostrophe’s not there. Bar-BEAR-ah-DAS-ti…
Arneis (ahr-NAYZ) is probably the region’s most prolific white, and it’s pithy, textural, and usually medium-bodied. Worth trying as an interesting alternative to other savoury whites, especially if you stumble upon any from the Roero region.
Moscato d’Asti is the moscato you know and love. There are some more intense versions from good producers that are worth every penny, and are many a winemaker’s secret love. So grapey, fresh and frizzante (lightly fizzy).
Veneto is synonymous with valpolicella, and Amarone styles of wine. It gets complex, but it’s worth pushing through to understand, because the winemaking techniques are emulated to various levels of success around the globe.
Let’s start with the grapes, because they’re fun to say. Valpolicella wines are typically made up of three grapes: corvina, molinara and rondinella, but can include a bunch of others. Corvina’s the fanciest grape here, and is usually the majority of the blend.
There are two basic techniques used in the making of Valpolicella: appassimento and ripasso. Appassimento is a big, complex sounding name for air-drying picked grapes on racks before fermenting as normal. The process basically means that intensity of everything in these wines is dialled up — more fruit, more sugar and more acid. These wines become either heady, Amarone — fermented dry, you can expect alcohols often north of 15% — or Recioto, a super intense, sweet red.
The grape skins, stalks and seeds (collectively known as the pomace) left after fermenting an appassimento wine can be used to kick on a valpolicella ferment, and the term for this technique is ripasso — literally, the wine is ‘re-passed’ over the pomace.
This means there are four clearly defined styles from Valpolicella:
- Valpolicella: dry red, loads of red fruit and high acidity
- Ripasso della Valpolicella: dry red where the intensity’s been cranked up a notch; expect some fruitcake flavours
- Amarone: intense, sometimes almost porty reds; grapes are dried for a couple of weeks prior to fermentation. Big wines!
- Recioto: sweet, intense reds
If you can wrap your head around the terms and styles, they’re worth exploring. And the best way to learn is by doing…
Veneto is also home to most of the pinot grigio and prosecco from Italy, and chances are you know about these wines, so we can talk about them another time. Soave (so-AH-vay) is from here, too, which is a white made from the also fun-sounding grape garganega (gar-GA-neg-a). Soave can be tropical and simple, but there are some wonderful, more textured versions that are well worth seeking out.
Further north is Friuli, where you’ll find some more serious pinot grigio, and Alto Adige. You’re getting close to the Swiss and Austrian borders and shit starts to get weird… people fermenting in eggs, experimenting with varieties and techniques. Must be the altitude. That conversation’s for another day, too.
I’ve given you lots of food for thought, and lots of thought about food. I know I’m a tease, and our journey though Italia will continue, but for now, get some Italian vino in your mouths and cellars, and let us know what you think. Saluti!